Elazig.

I left about 2.30pm to confirm that minibuses departed for Diyarbakir the following morning, a Sunday, from the same garaj from where minibuses departed for Keban. Not far from the garaj the stalls of a large market had taken over some of the streets and many people had come to buy fruit, vegetables, cheese, olives, honey, clothes, shoes, bedding, tools, toys, kitchen utensils, plastic bowls and buckets, and many other things for the house and the garden. The atmosphere was delightful, so much so that I decided to look around more slowly after visiting the garaj.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

As I continued on my way I became aware that a woman was following me. She was aged about thirty-five, did not have a headscarf and wore a blouse that revealed most of her arms. As I entered the garaj she asked what I was up to, so I explained. It was soon confirmed that minibuses left for Diyarbakir roughly every hour the following day, then the woman asked if I had some spare time. I said I had plenty of spare time so she said, “Good. I would like to show you around this,” and she pointed toward a large, incomplete hotel beside the garaj. “I am the general manager of the hotel and we plan for it to be the very best in Elazig.”

Staff at the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

Staff at the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

I am not used to attractive women much younger than me asking to spend time with them, so the hour or so that followed was great fun.

The hotel’s general manager is called **** and **** is, by the standards of almost any nation state, a remarkable woman, but to achieve what she has achieved in Turkey is astounding. Despite decades of the Turkish Republic being dominated by secular aspirations before the rise of the AKP, secular aspirations that included commitment to gender equality, Turkey has never provided girls and women with the same opportunities as boys and men, so the fact that **** has bubbled up to assume such a high status role in an industry still dominated by men is itself a rare achievement. But ****, who is married to a Turkish academic teaching at Elazig University, is Armenian. Yes, **** belongs to the very ethnic group, the Armenians, that suffered genocide during the first world war.

****’s career path has been an interesting one. She used to be a tour guide before entering hotel management in Bodrum, which she said she missed because of her affection for the sea. It was her experience of hotel management at that popular Mediterranean resort which opened up the opportunity that has arisen in Elazig.

View west from the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

View west from the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

**** showed me around the hotel and introduced me to some of her colleagues, including two of the men whose money has made the whole project possible. I could not believe the ambitions **** and her colleagues have for the hotel. I was shown the basement where the car park will be and the rooms nearby that have all the equipment required to provide gas, electricity and water, the latter both hot and cold. I also saw the spacious lobby, the offices, the restaurants, the kitchens, the outdoor café, the function and conference rooms, some of the bedrooms and suites, the hamam, the sauna and the salt room. I hope that their immense investment in money, planning, labour, high quality construction materials, luxury facilities and recruitment of staff meets everyone’s expectations and long-term aspirations for a healthy profit.

View north-east from the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

View north-east from the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

It was only gradually that **** revealed things about her Armenian background. Home is really Istanbul, but her husband is from Elazig and he wanted to return to the city of his birth when a teaching post arose at the university. **** came with him, obviously, and managed to secure the role of general manager at the soon-to-be-opened hotel (which overlooks the wide ring road, so views from the upper floors are very good in all directions, even to Harput in the north over the concrete jungle that comprises the city centre). She misses Istanbul very much, partly because its lifestyle is far more secular in character than that in Sunni-dominated Elazig, partly because she loves fish and Istanbul has many excellent fish lokantas, and partly because she is a long way from her Armenian family and friends (she did not know of a single Armenian in Elazig other than herself, so I told her about the Armenian I had met in Sahinkaya almost a fortnight earlier).

**** and her husband had recently entertained an Armenian film-maker in their home on the west side of the city, so this led me to wonder if they and I had encountered the same person, but, the more **** spoke about him, the more it was obvious we had met different people. I told the story about “my” film-maker hanging the Armenian flag from the damaged dome of the church near Sahinkaya and **** was visibly moved. The focus of our discussions shifted from the hotel and its final appearance toward the plight of the Armenian people past and present.

It took a while before I convinced **** that my interest in things Armenian was sincere and long-standing (a quick look at my blog entitled “In Search of Unusual Destinations” proved decisive), but once I had done so she shared some interesting information. A relative of hers had recently bought a house in Arapgir to re-establish a family link with the town severed by the mass murder of Armenians in 1915, and the film-maker she and her husband had met had been in the area because of family links with Harput.

It turned out that **** is forty-four years old. Despite all the pressures that exist if you wish to succeed as an Armenian woman with strong secular inclinations in overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Turkey in a sector of the economy still dominated by men, **** is thriving and remains far more youthful in appearance than I would have imagined possible.

At one point in our discussions **** asked what I was doing the following day (she wanted to invite me to her home, Sunday being the one day of the week she had off work). When I said that I had to go to Diyarbakir to catch my flight home late Sunday evening and would therefore be leaving Elazig in the morning, she said, “Okay. Never mind. That gives me a chance to buy some new shoes. I love shoes, but they get ruined at the hotel. Just look at these,” and she pointed to a pair of once-smart, flat but expensive shoes that had many scuffs on them. “I will replace them with four new pairs tomorrow.” A woman with strong secular values who thrives in a man’s world dominated by Sunni Muslims? An economically successful Armenian living among people who may be the descendants of Turks and Kurds who engaged in genocide against her forebears a hundred years ago? As if all this is not remarkable enough, **** has not compromised her femininity to get on in life.

How exciting to find an Armenian thriving in Turkey, even though the number of Armenians in the country is now so small, and even though so many Armenian monuments have disappeared, lie in ruins or suffer from such outrageous official neglect that their very survival for even a generation is very much in doubt.

Elazig.

Elazig.

I eventually got away about 4.15pm and went directly to the market to take some photos. The market was still very busy, but everyone seemed relaxed rather than boisterous. A chat with a very vivacious woman aged about thirty (she did not cover her head, but walked around with two female friends who had scarves) led to a nice photo as she gave the HDP’s V-sign. We parted company, but met again further into the market. On this occasion the woman pressed into my hand a boiled corn-on-the-cob that made an excellent snack.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

By now I was thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere, so went to the lower end of the pazar to take more photos. I also walked to the main square where a group of men who sat on a bench engaged me in conversation as we consumed glasses of tea, then I had a last look at the covered pazar and spent time in a shop specialising in honey and all the equipment required to produce it. The man in the shop tried to give me a jar of honey to take home, but I explained about the problem of getting it through customs (it remains unlawful to bring Turkish honey through UK customs, not that the law had stopped me doing so in the past. My excuse for breaking the law in the past? In this respect, it is an ass).

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

I returned to the hotel to freshen up, then went out to find somewhere serving a pide. I had not yet had a pide, despite it being a favourite of mine. I did not have far to walk from the hotel to find a suitably clean and bright lokanta. Once inside I ordered an ayran and a pide with meat and cheese. The excellent pide arrived with a refreshing salad, but I could not get away until I had consumed two teas on the house.

I had a chat with one of the waiters. He was Iranian. He said that he had had to flee from Iran because the authorities regarded him as a dissident. He did not sympathise with the religious character of the constitution. He said, “I don’t like Muslims.” I said, “Are you Christian, Zoroastrian or Bahai?” He replied, “No. I have Muslim parents. I am Muslim. But Muslims treat Muslims badly. I have lost my belief in Islam because Muslims cannot treat even their brothers and sisters like brothers and sisters.”

Of course, Iran is an Islamic state predicated on a mainstream Shia understanding of how such a state should function. My encounter with the waiter was a reminder that, in the Islamic world, tyranny and oppression are not confined to Sunni Muslims alone.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

I went for a last walk around central Elazig concentrating on the streets east of the main square. It was now almost completely dark and girls and women were very rarely seen. I passed four of the city’s older hotels, one of which I had stayed in a few years ago. The hotel had had a face-lift that included plastic double-glazed windows (I recall that sleep had been very difficult because of the noise from the traffic in the street below). In fact, all the hotels had been up-graded to such an extent that I did not recognise them except for their names.

Elazig.

Elazig.

