Tunceli (and the Dersim massacres of 1937-1938).

Back in Tunceli I quickly freshened up at the hotel, then went for a walk through the town centre, along the river and to the otogar to check on whether minibuses left the following morning to Mazgirt (they did, but not at a time convenient for me). After ascending from the river through a park where many large snails crossed a stone footpath, thereby risking death under shoes worn by careless or vindictive humans, I came across two large plaques set into a stone wall reminding people about “Dersim 1938”. On both plaques males wore loosely tied turbans.

Perhaps the best of the easily accessed accounts of the Dersim massacres that began in 1937 and ended in 1938 can be found in the “Online Encyclopaedia of Mass Violence” which has a case study entitled “Dersim Massacre, 1937-1938” last modified in 2012. Because so little is known about the massacre outside Turkey, I quote at length from the case study. As you will see, it has very obvious links with the Armenian genocide and its aftermath:

In 1937 and 1938, a military campaign took place in parts of the Turkish province of Tunceli, formerly Dersim, that had not been brought under the control of the state. It lasted from March 1937 to September 1938 and resulted in a particularly high death toll: many thousands of civilian victims. Contemporary officers called it a “disciplinary campaign”, politicians and the press, a “Kemalist civilising mission”. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, however, in a November 2009 speech, referred to it as a “massacre”, which can be considered an historically appropriate term. It took place when the Republic of Turkey was consolidated – in contrast with the repression of the Kurdish Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925 or the Kocgiri uprising in 1921. The campaign in Dersim was prepared well in advance and therefore was not a short-term reaction to a specific uprising. President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stood personally behind it and died shortly after its end.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

After the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne had recognised the Turkish nationalist movement as the sole legitimate representative of Turkey and admitted its victory in Asia Minor, the Republic of Turkey was founded. The nationalist movement implemented revolutionary changes from above, such as the abolition of the caliphate in 1924, and the introduction of the Swiss civil code in 1926 and the Latin alphabet in 1928. Broadly acclaimed as a successful modern nation state, the Turkish Republic rebuilt its international relations in the 1930s and succeeded, in a deal with France and the League of Nations (of which it became a member in 1932), in incorporating the Syrian region of Alexandretta into its national territory in 1938 and 1939. However, radical Turkism (Turkish ethno-nationalism) with racist undertones marked the ideological climate of the 1930s, while cosmopolitan Ottomanism and Islam were radically evacuated from the political sphere and intellectual life. Kemalist Turkism – the ideology of the new political elite tied to the one-party regime – albeit triumphalist, expressed the need for a connection to deeper roots and made a huge effort to legitimise Anatolia as the national home of the Turks by means of historical physical anthropology.

The region of Dersim, renamed Tunceli in 1935, stood markedly at odds with the politico-cultural landscape of 1930s Turkey. In a 1926 report, Hamdi Bey, a senior official, called the area an abscess that needed an urgent surgeon from the republic. In 1932, the journalist and deputy Nasit Ulug published a booklet with the title “The Feudal Lords and Dersim”; it asked at the end how a “Dersim system” marked by feudalism and banditry could be destroyed. After Hamdi Bey, General Inspector Ibrahim Tali, Marshal Fevzi Cakmak and Minister of the Interior Sukru Kaya collected information on the ground and wrote reports concluding the necessity of introducing “reforms” in the region. The need for reforms for Dersim, together with military campaigns to effect them, had been a postulate since the Ottoman reforms, the Tanzimat, of the 19th century. Several military campaigns had taken place, but had brought only limited successes. In parts of Dersim and other eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire, in which Kurdish lords had reigned autonomously since the 16th century, the state had established its direct rule only in the second third of the 19th century, though it depended still in the republican era on the co-option of local lords to maintain its rule. The central parts of Dersim, by contrast, resisted both co-option and direct rule until the 1930s. Nevertheless, Dersim had been represented by a few deputies in the Ottoman parliament in Istanbul and, since 1920, in the national assembly in Ankara.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Dersim is a mountainous region between Sivas, Erzincan and Elazig (renamed from Elaziz in 1937. Turkification of local names began during world war one). It covers an area of 90 kilometres from east to west and 70 kilometres from north to south, and had, according to official estimates in the 1930s, a population of nearly 80,000, of which one-fifth were considered men able to bear arms. Dersim’s topography allowed cattle breeding, but only little agriculture. It offered many places for refuge and hiding: valleys, caves, forests and mountains. These had been vital for the survival of Dersim’s Alevi population. The Alevis venerated Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. They refused to conform with sharia and remained attached to unorthodox Sufi beliefs and practices widespread in Anatolia before the 16th century, when the Ottoman state embraced Sunni orthodoxy. Their beliefs were mostly linked to Anatolian saint Haci Bektash (13th century). Since many Alevis had sympathises with Safavid (and Shia) Persia in the 16th century, they were lastingly stigmatised as heretics and traitors.

The first language of the Dersim Kurds, as they were called by contemporary observers, was not Turkish but Zazaki (the main language) or Kurmanji. Kurdish nationalism had had an impact on a few Dersim leaders and intellectuals since the early 20th century. They supported President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination after world war one and linked an articulated ideology to Kurdish activism, as General Fevzi Cakmak complained in his 1930 report. Cakmak therefore demanded the removal of functionaries of “Kurdish race” in Erzincan. The Kocgiri uprising in 1921 had been the first rebellion marked by overt Kurdish nationalism; it, too, had taken place in an Alevi region at the western boundary of Dersim.

Though the declaration of a secular republic and the abolition of the caliphate in early 1924 won over many Anatolian Alevis, most Alevis in eastern Anatolia remained distrustful. This divide coincided by and large with that of Turkish- and/or Kurdish-speaking “eastern Alevis” outside the organisation of the Bektashis on the one hand, and “western Alevis” reached by the reformed Bektashi order of the 16th century and thus domesticated by the Ottoman state on the other. Dersim had important places of religious pilgrimage, some of which were shared with local Armenians. Its seyyids claimed descent from Ali and entertained a network of dependent communities in and outside Dersim. The Young Turks and the leaders of the Turkish national movement after 1918 had co-opted the Bektashis, of which a leader had in vain tried to win over the chiefs of Dersim to fight alongside the Ottoman army against the invading Russians in 1916. Two limited rebellions then broke out and armed groups harassed the Ottoman army. Dersim was the only place more or less safe for Armenian refugees during and after the genocide of 1915, which mainly took place in the eastern provinces.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

After the establishment of the new state in Ankara and the repression of the Kurdish uprisings of the 1920s, the attention of the government turned more and more to Dersim, described as a place of reactionary evil forces, of interior and exterior intrigues, and hostage to tribal chiefs and religious leaders. Dersim could, in fact, be described as a pre-modern, tribally split society; it became increasingly isolated after 1920. At the same time, according to Hamdi Bey who visited Dersim in 1926, it was growing more politicised  to the point of adopting openly anti-Kemalist Kurdish positions. Sustained contacts with Hoybun, the Kurdish and Armenian organisation founded in Syria in 1927, were not, however, possible.

Economic problems and banditry had a long history in Dersim; they became more acute due to the region’s isolation and the bad economic conditions after world war one. Yet, in the late Ottoman era, new currents had begun to permeate Dersim and the areas adjacent to it. These included labour migration, emulation of quickly modernising Armenian neighbours, the desire for education and attendance at new – Armenian, missionary, or state – schools, as well as the spread of medical services. Compared with the situation in the early republic, late Ottoman eastern Anatolia had been pluralist and culturally and economically much more dynamic.

The 1934 Law of Settlement legitimised in general terms the depopulation of regions in Turkey for cultural, political or military reasons, with the intent to create, as Minister of the Interior Kaya stated, “a country with one language, one mentality, and unity of feelings”. The law was conceived in order to complete the Turkification of Anatolia in the context of the new focus on Dersim in interior politics.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

In October 1935, Italy began a brutal invasion of Ethiopia during which it used chemical weapons and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. For the prominent theorist of Kemalism at the time, deputy and former minister Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, Mussolini’s fascism was nothing other than a version of Kemalism, even though Turkey’s and Italy’s foreign policies contrasted. In 1930 Bozkurt had spoken of a war between two races, the Kurds and the Turks, and had gone so far as to say, “All, friends, enemies and the mountains, shall know that the Turk is the master of this country. All those who are not pure Turks have only one right in the Turkish homeland: the right to be servants, the right to be slaves”.

These elements formed the context when, in December 1935, Minister of the Interior Kaya presented a draft law, commonly known as the Tunceli Law, that once more labelled the region a zone of illness that needed surgery. In terms of national security there was no urgency; non-military officials of the state were not molested on entering Dersim, e.g., for the population census of every village in 1935. The law passed without opposition in parliament or the press, both being controlled by the Kemalist People’s Republican Party. Dersim, formerly part of the province of Elazig, was established as a separate province, renamed Tunceli and ruled in a state of emergency by the military governor, Abdullah Alpdogan, the head of the Fourth General Inspectorate…

Hamdi Bey’s 1926 report had already called for strong measures and labelled the attempt at a peaceful penetration of Dersim by schools, infrastructure and industry an illusion. Against this background, actors on both sides were separated by a rift and unable to find a common language, albeit in an unbalanced dialogue. Seyyid Riza, perhaps the most important tribal chief, in addition to being a religious figure, insisted on autonomy and the revocation of the 1935 Tunceli Law. He seemed to have believed initially that Dersim could not be subdued militarily. He had worked for years, partly successfully, to unite the tribes.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

After several incidents in March 1937 which included attacks by tribal groups against the new infrastructure in Pah and a police station in Sin, the military campaign was launched. With 8,623 men, artillery and an air force at its disposal, Ankara possessed superiority in numbers and materiel. On 4th May 1937, the Council of Ministers, including Ataturk and Fevzi Cakmak, the Chief of General Staff, decided secretly on a forceful attack against western central Dersim, an attack to kill all who used or had used arms and to remove the population settled between Nazimiye and Sin. The same day, planes dropped pamphlets saying that, in the case of surrender, “no harm at all would be done to you, dear compatriots. If not, entirely against our will, the [military] forces will act and destroy you. One must obey the state”.

In the following months, the army successfully advanced against fierce resistance and changing tribal coalitions led by Riza, allied tribal chiefs and Aliser, a talented poet and activist. Unity among the rebels was far from achieved; only a few tribes formed the hard core of the resistance. On 9th July, Aliser and his wife were killed by their own people and their heads sent to Alpdogan. Also in July, Riza sent a letter to the Prime Minister in which he vividly described what he saw as anti-Kurdish policies of assimilation, removal and a war of destruction. Via his friend Nuri Dersimi, who had gone into exile in Syria in September 1937, he also sent a despairing letter to the League of Nations and the foreign ministries of the United Kingdom, France and the United States, none of which answered. On 10th September he surrendered to the army in Erzincan. Messages of congratulation were sent to Alpdogan by Ataturk, Minister of the Interior Sukru Kaya and Prime Minister Inonu, who had visited Elazig in June. Shortly before Ataturk visited Elazig, Riza was executed in the city together with his son, Resik Huseyin, tribal leader Seyit Haso and a few sons of tribal chiefs. The executions were hastily organised by Ihsan Sabri Çaglayangil, later the Foreign Minister.

