To Palu and Eski Palu.

Before breakfast I walked to the ferry terminal to put the previous night’s empty beer bottles into litter bins, then went to eat in the garden of the hotel overlooking the reservoir. The sun was shining. As I waited for the food and tea to arrive, I looked at the roses in the flowerbeds. A man arrived in the garden and sat a few tables away. Three friends soon joined him for breakfast. Borek replaced the chips of the morning before and there was an excellent jam made from what looked like blackberries, but the fruit was karadut, or black mulberry. Once again, honey was in the comb.

I packed the last few things into my bags, paid the bill, thanked staff for what had proved a delightful stay and walked to the ferry terminal knowing I could find a seat in one of the five or six minibuses for Elazig that had arrived for the next crossing. However, as we waited for a ferry to arrive (two ferries make the crossing all day long timing their departure so they set off at almost exactly the same time, but from opposites sides of the reservoir), I chatted with a man driving an almost new Volvo. An Alevi with the usual misgivings about Erdogan, the AKP and Sunni Muslims, he kindly offered me a lift to Elazig where he was undertaking a day’s business. Because Elazig was from where minibuses would take me to my destination for the night, Palu, I agreed without hesitation to join him.

The ferry terminal, Pertek.

The ferry terminal, Pertek.

The ferry, Pertek.

The ferry, Pertek.

Once all the motor vehicles had been driven aboard, the ferry set off. Passengers could walk around the deck, which meant that the views of the castle and the reservoir were very good. I was not allowed to pay either my fare or for the car. The crossing took about only fifteen minutes and it did not take long to disembark. The drive thereafter was pretty rather than spectacular, but, as the car began to descend into Elazig, we passed a very large but incomplete hotel commanding extensive views over the city and the wide valley beyond.

The ferry and Pertek Kale.

The ferry and Pertek Kale.

Pertek Kale.

Pertek Kale.

The man who had given me the lift left his Volvo in a car park next to where minibuses depart for the minibus garaj serving towns and villages to the east. Because Palu lay to the east of Elazig, this was the garaj required for the next leg of my journey, so I got into the right minibus and, ten minutes later, was asking from where I could find a service to Palu. In the fashion characteristic of the trip so far, a minibus for Palu was leaving in about ten minutes. Perfection.

Most of the journey to Palu was of moderate interest scenically, especially as we drove beside another reservoir with rounded hills to either side, but as we made our way into Palu itself, which lies beside the Murat Nehri with high mountains nearby, my spirits lifted. A steep, meandering descent from a plain into the town itself confirmed that I would enjoy what remained of the day. Some unattractive urban areas lay between Elazig and my destination, most obviously in Kovancilar where we turned off the main road to Bingol and Mus, but, although Palu is now overwhelmingly modern, its situation is stunning and it is small enough not to be much of a blot on the landscape. Moreover, because Palu lies beside the railway from Elazig to Mus and Tatvan, the small town is worth a detour even without the dramatic scenery and Eski Palu, the latter being the main reason why I was staying overnight.

A search on the internet before leaving home suggested that Palu did not have a hotel, and this was confirmed by men at the garaj in Elazig from where the Palu minibuses depart. However, in Turkey even small towns have accommodation of some sort for visitors expected or otherwise, and the men at the garaj had assured me that staff at the ogretmen evi would put me up. Palu’s town centre is so small that the minibus terminated almost opposite the ogretmen evi, so I walked across the road to enquire about a room. A room was available because most teachers had departed for home. The term was almost over and exams dominated the working day, but only a few teachers were needed to supervise them. The manager of the ogretmen evi, who was summoned from the nearby large and very new Hukumet Konagi, showed me around the facilities (the facilities included rooms where games such as pool were played and a kitchen where breakfast was prepared), then he offered me a room with three beds near a smaller room with a sink and toilet (showers and more sinks and toilets were upstairs and easily accessed). I said how grateful I was for the room, which had lots of storage space, especially for one person, but was even more amazed when I was told that the room cost only 15TL a night. I said that the cost was very low and was happy to pay more, but more could not be accepted. I was in the middle of the town with the pazar, shops, businesses and lokantas nearby; the railway station was a few blocks to the south-west; and a road leading toward Eski Palu began near the Hukumet Konagi less than 300 metres away. I could not believe my luck. We drank tea, my passport was photocopied and a few personal details were committed to a ledger.

I paid for the room in advance, then the manager led me to a small courtyard where the teachers could sit in the evenings drinking tea or soft drinks as they chatted with friends. From a tree the manager picked a green fruit not unlike a very small apple, but the fruit had a stone rather than pips inside. I bit into the sour but refreshing flesh, itself firm like an immature apple, and the manager gave me about twenty to take for my walk to, around and from Eski Palu.