When I stopped to admire some over-the-top wedding dresses in a shop window, the owner invited me inside to take a few photos. The owner had no customers, but his shop would remain open until about 9.00pm in the futile hope some might arrive. However, with dresses far outnumbering suits, the chance that anyone would pop in was very small because women, his most likely client group, were deserting the city centre streets as quickly as they could. This said, it was great fun examining the clothes (many dresses cost at least £400, a lot of money by Turkish standards, and they came in many colours and styles), so much so that I stopped at a second shop specialising in wedding garments before walking to the west side of the city centre. Here, only two or three blocks south of the Mayd Hotel, a street is attracting some very exclusive shops. Some of the shops meet the needs of rich pious Sunni women who want clothes which, although they ensure everything but the face and hands are covered (some young women might also reveal their toes if wearing shoes without socks or tights), will nonetheless guarantee that people admire their appearance. The headscarves, tops, trousers, coats and other garments had been carefully made and styled (on some fabrics were leaves, flowers and intricate patterns), but by Turkish standards they were extremely expensive. I also saw a shop with a vast selection of expensive and brightly coloured handbags, some of which were enormous (pious young Sunni women liked large handbags almost as much as eye-catching headscarves, tight-fitting jeans, make-up and, sometimes, shoes with high heels), but a shop selling chocolates detained me the longest.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

What did my walk around the shops reveal? Pious Sunni women are still required to cover up to a wholly inappropriate degree, especially given how hot most of Turkey gets in summer, but if the Sunni women are young and rich they know how to make an impression. You are young, female, Sunni and rolling in liras? Do not hesitate to flaunt what you have by splashing out on clothes, shoes and accessories of unquestioned quality, but do not dare show off more than your face, hands and an occasional toe, because, if you reveal too much, you have only yourself to blame if men want to sexually assault you.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Just before turning in I witnessed an alarming incident at a street corner not far from a large, city centre mosque. Two police officers drove up on their motorbikes and began interrogating a male aged about sixteen or seventeen. The young male looked frightened as one of the officers unleashed a torrent of words in a raised voice. The second officer began rummaging among some litter carelessly pushed into plastic bags and cardboard boxes, thereby spilling the contents onto the pavement. He was looking for something, but his search proved unsuccessful. He walked over to a plastic chair, presumably the property of the young male, and stamped on it with his heavy boots. The chair very quickly broke into many pieces, thereby rendering it of use to no one. A few last stern words were directed toward the young male, then the officers rode off in a hurry sounding their sirens, the latter perhaps for extra effect. Were they going to deal with another incident or were they getting away quickly before members of the public could establish their identity?

Elazig.

Elazig.

As for the young male, he melted away among the pedestrians along a dark side street, his self-respect and street credibility severely dented. The many onlookers, all male, briefly chatted among themselves before resuming whatever they were engaged with. Their lack of emotion suggested that the incident they had witnessed was not abnormal and one that had to be put up with, even though some of them must have felt the police had over-reacted. Their apparent indifference about the plight of the young male suggested that they were grateful they themselves had done nothing to incur the wrath of the police officers. But their indifference also suggested that ordinary Turkish citizens still feel powerless in the face of state institutions and/or when confronted by uniformed representatives of the state. Even in 2015 it looks as if the police have power and authority that remains undiminished from earlier, more deferential and dictatorial times. Or is it the case that in recent years Erdogan has encouraged the police to be more assertive in how they exercise their power and authority?

All I can assume is that the young man had been selling things on the street, perhaps without permission to do so (I imagine that people trading on the streets need a licence), but the police officers had acted in a manner both inappropriate and disproportionate. The incident brought back memories of how uniformed representatives of the Turkish Republic had acted in inappropriate and disproportionate ways in the past. I wondered if enough had been done to bring the police and other uniformed personnel under control. Such servants of the state were meant to protect members of the public, not oppress them.

Elazig.

Elazig.

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To Divrigi.

For half an hour before breakfast, I went for a walk through what remains of the old pazar, examined an 18th century mosque and the old han that is now a hotel (it looked as if no guests were staying in the hotel), and continued along a road that slowly descends a hill. The road leads past some old, timber-framed houses. When I arrived at a second mosque with a nearby cesme from which a lot of water flowed I walked no further out of town, but examined the ruins of a hamam and an old house. I then took a road and a footpath that led westward. I passed more old houses, one of which is made overwhelmingly with stone and has recently been restored, perhaps by the Belediye in an attempt to help attract tourists to Arapgir. I then took another right turn along a road I had walked the day before and was back at the hotel.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

Part of the old pazar, Arapgir.

Part of the old pazar, Arapgir.

An old hamam, Arapgir.

An old hamam, Arapgir.

Breakfast in the Arapgir Nazar is taken on the top floor in a large room from where there are excellent views of the town centre and the surrounding countryside. Breakfast is not a buffet; staff bring a plate with a mixture of things to eat, but you cannot have anything more than what is on the plate and in the basket containing bread. Water and as much tea as you want complete the meal. Although the food on the plate is very conventional it is nicely presented, almost as if you are eating in someone’s home. Two women work in the kitchen, which explains why the food is presented to guests in such an attractive manner.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

I had hoped to say goodbye to the couple who had looked after me so well the day before, but they were not around. Instead, I settled the bill with the female receptionist, asked her to thank the owner and his daughter for me, and walked into the middle of town, from where I had to ascend the road leading to the road to Keban and Malatya. I had walked about 100 metres when I turned to flag a lift and a van stopped with two men inside. Because the men were going to Malatya, they gave me a lift to the point at which the road from Arapgir joins the main road. I had to go in the opposite direction toward Divrigi.

Twenty minutes after arriving at the junction, the driver of the fourth northbound motor vehicle stopped to offer me a lift. He drove a small, open-topped lorry with two cows in the back and on the cab floor was a large plastic bag with two hens with their legs tied together.

I was driven about 20 to 25 kilometres through beautiful upland scenery. At first the road navigated around the south-west end of the valley sheltering Eskisehir, ascending as it did so with a series of hairpin bends. For some of the way the road was in a valley with a meandering stream that tumbled over rocks, then we arrived on a rocky, almost treeless, stretch of relatively level upland far above the valley of the Arapgir Cayi. By now, of course, we were among mountains rather than hills and the views were spectacular. Poles beside the road confirmed that snow was a major problem during winter and early spring. In fact, in some very exposed places fences had been erected to hold back drifting snow from the road. I was reminded of parts of Wyoming.

We slowed down when the driver indicated that he was turning left to take a dirt road leading to a village hidden from view in the folds of the hills and the mountains. I thanked him for the lift provided, which got me almost a third of the way to my destination. Moreover, I was now very high up, the visibility was excellent, the views were sublime and the air was invigorating.

On the road to Divrigi.

On the road to Divrigi.

I had already seen some tented camps for nomads looking after flocks of sheep and goats on the upland pasture. At two of the camps people clustered around lorries to unload mattresses and bedclothes required for the four or five months that lay ahead. I had also seen a road leading 14 kilometres to Yesilyayla, a name which means “green highland pasture”. What could have been a better destination for the day had Divrigi not been on the agenda. At the end of the road I would probably have found a village spread across the pasture, but in all likelihood it would have been a village inhabited only during the summer months when people move into the mountains so their sheep and goats can fatten on the grass that has not been eaten since the previous autumn.

A flock of sheep, on the road to Divrigi.

A flock of sheep, on the road to Divrigi.

Tented camp for nomads, on the road to Divrigi.

Tented camp for nomads, on the road to Divrigi.

Motor vehicles along the road were now so infrequent that I began to walk. Most of my walk for the next 3 or 4 kilometres was level or slightly downhill, but, as bad luck would have it, I had to negotiate a stretch of road being up-graded, which meant it was in a very shabby state and subject to large motor vehicles tearing up or laying the surface. I had some company of sorts, however, and the road works did little to mar my enjoyment of the scenery. It is planned that the road will be re-routed through a tunnel about half a kilometre long. Some workmen explained that the route of the current road meant that it was subject to regular closure during winter because of deep snow, but the tunnel would ensure that this happened far less often.

On the road to Divrigi.

On the road to Divrigi.

I arrived at a point near where more tented camps for nomads were being established and, because the views were so delightful, stopped to wait for a lift. The man in the second car to approach me drew to a halt and took me all the way to Divrigi, where he had to pick up food supplies for workmen digging the tunnel.