Despite the setbacks of 1937, Dersimi groups resumed attacks against the security forces in early 1938, saying that they would all perish if they did not resist. The military campaign took on a new and comprehensive character as the government embarked on a general cleansing in order “to eradicate once and for all this (Dersim) problem”, in the words of Prime Minister Celal Bayar in parliament on 29th June 1938. Also in June 1938, military units began to penetrate those parts of Dersim that did not surrender between Pulur (Ovacik), Danzik and Pah. On 10th August, a large campaign of “cleansing and scouring” started. It ended in early September and cost the lives of many thousands of men, women and children, even of tribes that co-operated with the government.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

According to official statements, the military campaign of 1937 targeted bandits and reactionary tribal and religious leaders who misled innocent people. On a secret level, however, right from the beginning – in particular, with the decision of the Council of Ministers of 4th May 1937 – groups of the people of Dersim as a whole were targeted, at least for relocation as allowed for by the 1934 Law of Settlement. Those targeted feared, as in Kocgiri in 1921, that they would perish like the Armenians if they did not resist. The campaign in spring 1937 concerned the regions in which most clashes occurred, between Pah and Hozat. Villages were to be disarmed and people removed, but the main violence targeted armed groups.

Halli, who amply cites military documents, scarcely uses the word “imha” (annihilation, destruction or obliteration) for this period. This changed with the summer 1938 campaign, which employed massive violence against the whole population, even beyond the parts of Dersim that did not surrender and that had been declared prohibited zones under the Law of Settlement. The Council of Ministers decided on 6th August 1938 that 5,000 to 7,000 Dersimis had to be removed from the prohibited zones to the west. “Thousands of persons, whose names the Fourth General Inspectorate (under Alpdogan) had listed, were arrested and sent in convoys to the regions where they were ordered to go”, wrote Halli in 1972.

Also targeted for relocation were numerous families living outside these zones or in areas neighbouring Dersim, if they were considered members of Dersimi tribes. Notables living outside Dersim were killed in summer 1938, as were some young Dersimis doing service in the army. For the killing of surviving “bandits”, an order by the Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior, the Minister of Defence and the Military Inspectorate proposed to use the Special Organisation, known for its role in the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 and 1916 and the murder of targeted individuals.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

According to Halli, “thousands of bandits” were killed in the first week of “cleansing and scouring” from 10th to 17th August 1938, but he mentions no comprehensive number for all those killed during the whole campaign. From his detailed narrative, however, which gives precise numbers or mentions a “big number” of killed persons for dozens of incidents, deaths likely totalled considerably higher than 10,000. An unpublished report by Alpdogan’s Inspectorate, recently quoted in Turkish newspapers, mentions 13,160 civilian dead and 11,818 deportees. The high number of deaths and ample written evidence prove that the killings were not limited to the insurgent tribes alone. A comparison of the censuses for 1935 and 1940 shows that the district of Hozat, with a loss of more than 10,000 people, was the most seriously affected part of Dersim. A proposed number of 40,000 victims seems, however, implausibly high.

According to Çaglayangil, the army used poison gas to kill people who hid in caves. Many others were burned alive, whether in houses or by spraying individuals with fuel. Even if people surrendered they were killed. In order “not to fall into the hands of the Turks”, girls and women jumped into abysses, as many Armenians had in 1915. The suspicion of having lodged “bandits” or, according to witness accounts by soldiers, military units’ desire for vengeance, sufficed as justification to kill whole villages. Soldiers confirm that they were ordered to kill women and children. One has to bear in mind that the Dersimis were seen – and declared so by officers – as Alevi heretics, sometimes as crypto-Armenians. When jandarma posts were established in the 1930s, jandarma even investigated whether local young men were circumcised. Uncircumcised men were thought to be Armenians.

“It is understood from various sources that, in clearing the area occupied by the Kurds, the military authorities have used methods similar to those used against the Armenians during the Great War: thousands of Kurds including women and children were slain; others, mostly children, were thrown into the Euphrates; while thousands of others in less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were deported to vilayets in Central Anatolia”, reported the British Vice-Consul in Trabzon on 27th September 1938. His report is the exception to the rule that there exist no reports by foreign observers in or near the theatre of events because Dersim and the whole of eastern Turkey was generally closed to foreigners.

Documents and testimonies relating to the massacres do exist… They all agree that systematic massacres took place. Soldiers and survivors add that targets included civilians, women and children.

Accustomed to looking up to the state and army as omnipotent entities, most soldiers feared even decades afterwards to speak about their experiences. However, in 1991 Halil Colat, an ex-soldier, said, “When we came to the headquarters, we learned that discussions had taken place between the officers. A few said that these people (women and children in Hozat who had not given information on the whereabouts of the men) had to be annihilated, but others said that this was a sin… They (finally) ordered us: ‘Annihilate all you can apprehend…’ And that day we soldiers, in a horrific savageness and craziness, gathered the women, girls and children in a mosque – it was in fact not like a mosque, but rather like a church – closed it, sprayed kerosene and easily burnt them alive”.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Dersimis themselves have collected an important number of private documents, conducted interviews and built up internet sites. Recent work has added important material. A scholarly “1937 to 1938 Dersim Oral History Project” was launched in 2010. However, a main archive or centre of documentation for the Dersim massacre does not yet exist. The only nearly contemporary Kurdish history of the event is a chapter in Nuri Dersimi’s book of 1952, which includes testimonies. The author himself had left Dersim before the campaign.

Documentary novels and memoirs of the period have been written since the 1980s, e.g., by Sukru Lacin, a founder of the Turkish Workers’ Party in 1963 and not a sympathiser with Rıza or Kurdish nationalism… Lacin confirms that the campaign of 1938, and the forced removal of populations, covered parts of Dersim such as Mazgirt, Pertek and Nazimiye that did not refuse to pay taxes or enlist people in the army. He confirms that villages in Erzincan province in the districts of Refahiye, Cayirli, Uzumlu, Kemah and Tercan, where relatives of Lacin lived, were also targeted because their inhabitants were Alevi Kurds and were said to have relations with Dersim.

In the years after 1938, the one-party state and its press continued to maintain the image and memory of a necessary and fully successful campaign of pacification followed by sustained efforts at reconstruction. This is also the content of the book entitled “Tunceli is made accessible to civilisation” published in 1939 by Nasit Ulug, then the director of “Ulus”, a daily newspaper. Ulug described the punishment of “bandits”, but made no reference to mass killings. He provided a panegyric to the Turkish army, to which the Turkish nation had once again to be infinitely thankful… The Western and the Soviet press largely followed the Kemalist narrative of a civilising mission against reactionary conservatives. Only the press in the USA seemed to voice criticism of both the violent campaign and its undemocratic political framework. Like the European press, however, it lacked independent sources of information.

Heroic reports that recounted Kurdish exploits, resistance and the foundation of an independent Kurdish government appeared in the Armenian press in 1937. A simultaneously tragic and heroic memory of Dersim in 1937 to 1938 is to be found in the 1952 book and the memoirs of the Kurdish nationalist Nuri Dersimi, who was in contact with Armenians since the beginning of his exile. Dersimi’s texts, which underlined the barbaric aspects of the campaign, were seminal for the memory of the Kurdish nationalists, but he was also criticised by Dersimis as an instigator who left the country when it became dangerous.

The one-party regime met its end in the years after 1945. In 1947 the government repealed the Tunceli Law and relocated people were allowed to return to their villages. The state of emergency was lifted in 1948. Henceforth, memories dissenting from those promoted by the former one-party regime as well as on-going realities in Tunceli – poverty, the absence of schools and health services, etc. – could be acknowledged, though not freely. The army, the main actor on the ground, as well as the state and its founder, Ataturk, who had stood behind the Tunceli campaign, could never be openly criticised. The memory of the Dersim campaign as at least partly ruthless and misguided can also be found in letters of pious soldiers to the spiritual father of the Nurculuk, Said-i Nursi.

After 1945, Turkey stood under the shadow of the Cold War. Right and left claimed Ataturk’s heritage and did not question dark sides of the Kemalist “civilising mission”… The memory of the Dersim campaign as mass violence by the state and its army was nevertheless articulate in leftist circles, in particular among leftists from Tunceli, but also more generally among those with Alevi and Kurdish backgrounds.

The military putsch of 1980 crushed the Turkish left. After this experience, leftist circles critical of the state began to be more open to the Kurdish perspective that the Turkish state had always reacted with mass violence and denial against even moderate Kurdish claims. More detailed memories, detached from the Kemalist state and ideologies of progress and civilisation, have been recounted since the late 20th century. A “renaissance” of long-suppressed ethnic and religious identities and histories took place at the dawn of the post-Cold War era. Turkey’s EU candidature in 1999 and the AKP government since 2002 contributed to a more liberal context in which the military, the main actor of the campaign of 1937 to 1938, partly lost for the first time its hitherto sacrosanct, unchecked position at the top of the state.

During the so-called Kurdish or democratic opening of autumn 2009, on 17th November Prime Minister Erdogan called the events of 1937 to 1938 a massacre. For the first time, the memory of the Tunceli campaign as one of pacification and a mission of civilisation was publicly challenged at the governmental level, whereas the Republican People’s Party, that ruled Turkey when only one political party existed, had trouble in defending what for seventy years had been the official version of history. The latter version is nowadays widely seen as unacceptable, as is evident in media discussions from autumn 2009 onwards. It appears today as the position only of Turkish ultra-nationalists.

In contrast with the aftermath of the Kocgiri revolt in 1921, there were neither critical discussions in the Turkish parliament nor legal claims that officers responsible for brutality and mass killing of civilians should be put on trial. This is even less the case for Dersim because the Law of Settlement and the Tunceli Law had prepared the legal framework for the campaign and the removal of the Dersimis in advance… Legalism disguised the breach of law against citizens, as in other authoritarian or fascist regimes of the 1930s…

Historical sociologist Ismail Besikci was the first scholar to research the Dersim campaign; to emphasise the legalist but illegitimate, anti-constitutional framework in which it took place; and to call it, in a book of 1990, a genocide. Anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen proposed, in an article of 1994, the label “ethnocide”, arguing that the destruction of Dersim’s autonomous ethnic culture, not of its population, had been the campaign’s main intention. Though declared as a Turkifying mission of civilisation, the intent “to destroy, in whole or in part” – according to article 2 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – the Dersimis, as a distinct ethno-religious group, then labelled as Alevi Kurd and partly as crypto-Armenian, and of “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is manifest. This is well documented. In a comparative legal perspective, Besikci’s position may be supported by later jurisdiction based on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

A restrictive historiographical use may, however, reserve the term genocide for mass killings of the 20th century in which a higher proportion of a larger ethno-religious group was killed and the future of the whole group in its habitat was destroyed, as in the case of the Ottoman Armenians or the European Jews. In both latter cases, those responsible considered the targeted groups to be inassimilable to the nation. The Dersim massacre concerned parts of the Dersim population, whereas other parts were removed and the main part could remain in place. As a result, the area’s informal autonomy and, in part, its ethno-religious habitat were suppressed. Extermination in 1938 had targeted first those whose tribes and families were involved in the resistance. But it also included others, among them relatives who were not in the resistance, and even people living outside Dersim. Principally, however, the Kemalists who were responsible for the campaign considered that the Dersimis could be assimilated into the nation state.