The best way from Palu to Eski Palu on foot (there is a way by car, but it is much greater in length and requires crossing the river twice) is to follow as closely as you can the railway going east, then, with some of the ruins now in sight, you ascend a rounded hill aiming for one of the minarets. The centre of Eski Palu, which has long been abandoned and replaced by the town in which I was staying overnight, lay among and close to the ruins just mentioned, but the ruins of a citadel are found on the massive eruption of rock behind them. Eski Palu is a destination that deserves to be far better known and, as I was soon to find out, its ruins are more extensive and rewarding than those at similar but more famous places.

View east between Palu and Eski Palu.

View east between Palu and Eski Palu.

Between Palu and Eski Palu.

Between Palu and Eski Palu.

For most of the way to Eski Palu there are footpaths. Some of the footpaths are directly above the river with the railway to your left, and some are a little to the north with the railway to your right. However, all the paths eventually disappeared among new grass and late spring’s wild flowers. I had to ascend a hillside using for directions one of the minarets to keep me roughly on course. When I arrived on the more level ground that must have once been the centre of Eski Palu, there were the ruins of two mosques, a hamam and a cesme in close proximity and, some way to the east, a ruined church. High above me to the north were the ruins of the citadel. The ruins of the hamam were the most impressive and they were the ones most obviously benefiting from a lengthy restoration project.

View west to Palu.

View west to Palu.

I had been looking around the ruins for about fifteen minutes when I met five or six workmen who had been resting nearby before resuming their task of restoring the hamam. One of the workmen kindly encouraged me to enter parts of the ruins not previously examined, then he invited me to join two of his colleagues for glasses of tea in a large portacabin that was where they slept at night. The portacabin was also their daytime retreat when the heat became oppressive or they wanted to eat a meal. They explained that, although it was a rather long walk to the citadel via a gently inclined road encircling the mountain on which it stands before turning into a path with stone steps, I should make the effort to see it. I would enjoy the views, some Urartian remains and a tunnel of unknown origin. I took their advice, but did not realise at the time that the walk would also lead to other ruins associated with Eski Palu.

Kucuk Camii, Eski Palu.

Kucuk Camii, Eski Palu.

Kucuk Camii, Eski Palu.

Kucuk Camii, Eski Palu.

Kucuk Camii, Eski Palu.

Kucuk Camii, Eski Palu.

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To Ulu Kale.

I had an excellent night’s sleep because of the comfortable bed and the quite room, so was rested enough by 6.30am to walk to the ferry terminal to take more photos of the ferries themselves and the castle. Because breakfast at the hotel was not served until 8.00am, I walked toward the roundabout with the peace sign, but, before getting that far, took a right turn along a dirt road that led toward the centre of Pertek past small apartment blocks, houses in large gardens and farms where families kept sheep and a few cattle. As the road ascended, the views of the reservoir and the castle steadily improved. Every so often I passed children waiting to be picked up in a minibus and taken to school.

Before the reservoir was filled, two mosques were dismantled from the slopes on which old Pertek lay and were reassembled in the modern town of Pertek (in other words, the mosques lay on the slopes below the castle. The slopes are now below the level of the water, as are ruins including a church and a hamam). I caught glimpses of both the mosques, Baysungur Camii and Celebi Ali Camii, both of which have their origins in the 16th century. Baysungur Camii is a domed cube with a three-domed portico and a minaret. The portico’s walls and the minaret’s shaft are constructed with bands of chocolate-coloured and cream-coloured stone, but the walls of the prayer hall comprise of rubble stone. Celebi Ali Camii has some similarities with Baysungur Camii, but an iwan and a cesme help to make it distinctive.

For breakfast I was directed to the café and lokanta that has been built in the large garden overlooking the reservoir the other side of the road from the hotel itself. I sat at a table facing the reservoir, the castle and the hills to the south-west and, about fifteen minutes later, was given tea and a tray of food. For a hotel expensive by Turkish standards the food was not very imaginative, but, with a generous portion of bread to go with the tomatoes, cucumber, olives, three types of cheese, chips, boiled egg, honey in the comb, cherry jam, tea and water, I had no reason to complain. This said, I was disappointed to see that cloud was building up and turning the sun a little hazy. However, I expected the day to involve a lot of walking, so perhaps the cloud would prove a blessing in disguise.

My destinations for the day were Ulu Kale, about 10 to 15 kilometres from Cemisgezek, and Sagman, about 15 kilometres from Pertek. Both destinations lay off the main road to Cemisgezek, but the previous day’s travels had given me the opportunity to identify precisely where both roads to my destinations diverged. I had resolved to visit Ulu Kale first because it was the destination furthest from Pertek.

Just before 9.00am I left the hotel for the roundabout with the peace sign and, ten minutes after arriving there, a quietly spoken man driving an old Tofas offered me a lift to the junction for Dere. When I got out of the car I was almost as far as the small supermarket where, the day before, I had bought the ice cream. I walked a short distance, then a car stopped with four men inside. The men were going to Cemisgezek to undertake a day’s work and they each had a small briefcase to confirm that they were civil servants or professionals of some importance. Because the junction for Ulu Kale was only 3 or 4 kilometres from Akcapinar near where I had been the day before, I was taken most of the way to Cemisgezek, which confirmed for me that the road from Pertek to Cemisgezek is one of exceptional beauty and interest.