The road for the last 35 or so kilometres to Divrigi was not as beautiful as the stretch as far as where the road works began, but, with mountains always in view and the fertility of the plain to the south and west of Divrigi itself, I could not complain. Moreover, my luck with lifts meant that I was in Divrigi far earlier than I had expected. Because no minibuses run between Arapgir and Divrigi, and because I knew the road would not carry much traffic, I had expected to arrive in my destination about midday. However, I was in the town centre, where the weekly market was in full swing, before 11.00am. I had ahead of me almost a full day.

Research before leaving the UK had revealed that Divrigi now has at least two hotels, but I wanted to stay at the Belediye thinking it would be in the town centre and inexpensive, the latter because of subsidies deriving from the town council. I first went to the Belediye itself, thinking the hotel might occupy a floor among the offices or be located nearby, but, when I arrived and asked staff about the hotel, they said that it was a kilometre away. I prepared to undertake the walk, but a female employee said I had to wait because a lift would be provided. Three men in uniform ushered me to a car in the Belediye car park and kindly drove me to the hotel.

Divrigi’s Belediye Hotel is on the northern edge of town with the railway station and its attendant facilities nearby and a deep valley with a meandering river even closer. Immediately south of the hotel is the vast buttress of rock on which stand the ruins of the large citadel. The hotel itself has seen better days and parts of it now look shabby, but the rooms are spacious and benefit from en suite facilities. I had a room facing the citadel and, in common with all the south-facing rooms, a spacious balcony that I sat on when I had the opportunity. There is a bar and a restaurant, and in the evenings many people come to drink beer and eat food on the wide patio facing the citadel. The overnight cost, which included breakfast, was 60TL, which, given that Divrigi proved the trip’s most popular place for tourists other than Diyarbakir, was very reasonable.

The railway station, Divrigi.

The railway station, Divrigi.

Arapgir and Eskisehir.

It was at this point that a little confusion prevailed. The owners of the hotel thought I wanted to visit Arapgir’s oldest district rather than Eskisehir and, because of this, dropped me at an albeit interesting spot at the southerly extremity of the town beside a river in a valley with quite steep walls on both sides. The road crossed the river by means of an old stone bridge benefiting from the final touches of a substantial restoration project which, although over-zealous in the fashion I had observed elsewhere, nonetheless guarantees that the bridge will last for centuries to come. I walked up and down stone steps, along a footway below the road but above the river, and chatted with labourers installing railings that would soon be painted black. The side of the bridge devoid of the footway had been subjected to far less vigorous restoration and, although more difficult to see because it was now in late afternoon shade, gave an excellent impression of how the bridge must have looked until about a year earlier.

The restored bridge, Arapgir.

The restored bridge, Arapgir.

Among the trees about 20 metres from the bridge and just above the river is a relatively slim but tall stone building with a square ground plan and damaged dome. The wall facing the bridge is pierced by an arched doorway partially framed by stonework carved with patterns more Muslim than Christian, and beside the doorway is a window rectangular in shape. The wall overlooking the river is pierced by a single window, in this case with a slightly pointed arch framing a second pointed arch within it. Inside the building are the piers and arches that support what remains of the dome and the walls have a few small cavities that may have been storage spaces. The structure resembles a one-time hamam, but it is just possible that it had been a church or chapel.

The hamam (?) near the restored bridge, Arapgir.

The hamam (?) near the restored bridge, Arapgir.

The couple who owned the hotel had told me that the scant remains of a church lie a little above the bridge, so I found a dirt road that led in the direction required. I soon found some courses of stone lurking among long grass and wild flowers not far from where two small houses overlook fields and gardens. Two families were at work in the fields and gardens and, when I began examining the courses of stone, they stopped to say hello. Chat followed, as did offers of tea, but I was very disciplined and explained that I needed to see the ruin and what remained of what I thought was Eskisehir.

It was at this point that Veysel introduced himself. Veysel lived in one of the houses just mentioned and drove dustcarts for the Belediye. He explained that I was not in Eskisehir at all. Esksehir was about 3 or 4 kilometres away on the far side of modern Arapgir, but he had time to spare and would take me there after I had examined what remained of the church.

What remains of the church is very little, but one stretch of stone suggests that it was a very substantial building when extant. The surviving stone reveals that the external walls had been unusually thick, which points toward a cathedral rather than a church. It was obviously Armenian because, after examining what survives of the external walls, Veysel led me to some nearby houses in which stone from the building and its immediate surroundings has been recycled. I saw stone with Armenian script and some it had dates such as 1890 and 1891. One attractively carved stone, no doubt from a grave, had had its Armenian script obliterated by someone hacking at it with tools, but a cross could be made out and no damage had been done to two branches of leaves that overlapped at what would have been the top of the stone when marking someone’s final place of rest. Here was very obvious proof that, at some point in the past, the authorities did all they could to obscure the fact that Arapgir once had a substantial Armenian community.

The cathedral (?), Arapgir.

The Armenian cathedral (?), Arapgir.

Recycled stone from an Armenian cemetery, Arapgir.

Recycled stone from the Armenian cathedral (?) or an Armenian cemetery, Arapgir.

Back home I undertook research into the history of Arapgir and its immediate surroundings and found the following. Somewhere in Eskisehir or Arapgir there had once been the magnificent 13th century Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Mother of God, but in 1915 it was attacked, looted and set on fire. After the first world war, because only a few Armenians remained in the town and the surrounding area, what remained of the cathedral was repaired and used as a school. However, at some point in the 1950s, important figures at the Belediye decided to demolish the building and, in 1957, it was blown up with dynamite. The land on which it had stood was sold to someone living nearby and, today, only very small sections of stone survive. The cathedral is described as one of the largest Armenian churches that ever existed in what is now Turkey and a picture of it on the internet suggests that this was indeed the case.

There were six other Armenian Apostolic churches in the town in 1915, a Roman Catholic church and a Protestant church. It was mainly Armenians who attended the Roman Catholic and the Protestant churches, information confirming that Arapgir was a very important Armenian settlement at the beginning of world war one.

At home, the more I thought about the remains I have just described, the more it seemed that I had been directed toward what remains of the cathedral. I am by inclination cautious about reaching conclusions of this nature, but there was nothing I saw later that suggests my assessment is incorrect. This said, it was obvious that a lot more needs to be done in and around Arapgir to document and preserve what remains from the past. Arapgir stands at the centre of a remarkably interesting part of Turkey rich in the physical remains of many different people.

Veysel was keen to leave for Eskisehir, so off we went. I thought we were going to walk all the way and therefore suggested we hire a taxi, but Veysel had a much better and more cost effective plan. We walked through the town, passing on the way some large old houses spread over two or three floors. A mixture of timber-frames, stone, plaster, corrugated iron, overhanging upper storeys and storage spaces immediately below the pitched roofs (most such storage spaces lacked walls) ensured there was much to admire. Every so often stone tablets set into walls had some carved decoration and, perhaps, a date revealing when a house was built or extended. A network of narrow canals carried water from springs into gardens and small fields.

An old house, Arapgir.

An old house, Arapgir.

Arapgir itself has some monuments confirming that it was a population centre by the 18th century, but it was in the 19th and early 20th century when its prosperity was most apparent. Its former wealth was dependent on trade and industry. Arapgir’s merchants were wholesalers for goods such as soap and olive oil from Gaziantep and Aleppo, and glass and iron from Beirut. They also bought goods from Europe such as cloth from Manchester and Marseilles. But Arapgir also had its own weaving industry and imported the yarn from Britain. However, with the end of the first world war, trading activities fell into rapid decline. Part of the reason for this was because of the loss of Armenian merchants during the genocide. Merchants who survived the war migrated to cities in the west where economic opportunities were superior. The town’s economic decline was reinforced by the expansion of the rail network and, later, the road system because goods that used to pass through Arapgir were taken directly to large urban centres where the majority of consumers lived. The weaving industry also fell into decline as other localities in Turkey invested in modern machinery to give them a competitive edge. Today little evidence for such economic prosperity exists other than in the town centre han, now a hotel, and the large old houses which confirm that many local families in the past had considerable wealth. Of course, some of the houses had belonged to Armenian families, but which ones it is difficult to say today.