In studies on Turkey across all disciplines, the Dersim campaign remained under-researched until the late 20th century. One scarcely finds mention of it in the major university textbooks on Turkish history. To this day there still do not exist monographs or detailed research articles in Western languages, except the translation of Besikci’s book and a few articles or book chapters. The dark sides of Turkey’s foundation and early history, from the Young Turks’ one-party regime to the Dersim campaign and later pogroms against non-Muslims, have long been under-researched both inside and outside Turkey for political reasons and because of simplistic notions of progress versus religious reaction in Western scholarship on Turkey.

In recent years, a fresh look at these topics and the Dersim campaign has finally emerged. The fresh look includes the particularly silenced Armenian aspects of Dersim – a dimension that Western scholarship long failed to grasp. The lack of access to the military archives, however, said to be in the process of classification, seriously hampers comprehensive research on the Dersim campaign. The military archives could answer questions such as the hierarchical level at which the order was given to massacre people, women and children included; to what extent poison gas was used against people in caves; and whether there were, as it seems, absolutely no orders against or punishments for widespread brutalities such as burning alive, slashing open pregnant women and stabbing babies.

In contrast to state-centred rightist or leftist traditions – which explained the high number of civilian dead to be collateral damage of a necessary campaign against reactionary rebels – recent scholarship elaborates on the problematic aspects and the victims of the Dersim campaign. It puts it in the context of the Republican People’s Party’s suppression of any opposition. It frames it as an ethnocide, the “deliberate destruction of Kurdish ethnic identity by forced assimilation”. It also sees it as a genocide committed against the backdrop of a colonialist enterprise, bearing in mind that the Turkish political elite did not know “Kurdistan” any better than 19th century European elites had known their overseas colonies. Another interpretation stresses the logical and chronological coincidence with the Turkish History thesis that claimed Anatolia to have been for thousands of years the home of the Turks (utter nonsense, of course) – a racial speculation that revealed an aporia of legitimacy and a dead-end of ultra-Turkist Kemalism. It implied the wish to make disappear all remaining vestiges of non-Turkish presence and heterogeneous Ottoman co-existence. These vestiges reminded state-centred elites of a period for which they felt distress and shame; a period marked by the tedious Oriental Question, in particular the Armenian Question, and by the lack of governmental sovereignty. It involved a deep-seated fear of de-legitimisation.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Once back home and in possession of the information above, a lot of what I saw and heard in Dersim made more sense. I understood far better why so many Kurds, whether Alevis or not, call Ataturk a dictator and/or a fascist; why Alevis in particular have such strong distrust for Sunni Muslims, Turkish nationalists and uniformed representatives of the state; and why almost all Dersimis lack confidence in the government in Ankara, which only in the last decade or so has sought to provide the people of Dersim with the services, facilities and opportunities accessible to Turkish citizens almost everywhere else in the vast republic. But I also understood far better why the expressions of friendship between Armenians and non-Armenians have a sincerity about them in Dersim that is greater and more convincing than in any other region of Turkey I have visited in recent years. Note that Armenians and Alevis shared some sites of religious pilgrimage; that “Dersim was the only place more or less safe for Armenian refugees during and after the genocide of 1915”; that “crypto-Armenians” lived in Dersim in the 1930s (and still do, but in reduced numbers); that Armenians and Kurds worked together to further matters of mutual concern and/or interest; that Dersimis felt they had to resist state oppression in the 1930s otherwise they would perish in the same way as the Armenians had perished in 1915 and thereafter; and that, in order “not to fall into the hands of the Turks”, Kurdish girls and women “jumped into abysses, as many Armenians had in 1915”.

But the above also begs the following question: Did the people of Dersim in 1937 and 1938 suffer an act of genocide just as the Armenians had in 1915 and thereafter? Despite far fewer Dersimis being massacred in 1937 and 1938 than Armenians in 1915 and thereafter, the evidence above is, I would suggest, extremely persuasive. If events in Srebrinica in 1995 can be declared (correctly) an act of genocide, those in Dersim and elsewhere in 1937 and 1938 must also be genocide. What is interesting is that a growing number of Turkish nationals who are not Kurdish or Alevi incline this way already, and many more will do the same as official documents are accessed by scholars.

By the way, note above the intriguing reference above to “a mosque – it was in fact not like a mosque but rather like a church” in the quote attributed to a soldier involved in a particularly brutal, upsetting and wholly unjustifiable massacre. I think we can safely assume that the soldier refers to a cemevi. If he is referring to a cemevi, his ignorance about Alevis is telling. Perhaps he was a conventionally pious Sunni Muslim who had never shown the least interest in Alevis because they were regarded as heretical in the extreme, or perhaps he was so imbued with the radical atheism of the Turkish Republic of the 1930s that he distrusted anyone with religious convictions. Alternatively, he may have bought completely into the Turkish nationalism of the time which, while admitting that Kurds existed, regarded Kurds as an inferior race of people who needed “civilising” by assimilation or, if averse to assimilation, subjected to massacre. However the soldier regarded the Dersimis at the time of the massacres, he lacked empathic understanding for people with whom who differed. Hmmm. Does a similar lack of empathic understanding prevail among some or all of the brutal Islamist groups, the vast majority of which are Sunni Muslim, currently operating around the globe with a blood-lust that cannot fail to shock the vast majority or people whether they have a religious commitment or not? I think it does.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Although it was a Sunday, some of the shops in the pazar were open, so I bought a few things to eat a light meal on my balcony (I did not feel like a full meal, despite not eating much during the day, but resolved that I would have a treat in a lokanta the following evening to bring to an end my brief stay in Tunceli, a town that by now I was slightly in love with, not least for the wonderfully forthright and friendly women who clearly think it is wonderful that a foreign male is daft enough to visit their infrequently visited home town). I bought a small pot of honey from Ovacik still in its comb, a large pot of yoghurt (which I could keep chilled in the fridge in my room if it remained unfinished) and a bottle of Efes Malt, the latter for the very reasonable price of 4.5TL. I sat on the balcony and, as I ate and wrote, tried to remember all the things I had done in the day. Not long before nightfall the wind picked up, dark clouds hung over the mountains to the south-west and thunder and lightning added a sense of drama before rain fell with heavy droplets. Businesses that had opened for the day shut and the streets began to empty. By 9.00pm I could hear only the rain, a few human voices and the occasional car engine firing up.

Before going to sleep I thought briefly about two women (neither wore a headscarf) in their late twenties or early thirties who sat in a posh pastane near the otogar and rather flirtatiously waved and smiled when I walked past them that evening, of the woman (with a headscarf) who played backgammon with a male friend in one of the tea houses in the pazar, and of the encounter I had had earlier in the day with the two female high school students on the minibus that dropped me at Asagitorunoba. I also thought of the women in Asagitorunoba who smoked cigarettes and chatted with me with exactly the same relaxed informality as their male companions.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

What is it that so many Sunni Muslims find threatening about such interactions between males and females? Moreover, segregation of the sexes does not mean that girls and women are less prone to violent assault, sexual included, than in nation states where segregation of the sexes is absent. In fact, evidence from many nation states around the globe where de jure or de facto segregation of the sexes exists suggests that women suffer more violence at the hands of males, not less. There are also indications that the sexual abuse of boys and young males is much higher in nation states where segregation of the sexes prevails. A dreadful case of large-scale child sexual abuse in Pervari some years ago led to revelations that such abuse is widespread in Turkey. Indeed, statistics suggest that child sexual abuse in Turkey is far greater than child sexual abuse in the UK.

To Asagitorunoba.

I left Ovacik’s cemevi to take a few more photos of it and the grassy plain on which it stands. I was putting my camera away when a car drove past, drew to a halt about 50 metres down the road and backed up. The driver asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “To Asagitorunoba.” The driver had three companions with him and discussion followed before the driver said, “Come on. We are not going to Asagitorunoba, but will take you as far as we can.” I got into the car and a bottle of Efes Malt was offered, which I took gratefully and consumed far more quickly than politeness required.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

The men were going to a wedding in a village to the west of the road to Tunceli and, to access the village, they had to cross the Munzur Cayi on a rather dilapidated suspension bridge before ascending a dirt road for a few kilometres. Predictably, I was asked to join the wedding party, which would have been a wonderful experience because it involved Alevis (segregation of the sexes, so often encountered in Sunni Muslim weddings, would probably have been frowned upon, as it should be), but, had I done so, there would have been problems getting back to Tunceli and I would have had to give up on Asagitorunoba. I politely declined the kind invitation, but thoroughly enjoyed the company of the four men, albeit briefly (three men described themselves as Turkish Alevis. The fourth said his grandmother had been Armenian, but he described himself as a Kurdish Bektashi). When we arrived at the bridge leading to the village, only the driver remained in the car to drive it across. His three companions walked.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

Not long after waving the car and its passengers off to the wedding, and only about 500 metres further along the road, a minibus appeared and I flagged it for a lift to Asagitorunoba. Because the minibus was crowded I was ushered to a stool between two fixed seats. I found myself beside two female students in their last year at high school. One of the young women was very pretty and the other handsome, and the handsome one had an unusual example of metalwork piercing her nose on the right-hand side. Dressed in European or North American clothes and without headscarves, it was obvious they were Alevi, but I was still surprised when they introduced themselves and initiated a conversation. I think most of the other passengers must have been Alevi as well because no one thought what they did was in the least improper; in fact, I think they were glad the young women had such self-confidence because it meant they found out a bit about someone who was, by local standards, a somewhat exotic individual (foreign tourists are still very rare in Dersim in general and Tunceli in particular). Interestingly, we shook hands at the beginning of the conversation and when I left the minibus at my destination. Moreover, the driver refused to accept any money for the ride.

As I waved the minibus off, I thought about how different the journey would have been had most passengers been Sunni Muslims. Males and females unknown to one another would have sat apart, they would have ignored members of the opposite sex and, in all likelihood, the journey would have passed in silence unless a baby or young child had been present and ill or in pain or distress. During the journey just completed, males sat next to females they did not know, people chatted with total strangers, a relaxed atmosphere prevailed and men and women who had never met before could make physical contact without anarchy breaking out.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba is a small, dispersed settlement that spreads over a gently inclined grassy bank just below quite a steep hillside on the north side of the river. Two bridges cross the river, one of which carries a road that leads to a nearby village to the south. Beside the road bridge is a suspension bridge no longer suitable for motor vehicles. Although the old wooden decking is in a state of disrepair, I could not resist walking across it. Another road leads into the hills to the north of the river where two more villages exist.