Between Pertek and Cemisgezek.

Between Pertek and Cemisgezek.

Because the car in which we travelled was very new and the driver wanted to show off his skills at the wheel, it was about 10.20am when I arrived at the junction for Ulu Kale. The sign at the bottom of the road suggested that the village was only 4 kilometres away, but by the time I arrived in its centre it felt as if I had walked 5 or even 5.5 kilometres. For most of the way the ascent was merely steady and a lot of time was spent at or near the highest point of a ridge. I therefore secured excellent views of Payamduzu on the way to Akcapinar and Cemisgezek, and north toward snow-smudged mountains in the milli parki. Sadly the cloud cover remained quite thick, which imbued many a view with a grey tinge, but at least it was cool and the views extensive, not least over the reservoir. Every so often I encountered a large flock of sheep and goats. At one point I was worried that large dogs that protected a flock might make their way in my direction – they had seen me and began barking in a threatening way – but they decided to stay close to their shepherd instead.

Ulu Kale.

Ulu Kale.

Ulu Kale.

Ulu Kale.

I rounded a corner and was on the westernmost edge of the village, which has, in recent decades, shifted from its original position immediately below the basalt cliffs crowned by the scant remains of the castle to a more accessible and gently sloping shelf looking south. However, the remains of the original village and the much larger new one lie in a bowl with cliffs and steep slopes rising to the west, the north and the east. Once the houses and other facilities of the village somewhat abruptly conclude, fields, orchards and pasture lead toward a river to the south. At the entrance to the village on the west side is a most unusual sight in a Turkish village, identical modern houses arranged in a regular fashion along new roads that really belong in a new suburb in one of the large conurbations far to the west. The pitched roofs, brightly painted plaster walls, satellite dishes and small gardens behind wire fences would look perfectly at home in parts of Bursa or Eskisehir. Or, with some minor tweaking, Birmingham in the United Kingdom.

View south from Ulu Kale.

View south from Ulu Kale.

Ulu Kale.

Ulu Kale.

Although immediately to the north of Ulu Kale you are enclosed by cliffs and slopes, more open views exist south-east and south-west, and the hills to the south are far enough away to create a welcome sense of spaciousness. While the most interesting houses are inevitably those in the original village – they are built of stone and substantial in size, but look abandoned and are very few in number – the houses in the new village are of interest because a mixture of stone, mudbrick, concrete, plaster, wood, corrugated iron and flat sheets of metal have been used to good visual effect. Most houses have a patch of garden surrounding them where trees, flowers and a few vegetables prosper.

Part of the old village, Ulu Kale.

Part of the old village, Ulu Kale.

Part of the old village below the castle, Ulu Kale.

Part of the old village below the castle, Ulu Kale.

Between the original village and the new one is a turbe with an octagonal ground plan. Sinclair says it was built in 1550 for someone called Ferruhsad Bey:

Three courses of a rich red stone run round the trunk. Two large windows in arched recesses to e. and w. Beside the mihrab, which is partly lost, there are niches in the se. and sw. walls of the interior. The brick interior dome is revealed by the loss of the exterior pyramidal cap. There is a small crypt.

The turbe, Ulu Kale.

The turbe, Ulu Kale.

Not far from the turbe is a ruin described to me as a church. I could find nothing to confirm that the ruin had been a church, but Sinclair describes a church at Ulu Kale more or less where the ruin is. He writes that it was:

Single nave, one rib. Semi-circular apse, ruined. Entrance wall mostly fallen. Large blocks used. Probably 17th or 18th century.

The ruined church (?), Ulu Kale.

The ruined church (?), Ulu Kale.

The ruined church (?), Ulu Kale.

The ruined church (?), Ulu Kale.

Photos on the internet of Ulu Kale taken a few years ago confirm that many old houses, even then in a very neglected state, have disappeared altogether, and it is obvious from Sinclair’s monumental study of eastern Turkey that very little of the castle survives. This said, I was glad I had made the effort to visit the village, not least for its dramatic natural surroundings. I noticed that a road meandered along the river in an easterly direction leading after a few kilometres to Bozagac and, if nothing else, the scenery must be very rewarding. From Bozagac a road leads back to the Pertek to Cemisgezek road. A round walk for a future visit? Perhaps.

View east from Ulu Kale.

View east from Ulu Kale.

Local wildlife, Ulu Kale.

Local wildlife, Ulu Kale.