Veysel’s cunning plan was that we would drive to and around Eskisehir in a Belediye dustcart! We arrived near the north-west extremity of Arapgir and Veysel fired up the engine of his motor vehicle. We first drove along a road that ascended over a hill and into a very pretty valley with trees, orchards, small fields, the occasional building and views of hills and mountains. The road, which soon degenerated into dirt, meandered along the valley wall, sometimes high up and sometimes quite close to the river. It was an enchanting drive, but I was very conscious of Veysel’s time and the cost of the petrol. When I offered to pay for some petrol and his time, he looked at me with an expression of anger that morphed into hurt feelings. We were friends. Friends pay for nothing because hospitality is a mark of friendship. I was in the company of yet another amazing Alevi who at one point said, “Really I am a Bektashi. Veysel is and always will be a Bektashi. Arapgir now has many Bektashis and Alevis and we cannot stand the Sunni Muslims.”

Veysel grew very animated as he criticised the Sunni Muslims and at one point tears stood in his eyes. He seemed to give expression to the persecution his people have suffered for centuries. The more the trip went on, the more often I encountered Alevis, Bektashis and Kizilbash who expressed anger and outrage similar to the anger and outrage felt by Veysel. The two or three times I met Armenians, they kept their feelings to themselves as if to share them would open wounds of such magnitude that the pain would never abate. In the face of crimes against humanity on the scale that have happened in Turkey in the past, silence is sometimes the only appropriate response.

Eskisehir.

Eskisehir.

Eskisehir, which, as its name implies, is much older than Arapgir (‘eski” mean “old” and “sehir” means “town” or “city”), was also a trading settlement. Its site, almost as large as that of Arapgir although not much survives today, is to the north-west of and at a higher level than its neighbour. It is hidden from the present town by the hill I referred to earlier. It extended for about 4 kilometres in a north-easterly direction until coming to the Arapgir Cayi. Evidence suggests that many of the houses of the town were spaced quite generously apart, perhaps with large gardens or orchards around them (many orchards survive to this day). The citadel is perched high above the tree-line to the north of Eskisehir overlooking the Arapgir Cayi. The bare slopes below the citadel once had houses on them, but today all that remains of the houses are piles of stone “gradually being forced downhill in spring floods”, as Sinclair says. It was in this area that Eskisehir had its commercial heart. Some buildings survive, albeit ruined, including mosques dating from the late Selcuk and the Ottoman periods. Some way from the ruined buildings is a restored mosque dating from as late as the early 19th century, by which time Arapgir was emerging as the more important and economically vibrant settlement.

The restored mosque, Eskisehir.

The restored mosque, Eskisehir.

Around what was once the town are the Ulu Camii, at least three other mosques, a residence for Sufi dervishes called a hankah, a hamam and what would appear to be a bedesten, all in various stages of restoration or decay. However, we spent most time examining a structure Veysel thought was a church, although if it was a church there was nothing I could identify to confirm this was so. It was certainly a large structure with what resembles a tower (a bell tower?) at one end. After it was abandoned, someone converted part of it into a house with a door and three windows set into the south-facing wall.

The church (?), Eskisehir.

The church (?), Eskisehir.

We drove along the dirt road through the trees and came out beside the Arapgir Cayi, where I was surprised to find a large stone bridge crossing the river. The bridge, which is probably Ottoman in origin, had recently benefited from a very complete programme of restoration. It crosses the river with two arches of slightly different width and has a steep approach at the south end. The road across the bridge has a kink in it near the middle. Motor vehicles as large as the dustcart can cross the bridge and people like to drive out to the bridge to swim in the river or eat picnics. When we stopped the vehicle to examine the bridge from the north bank, we met a family preparing to return home after relaxing in the pretty surroundings for the afternoon. The father of the family, who wore only his swimming shorts and a pair of shoes because he had just got out of the river (his wife and other family members were fully clothed, of course), tried to encourage us to drink raki with him, but we declined the kind invitation.

Near the restored bridge, Eskisehir.

Near the restored bridge, Eskisehir.

The restored bridge, Eskisehir.

The restored bridge, Eskisehir.

Veysel and the restored bridge, Eskisehir.

Veysel and the restored bridge, Eskisehir.

A few of Eskisehir’s houses survive. They are large, timber-framed houses that spread over two or three floors in a manner very similar to some of the old houses that survive in Arapgir. However, today Eskisehir is no more than a widely dispersed village and one with a very small population.

We drove away from Eskisehir by following a road east of the bridge. The road crossed the river, ascended the valley wall to the south and led to a road destined for the centre of Arapgir, so we managed to do a superb round trip. Once on the road leading to Arapgir we were high above the Arapgir Cayi and the views into and along the valley were sublime. However, by now the sky had filled with dark clouds and it began to rain. The rain persisted for the next half hour or so.

Overlooking Eskisehir.

Overlooking Eskisehir.

We drove into the centre of Arapgir where we picked up two of Veysel’s work colleagues outside a bakery; the team of three were about to begin their evening shift collecting litter from large wheelie-bins. I stayed with the team for about half an hour, by which time we were close to the hotel. Because the men wanted a short break from work, we stopped for glasses of tea brought to us from a nearby tea house. It turned out that both Veysel’s colleagues were Alevis and all three had harsh things to say about the AKP and Sunni Muslims. If I understood what they were saying, the AKP was currently in control of Arapgir, but whether the party would still be in power following the general election was uncertain. Overhead, rumbles of thunder and flashes of fork and sheet lightning added drama to our conversation.

View from the dustcart, Arapgir.

View from the dustcart, Arapgir.

What an amazing day it had been, although it was not quite finished. I said goodbye to Veysel and his colleagues, walked to the hotel and freshened up in my room, then went to the very centre of town, a roundabout with roads leading off in four or five directions, and took photos of the bunting flapping against the rapidly darkening sky. I then met a young man who had a camera far superior to mine and, in his shop, he showed me some of the photos he had recently taken. We took photos of each other, then I walked a short distance further down the road, a road leading past a very large modern mosque in the mock-Ottoman style to the small bus station. I stopped at a small lokanta for koftes, salad and bread washed down with ayran. A woman not wearing a headscarf called in and ordered some food to take home. My meal over, I went almost next door for a large bowl of ice cream. Two children walked in and had small portions of ice cream at a nearby table.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

As I walked back to the hotel I was reminded that, when planning the trip in the UK, I had toyed with the idea of not visiting Arapgir because I had been once before and was not sure a second visit could be justified by what I would see. How wrong such an idea would have been. But my lack of sound judgement in relation to Arapgir convinced me that to go to Divrigi the following day was the right thing to do because, although I had also been there once before, it had been a very long time ago when me and my travelling companion had time to see only two major monuments, the Ulu Camii and the Hospital.

But what of the wine that I consumed with great pleasure in my room as I wrote up notes about the day’s many delights and sometimes sobering encounters? It had a pale colour not unlike a rosé and a delicate bouquet with the faintest hint of mint. It tasted dry with some crisp acidity and reminded me of fino-style wines found in parts of southern Spain such as Montilla. Although not very sophisticated, it packed a punch! I drank the whole half litre with a growing sense of satisfaction, but had no adverse effects the following morning. Being an organic wine, perhaps the detrimental after-effects are much reduced!

What a day. The monuments, the birds, the flowers, the wild herbs such as mint and oregano, the hospitality, and the nagging sense that I had found somewhere I could almost call home, despite the language barriers. My goodness: the wine was getting me quite emotional! Yes, the wine was dry like a good fino or amontillado from southern Spain. Perhaps it was even a bit like the amazing wines from Sanlucar de Barrameda (one of the strangest but most likeable of all Andalucian towns) with their salty smack. It might have passed muster in Jerez, the home of sherry, although in some ways it was more interesting than half the dry wines that derive from that source of intoxicating drink. But how different it was from the wine with which I had started the trip, a wine of dark ruby colour with a taste reminiscent of reds from some of Europe’s most reputable wine regions.

My last thoughts turned toward the Kurds with whom I had engaged during the day. It is obvious that many Kurds still have sympathy for the PKK, and such sympathy may have increased in recent years because the AKP has become more obviously Turkish nationalist in its inclinations and has tried to push through a legislative programme appealing to the needs and aspirations of the country’s Sunni majority. I am fully aware that, in the past, the PKK was a dangerous and violent terrorist group, which, in common with the Turkish armed forces, committed some terrible crimes against humanity and unforgivable human rights abuses. However, on every occasion I have met PKK sympathisers or people claiming past or present allegiance with the movement, I have never felt in any danger. Such Kurds have posed a threat not to me but to many of the Sunni extremists who, for lack of a better political party to support, vote for the AKP. They also pose far more of a threat to extreme Turkish nationalists such as the Grey Wolves, some of the most dreadful people who have thrived and murdered in Turkey past and present.