In all, there are only twenty or so houses in Asagitorunoba and a small, abandoned jandarma post. The houses are a mixture of old and new, and the old ones outnumber those of more recent construction. Most of the old houses are single storey and have flat roofs. They are constructed with a brown stone that has a hint of red and I assume the stone was quarried locally. However, there is a stone house with rooms spread over two storeys. A veranda at ground level on the south-facing façade is crowned with a balcony above. Tall wooden columns rise from the floor of the veranda to support the balcony and from the floor of the balcony to support the roof. These features and the size of the building itself suggest that the house may have been built for a relatively wealthy family, by local standards at least, although the building’s current shabby appearance implies a poor family lives in it now. In fact, none of the houses in the village look as if they now shelter anyone wealthy.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Beekeeping is popular. When I saw some wooden beehives resembling long, slim barrels indistinguishable from beehives I have seen before in the Hemshin area not far from Rize, I asked some men and women sitting around a table on the veranda of an old stone house of one storey if I could take a few photos. I was encouraged to shoot to my heart’s content, after which I was invited to join them for glasses of tea.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

There were seven people altogether, five men and two women aged roughly thirty to seventy. Both women wore headscarves, but in the way that was becoming increasingly common the more time I spent in Aleviland: the headscarves were arranged loosely on top of the head like a hastily tied turban and no attempt was made to cover the ears or all the hair.

Both women smoked cigarettes. If a woman smokes cigarettes in Turkey, many pious Sunni Muslims regard the habit as one that hints at extreme immorality, perhaps of a sexual nature, but to the great majority of Alevis and Bektashis all they see is a woman asserting her right to do as men do. Put a little differently, when a woman smokes a cigarette, Alevis and Bektashis see a female asserting her independence vis-à-vis males.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

I had assumed I was in the company of Alevis, but things were not quite as they appeared to be, someone who still has a lot to learn about the region’s ethnic complexity. The women and four of the men were Kizilbash and the fifth man was Armenian. I confirmed with my companions what was obvious from the evidence of my eyes, that the Kizilbash regarded the Armenian as their good friend and vice-versa, and then we chatted about how everyone made ends meet economically. The Kizilbash concentrated on making honey and growing crops in fields and orchards, but the Armenian reared sheep and goats for the meat market. A little later I saw the Armenian driving his large flock of sheep and goats along the road leading to the two villages to the north. About half a kilometre from Asagitorunoba he drove them off the road and onto pasture on a hillside overlooking the river below.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Turks, Kurds and (albeit a very small number of) Armenians living together, as do Alevis, Sunni Muslims, Kizilbash and people with no religious faith, and as do speakers of Turkish, Kurmanji, Zazaki and Armenian. Dersim is my kinda province.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

I walked up the road leading to the two villages north of the river, primarily to secure views over Asagitorunoba and the glorious scenery that encloses it. A man stopped his motorbike and kindly carried me a little further into the mountains from where the views are even more spectacular. By the time I got back to Asagitorunoba I had seen the village and the Munzur Cayi from high above, the hills enclosing the valley and the more distant mountains with their forest and smudges of snow. Wild flowers grew everywhere and most of the sky was blue. It was now late afternoon and the visibility excellent.

View south above Asagitorunoba.

View south above Asagitorunoba.

View west over Asagitorunoba.

View west over Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Small though Asagitorunoba is, I spent another half hour examining some of its houses, small gardens and beehives, then chatted with a young man who lived in a house with his parents at the easternmost extremity of the settlement. I was reluctant to leave because, as so often happens in Turkey, I had found a dot on the map that had worked its way under my skin. And why had it got under my skin? I was in one of the most beautiful areas of a country with hundreds of beautiful areas, and the ethnically mixed people I had met were reassuringly liberal and inclusive. This said, Tunceli shares with Asagitorunoba exactly the same qualities, although it is obviously much larger. Was I on a winner? Of course I was.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

I began walking along the road to Tunceli knowing a minibus to my destination would eventually catch me up, but, after about fifteen minutes spent beside the river mostly in the shade cast by mature trees, a car stopped and the driver offered me a lift. The driver had two male friends with him and they were in a hired car they had picked up a week earlier at Elazig Airport so they could tour Dersim, the region from where all three originated. They had a 9.30pm flight to catch to Istanbul where they now lived and worked. The driver of the car ran his own company in the town of Gebze not far from Istanbul’s second airport.

Leaving Asagitorunoba.

Leaving Asagitorunoba.

Two of the men were Alevis and one was Kizilbash. They considered themselves Turkish by ethnicity. They were very pleasant company, but all of them had the usual concerns about Sunni Muslims, Erdogan and the lack of minority rights. They came across as gentle but perceptive and reflective individuals, individuals who have known what it means to suffer discrimination and oppression because of their identity.

To Ovacik.

I intended to travel through the Munzur Vadisi Milli Parki to Ovacik, but the next minibus was not until 11.30am. This gave me just enough time to visit the car park of the very large hotel mentioned earlier from where there are excellent views of the river below and the hills and mountains to the east, then I went to the small park with the statue of the local notable wearing a turban to admire the views of the hills and mountains to the north and west. From near the statue delightful views lead the eye along the valley that eventually leads to Ovacik. I could tell I was in for a wonderful treat.

The small office from where minibuses departed for Ovacik very helpfully had a timetable printed on the door and the timetable revealed that services to and from Ovacik ran roughly every hour until early evening, so I knew that, as long as I stayed on or close to the main road, I could return to Tunceli easily.

The minibus left just over half full, but we picked up three extra passengers along the way. About 10 kilometres into the journey we stopped while large earthmovers engaged in some road improvements, but the delay was only fifteen minutes. A male passenger aged about twenty-five clambered up a hillside to pick a plant that had a very strong smell and a peppery taste. The plant looked like clover or cress with very large leaves. The man handed out stems to every passenger. The man and his travelling companion got off the minibus about 20 kilometres before Ovacik to walk along the river.

The road to Ovacik.

The road to Ovacik.

The road to Ovacik is about 60 kilometres in length. It goes through scenery of exceptional beauty, so much so that the road immediately became one of my all-time favourite short hops in Turkey, a country with dozens of excellent similar short hops. At first the road hugs the Munzur Cayi in a narrow valley with steep walls on both sides, and in May the trees, grass, scrub and herbs are many shades of green. In the grass and among the trees are many wild flowers, and the inaccessibility of some of the mountains suggested to me that many wild animals must prosper, especially given that where there are villages the villages are small. Back home I read that the Munzur Vadisi Milli Parki is the most bio-diverse park in Turkey.

Every so often the valley widens and the hills and mountains can therefore be better appreciated from the minibus. Where the valley widens a small settlement might exist beside some fields, orchards and lots of beehives. Asagitorunoba is one such settlement where fields, orchards and beehives prosper and, because it looked so pretty with the hills and mountains around it, I resolved to visit it properly provided I did not spend too much time in Ovacik.

The road ascends quite gradually all the way, then it crosses a wide upland pasture (“ova” means “grassy plain” or “meadow”) with snow-smudged mountains to the north and the south. The small town of Ovacik lies ahead. Ovacik has a population of only 3,000, but it spreads some distance to the east of the small central business district. Its situation is outstanding, but in winter it must be cut off frequently from surrounding towns by snow.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik has acquired some fame and, in some circles at least, notoriety in recent times because its mayor, Fatih Macoglu, is a communist and no other town or city in Turkey has a communist mayor. When Ovacik’s citizens voted for their mayor the result was close. The TKP, or Turkish Communist Party, got 36% of the vote, the Kemalist CHP 33.4% and the AKP 15.4%. It is said that Macoglu’s success owes a lot to the support of the DHF, the Federation of Democratic Rights, a leftist organisation founded in 2002 that has deep roots in Dersim.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Alevi inclinations toward secularism and leftist politics (in Tunceli, a shop in the pazar sells books and magazines analysing the world solely from liberal, socialist, communist or anarchist perspectives) made for a refreshing change from the many parts of Turkey shaped by mainstream Sunni piety. By the end of the day I had  conversations about political matters with eight local people, male and female. All the people with whom I interacted said that it was the “Sunni Muslims” who were “the problem” because they “never stop talking about religion and religious orthodoxy”, and because they think that “the fascist dictator” Erdogan is “wonderful”. To call Erdogan a fascist is unfair, in my opinion at least, but he is increasingly a problem, not least for dictatorial inclinations that Ataturk would no doubt have approved of, despite such dictatorial inclinations being utilised to further Sunni Muslim interests, which Ataturk would never have tolerated.

View south from Ovacik.

View south from Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

In Ovacik I went briefly mad with the camera because the visibility was sublime, the surroundings are exceptionally attractive (puffs of white cloud clung to the highest peaks) and the town itself is a delightful mixture of old and new with plenty that is overtly eccentric. There is a large police and jandarma presence, the latter in a fortified compound that meant I had to point my camera with some care. At least three hotels look more than adequate for a short stay, and there are plenty of shops. Bars and lokantas sell good food and alcohol, and an ogretmenevi is just north of the road to Tunceli. The oldest surviving buildings in the town are houses, some of which are timber-framed while others are made with stone, and a lot of buildings old and new utilise corrugated iron and flat metal sheeting to excellent visual effect. I chatted with a teacher who emerged from the ogretmenevi and called at a small but very modern supermarket for an ice cream. Being an overwhelmingly Alevi town, men and women were very friendly and spoke to me without any embarrassment. Some of the grassy plain around the town has been turned into fields, but most of it remains pasture for cattle and sheep. Inevitably, lots of wild flowers prosper in late spring and early summer. Ovacik is an absolute gem and one year I would love to stay in it overnight, even though at present it does has one minor short-coming. Roads lead to Yesilyaza to the west and Hozat to the south (the latter is a town I planned to visit later on the trip to access an unusual Armenian church), but public transport to both settlements appears to be non-existent.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

At the eastern extremity of Ovacik, about 1.5 kilometres from the centre of town, is a modern cemevi much larger than the one I had visited at Onar. I decided to have a look at it even though the chance of getting inside was very small. The walk was delightful. I admired the mountains around the grassy plain and, just to the west and north of the cemevi itself, examined what looked like shanty houses that had been constructed from waste material by some very poor families.

View north from Ovacik.

View north from Ovacik.

Between the town centre and the cemevi, Ovacik.

Between the town centre and the cemevi, Ovacik.

I could not establish whether the shanty houses are lived in permanently or only during the summer, although the latter seemed more likely. I therefore inclined toward the view that the houses are used by families who look after flocks of sheep and goats grazing on the grassy plain and the slopes of the nearby mountains. This said, a large number of such houses exist and, despite being in poor condition, they have a semi-permanent appearance. When I saw men and women salvaging waste items to recycle from rubbish dumped on the ground, I wondered if the houses belong to Gypsies. Gypsies are a relatively small community in Turkey today, but one that lives, as almost everywhere in the world, on the margins of society and suffers extreme discrimination and disadvantage. If Gypsies live in them, the houses may qualify as gekecondu, or houses built overnight by families laying claim as squatters to a small plot of state-owned land. However, if they are gecekondu they are at a very early stage of evolution into more permanent and substantial housing.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

In everyday understanding, gecekondu refers to the low cost houses or apartment blocks that were constructed in a very short time by people migrating from rural areas to the outskirts of large Turkish cities. Robert Neuwirth writes in his book “Shadow Cities” that squatters are exploiting a legal loophole which states that if people start building after dusk and move into a completed house before dawn the next day without being noticed by the authorities, then the next day the authorities are not permitted to tear the building down, but instead must begin legal proceedings in court to secure a right to evict (and, because of the requirement to begin such legal proceedings, it is more likely that the squatters can remain indefinitely).