So little traffic goes from Ulu Kale to the Pertek to Cemisgezek road during the day that I had to walk all the way to the junction, but at least I was going downhill most of the time and could enjoy extensive views of the Keban Reservoir. Once at the junction I had to wait only a short time for a lift all the way to the junction for Sagman. I was travelling with a man of local importance (he toured the region to confirm that road works were completed to a satisfactory standard) because he was in a new and very comfortable car with a chauffeur. The chauffeur said that he played professional football for a club in a league one or two levels below the top-flight clubs and that his job as a chauffeur terminated once the football season began. Both men were Alevis. They combined friendliness with a reflective frame of mind, but warned me that most people in Sagman were Sunni Muslims.

Between Ulu Kale and the Pertek to Cemisgezek road.

Between Ulu Kale and the Pertek to Cemisgezek road.

To Cemisgezek and the Termal Hotel.

Being dropped off where hills, a river, trees, pasture with wild flowers and lots of beehives presented an image of rural bliss, I decided to wait until a lift arrived and, after only twenty minutes, a small open-topped lorry drew to a halt. The driver already had two men in the cab and on the back of the lorry were two cows. I was lucky: the men and their cattle were going to Cemisgezek. The two passengers shuffled along to make room for me and, just over an hour later, we arrived at our destination. While the driver said almost nothing the whole journey other than to reassure me that my presence was not a problem, the two passengers chattered incessantly in Zazaki, a language that I understand even less well than Kurmanji. I got the feeling they were gossiping about people they knew and about whether such people could be trusted when transacting business, because every so often sums of money were mentioned.

Between Hozat and Cemisgezek.

Between Hozat and Cemisgezek.

The journeys to and from Hozat and to and from the Armenian church had been remarkable, not least because the roads along which I travelled were usually high up so the views were extensive, but I think I enjoyed even more the journey to and from the junction where the lorry picked me up. When meandering along the valley floor, not once were we confined by a narrow gorge. Along the rivers the trees and small fields provided intimate counterpoint to the grandeur of the upland surroundings. However, a lot of time was spent high among rounded hills. The views were uninterrupted and took in distant mountains and the Keban Reservoir. Along the road and in the middle distance pasture was everywhere, in some instances covering the summits of the hills and mountains themselves, but the pasture was not quite as good as further north and east in Dersim. Consequently, sheep and goats were much more numerous than cattle and the flocks were in some instances enormous.

After about 40 kilometres of stunning upland scenery we arrived in the centre of Cemisgezek, which itself lies above a river in a deep gorge with cliffs and mountains around it. By now it was 3.00pm and, when I explained that I had to return to Pertek that evening, the driver and his two companions expressed some alarm because minibuses did not travel the whole distance, only to the ferry a few kilometres to the south-east to take a short cut to Elazig. I felt confident I could hitch to my destination, however, but, to increase the chances of getting to Pertek before nightfall, decided that I would try to confine a look around the town to just over an hour.

Cemisgezek.

Suleymaniye Camii, Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek is large enough to have a vibrant commercial heart and a small pazar, the latter largely confined to a narrow street devoid of motorised traffic. Although modern structures of limited architectural merit outnumber old buildings, enough old buildings, houses in particular, survive to make it a detour well worth undertaking (day trips from Elazig should be considered, given that minibuses run most of the day. Cemisgezek does not seem to have a hotel worth staying in). Although some tooth-like rocks and a few traces of masonry reveal where the castle used to be high above the river in its gorge, other monuments from the past are of greater interest. Yelmaniye Camii dates from 1400 (it has a portal with interesting carved ornamentation and a bright and attractive interior with a mihrab with a deep niche) and Suleymaniye Camii has a very impressive minaret from the Selcuk period. The town centre also has two hamams and, some distance outside, a turbe and a bridge with a single pointed arch.

The pazar, Cemisgezek.

The pazar, Cemisgezek.

Yelmaniye Camii, Cemisgezek.

Yelmaniye Camii, Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Overlooking the town from the west are some caves in a cliff. One of the caves has some Armenian graffiti which Sinclair dates to the late 19th century. Sinclair also says that the caves were lived in until 1938 by Alevi Kurds who took part in “the Dersim revolt”. After a general pardon for prisoners, the Alevi Kurds that remained alive were given yaylas behind Yilan Dagi (“further up the valley of the Cemisgezek Su”) and “enough money to buy flocks, even to build houses”.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

While it would be fair to say that all the monuments just listed make it worth a detour to Cemisgezek, the old houses are the town’s most remarkable feature (this said, the town seems to be predominantly Alevi and everyone is very friendly, so this is another reason to visit a settlement a little off the beaten track). Many of the old houses survive as two-storey terraces along cobbled streets. The houses are timber-framed and the mudbrick walls encased in plaster. People like to paint the walls a rich variety of colours, some of which have attractive shades reminiscent of pastel crayons and ice cream. The narrower streets are overhung by the balconies of the upper storeys and in some streets the ground floors are a little below the level of the road.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

I asked someone where the cemevi was located and was directed through the commercial heart of the town and onto a road leading to the north, which ascended into an area that quickly becomes overwhelmingly residential. In this area some old stone houses survive, some of which spread over only one storey. I asked a woman for further directions and was urged to look down into a depression more or less constituting the northern extremity of the town. I looked over a wall and there lay a modern cemevi among some of the town’s newest houses. I was told it is called Kirklar Cemevi, or Forty Cemevi. For Alevis and Bektashis, the number forty has special meaning. For some Alevis and Bektashis it refers to the forty “saints” Muhammad is said to have encountered during his nocturnal ascent to heaven/paradise, and for others it refers to the forty levels that constitute in far greater detail the four gates, or major life stages, that make up the Alevi and the Bektashi spiritual path (this path is usually identified by the Turkish word “yol”, a word commonly translated to mean “road”).