P.S. Back home I found something on the internet referring to an Armenian cemetery in Arapgir, a cemetery with about thirty or so irregularly dispersed tombs. According to the article, a few hundred Armenians remained in Arapgir after world war one before most moved to Istanbul to improve their chances of economic well-being. Some survivors of the genocide migrated to Soviet Armenia and settled in Yerevan, the capital, where to this day a district has the name of Arabkir. Today, Arapgir has only two Armenians, brothers in their forties who spend their spare time caring for the cemetery. The cemetery has a small altar which is sometimes used for ritual purposes.

Another internet article suggests that the arrest of leading figures in Arapgir’s Armenian community began as early as 26th April 1915 and that the first large group of Armenians were expelled from the town on 19th June. The last large group were expelled on 5th July and a majority of all those expelled met their death as they marched ever further from home. Arapgir was one of the many towns and cities which, in 1895, witnessed massacres of Armenians on a much smaller scale than in 1915.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

P.P.S. The following provides some context for the information already shared about Alevis and Bektashis. It is an article on the internet that I have quite savagely edited to extract the most relevant points:

As well as grappling with the issue of growing Kurdish disenchantment with AKP rule in Ankara, Erdogan must face the problem of the Turkish and Kurdish Alevi minority, which, in common with the Kurds, represents about a quarter of the Turkish population, or twenty million people. Alevis are heterodox Muslims following a tradition that combines Shia Islam, metaphysical Sufism and pre-Islamic shamanism. Alevis do not pray in mosques and a cemevi is an Alevi meeting house.

In 1995 an Alevi leader, Izzettin Dogan, launched an officially-approved Alevi group called Cem Vakfi. The Turkish government used Cem Vakfi to split the Alevi opposition to the regime. The government, even when it was secular, favoured Sunni Islam and harassed Alevis. Politically, Dogan represented the extreme nationalist right and was linked to the MHP, or Nationalist Movement Party, which has links with the fascist Grey Wolves. The MHP supported the military in its campaign against the Kurdish PKK and the Grey Wolves have been charged with at least five thousand murders of Turkish and Kurdish leftists, Alevis included, in the 1980s. In 1997, Dogan formally constituted Cem Vakfi in four towns in the Netherlands under the auspices of the foreign branch of the MHP, the Federation of Turkish Democratic-Idealist Organisations in Europe, or ADUTDF. Today, veterans of the Grey Wolves are embedded in the state apparatus and responsible for countless abuses of human rights in both the Kurdish areas of south-east Turkey and in parts of the western regions where they hold political office.

In 1978 the Grey Wolves committed a massacre of Alevis by calling all “believers” to aggressive jihad against Alevis and other leftists. The Grey Wolves proclaimed, “One who kills an Alevi will enter Paradise, and the death of an Alevi is equal to five haj pilgrimages to Makkah.”

In 1980, after a military coup, the MHP was banned, along with all other political parties. Nonetheless, many supporters of the Grey Wolves had careers in the military and state bureaucracy. The ban on the MHP was eventually removed and in the late 1990s the party changed its public orientation in a religious direction.

Erdogan’s government has approached the Alevis in Turkey with ambitious plans for the construction of mosques in their communities, even though Alevis meet for their rituals in cemevis and only a few Alevis attend mosque services. Mosque-building in Alevi settlements is therefore a waste of public funds, but, since the 1980s, pressure for the Sunnification of all Turkey’s Muslims has been intense and, in response, has provoked political unrest among the Alevis. Today, Alevis increasingly refuse to conceal their identities, as they might have done in the past. Instead, they present themselves openly as Alevis and defend the Alevi faith. Alevi books and magazines are now issued prolifically and Alevism is offered as a counter to mainstream Sunni ideology.

Support for Cem Vakfi and Dogan by Turkey’s state institutions and mass media has failed. Alevis with democratic or leftist inclinations reject him and the situation is likely to remain as such for many years to come.

Nonetheless, the AKP government, through its apologists, has performed brilliantly in convincing politicians in Washington and elsewhere that the Alevis support the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. There is no serious corroboration of this claim, which has also been made by Erdogan himself. Its proponents assert falsely that the Alevi movement in Turkey is similar to the Shia Alawite cult ruling Syria, but this is not so. It is denied by Alevis themselves as well as by authoritative, objective academics in Europe and North America.

P.P.P.S. Arapgir is famous for having a craftsman who makes shoes with wooden nails, but no stitching or chemical glues. Only the wooden nails keep the shoes intact. It is said that he can make a pair of shoes in one day.

To Onar.

I went to my room, unpacked a few things, freshened up and returned to the lobby. Two minutes later I was in the family’s very new 4WD car and we sped off along the road toward Keban. A left turn took us to Onar, a journey from the junction of only 4 or 5 kilometres. In Onar we called at a house on the edge of the village where Ismael lived, an author of thirty books who, although older than me, remained mentally and physically very able. Ismael offered to show us around a village he clearly loved to bits. After spending about half an hour getting to know each other and eating a Thornton’s chocolate, a box of which were a gift from a friend who had recently returned from the UK, we got into the car again and drove the short distance to the centre of the village.

What followed was simply astounding and, although there are more pretty villages in Turkey than Onar, by the end of our grand tour the settlement had emerged as one of my favourites anywhere in the vast republic.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar nestles in gently undulating countryside which, in mid-May, is very green and enriched by masses of wild flowers. Distant mountains smudged with snow add to the visual delights, as does a valley to one side of the village which is where some of the tombs are found. The village has a quite densely packed core, but also some houses that are on their own not far from the centre. The great majority of houses, some of which are substantial properties, are old and made with stone, but some are made with mudbrick. While most stone houses are still lived in, some of the mudbrick houses have been abandoned and lie in ruins. Some unusual square and rectangular windows exist with vertical bars made with squared-off lengths of wood, iron door furniture has survived from the Ottoman era and a few plaster walls around front doors manifest painted decoration in the form of plant-life. Dry stone walls enclose small gardens. Corrugated iron covers many roofs and flat metal sheets patch crumbling walls. With paths rather than roads leading from house to house, and old roads within dry stone walls too narrow for motorised traffic leading to the pasture, the fields and the orchards surrounding the village, Onar is a delight to navigate. The narrow roads just mentioned also lead to the open countryside where more Roman remains are encountered among the wild flowers and herbs that prosper on gently inclined hillsides. The views from the hillsides are extensive. As we walked around we picked fresh almonds from the trees.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar.

Ismael and the owners of the hotel knew many people in the village and we therefore stopped a number of times to chat, to have glasses of tea or, in one case overlooking the valley mentioned earlier, to consume glasses of excellent ayran described to me as organic. It quickly became apparent that almost everyone living in Onar is Alevi or Bektashi rather than Sunni Muslim. This meant that, among other things, women are as forthcoming with conversation as men, women shake the hands of unknown males and talk with them without attracting criticism or being thought to behave in a shameful manner, and, although some women wear a headscarf, they wear it most often to protect themselves from the sun and therefore are very careless about whether it covers their hair and ears. It was lovely to be among people who, in a predominantly Muslim environment, have a genuine commitment to gender equality and do not merely pretend that such equality exists. Near the end of our grand tour we met three elderly women sitting in the shade cast by an old house. All three were drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. But for their sex, they could have been a small group of Turkish males doing what Turkish males do all the time, but such a scene involving Sunni Turkish women in full public view is almost unthinkable, even in 2015.

At one point during our grand tour, the daughter of the owner of the hotel disappeared for twenty minutes before returning with a half litre plastic bottle full of wine for me to consume later in the hotel. In common with the ayran, it was described to me as organic. I was told that Alevis and Bektashis in and around Onar consumed exactly this wine when engaging in some of their ritual practices.