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi is a large rectangular building with a dome made of lightweight materials rising above what is the meeting or gathering room at the west end of the upper storey. When I first arrived, all the doors leading inside were locked and I had to content myself with a walk around the exterior, which is not very exciting because the cemevi resembles a small office block or school. This said, the exterior has been painted a fetching shade of pink and has some white detailing.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

By the time I got back the main door facing south it had been opened by people who had just arrived in a motor vehicle. I went inside and, in the reception area from where a corridor and stairs lie to the right, I examined the pictures of Ali and other notable Alevi figures from the past. I then heard voices the other side of double doors to the left and walked into a refectory and large kitchen. Two women and a man were cleaning up following a gathering the day before or earlier the Sunday of my visit. Chairs and tables were washed with a soapy rag, the floor was mopped and some large pans were scrubbed in the kitchen. We chatted with each other as equals and the women were more communicative than the man, although all three encouraged me to look around. The chairs, tables and equipment in the kitchen looked very new. I estimated that the cemevi was no more than two or three years old, but it probably replaced a smaller and much older building.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

I walked up the stairs and entered the large room with the dome. More pictures of Ali and other important male figures were on the walls, and carpets covered the floor where ritual practices took place associated with the gatherings. Near the gathering room was the pir’s odasi, or the pir’s room, complete with sofas for extra comfort.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The name “pir” is sometimes translated to mean “patron saint”, but it is better to think of a pir as one of the socio-religious leaders encountered among the Alevis and the Bektashis. Other socio-religious leaders are called murshids and rehbers and all three types of leader are known collectively as dedes. According to the books of The Buyruk, which include the basic principles of the Alevi faith, a dede must be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad, operate as an educator and a moral guide for the community, be knowledgeable and exemplary in his character and manners, and follow the principles contained in the books of The Buyruk. A dede must also adhere rigidly to the established traditions of Alevism. Traditionally, the main functions of the dedes can be summarised as follows. They guided and enlightened the community in social and religious matters; led the religious rituals; punished criminals; served as arbiters between conflicting sides; led ceremonies during occasions such as a wedding or a funeral; fulfilled certain legal and educational functions; organised healthcare; provided socio-political leadership; and, in some exceptional cases such as in the Dersim, shared the leadership position with the agas, or large landowners. In the modern era, of course, some of the functions just listed have been usurped by the state, but, especially in terms of ceremonial responsibilities, providing spiritual and other guidance to the community, resolving disputes between individuals, families or communities, and providing socio-political leadership, dedes such as pirs still have considerable influence.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

On both floors are other rooms, both large and small, and some rooms have toilets and washing facilities. By the time I was ready to leave I was inclined to conclude that, of all the houses of worship of which I am familiar, the cemevi most resembles a Sikh gurdwara, especially a gurdwara that might be built outside India where Sikhs are a small but respected and valued minority. All such Sikh gurdwaras have a diwan, or worship hall, about the size of the room in the cemevi with the dome above it, and a langar, a dining room with a kitchen where food is served to everyone, Sikh or non-Sikh, who visits the gurdwara. Other rooms exist for a multiplicity of purposes such as meetings, language classes or day-to-day administration. There are also toilets and washing facilities and, in more cases than not, pictures or paintings of some or all of the human gurus, who, of course, are all male even though Sikhs are very much in favour of gender equality, in much the same way as the Alevis and the Bektashis. I found it quite odd to be so far from home, but in a building used for religious purposes that felt so very much like home (because, in recent months, I have spent an unusual amount of time in gurdwaras).

View west with the cemevi, Ovacik.

View west with the cemevi, Ovacik.

To Tunceli.

The hotel bed was extremely comfortable, so, although I was awake by 5.30am, I felt very rested. I packed everything I could, showered, dressed and was downstairs by 6.15 because I had been led to believe that breakfast was served from 6.00am, even though it was a Sunday. The buffet had, indeed, been spread out so I began to eat. I had already paid my bill on arrival the day before and thought that, with luck, I might catch the 7.30am departure for Tunceli. I had two cheeses, black and green olives, tomatoes, sliced meat, bread, jam (cherry and strawberry), chocolate and hazelnut spread, honey, a boiled egg, helva and lots of tea.

The breakfast room in the Gulistan Hotel, Erzincan.

The breakfast room in the Gulistan Hotel, Erzincan.

I rushed upstairs and was on the street just after 7.00am. Roadworks had forced all traffic to take a detour, but with the help of an elderly man I found the correct stop for buses to the otogar. I needed the number one and the timetable suggested that, even on a Sunday, services began just before 7.00am and ran every ten to fifteen minutes. A number one arrived on time, set off and got me to the otogar by 7.25. I ran to the office of the company operating buses to Tunceli to find I was not the last passenger buying a ticket. The bus was going as far as Diyarbakir.

The day had started in perfect fashion and, to add to my pleasure, the sun shone brightly from a sky with very few clouds. The mountains enclosing Erzincan to the south and the north looked all the better for the patches of snow on their slopes.

For the first 50 kilometres of the journey we went east along the valley of the Euphrates as if destined for Erzurum. The valley floor for most of the way is flat and quite wide with some trees, fields and pasture, the latter supporting herds of cattle. The mountains, albeit mostly rounded rather than with rock faces and peaks, remained north and south of the road, those to the south having extensive patches of snow on their north-facing slopes. Any sense of sadness or solemnity I may have had at times the day before (because of the poverty, the rundown streets not far from the pazar, the many building sites and road improvement projects designed to enhance an economically challenged city, the ill-equipped zoo where the welfare of the animals came second to entertaining human visitors, the large number of dogs roaming freely, the oppressive air of Sunni piety that encouraged many women to dress completely in black and cover their whole body except for their eyes and the top of their nose, and the almost complete lack of opportunity to interact with women) had completely gone. Turkey was working its magic yet again.

For part of the way east the railway was in view from the road, but no trains passed us. As we approached Tanyeri the valley began to narrow and the river, the road and the railway became close companions. However, the valley floor was still flat enough for the Euphrates to be quite wide and at one point it had burst its banks flooding nearby pasture. We passed beside a pretty railway station with a water crane in very good condition, a water crane similar to one I had seen the day before at Erzincan station (steam locomotives must occasionally travel the line, perhaps pulling trains for railway enthusiasts). A little later we turned right off the main road and headed south to Tunceli via Pulumur. We crossed the Euphrates and went under an admirably built stone bridge that carries the railway further on its journey. A sign beside the road informed people that they were entering Tunceli province and, very close to the sign, we drove beside an old jandarma post. I was reminded that, when last travelling along the road, Tunceli province in general and Tunceli town in particular felt like occupied territory. The fact no jandarma occupied the post near the road sign suggested that things were now more relaxed. Thankfully, the next few days confirmed that they were.

The bus boy walked along the aisle providing passengers with tea, coffee, fruit juice, water and a squirt of kolonya.

As soon as we entered Tunceli province we began to ascend a gorge-like valley with rugged rock walls which soon had us at the highest point on the road from where very pretty views of rounded hills, pasture, wild flowers and trees with their new leaves led the eye toward villages and snow-smudged mountains, the latter in the distance. Cattle gave way to sheep. At one point it looked as if we were almost as high as the highest mountains to the south, but this was not, obviously, the case. Why? Because one of the mountains was almost completely covered in snow.

We reached the pass where a large, shabby building is used to store motor vehicles and other equipment so that maintenance workers can keep the road open during heavy snowfalls. The views from the pass of forest, snow-capped mountains and pasture with wild flowers on rounded hills were sublime and small villages nestled in the folds of the undulating terrain. The road was far more beautiful than I recall it from trips in the middle of summer when the high temperatures have melted all the snow and the absence of rain has bleached from the land the strong colours that persist until very early June.

We began to descend and some cattle grazed on the pasture. Not long after we arrived in Pulumur, an overwhelmingly modern town with houses and small apartment blocks dispersed along the valley and over the surrounding slopes in a few distinct mahalles. Pulumur’s commercial heart, decorated that day and for at least another week with lots of bunting for the different political parties, is very small, so much so that, for many people, trips to Tunceli, Erzincan or even Tercan will be necessary to conduct certain types of business or secure supplies, food items included if they are a little out of the ordinary. This said, Pulumur’s situation cannot not be faulted and I suspect that roads to nearby villages in the hills and mountains lead to interesting destinations.

As soon as we left the centre of Pulumur the road enters a meandering valley with a river that tumbles over rocks little and large. Small orchards existed where the land flattens, but for most of the time the road is enclosed by rock walls, small patches of pasture on the slopes and trees that grow wild. We drove beside an old stone bridge with a single high arch, but it is in poor condition, and a large but abandoned army or jandarma camp. Some of the buildings in the camp had been trashed, no doubt by local Alevi males who regard the camp as a symbol of the government in Ankara that has always discriminated against them, but perhaps most obviously during the period when the AKP has dominated Turkish politics. This said, even worse oppression than that of the AKP prevailed in the 1930s. More about this later.

Gradually the valley widened and, in the process, so did the river as it flowed less vigorously. The road could now take a straighter and more level course. Isolated houses existed near the road with a few fields and an orchard nearby, and the trees looked a delight as their new crop of pale green leaves seemed to flutter in the gentle breeze like the wings of small birds. But still in the distance were the snow-smudged mountains and, with luck, I would be among them later in the day. What an entry to Tunceli province, still better known locally by its old name of Dersim, the only province in Turkey with an Alevi majority. I was more excited with each kilometre that lay behind us.

About 40 or so kilometres from the town of Tunceli we drove through a small village in a beautiful situation, but in the centre of the village was a large apartment block within a compound heavily protected with walls, barbed wire and razor wire. This was another army or jandarma camp. Although unoccupied, it could very quickly be brought back into use should unrest among the local people recur. It felt almost like the good old, bad old days.

By now the road to the town of Tunceli (which, from now on, I shall call Tunceli. When referring to the province of Tunceli, I shall use instead the preferred local name of Dersim. There will be times when I use Dersim to describe more than merely the province of Tunceli. In this case I will include areas of provinces that share borders with Tunceli province that have large or majority Alevi populations and are therefore thought by local people to be part of Tunceli province/Dersim even though they are not formally recognised as such by the government in Ankara) was excellent. However, every so often the road entered short tunnels not driven through the rock, but built from concrete to protect it from avalanches or rock falling from the slopes of the surrounding hills and mountains. There were also a few short tunnels driven through the rock and, because one such tunnel had neither a concrete lining nor an archway at each end, it looked like a natural feature. Some trees were in blossom and many beehives had been arranged in lines along the edge of pasture full of wild flowers.