The cemevi, Cemisgezek.

The cemevi, Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Because Cemisgezek has so much to enjoy I stayed considerably longer than an hour. Just as I set off to walk out of town to find somewhere from where to hitch a lift, I was stopped by three young women, all second year university students. We chatted a while and, although two of the women wore headscarves, photos had to be taken before I could resume my walk. Here were yet more friendly people, in this case female, and two were conventionally pious Sunni women willing to risk criticism for chatting with an unknown male. Mind you: Sunni women could get away with such unconventional behaviour in Dersim where gender equality and the empowerment of women are the norm. Such behaviour would be much less likely to manifest itself in Elazig or Erzincan.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

I had walked about a half kilometre out of town when a tractor stopped and the driver let me climb aboard for a lift of about 3 kilometres, which not only took me far beyond the last buildings of Cemisgezek, but also well into the delightful countryside to the south. I stood beside the road and five minutes later a man drove me to the northern edge of Akcapinar, the first village from Cemisgezek. By now, of course, the sun was beginning its descent to the horizon so visibility was improving all the time. At the point I was dropped off I looked down toward Akcapinar across gently undulating fields and pasture, and beyond the fields and pasture was the Keban Reservoir with water a deeper blue than at any point during the day. Hills and mountains dominated the distance.

View south from Cemisgezek.

View south from Cemisgezek.

No more than ten minutes later a lorry drew to a halt and who should be in the cab but exactly the same three men who had driven me to Cemisgezek earlier in the day! I was surprised to see that both cows were still on the back of the lorry, but it turned out they had simply been to Cemisgezek to undertake business that did not involve the livestock. Both cows were destined for one of the men’s small farms near Hozat.

Because the sun was behind us and the visibility so good, the journey to the junction for Hozat was even more enchanting than it had been when we drove to Cemisgezek. I identified about a dozen places where I wanted to stop, sometimes to photograph the scenery alone and sometimes to photograph shepherds and their large flocks of sheep and goats in their natural surroundings. Some unusual farm buildings existed beside and not far from the road. When we finally arrived at the junction for Hozat, I wanted to give the driver some money for helping me fulfil most of the second part of the day’s programme with little difficulty, but he would not accept the notes in my hand. We were now friends even though we would probably never see each other again.

I walked a short way along the road toward Pertek, then saw to my right a small, ill-stocked supermarket occupying the ground floor of what was a large house or small apartment block. The building stood alone, but I could tell that the supermarket sold ice cream and beer. I called in for an ice cream and a chat with an Alevi male, the owner of the supermarket, who was a retired guestworker who had made his money in Germany. He told me he owned the building that contained the supermarket.

I walked a little further along the road, then a lorry stopped and the driver and his companion offered me a lift all the way to the ferry that departs from near the Termal Hotel. Once again the scenery through which we passed looked delightful, especially as it was now about 6.00pm and the shadows were lengthening.

The two men in the cab were Kurdish Bektashis. It did not take long before discussion about the forthcoming election shifted to criticism of the Sunni majority in Turkey that has always oppressed Alevis and Bektashis. One of the men grew unusually animated as he described past injustices. His anger subsided only when we passed the turning for Dorutay where I was told that some turbes are pilgrimage sites for Alevis and Bektashis.

The Kurdish Bektashis who gave me a lift to the ferry terminal, Pertek.

The Kurdish Bektashis who gave me a lift to the ferry terminal, Pertek.

I stayed with the men until we arrived at the terminal because I wanted to take some photos of the castle and the ferry in the excellent early evening light, then I went to the hotel, showered and changed my clothes. I walked toward the roundabout with the large peace sign in the middle knowing that, before I got there, I would arrive at a small roadside bufe selling beer and snacks. I bought a beer and a packet of crisps, which, along with a boiled egg saved from a breakfast in Tunceli two days earlier, and a packet of salt left over from a THY meal at the start of the trip, was all I could consume given the excellent lunch and the ice cream earlier in the day. On the way back from the bufe the setting sun filled the sky with vibrant colours. I lined up some trees so they stood in silhouette in front of the reservoir and the multi-coloured sky and clicked away. A little later I walked beside the large jandarma post near the hotel so I could take photos of the castle from beside a small jetty. One of the men on guard duty in a tower overlooking the reservoir reminded me not to point the camera toward the jandarma post.