Onar’s cemevi was one of the most unusual monuments I saw on the whole trip. Since buildings now enclose it on at least two sides, you can easily walk past it without knowing it is there. Moreover, to access the cemevi you go through an old wooden door that, at the present time, does not say what lies behind it. Behind the door you walk along a narrow passage with a low roof before reaching the cemevi itself. The cemevi is roughly square in shape, but the walls and floor are made of mud and are therefore smooth but somewhat uneven because of gentle undulations. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of all is the roof, which comprises of logs supported on wooden columns. The logs, many of which are blackened as if fire or soot has discoloured them, have been arranged in such a way as to create what is roughly a dome. A window exists where a wall transitions into the domed roof. Along two walls are some tall receptacle-like structures, some shaped like cans and others shaped like glasses tapering a little toward the floor. About 1.5 metres tall, they look as if they are made of mud.

The cem evi, Onar.

The cemevi, Onar.

The cem evi, Onar.

The cemevi, Onar.

The cem evi, Onar.

The cemevi, Onar.

There are a few electric lights and rugs and carpets to cover the floor (the rugs and carpets lay on top of the receptacle-like structures just mentioned). In one corner is a platform raised about half a metre above the floor with a cupboard blocking the way into a small space divided from the rest of the room by three bulky wooden columns supporting the beams that hold up the roof. Ledges along two walls reminded me of sofas in an old Anatolian house and, in common with the sofas, are probably meant to be sat on. There is also a mud wall that does not rise the full height of the building but nonetheless creates a second, more secluded space than the one already mentioned, despite the absence of a door.

The cemevi, said to date from 1224 and have been built by Seyh, or Sheikh, Hasan Oner, is a seriously interesting survival from the past, one of the most interesting buildings for ritual purposes I have ever encountered anywhere on my travels. But neither it nor the Roman tombs are mentioned in Sinclair’s monumental work. In fact, Sinclair does not mention Onar once. His monumental study has revealed to me more about eastern Turkey and its architectural and archaeological treasures than any other scholar, but the absence of Onar from his four volume work confirms that a lot more remains to be discovered and/or discussed.

Alevis and Bektashis use cemevis for a variety of purposes because, in the strictest sense, the name means a house or place of gathering, meeting or assembly. As far as we can tell, such gatherings, meetings or assemblies used to be held exclusively outdoors after dark and people used candles and torches so they could see. Such outdoor gatherings still persist in some areas where Alevis and Bektashis live, but they are usually held during daylight hours. Worship in the sense that mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims understand and that is undertaken every day in every mosque around the globe, does not take place, partly because Alevis and Bektashis believe that the mere engagement in routines shaped meticulously by tradition will not secure for the believer the main purpose of religious rituals of any kind, some sort of contact with or insight into the divine, no matter how fleeting that contact or insight might be.

Alevis and Bektashis take their inspiration from the mystical side of Islam best exemplified in the many Sufi groups found throughout the Islamic world. Such Sufi groups have always experimented with different means to attain contact with or insight into the divine. Such means include music, song, poetry, dance, food and, in some instances, the consumption of alcohol, hashish and/or marijuana (for some Sufis, alcohol, hashish and/or marijuana are meant to inspire ecstasy or induce a trance-like condition. Such Sufis believe that during such ecstatic or trance-like states contact with or insight into the divine will be achieved). Today, cemevis are used by Alevis and Bektashis to attain contact with or insight into the divine and in most cases use is made of music, song, food and alcohol (wine and/or raki will be consumed, but not in large quantities). Already it can be seen why mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims might regard Alevis and Bektashis with suspicion, but more orthodox Muslims also dislike how Alevis and Bektashis have been willing, in common with Sufi groups, to co-opt aspects of belief and practice they deem worthwhile in expressions of religion that differ from theirs. Thus, Bektashis in particular refer to a “trinity” consisting of Allah, Muhammad and Ali, and during their ritual practices wine or raki is consumed with bread in what is an obvious imitation of the eucharist in many Christian denominations. Perhaps the inclination to co-opt beliefs and practices from different sources helps explain why, as a general rule, Alevis and Bektashis have been far more tolerant and respectful of people who subscribe to beliefs and practices that differ from their own, while, as a general rule, Sunni and, in some instances, mainstream Shia Muslims have not only treated such people like, at best, second class citizens by according them fewer rights and opportunities, but also periodically subjected them to forcible conversion and/or murder and massacre.

There is another thing that causes mainstream Sunni Muslims to have doubts about Alevis and Bektashis and this is the fact that Alevis and Bektashis seem to manifest far greater affection for Ali than for Muhammad, so much so that one of the most obvious ways of telling you are in an Alevi or a Bektashi home is if you see hanging on the wall a picture of Ali looking not unlike Jesus, although his hair is always black.

I have always enjoyed time spent in the company of Alevis and Bektashis and, in recent years, have had increasing doubts about many of the Sunni Muslims with whom I have engaged. I am now far more clear in my mind why this is so. Most Sunni Muslims are preoccupied with Islamic orthodoxy and imposing on themselves and others what passes for such orthodoxy, while Alevis and Bektashis are much more committed to a philosophy shaped by live and let live, openness to new ideas and conforming to the golden rule. It is probably because of this philosophy that, nowadays, Alevi and Bektashi men and women engage in ritual practices together and as equals, and why even a confirmed atheist such as myself is welcomed into their company.

Onar and new friends.

Onar and new friends.

Onar and new friends.

Onar and new friends.

The tombs at Onar have been cut from the rock itself, usually in a valley wall. The chambers containing the tombs are shaped roughly like a cube or cuboid and smaller cavities to contain the dead usually exist in the three walls that do not include the entrance. The cavities for the dead have arches above them and the bodies lay on flat surfaces about a metre above the floor. Sometimes the floor itself has smaller cavities, no doubt also for the dead to lie in. The tombs would appear to be late Roman, perhaps 2nd, 3rd or even 4th century CE. Carved decoration, of stylised plant forms or repeated geometric shapes, is often encountered, the repeated geometric shapes sometimes drawing the eye to the edge of the arch above the individual resting places for the dead. Above a few arches are shallow recesses which may have contained a stone tablet inscribed with information about the dead person that lay below. There are also cavities in which wine was made and stored prior to consumption, and the occasional recess in a wall where lamps or candles could be lit or small possessions displayed. Sometimes the stone at the entrance to a tomb chamber has been carved to resemble columns. Each column has flat faces, a base and a capital. As a general rule, the stonemasons who carved the tomb chamber entrances were not as skilled as those who carved the plant-life or the geometric shapes along the arches.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

I was reminded, perhaps inevitably, of Cappadocia and there were times when I thought some of the “tombs” may actually have been troglodyte homes. I also wondered if some of the structures had links with Christians, but I did not see anything that proved for definite that Christians might have been associated with some of what survives at Onar. This said, because Christians in the Roman Empire still suffered persecution into the early years of the 4th century (and persecution persisted beyond that date under certain rulers), they would have been unwise to advertise their existence too overtly.

Next to one recess in a wall is a carving resembling the Buddhist symbol for the eightfold path to enlightenment. In other words, it is a circle with what looks like eight spokes radiating from the centre. I am not for one moment suggesting that this carving has been left by Buddhists and it looks too perfect and clean to have been carved at the same time the tombs were used by people in the Roman Empire, but it did intrigue me. Had it had twelve “spokes” I would have associated it with Shia Muslims and/or Alevis due to their affection for the twelve imams, the last one of whom is “hidden” and will return at some point in the future in just the same way that Christians believe Jesus will return as the messiah. I could sense already that, once home, I would want to very quickly return to this remarkable place because, when I return to somewhere in Turkey, I find something new that is ample reward for the effort.