It was 9.15am and the digital clock in the bus suggested the temperature outside was 18 degrees centigrade. Passengers bored with the scenery (?!?!) could operate screens attached to the back of the seat in front them to access free films, TV channels or radio stations. Hmmm. I thought about many of the buses we have in the UK that cost so much more to travel on, but do not have services comparable to those in the bus in which I was travelling through eastern Turkey from Erzincan to Tunceli. Such services included free liquid refreshments and the occasional small snack as well as the entertainment just listed.

Water tumbled down a rock face creating a cascade about 25 metres long, but the stream and the waterfall would dry up completely in a few weeks when all the snow had melted from the surrounding slopes. Because the valley remained quite narrow villages were rarely encountered, but isolated houses with fields and orchards persisted. This said, a lot of houses had been abandoned and/or trashed. It was quite likely that such vandalism is directly attributable to the army or the jandarma who destroyed the houses of people suspected of, or known to be in, sympathy with political or terrorist groups that sought an end to discrimination against minority groups such as the Alevis and the Kurds.

A road led to the east for about 12 kilometres to Nazimiye. The road ascended a side valley along which a river flowed before adding more water to the Pulumur Cayi that we had been following for many kilometres. Near the point at which the two rivers met the Pulumur Cayi spread quite wide and a few small but low-lying islands broke the surface with scrub and patches of grass. The river then narrowed once more so it was about 20 metres wide and, not long after, we passed a spot where local people liked to come for picnics at the weekend or during public holidays. High above the road the army had built low, turret-like gun emplacements from where soldiers could survey the surrounding countryside from positions of relative safety and security. The gun emplacements looked abandoned. Because the bus had not stopped once for the police, the army or the jandarma to check passengers’ ID suggested that the gun emplacements were empty.

About 20 kilometres from Tunceli the valley widened to an extent greater than since we had left Pulumur. The river was about 30 metres wide, rounded hills lay along both valley walls and, although the land looked a little drier and hotter than further north, there were lots of fields, meadows, orchards, beehives, cattle, horses and mules. A man cut long grass with a scythe attached to a long wooden handle. A rock wall above the river was slowly eroding into pinnacles that reminded me of some of the landscapes in Cappadocia.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

We arrived in Tunceli, a relatively small provincial capital in terms of population, the centre of which lies on the slopes where the Munzur and the Pulumur rivers join. True, the suburbs seem to stretch for many kilometres, especially to the south leading to the rapidly expanding campus of the provincial university, but the town centre is compact and clearly defined and the otogar centrally located. At first sight Tunceli looks overwhelmingly modern and nothing you find or see will lead to that first impression being radically altered. However, because of the two rivers just mentioned, the surrounding hills and mountains, the good road links with nearby towns and villages, the unusually attractive apartment blocks painted bright colours, a small but lively pazar and, as I would soon find out, remarkably friendly people with a refreshingly liberal outlook on life, there is much to admire. In fact, by the time I had to leave Tunceli less than forty-eight hours after arriving, the town had emerged as one of my all-time favourite Turkish provincial capitals despite the absence of major monuments. The two most important reasons for this? The people and the surrounding area. Even the substantial town centre presence of the police and the army did not compromise my enjoyment of the place because, although armoured vehicles were parked on or sometimes patrolled the streets, for most of the time the police and the soldiers remained in their heavily fortified compounds.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

I walked from the otogar to an open space overlooking the Munzur Cayi below. A small park, some benches and the statue of a turbaned male who must have lived some time ago create a very attractive setting for views up the Munzur Cayi and the mountains to the north. A very large hotel that appears quite expensive overlooks the Munzur Cayi to the south of the park, but I wanted somewhere not so posh. I asked a woman without a headscarf and her male companion about other hotels and they directed me to one in the town’s nearby pazar. I arrived at the hotel to find a man reading a book about Che Guevara who seemed to share ownership of the business with a friend. The man put down his book and said the room with en suite facilities and breakfast cost 50TL a night. This seemed a good price, especially for somewhere so centrally located, so I agreed to stay two nights (I had a lot to see around Tunceli). The room had a balcony providing views over part of the pazar, which enhanced the benefits of staying.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

I unpacked a few things, but was out very quickly. I had a walk around the central business district noting immediately that only a very few women wore a headscarf, none covered their faces and none dressed in black from head to toe. Most women dressed in clothes similar to those that women might wear in Europe or North America and they walked around on their own or with friends or relations and shopped or called at cafes or pastanes with the same freedom enjoyed by men. They chatted with me, an unknown male, without embarrassment or fear that they were contravening unnecessarily restrictive codes of social convention, and it was obvious that a majority of local men were supportive of the more relaxed and integrated relations that existed between the sexes. Moreover, by the end of the day I saw more women driving cars than the whole of the week that had just ended. Add to this that bunting and posters around the town revealed that left-wing political sentiments were very much to the fore and support for the AKP almost non-existent and my admiration for Tunceli rose another half dozen notches. Tunceli is a town largely shaped by a very liberal and progressive outlook by Turkish standards, a liberal and progressive outlook that only prevails elsewhere in large urban centres in the west such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa (but a liberal and progressive outlook does not prevail in all districts in the cities just listed, of course. Some districts suffer from a very oppressive Sunni Muslim outlook that has a particularly detrimental effect on gender equality and relations between the sexes).

View east from Tunceli.

View east from Tunceli.

Oh yes: alcohol was on sale in many shops and lokantas, and one small shop in the pazar (where about only half the businesses bothered to open because it was Sunday) sold large bottles of Efes Malt for a very reasonable 4.5TL. Tunceli was very much my kinda town!

One tea garden beside the town’s main square had been taken over as the local headquarters for the HDP and groups associated with it, and its display of bunting was so spectacular that I spent quite a lot of time taking photos and chatting with HDP members and supporters. A large statue of Ataturk stands on a stone plinth in the middle of the square. If the great dictator were alive today and saw that a party such as the HDP, representing in particular the interests of the Kurds whose existence he would not even acknowledge, was so popular in the east of the country, he would have gone apoplectic. Moreover, only a few glasses of raki would have calmed him down.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

Ataturk's statue, Tunceli.

Ataturk’s statue, Tunceli.

It was in Tunceli where I first saw posters with a picture of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya, “Partizan”, wearing a cloth cap and resembling a working class hero of the Soviet Union, circa the 1930s. In the picture Kaypakkaya looked like a young Robert de Niro around the time he starred in “Taxi Driver”.

Ibrahim Kaypakkaya lived from 1949 to 1973. He was an important figure in the

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

communist movement in Turkey. He was the founder of the Communist Party of Turkey (Marxist-Leninist) and its armed wing carried out fatal attacks in Tunceli, Malatya and Gaziantep. At least one such attack led to the murder of a village muhtar whose information to the security forces had resulted in a gunfight during which some of Kaypakkaya’s allies had met their deaths.

On 24th January 1973, Turkish military forces attacked Kaypakkaya and some of his supporters in the mountains near Tunceli. Kaypakkaya was badly wounded and left for dead, but he managed to shelter in a cave before making his way to a village where he asked a teacher to shelter him. The teacher provided him with a room to recuperate in, but he then locked the door and reported Kaypakkaya’s whereabouts to the army. Kaypakkaya was taken to the prison in Diyarbakir, notorious at the time for the brutal treatment of its inmates, interrogated and tortured. On 18th May he died from gunshot wounds and, so it is said, his body was mutilated and cut into many pieces.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

After his death Kaypakkaya became a martyr for the Turkish communist movement because he “chose to die rather than give information”. Leftists in Turkey more generally remember him as a symbol of resistance to tyranny in all its forms. He left behind him some writings that offer a critique of kemalism, the political ideology that Ataturk developed and which shaped Turkish political thinking until at least the end of the 1980s, and that reflect on Kurdish identity in a nation state which, in the 1960s and early 1970s, preferred to pretend that the Kurds did not exist.

As I took photos of the posters, three or four men walked past and gave me the thumbs-up sign to show their solidarity with what Kaypakkaya represents.

Erzincan.

I walked to where the otogar used to be hoping to confirm transport to Tunceli the following morning, but, as is the case in so many large urban centres nowadays, it had been moved to a location about 4 or 5 kilometres to the east where the ring road joins the main west to east highway. I decided to walk to the new otogar, but catch a bus or a minibus back to the city centre. A sudden downpour lasting about half an hour delayed my departure.

The Turkish habit of locating otogars ever further from city centres is a result of rising land prices in urban areas and the fact that fewer people use buses because privately owned motor vehicles are now so common. However, by locating otogars so far away, most of the people who rely on buses are penalised because they have to travel by public transport to the otogar, thereby adding time and cost to the journey. Some bus companies run free servis buses to the otogar, but usually only from a starting point in the city centre. Once at Erzincan’s otogar another problem became apparent. Buses and minibuses travel to and from the otogar infrequently, especially from about 6.00pm onwards. Also, although the otogar had opened in 2012, massive road works designed to improve traffic flow at the point where the ring road and the main west to east highway meet were in full swing, making access to the otogar for people on foot very difficult unless a long detour is made.

The mosque near the old otogar, Erzincan.

The mosque near the old otogar, Erzincan.

I have to confess: I found the walk quite interesting, despite the problems of accessing the otogar when I finally got there. On both sides of the wide valley in which Erzincan stands the mountains were smudged with snow, and it occurred to me that snow might have fallen on the summits during the downpour that had delayed my departure from the city centre. Not far from where the old otogar used to be, a very large but ugly concrete mosque stands beside the road, and, with some puddles and street furniture in the foreground, it looked quite bizarre and worthy of a photograph. A little later I passed the Hilton Garden Inn, a sleek rectangular box with an exterior dominated by large sheets of glass and what looked like metal panelling. While the hotel suggested subdued sophistication of a corporate kind, the plot of land immediately to the east was littered with mounds of gravel, bags of rubbish, large plastic containers, items left by building contractors, temporary storage facilities made with breeze blocks and wooden carts with wheels made from axles and tyres recycled from old motor vehicles. Pasture with lots of yellow flowers survives in places beside the road, but more often there are car salerooms, factories, warehouses and depots for large private companies or state institutions such as the PTT. Not far from the otogar on the opposite side of the main west to east highway is a very large modern mosque with many domes primarily intended to meet the needs of people – men, in reality – who work locally. Occupying the ground floor below the mosque is a very large and female-friendly lokanta. Rather than designed to meet the needs of passengers leaving or arriving at the otogar, its car park suggests that people who live in Erzincan drive there for a treat.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

Hilton Garden Inn, Erzincan.

Hilton Garden Inn, Erzincan.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

At the otogar I established that buses ran regularly to Tunceli, my next destination, the following morning, then I waited at the bus stop hoping a bus would pass on its way to the city centre. Before a bus arrived a man offered me a lift and dropped me at the old otogar.

It was now about 6.00pm, the sun was shining and it seemed the perfect time to walk around the pazar. This I did and was soon reminded that it is not only quite extensive but lacks a covered section of any significant size. When in the part of the pazar where many shops sell dried fruit, nuts and other foods that last a long time such as lokum, pestil, kome and honey, I met a man who had given me a bag of mixed nuts a few years earlier. As we chatted, he introduced me to some family members helping out on a Saturday afternoon. The vast country that is Turkey contracted to a small and intimate place where you might bump into people you know almost anywhere. I did not leave until we had had a drink together and was given another bag of mixed nuts.