Pertek Kale and the ferry.

Pertek Kale and the ferry.

Sunset, Keban Reservoir, Pertek.

Sunset, Keban Reservoir, Pertek.

Sunset, Keban Reservoir, Pertek.

Sunset, Keban Reservoir, Pertek.

The ferry, Pertek.

The ferry, Pertek.

I examined the photographic results of a brilliant day’s adventures as I consumed my evening meal in my very comfortable bedroom. One thing I noticed was that there were not as many wild flowers – in total number or in variety – as in the parts of Dersim visited the two previous days, but there were certainly enough to make it worthwhile to arrange beehives on the hillsides and along the valley floors. In fact, at one point I had seen what was to prove the largest single collection of beehives in one place, a number far exceeding a hundred, and the beehives belonged to the same two or three men.

Termal Hotel, Pertek.

Termal Hotel, Pertek.

To Hozat and Ergen Armenian Church.

Due to the early start in Tunceli I was in my room by 9.45am. However, I was out again by 10.15am with my bottle full of water taken from a tap in the spacious bathroom (today I would fill the bottle on many occasions, but was impressed that many places existed to allow me to do so). My destinations for the day, provided everything went to plan? Hozat, from where I wanted to visit the ruined Armenian church in or near the village of Gecimli (in some sources the church is misleadingly said to be in In, but In is about 3 kilometres before the church. Ergen is another name used to identify where the church is. I assume Ergen is the old name for Gecimli), and Cemisgezek, a town with a number of important monuments surviving from the past. Cemisgezek is also rumoured to have interesting old houses, but how many have survived to the present day I could not establish from afar.

Knowing that to get to the ruined Armenian church from Hozat would probably involve a time-consuming walk along a road devoid of traffic, I hoped to access Hozat first, but I would allow the destination of the first lift to determine precisely the day’s programme. I walked north from the hotel for about 1.5 kilometres to a roundabout where a right takes you to modern Pertek and a left to Hozat and Cemisgezek. The roundabout has at its centre that widely known sign of peace inside a circle first popularised by the anti-nuclear weapons’ movement, and on the sign the word “peace” is written in many different languages.

The roundabout, Pertek.

The roundabout, Pertek.

I had been at the roundabout for only five minutes when a minibus came down the gently inclined hill from modern Pertek. I flagged down the minibus and was told it was going to Hozat. Perfection.

At first the road clung close to the shore of the reservoir, but, once we had got past the turning for Sagman, a village I would visit the next day, it almost immediately began to ascend into the rounded hills from where there were extensive views over the reservoir and toward distant mountains. For the rest of the day I spent almost every moment in glorious upland scenery, sometimes surrounded by mountains and sometimes with the vast reservoir in view. From the scenic point of view, this was to prove perhaps the most rewarding of all days on the trip. It is true that the scenery in Munzur Vadisi Milli Parki is more spectacular and enchanting, but what I encountered today was more extensive. Moreover, there were times when the scenery assumed quite an austere, even forbidding, character because trees were sometimes absent from view and rainfall in the region less frequent than further north and east. Suffice it to say that I was in remarkably beautiful upland scenery different in character from that in the milli parki, and in many places I encountered fields, orchards, pasture with wild flowers, large herds of cattle, very large herds of sheep and goats, many small settlements in which I would have liked to spend some time (some such settlements lie along the roads, but more often they are some distance from them and situated above the road) and, yet again, astoundingly friendly and helpful people. Moreover, later in the day, as the sun began its descent toward the horizon in the west, the visibility assumed a clarity of exceptional quality. What more could anyone ask for?

The road to Hozat splits from the one to Cemisgezek at a hamlet between Dorutay and Akdemir and very soon enters a valley narrower than many in the area. The ascent to Hozat is gradual but consistent and the mountains of the milli parki lie to the north. The closer we got to our destination, the more the scenery recalled that of the milli parki and that around Ovacik

We arrived in Hozat, a small town on a gently inclined shelf above the valley the road has ascended. With mountains around it no one can fault its attractive surroundings, but Hozat itself is overwhelmingly modern and virtually indistinguishable from a thousand towns in Turkey of similar size.

Hozat.

Hozat.

By now I had been befriended by an Alevi couple with a remarkably liberal disposition who had been on the minibus since it left Pertek. The couple not only explained that Hozat was overwhelmingly Alevi, but helped me get to the ruined Armenian church. They had to visit some people in a village near the church. We retired to a tea house for glasses of tea and a cup of coffee each, and a few phone calls were made. A few people came and, after a short chat, left, then about half an hour later, we climbed into a minibus driven by a man aged about twenty-five. The Alevi couple stopped the minibus not long after it had set off to buy fruit, vegetables, cheese and bread, supplies for the people they wanted to see in what had to be a village near the church devoid of shops.

Hozat.

Hozat.