Entrances leading into the tomb chambers are themselves cut from the rock and are usually devoid of additional stonework to reinforce or ornament them. Rectangular in shape, they are sometimes a little wider at waist height as if people were obese at the time the tombs were used. Some entrances are framed externally by an arch, but in at least one case an entrance has an eye-catching triangular feature above the doorway. Additionally, the rock immediately below the triangle has been carved in such a way as to convert what would be the door’s lintel into a shape resembling a bell. Another doorway has a narrow vertical window above it, presumably to let additional light into the tomb chamber.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

The most remarkable tomb chamber is the one we looked at last before walking into the countryside to examine yet more Roman ruins among the wild flowers and herbs. The tomb chamber has a wall with the sun, horses, triangles, squares and hook-like shapes resembling waves that look as if they have been drawn by a child using a dull red paint. All these except the sun, which features only once (although near the sun is what looks like the figure of someone who might be playing a musical instrument or hunting), are painted in continuous lines, the triangles and hook-like shapes being joined one to the other.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

The wall I have just described is to your left as you look in through the small entrance. Ahead, beside a square doorway leading to another section of the tomb chamber, are more examples of painting, in this case of at least one human figure and what looks like a deer and a camel. These have been painted with less care than the patterns, etc. on the left-hand wall and have also suffered more damage or deterioration, perhaps because they face the entrance and light has taken its toll. The human figure stands next to what looks like a small house with a pitched roof, but it might be a crude representation of one of the tomb chambers themselves. The right-hand wall also has things painted on it, but of these the only one that really stands out is a human figure riding a horse. The human figure appears to be holding at least one weapon and it looks as if a flag on a pole might be part of the portrait.

The walk into the countryside resulted in encounters with fresh almonds, flowers, herbs and sublime views of the village in its seductively beautiful setting, and chats with men and women working in their fields or gardens. As for the Roman ruins themselves, most seemed to be associated with the production of wine. A majority of the cavities and related channels required to make and store the wine had been cut from the rock itself in just the same way as the tomb chambers we had already examined.

More Roman ruins, Onar.

More Roman ruins, Onar.

But Onar has one last treat, an old cesme with arches, troughs, channels and pools of most unusual design and size. One pool is partially housed within a cube made of stone and one side of the cube has an opening with a shallow arch above it. Three sturdy lengths of wood have been positioned in front of the arch to provide additional support for the roof. A larger pool to one side of the cube of stone has a stone wall behind it. The more I examined the cesme, the more I suspected that the larger pool was once covered with a roof.

The cesme, Onar.

The cesme, Onar.

The cesme, Onar.

The cesme, Onar.

I have written at length about Onar because, even if the village did not possess the cemevi dating from 1224 and its much older Roman remains, it would be a destination worth visiting for anyone who wants to engage with a remarkable settlement and its very friendly inhabitants. Onar’s beautiful rural setting is, of course, an additional reason for making a detour. I was very grateful to my three new friends for showing me around a place that proved one of the most notable I was to visit on a trip that had many notable destinations.

Onar.

Onar.

We walked back to the car, spent a little more time in Ismael’s company (he told me he had a website, which, at home, I examined with great interest), then I was driven back to Arapgir through countryside that looked even more attractive than earlier in the day because the sun was lower in the sky.

Onar and new friends.

Onar and new friends.

To Keban and Arapgir.

The Mayd Hotel in Elazig is at number 11 Horasan Sokak, but Horasan Sokak is better known locally as Kofteciler Sokak because of the large number of lokantas, many of which serve meatballs. Where I ate twice the day before is just off Horasan Sokak and other lokantas exist along that street as well as along half a dozen others nearby.

Keen to make an early start just in case getting from Keban to Arapgir proved a problem, I was eating breakfast by 7.00am and impressed with what the two-star hotel provided (I was correct. With a woman in the kitchen the food was better than normal). Beside all the usual items such as olives, cheese, sliced meat, tomatoes, cucumber, bread, butter, jam, honey, chocolate spread flavoured with hazelnuts and boiled eggs, there were lentil soup, yoghurt, simit, borek stuffed with egg and vegetables, cooked tomatoes and peppers, fried potatoes and as much tea and water as my body required. I went for broke and tried just about everything, enjoying in particular the borek, yoghurt, honey and sour cherry jam. If I were to have problems later in the day with transport, I could get to the evening before having to eat again.

I settled the bill and left for the minibus garaj I had arrived at the day before. By utilising a short cut through the side streets I got to my destination in under fifteen minutes. The next minibus for Keban was leaving at 8.30am; I had almost half an hour to wait. I chatted with a man bound for Keban and the nearby dam.

Two boys, one with a grubby improvised bandage on his hand, approached us and asked for money. Aged about eight and ten, the boys were Syrians displaced by the civil war that had raged for three years and was now further complicated by the emergence of the Islamic State. We did not learn much about their circumstances – were they alone? Had their parents died or were they alive but not with them in Elazig? – but I gave them some money. They thanked me and slowly walked away counting the coins in their hands.

I was reminded that Turkey is now caring for 1.8 million people displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. 1.8 million people! This is a humanitarian exercise for which Turkey deserves international recognition and immense praise. But we in the UK refuse to take only a few thousand people who have fled poverty or conflicts in the Middle East, north Africa or sub-Saharan Africa and who have crossed the Mediterranean to be cared for in Greece or Italy. The UK used to have an enviable reputation for providing people in need with a place of sanctuary. We are now, despite our relative wealth, increasingly inward-looking, xenophobic and intolerant of those seeking the same life chances as us. And you know what makes this so ridiculous? If every UK citizen looks back far enough into his or her family history, he or she will discover something we all have in common. We are all, yes all, foreign in origin. Even the people who have inhabited the islands of Britain the longest, people of Celtic descent in Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Cornwall, are foreign in origin. The point I am making is this. If we are all foreign in origin, how can we justify denying to other people the opportunity to migrate to the UK, especially if the other people are migrating for precisely the same reasons we migrated? The suggestion that we are full already is simply nonsense. Even our densely populated urban areas in south-east England have lots of plots of land that can be developed to good effect, and I am not including in this plots of land that are parks or green open spaces, which must remain so for the well-being of people locally.

Before the civil war, Syria was the Middle East’s most intriguing nation state because of the ethnic, cultural and linguistic mixture of its people, the considerable beauty of some of its landscapes and many of its urban areas, and because of the remarkable monuments that had survived from, in some cases, thousands of years ago. But now at least 150,000 people have been killed, millions of Syrians are refugees, vast swathes of urban Syria are in ruins that resemble Gaza after it has been bombed by the Israelis, and the Islamic State is doing all it can to destroy monuments that it deems unIslamic (recent reports suggest that the wonderful desert city of Palmyra is the latest world heritage site to attract the Islamic State’s hatred of things not Muslim).

It is already obvious that, even if peace were to return to Iraq tomorrow, the great majority of non-Muslim Iraqis will never return because they believe that they can never again be certain of their safety and security in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation state. Unless the civil war ends soon in Syria, and the Islamic State is crushed forever, the great majority of non-Muslim Syrians will never return to Syria for precisely the same reason. And who, in the end, will be the biggest losers because of disrupting the delicate ethnic, cultural and linguistic balance that once existed in both nation states? The people who remain in Iraq and Syria, the vast majority of whom will be Muslims.

Already, too many Middle Eastern and north African nation states have suffered the loss of minority groups, thereby becoming far more monocultural than they have ever been. The question for the future therefore becomes this: Can those few overtly multiethnic nation states in the region such as Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Israel remain as diverse as they currently are? The indicators are not encouraging. Coptic Christians in Egypt live in constant fear that they will be subjected to massacres in their residential districts or bomb attacks in their churches; non-Christian minorities in Jordan know it is only a matter of time before Islamist inclinations gain greater popularity among the Sunni Muslim majority; the Lebanese fear that the war in Syria will once again ignite conflict among its ethnic and/or confessional communities, but that, on this occasion, non-Muslims will be able to defend themselves less effectively; Turkey is far less multiethnic than it was even a generation ago; and Israel is increasingly blighted by Jewish religious fundamentalism of the most alarming kind, fundamentalism that often morphs into racism directed against the Arabs generally and the Palestinians more particularly. Such Jewish racism is sufficiently violent in its rhetoric and physical expression to have already driven some Palestinians from their homes. Moreover, such racism causes growing numbers of Jewish people in the diaspora, and many non-Jewish people who support the existence of the state of Israel, to despair that peace with the Palestinians will ever be achieved.