The pazar, Erzincan.

The pazar, Erzincan.

Particularly to the south and the west of the pazar, some rundown residential streets exist with a few business premises among the houses. The houses shelter some very poor families and the businesses function on small profit margins. Men worked on old motor vehicles hoping to coax a few more weeks or months use out of them, and boys played boisterous games of football and tag among puddles left by the recent downpour.

The pazar, Erzincan.

The pazar, Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

I crossed the city’s main west to east street where most of the shops, lokantas, hotels, offices and important public buildings are found to walk around the blocks just to the north, but, because Erzincan is a youthful city largely dating only from after the earthquake of 1939, and because the centre of the city has very few structures of architectural note, there was not much to see that lifted the spirit or provided visual delight. I lingered a while in a small park where, near an artificial pool, the busts of famous people associated with Erzincan have been placed on pedestals for passersby to admire. All the famous people were male and some were famous for their brutality and accomplishments in war.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Although fed a few hours earlier at the railway station, I went to a lokanta not far from the old otogar. I ordered kofte in a tomato sauce, pilaf, salad and thick yoghurt flavoured with garlic and mint, and drank water. The lokanta was very much old school in that it was shabby and had not been redecorated for many years. Female customers must be extremely rare. Although beer could be bought for 8TL a large bottle, it was kept hidden from view in a fridge. When the head waiter rinsed a glass with water before pouring the water onto the carpet thinking this would help to keep the carpet clean, I was transported back in time at least twenty years (a generation ago, carpets in hotels, lokantas, buses and important public buildings were often soaked with water, brushed vigorously and allowed to slowly dry while people walked over them because the owners of the carpets thought such regular washing and brushing were inexpensive ways of keeping them clean). Although the food was good, I should have found somewhere better where men and women ate together.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

By now it was almost dark so I confined my walk to digest the food to the main street. Because Erzincan is the most socially conservative settlement so far visited, I was not surprised that, once it was dark, girls and women almost completely disappeared from the streets. A few young women, most of whom wore headscarves, worked in shops and supermarkets before they closed for the night, and a few women without headscarves came with male relatives to do their shopping, but by about 8.30pm the centre of Erzincan was almost completely a male preserve.

I called at a supermarket to buy a litre of chilled fruit juice to take back to my room, but the supermarket did not chill its juice! However, I bought a litre to make sure I was consuming sufficient quantities of non-alcoholic liquid.

I reflected on what I had seen in Erzincan since arriving about midday. The city seemed to be the one with the highest proportion of pious Sunni Muslims as well as the large settlement that was the most economically challenged. Some of the newest suburbs to the west of the city centre are quite prosperous, but they do not look as prosperous as those in Diyarbakir or Elazig. Erzincan’s shabby appearance is exaggerated because of the amount of redevelopment currently taking place. In the city centre lots of new buildings are going up and many roads are being up-graded. Perhaps improved economic circumstances lie just around the corner. There are certainly a large number of hotels in Erzincan and the hotels include two with four stars along the main street west of where I was staying. If things pick up, business people have lots of choice about where to stay, a Hilton included. Even the simple hotel I had stayed in on the previous occasion has had a makeover and up-grade that includes the construction of a lokanta. I wondered if the hotel is still owned by the socialist whom I met when last in Erzincan. The socialist appeared to have revolutionary inclinations.

It was time to return to the hotel where I spent about an hour writing up notes about the day’s experiences.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.                          

P.S. As I wrote the above (26th June 2015), the news bulletins devoted most of their attention to the beheading of a man in south-east France, the murder of over thirty tourists at Sousse in Tunisia, and a suicide bomber who murdered almost thirty Shia Muslims during midday prayers in Kuwait. It soon emerged that the individuals responsible for these dreadful crimes are Sunni Muslims who are members of, or in sympathy with, the Islamic State. In Kenya on the same day, Al-Shabaab murdered “dozens of African Union troops at a base in Somalia”. Al-Shabaab is not affiliated to the Islamic State, but it is a brutally oppressive and violent Sunni Muslim group already responsible for many crimes against humanity that have involved far greater casualties than those at the African Union army camp. Unknown are the number of deaths that were the responsibility of Sunni Muslims on 26th June in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and other overwhelmingly Muslim nation states (also unknown are the number of deaths that were the responsibility of mainstream Shia Muslims in overwhelmingly Muslim nation states, but the figure will be much smaller than the figure for deaths attributable to Sunni Muslims), but I think we can assume that Sunni Muslims murdered at least three to four hundred people in one day alone.

26th June 2015 was just over a week into the Muslim holy month of Ramadan during which, if sharia is complied with properly, all war and conflict should cease so Muslims can engage peacefully with the fast and their routine religious obligations. But what had the Islamic State demanded of its militants and sympathisers? That death and destruction be directed against Shia Muslims and all those associated in any way with nation states that are part of the US-led alliance trying to defeat the tyrannical regime. Because Sunni Muslims are among those seeking to defeat the Islamic State in the US-led alliance, the Islamic State was also killing Sunni Muslims.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Evidence from security agencies around the globe suggests that French nationals make up the largest group of Europeans who have gone to fight for or support the Islamic State (the figure may be as high as 1,200), Tunisians make up the largest group of North Africans (the figure would appear to exceed 2,000), and significant numbers of people have also left from Germany, the UK, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Most such supporters of the Islamic State are young males, a small number of whom are converts to Islam. Refugees fleeing from the Islamic State confirm that the regime operates in such a way as to penalise and persecute girls, women, Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, non-Muslims such as Christians and Yazidis, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and people devoid of a faith commitment. Sunni Muslims who are not sufficiently “orthodox” in how they give expression to their commitment to Islam are also subject to victimisation. In other words, the Islamic State is organised in such a way as to meet the needs and aspirations of a relatively small number of ultra-orthodox Sunni Muslim males. The number of Sunni Muslim males in sympathy with the Islamic State may be quite small when compared with the worldwide Sunni population, but such Sunni Muslims have a detrimental effect out of all proportion to their number because of the ideology they profess, the arms they possess and the tendency among Muslims of many persuasions to believe that the Islamic State is not as serious a threat to Muslim well-being as nation states such as the USA, Russia, the UK or France.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Eski Erzincan.

Following a devastating earthquake in 1939 that claimed many lives, what is now Eski Erzincan was almost completely abandoned. Most of modern Erzincan is a city that has developed since that tragic year. This means that modern Erzincan has very few buildings more than eighty years old and, as a consequence, feels more like a concrete jungle than most Turkish cities because of the absence of anything of substantial age. Despite this, and despite the fact that conventional Sunni piety shapes a majority of the population, I had enjoyed my last and only other visit to the city. The city’s shabbiness has an oddly endearing quality, the pazar is very good and the railway has a substantial presence. Also, the mountains that enclose the city are very attractive, although in a somewhat austere manner. With excellent places in the region to visit including Kemah, Tercan and Altintepe, the latter an Urartian fortress with a temple, palace and tombs, there are many worse places to spend the night. Moreover, the northernmost edge of Eski Erzincan is only 3 kilometres from the main square in Erzincan’s city centre.

As I walked to Eski Erzincan along the main road bound for the airport and Caylagan, one of the city’s many stray dogs, one about the size of an Alsatian, befriended me and we became companions for about an hour until it developed an interest in two dogs of similar appearance to itself. On the way to Eski Erzincan we crossed the railway, passed a large cemetery which I looked at later and walked beside a very depressing zoo where animals were in small and sterile compounds in which food and water were provided intermittently.

The railway, Erzincan.

The railway, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

The first structure we came to was an old hamam, a long, low building with stonework in very poor condition. The hot room is at the north end of the structure. Externally, only two of the domes can be identified and both are made of brick. Part of a chimney rises from the roof. Sinclair thinks the hamam is Ottoman, but suggests it “could conceivably be medieval”. Because part of the building is now used as a store and the doors were locked, I could not examine the interior.

The first hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The first hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The ruins at Eski Erzincan now lie among trees and long grass, the latter decorated with wild flowers in late spring and early summer, and two or three houses are near the next structure I went to examine, a gatehouse about 100 metres away. To reach the gatehouse I walked among some trees where two men were looking after beehives they had arranged in lines in a small sunlit clearing among the trees.

Beehives, Eski Erzincan.

Beehives, Eski Erzincan.

A sign beside the ruin identifies it as Kale Kapisi, or Castle Gate. Sinclair reveals that:

This gatehouse, of smooth, well-finished masonry, is Ottoman, but it is almost certainly built on foundations of a previous medieval gatehouse. Its rectangular chamber extends behind the line of the wall. Either side of the wide doorway project two diminutive bastions: these have five faces, as if coming from a cut-off octagon, but the five-faced figure is added to the front of a short rectangle rather than directly to the front of the city wall. The purpose of this rectangular block of masonry is to support the wide arch, which acts as a kind of porch, against the front of the gatehouse’s wall. The facing stone has all been pulled from the gatehouse’s s. wall and also taken at the base of the n. tower. The back aspect is also generally shoddy. Both doorways have been narrowed with breeze blocks.

The family living in one of the nearby houses uses the gatehouse to store things, food for animals included.

The gatehouse, Eski Erzincan.

The gatehouse, Eski Erzincan.

By now my companion had attracted the attention of three large dogs protecting one of the nearby houses, but the man who owned the dogs said they would not attack me; they were interested in my companion instead.

Near the gatehouse is the ruin of a tower with a hexagonal ground plan which, as Sinclair indicates, projects:

from the first angle on the w. corner (of the city wall) to a present height of one storey, but must originally have risen further, perhaps only enough to allow a crenellated defensive wall, less probably enough to allow a second covered storey. One side of the hexagon is accounted for by the back wall, which contains the entrance. The two sides adjacent to the entrance project from the city wall… These two sides are longer than the others to accommodate a lobby immediately inside the doorway. In the five outer faces, arrow slits with deep, wide embrasures. The masonry is of big, bossed blocks. Fragments of 14th-15th century decoration, very likely Islamic, on the n. face, mean that the tower was probably rebuilt in the 15th century.

The hexagonal tower, Eski Erzincan.

The hexagonal tower, Eski Erzincan.

 Immediately south-east of the tower are short sections of the city wall and more sections of the wall exist after turning through a right angle so you are now facing north-east. A flat ditch about 10 metres wide provided additional protection along some of the city wall. The ditch is most readily identified where the wall along the south side of the city runs in a south-west to north-east direction. Here, the edge of the ditch opposite the city wall is in places 2.5 metres high. The slope of the ground precluded a ditch in front of the wall facing south-west. The wall was built along the top of a bank which gets lower as it leads to the north-west.

Part of the city wall, Eski Erzincan.

Part of the city wall, Eski Erzincan.