We drove about 2 kilometres along the road toward Pertek, then took a left along a road that crossed the river and meandered along the east wall of the valley. Most unusually, a sign beside the road junction indicated that Ergen Kilisesi lay 9 kilometres away. In ninety-nine out of a hundred cases, minor Armenian ruins of this nature in Turkey are not flagged for walkers or passing motorists. The only explanation I can give for this exception to the rule is that I was in Dersim where all minority communities have been brought together in a spirit of comradeship by decades of secular and Sunni Turkish oppression.

To Ergen Armenian Church.

To Ergen Armenian Church.

At times the road ascended to a considerable height and the views were outstanding. After driving perhaps 7 kilometres we took a left and ascended into a very small settlement on an exposed hillside. The minibus drew to a halt outside an old stone house with a flat roof with rooms arranged on only one storey. We had arrived at the house of the friends the Alevi couple wanted to see. Their male friend, a tall and hyperactive individual aged about forty, lived with his partner aged about thirty-two. The couple were unmarried, which is most unusual in Turkey, even in urban centres such as Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and Bursa which think of themselves as being very liberal and progressive.

Between Hozat and Ergen Armenian Church.

Between Hozat and Ergen Armenian Church.

Although the couple in the house had installed in recent times some kitchen units and a new fridge and cooker, they lived a very simple life in the hills and, but for a TV and a few electronic gizmos, had little more than any family might have that depended on agriculture to make a living (although there was an impressive collection of bottles with alcoholic drinks on a cupboard in the hall). In fact, their main source of income seemed to be sheep and goats, many of which were temporarily confined to a rectangular enclosure of dry stone walls on the hillside covered with a large blue sheet made of artificial material no doubt designed to protect the flock from the sun. But what really confirmed I was in the company of a couple living an unconventional lifestyle by Turkish standards was a poster of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya hanging on the dark-coloured plaster wall of one of their rooms. In fact, I was in the company of communist sympathisers who have chosen to live their lives, for now at least, far from the madding crowd, and, in the process, far from the prying eyes of the police and other uniformed representatives of the Turkish state. Little things during the hour or so that followed suggested to me that both had strong sympathies for the PKK and that the male half of the couple may have fought on behalf of the PKK (the woman may have done so as well, for all I know). As for the young woman, after she had prepared for us a wonderful lunch of mild, white cheese, olives in a herb and oil dressing, tomatoes, cucumber, helva, butter, bread and tea (the tomatoes, cucumber and bread had just arrived from Hozat, of course, but the cheese and butter, both of which were of remarkable quality, were locally sourced), she pecked at her food, rolled her own cigarettes with tobacco grown in the Adiyaman area and discussed things as an equal with everyone else. However, not once did she smile. She looked all the time as if the problems of a blatantly unjust world, a world in which the oppression of those least equipped to care for themselves was almost universal, were always at the forefront of her mind. Wearing shalwar, a grubby top and no headscarf or make-up, her slim frame and diminutive height were apparent to everyone present. Handsome rather than pretty, it was nonetheless difficult to take your eyes off her. If her hands were not engaged in movement, she would prop first one foot and then the other onto the seat of the chair she was sitting on and exhale smoke by lifting her face to the ceiling, thereby allowing some of her long hair to fall from her shoulders down her back.

Lunch near Ergen Armenian Church.

Lunch near Ergen Armenian Church.

Suddenly it was time to go. I managed to take photos of the couple, although it was obvious that neither he nor she were at ease with me doing so (which confirmed for me that they were keen to be as inconspicuous as possible. It was obvious they were radically opposed to religion in any shape or form, so a Sunni Muslim suspicion about photographing a female was not the explanation for their concern about immortalising one half of the couple), and the farewells were warm and heartfelt (they could detect that my sympathies lay with the left, but I did not express sympathy with communism, which all too often simply replaces one tyrannical regime with another). The young man got ready to drive off and the Alevi couple who had befriended me in the minibus from Pertek climbed aboard, as did I. We drove to the road leading to the Armenian church and, after about 3 kilometres, arrived in the village of Gecimli. The minibus was driven into the large garden attached to a house in the centre of the village and the man who had done the driving explained that the house belonged to his family. I met the man’s mother and father and was then told that the church lay only 200 metres further along the road. After I had looked at the ruin I was to return to the house from where I would be driven back to Hozat. As I walked toward the church through yet another village in which I would have liked to spend more time, I had to fight back a few tears. Hospitality among the people of Dersim is of a quality I have never encountered before, even here in Turkey where, in my experience, hospitality exceeds that encountered in any other nation state I have visited.