I lost my companion as I examined the ditch, after which I crossed the road to the airport and Caylagan to spend some time in the pretty cemetery. Very few of the tombs or gravestones in the cemetery are old, but a few notable Muslims have been buried there and their turbes reflect the high esteem in which they were held. The cemetery is kept in good condition and many flowers including poppies, pansies and irises were in bloom. Some simple wooden kiosks with seats have been erected among the tombs, so I retired to one to have a rest. I ate half a simit and a nectarine, both survivals of my visit to Tamdere.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

I returned to the road leading to the airport and Caylagan, then took a left onto the ring road avoiding Erzincan’s city centre. I knew there was more to see in Eski Erzincan and that it lay just to the north of the ring road, which did not exist when Sinclair visited the site in the 1980s. Thankfully, construction of the ring road does not seem to have destroyed anything of great importance.

I crossed the ring road and, behind a wire fence, saw the remains of a large hamam benefiting from a major restoration programme. Thinking I would not be able to examine the remains close up because of health and safety concerns, I took a few photos before intending to make my way back to the city centre. However, by following the fence I came to a gate and the gate was unlocked. I knew already that the workmen were not on site, so I went inside hoping dogs were not on guard duty or living nearby in a feral state. There were no dogs, so what followed was a delight. I walked around the whole hamam, which is already in an impressive condition. I came away with the impression that the restoration programme will result in a monument not done up to an excessive degree.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

Sinclair notes that:

The disrobing chamber with high dome is to the n. It is in good condition, both inside and outside, apart from the debris on the floor. The masonry of the walls is of the same bossed blocks as on the large octagonal tower. The dome is brick. The recess with pointed arch to the r. of the door (e. side) seems to have been for a cesme. Squinch and blind arch support for dome, set low in the usual manner. At the back of each squinch is a sloping triangle of rows of blocks set, toothlike, diagonally to the triangle’s face.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The area between the disrobing chamber and hot room is arranged unusually, and the series of rooms in question extends to either side of the rectangle implied by the disrobing chamber and hot room. A door leads into a chamber which must have been the cool room. This takes up only two-thirds of the slim space lying strictly between the disrobing chamber and the hot room. Off it, to the w., leads a passage to the lavatory, which projects to the w. end and to an extent lies alongside the disrobing chamber. S. of the corridor is another slim room, the w. end of which is domed. To the e. is a room adjacent partly to the cool room and partly to the hot room: it can only be entered by external doors to the n. and e. The hot room is of standard type, with small domed chambers in the corners, iwan-like rooms on the axes (though that communicating with the cool room is domed) and a central domed space. Furnace along whole s. side of the hot room.  

Beside thoroughly enjoying the hamam for its size and unusual features (part of the floor had been lifted to reveal where the hot water used to flow to keep the hamam warm), I was intrigued to find that the workmen’s clothes and tools, even a small battery-operated torch, had been left inside and outside the hamam as if they had suddenly deserted the site merely to have a meal nearby. Among some trees and bushes were bags of rubbish, cushions, water bottles, glasses for tea and other liquid refreshments, a teapot and a small wood-burning stove to boil water. This was clearly where the workmen had their breaks during the working day. There was also a hastily built loo with breeze block walls and a hole in the ground for human waste.

The workmen's camp at the second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The workmen’s camp at the second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

A short distance from the hamam, but slowly being lost to view as the grass and the wild flowers grow against and over the remains, is what may be a medrese, although today you would be hard-pressed to know it was such a structure unless relying on Sinclair. Sinclair says that the ruin:

has not been inspected properly, as it lies just north of the main dumping ground for waste from the city abattoir… Roughly 20 metres n.-s., 15 metres e.-w. None of the walls survive to any great height. To the s., where the much-mortared rubble fill is exposed, there is a projection from the middle of the wall. Inside, and near this projection, lies a fragment of masonry which was part of a dome or pendentive… To the e. the masonry, much of it grassed over, is non-descript. In the w. wall is a series of five doorways: their bottom halves are buried in earth, but they are too wide in any case for windows. Each doorway has a stone lintel with rounded brick relieving arch above… The row of doorways looks as though designed to lead into a courtyard. On the other hand, Ottoman and medieval Turkish medreses are normally entered by a single doorway. These doorways, in fact, are the part of a building which defies explanation. Other possible guesses for the building’s purpose are a church with courtyard and, conceivably, a caravansaray or bedesten.

The medrese (?), Eski Erzincan.

The medrese (?), Eski Erzincan.

 It was now about 3.30pm. I walked through an area of small sheds and compounds where, at the appropriate time of the year, large numbers of sheep and goats are killed for Eid-ul-Adha or, as the Turks prefer to call it, Kurban Bayram, the Feast of Sacrifice. I then walked around the exterior of part of the wholly inadequate zoo before visiting the railway station and its marshalling yard. A westbound passenger train from Kars, the Dogu Ekspres bound for Ankara, was due quite soon and about twenty passengers were waiting for it, but it was running about fifty-five minutes late.

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

After reminding myself of just how attractive the station is, two men invited me to have tea, cheese, bread and olives in a building where railway employees have their offices, lockers, rest rooms and storage facilities for tools. It was interesting to see the interior of the building because, although there is a sense that it is much larger than modern-day exploitation of the railway network requires, its construction and facilities, as in the nearby station itself, confirm that, when built, the railway was very much part of Turkey’s progressive and secular future, a future that inspired in many a feeling of unbounded optimism. Transportation by road and air has done much to erode the importance of the railway network, but, especially in large urban centres such as Erzincan, facilities associated with the railway are kept in very good condition, perhaps in the hope that current investment programmes will revive its fortunes. The introduction of high speed trains in the west of the country, where the roads are far more cluttered with traffic than in the east, have certainly attracted people back to the trains.

The footbridge at the railway station, Erzincan.

The footbridge at the railway station, Erzincan.

To Erzincan.

I had assumed the day’s journey would be straightforward: a minibus from Sebinkarahisar to Susehri, from where frequent buses, long distance if not more regional in scope, would get me to Erzincan along the big west to east highway without a long delay. The first part of the journey was simple, the second not so.

I was eating breakfast by 7.00am. I packed the last few things into my bags, paid the hotel bill and was on the street by about 7.40am. I walked to the otogar from where a minibus departed for Susehri at 8.00am. I arrived with five minutes to spare. The minibus drove into the centre of town and through a nearby suburb collecting passengers who had arranged to be picked up from home. The journey to Susehri was as stunning as it had been the other direction two days before.

The otogar, Sebinkarahisar.

The otogar, Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

The minibus dropped its passengers at the otogar on the edge of Susehri, but when I and another man went inside to find a service to Erzincan, none existed! We were very surprised and knew that such a situation would not have prevailed even five years ago. We walked along the road toward distant Erzincan. The man asked two resting lorry drivers if they were going to Erzincan, but both said no. I continued along the road as the man went to ask for a lift among lorry drivers filling their tanks at a petrol station. About twenty minutes later he passed me in the cab of a lorry no doubt going all the way that he wanted.

The otogar, Susehri.

The otogar, Susehri.

I got a lift of about a kilometre standing on the footplate of a tractor, then a second lift with two men in a white van who took me about 3 kilometres to where a boy aged about fourteen had arranged a few tables and chairs beside a roadside cesme to serve passersby with tea. I joined the men and the boy for two rounds of tea, payment for which was refused, of course, because I was the guest of the men in the van. I filled my water bottle from the cesme (the name “Susehri” means “city of water”) and set off along the road. After walking about half a kilometre I started flagging a lift. Half an hour later a car drew to a halt and the man inside offered me a lift all the way to Erzincan University on the western edge of the city. Sitting next to the man was his son aged seven. We stopped just once so the man could buy his son a carton of milk and he and I cartons of fruit juice.

Tea beside the cesme, Sushi.

Tea beside the cesme, Susehri.

Rarely have I been so glad when a trip in a car has concluded. The man drove with alarming recklessness, despite having his son beside him. We hit a top speed of 160 kph on more than one occasion, the man used his phone about six times while still driving faster than he should have, and when the traffic was non-existent the other way he drove on the wrong side of the road. On one occasion he would have driven into the back of a much slower lorry had he not slammed on the brakes with such severity that I bumped my head on the seat in front of me. This said, we arrived at the university only a few minutes after 11.00am.

The road to Erzincan is scenically very attractive. The road hugs the floor of a valley almost all the way to a pass at 2,160 metres above sea level, after which it enters another valley leading to Erzincan. In both valleys the floor is quite wide, but hills and mountains lie to the north and the south. Fields and pasture rather than trees dominate the valley floors, and villages that look quite interesting cling to the slopes. The pasture supports cattle rather than sheep and goats and wild flowers are plentiful. Storks build nests on electricity pylons and other slim structures and large chicks stood in them waiting for their parents to return with food.

The mountains had more snow on them than any so far seen. At one point it began to rain and everything turned grey. It briefly looked like late autumn or winter.

I was dropped off where the entrance to Erzincan University campus stands opposite the entrance to a large police training facility. Beside the entrance to the police training facility were two minibuses and a group of police cadets waited patiently for the first one to leave for the city centre. I walked to where the cadets were waiting and we were soon engaged in conversation. On the way into the city centre, a distance of almost 5 kilometres costing about 40p in British money, I was informed that cadets straight from high school train for two years, but cadets with a university degree train for only six months. I was asked how much newly trained police officers earn in the UK and, when I said, they all agreed that migrating to the UK was what they had to do to be millionaires. I tempered their enthusiasm for migrating by pointing out that, in return for high salaries, you had to put up with very high costs. “Low taxes, but high costs. In the UK, everyone on low or average salaries is a loser, not a winner. Go somewhere civilised instead, such as Denmark or Norway.” Did I agree that Erdogan needed to improve police pay? Of course I agreed. I added, “Erdogan is a big problem.” I was surprised how many in the minibus nodded their heads in recognition of what was obvious to all but his most ardent fans.

There were about fifteen cadets in the minibus and most wanted to know if I had visited their home town, city or province. They were amazed when, in almost every case, I could identify something unusual about the town or city or a famous building or district within or near it. Izmir, Manisa, Bolu, Kayseri, Sivas: I had been to or through them all.

After the minibus had pulled into a small parking lot on the edge of the pazar, I shook hands with some of the cadets and went to find a hotel for the night. I took a room in the older of the two Gulistan hotels in the city centre, 50TL securing a quiet but clean room with en suite facilities and breakfast. Because fake wooden panelling covered the walls and a rather grubby brown carpet the floor the room had a sombre appearance, but the air conditioner was very efficient (although Erzincan proved the coolest place I stayed the whole time away).

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

By now it was midday and the sun was shining brightly. I spent a little time in the city centre admiring the bunting that brightened up the main square. I also noted that lots of women wore headscarves, some had all-enveloping, loose-fitting black garments that covered them from head to toe and some covered all their face except the eyes. A lot of men, especially the older ones, had grown a beard to confirm they were hajis. I was firmly back on the Sunni side of the street!

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

I had been to Erzincan once before to use it as a base to visit beautiful Kemah on the Euphrates River. I was in the city again primarily for two reasons: to have a big city experience before going to Tunceli and Pertek, a small city and a very small town respectively, and to visit Eski Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.