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

The ruined Armenian church at Gecimli is, of course, in a very sorry state, but what survives hints at a structure which, when complete, must have been a remarkable building, and something of its remarkable qualities are most apparent on the carved stone decoration of the exterior. Sinclair notes that the church is actually part of a monastery, but today nothing but parts of the church survive:

The church, which was dedicated to the Holy Virgin, and probably the whole monastery (that of Surp Karapet, in other words, John the Baptist), was founded in 975/6. This was about forty years after the Byzantine conquest of the Dersim and the Lower Euphrates valley. The monastery came into prominence in the early 15th century, when the Armenian and monastic church revival in Amid (Diyarbakir) and its district seems to have affected this area. It was probably in the 1420s that the church was overhauled: it was certainly refaced on the exterior, and the roof and vaults were probably rebuilt. The monastery was active during the whole of the 16th century. It is not clear when it was abandoned, but it was certainly empty by 1865 and the final abandonment may have taken place in the 18th century. Local tradition suggests some serious robbing of the stone in 1944, possibly in order to build a school – but this point needs clearing up by looking at the school.

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

The church was basilican in layout. Although almost the whole of the s. wall and most of the w. wall have been lost, and although nothing can now be seen of the piers which supported the arcades, the high, elaborately articulated w. façade and the longer n. façade retain their nobility and impact…

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

There is an apsed chamber, n. of the apse, at the e. end of the northerly aisle. The chamber’s entrance is rather darkened and partly hidden, as if at the end of a corridor, by a short wall extending westward from the end of the apse wall. The wall consists of a short blind arch and the pier from which the first arch is sprung.

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

The fine decorated portal in the n. wall is placed in the centre of the wall as a whole but e. of the middle point of the wall as seen from inside. The portal is brought forward on two buttresses either side of the doorway; to either side again are two buttresses. Otherwise the n. wall is plain. High in the faces of the two inner buttresses, above the level of the lintel, are panels consisting of a rectangle covered with interlace adjoining a rectangle of contiguous arches joined to one another by knots. Above the door is a heavily decorated lintel, now broken, and a semi-circular relieving arch. Plain engaged pillars run up either side of the doorway and flare outwards in the long, heavily overhanging leaves of the capitals beneath the lintel. Along the outer border of the relieving arch, across the top edge of the lintel’s face and down the lintel’s two ends runs an undulating branch with leaves of an odd, simplified, less supple form than are found in standard Selcuk decoration… At either end (of the lintel) we can see a panel decorated with a plant whose stem divides, is reunited and curves to fill the whole rectangle with its tendrils. At the l.-h. end of the lintel much of the next panel can be seen; the remainder is damaged…

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

E. façade. Here the triangle of masonry between the apse and the two side-chambers is partly carved out in two wide V-shaped niches. The apse was lighted by a double window whose sills were at head height: however, the windows’ frames have been lost, apart from the outer vertical member of the r.-h. window. Here we can see a line of rosettes and other designs inside circles joined by knots… The composition centring on the window in the apse of the northerly chamber is reasonably complete. The window is flanked by tall panels. Engaged pillars rise between the panels and the window, and provide the support for the arches covering each of the three. Each pillar rises out of a sculptured element resembling a stepped base, which is probably modelled on a stele base. These bases bear very shallow decoration. One of the bases for the two engaged pillars which rose between the apse’s windows is left. Here five arches are deeply carved in the face of the base.

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

I have quoted extensively from Sinclair because, although not everything he saw in the 1980s survives, the church is still such a notable survival from the past that people should know what has already been lost, and what could very well be lost in the future if the ruin is neglected for much longer.

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

Ergen Armenian Church.

I returned to the house where the minibus had been parked and, after brief chats with everyone present, said goodbye with particular regret to the couple that had befriended me on the minibus from Pertek to Hozat. The young man ushered me into the front of the minibus, picked up a friend who wanted a lift to Hozat, and, after exchanging the V-sign with a few males gathered around an electricity pylon, we left for the main Hozat to Pertek road. The scenery along the dirt and gravel road all the way to the junction looked even more enchanting (especially because we were looking north toward the mountains around Ovacik), not least because I had attained the day’s first goal and it was only just after 1.00pm. I decided to risk a visit to Cemisgezek, even though I would probably have to rely on hitched lifts both ways.

Gecimli.

Gecimli.

We arrived at the main road and I thanked the driver for everything he had done on my behalf. I offered to pay for at least some of the petrol he had used, but the money was waved away with an expression of mock anger. Not for the first time on the trip I could feel a tear or two forming.

I began walking south and was soon ascending to a rounded summit with pasture and wild flowers from where I could see many kilometres in all directions. With the views changing very slowly, I could appreciate the landscape even more than in a car or a minibus, not least because nothing created an obstruction between me and the scenery. I was in a stunningly beautiful part of eastern Turkey and thought longingly about how magical the road between Hozat and Ovacik must be. Another year, with luck.

Between Hozat and the Pertek to Cemisgezek road.

Between Hozat and the Pertek to Cemisgezek road.

After walking about 3 kilometres, two off-duty jandarma kindly gave me a lift to where the road from Hozat joins the road from Pertek to Cemisgezek. Before arriving at the junction, we stopped at a roadside cesme to fill our bottles with chilled water from a pure source in the nearby hills.

Near Gecimli.

Near Gecimli.

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.