As my trip to Turkey was confirming, Turkey could emerge as an exception to the rule in this troubled part of the globe. Yes, Turkey has seen a most alarming decline in the extent to which it is an ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse nation state since, say, the 1950s, but all sorts of substantive and symbolic indicators point toward a growing number of Turkish nationals, whether ethnic Turks or Kurds, anxious to celebrate the diversity of the country’s population, past and present. The Greek and the Jewish populations may now be only a few thousand strong each, but the Armenian population seems to have stabilised at around 70,000, although it is clear that some people who describe themselves as, say, Turks, Kurds or Laz are in actual fact Islamicised Armenians. Because a majority of them are Muslims, no one need worry too much about the long-term prospects for the Laz, the Arabs or the Georgians in Turkey, and it cannot be denied that, since the war with the PKK concluded a few years ago, prospects for Turkey’s Syriac Orthodox Christians have improved significantly. Instability in Syria and Iraq may actually increase the size of Turkey’s very small Yazidi and Chaldean communities – leaders in both communities in Syria and Iraq have said their people never want to live in Syria or Iraq again – but, for Yazidis and Chaldeans to remain in Turkey, they will need convincing guarantees from the Turkish government that sympathy for their dire plight is not merely a temporary phenomenon.

I am more confident about the prospects for multiethnicity in Turkey than for multiethnicity in any of the other nation states just identified, but I also realise how quickly things can change in the Middle East. Should conflict once again break out between the PKK and the Turkish government, all the good work of the last few years will be undone in months. It could also be undone in a few months if the AKP tries to impose a legislative programme more Islamist than it has proposed to date, or if Turkish nationalists of the more extreme kind allege that Turkey’s minorities pose threats to the integrity of the republic and/or idealised notions of what it means to be a Turk. There is a lot at stake in the forthcoming general election, believe me.

Although my love affair with Turkey began in 1978, there are still things about the country that bring tears to my eyes, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for bad. Tears come to my eyes for good reasons because of the astounding hospitality and friendliness of most of the people; for the way that things rarely fail to fall into place if you need transport, accommodation or food and drink; for how the more you look and listen, the more you find places that very few people know about even though such places should be internationally renowned; and for how Turkey has provided sanctuary for so many refugees from recent and on-going Middle Eastern conflicts. Tears come to my eyes for bad reasons because of the barriers that still remain for the great majority of people with disabilities, special needs and learning difficulties; the discrimination that confronts all the country’s minority ethnic groups and its gay, lesbian and bisexual communities; the poverty that exists in many rural communities, especially in eastern Turkey; the gender inequality that penalises millions of girls and women in countless substantive and symbolic ways; and the boundless energy, enterprise and intelligence that lie untapped among a majority of the country’s female population because, other than in a few sectors of society in which secular principles have not given way to Islamic ones, girls and women cannot compete as equals with boys and men. Today turned out to be one of the days when I often found myself fighting back the tears, and sometimes for some of the reasons just listed.

Because the 50 kilometre journey to Keban in a comfortable minibus cost only 5TL, or about £1-30, I tried to work out how much a bus journey of a similar distance would have cost in the UK. £4-50 to £5 seemed about right. The fare to Keban was very small despite the fact that petrol in Turkey is almost the same price as in the UK, thereby making it very expensive in comparison to the average income, which is about a fifth or a sixth that of the average income in the UK.

The minibus went past the football ground, the incomplete park with the water features, the large dental hospital, lots of very new apartment blocks of crisp and clean design, the Ramada Hotel and a wall painting of Ataturk dressed in a soldier’s uniform and sucking a cigarette. Some progress has been made in recent years to convince Turkey’s citizens that smoking is a danger to their health, so much so that many people no longer smoke and far fewer smokers offer cigarettes to people they know, which are both in marked contrast with past decades. However, smoking remains more popular in Turkey than in the UK, and in recent years seems to have been taken up by more women. It is still quite rare to see pious women in headscarves smoking, but those that do are usually earning a living in a full- or part-time job while still constrained by all the responsibilities of motherhood and home-maker. It was the start of day five of the trip and I had smoked only two cigarettes since arriving in Diyarbakir. I never smoke at home and have not done so for at least a decade, when I confined consumption of the evil weed to only the occasional cigar. But the flesh is weak.

Elazig has spread so far to the west that it was only when we arrived at the turning for Sahinkaya that we escaped the clutches of the city. I had never travelled the road to Keban before. The gently undulating terrain is dominated by fields, pasture, orchards and grapevines, and hills and mountains are always in view in the distance. Some of the orchards produce apricots and many of the apricots find their way to Malatya, the city in the centre of one of the world’s best regions for their production. As I was to soon find out, some of the grapes are turned into wine and quite a lot of the wine is consumed locally by Alevi and Bektashi Muslims. In fact, I was temporarily leaving the Sunni side of the street for an area dominated by Alevis. It was almost as if I was leaving one nation state for another.

For most of the way to Keban lots of wild flowers grew in the long grass. There were many places where beehives had been arranged in lines not far from sources of nectar and pollen. We passed a large modern mosque built where only four or five houses were in walking distance. I was reminded that Alevis and Bektashis do not, as a general rule, engage in ritual practices in mosques. I knew for certain that the mosque will have been recently built in the hope that Alevis and Bektashis will be persuaded to adopt mainstream Sunni Islam. Is there much chance that this will happen? No, and above all due to the discrimination that Alevis and Bektashis have suffered for centuries at the hands of Sunni Muslims.

Almost every village along the road to Keban has a new mosque and the mosque is always far larger than the size of each village justifies. The AKP has engaged in a massive mosque-building programme in recent years, but in all the parts of Turkey with substantial Alevi and Bektashi populations I suspect its efforts to reinforce the influence of Sunni Islam have been largely unsuccessful. How sad that such a lot of money and effort have been put to such pointless use.

We drove beside Poyraz, a widely dispersed village. Just beyond the settlement, a road veers off to the north and leads to the vast and elongated Keban Reservoir where a ferry carries vehicles and passengers to the north shore from where another road leads after a few kilometres to the town of Cemisgezek, which I hoped to visit in a few day’s time.

The road gradually ascended for quite a long way and every so often we passed very large, modern houses that had been carefully designed and brightly painted. The houses belonged to guestworkers who, on retiring from their jobs in countries such as Germany, Belgium or the Netherlands, were rich enough to build exactly what they wanted in the area where they had been born.

We reached the highest point on the road and ahead of us mountains dominated the view. We began to gradually descend and drew to a halt at a road junction where a man wanted a lift to Keban. A sign beside the road indicated that the nearest village was 3 kilometres away and the furthest 11 kilometres. In Turkey, such signs tempt me to take a detour even if they seem to lead to nowhere of great importance. However, I knew that the chances of something interesting lying along the road are very high, so the risk of being disappointed is very small.

When the baby in front of me dropped his dummy I reached forward to pick it up. I handed the dummy to the young mother, but she did not acknowledge my existence in the slightest way. I was not surprised because she wore a headscarf and was dressed in a manner that confirmed she was a conventionally pious Sunni Muslim who should not have any contact with an unknown male.

The road entered a meandering valley, but remained above the river. A few minutes later we arrived at the edge of Keban and I got off the minibus at the point where a road to the left led downhill into the centre of the old town.

Keban.

Keban.

People confirmed that minibuses did not travel between Keban and Arapgir, but I was not unduly worried because it was just after 9.30am. Since Keban is small and situated in such pretty surroundings with hills pressing against it on all sides, I decided to walk into the town centre because the minibus driver had told me earlier that there is a pretty mosque and an old church.

Keban stands on a slope above a deep, narrow tributary of the Euphrates. It was a town of considerable importance until the mid-19th century because of nearby lead and silver mines, the abandonment of which caused the settlement’s population to decline. When the mines were open, smelting took place locally. The miners were mostly Greeks, but Sinclair suggests that “there was always a Turkish supervisor”.

In the 1830s Germans and Hungarians worked one of the lead mines, and in 1840 Austrian engineers arrived and improved production for a short period of time. The main problem that confronted the miners and engineers was the lack of wood for smelting, so in the 1840s attempts were made to force the people living in nearby villages to supply wood, but such coercive efforts resulted in people leaving the villages and the males becoming brigands or bandits. Production dwindled and the mines and furnaces were abandoned for good about 1871.

The very pretty mosque is Yusuf Ziya Pasa Camii. It is part of a kulliye, or complex, and therefore proved an unexpected delight. Sinclair notes that the mosque and its related buildings date from 1795 or 1796:

The mosque lies at the s. side of a courtyard dug out of the hillside. The dome is taken on four slim, widely spaced pillars. Between the pillars and the walls are sprung high pointed vaults. The dome and space beneath it are broad, airy and light in relation to the thinner, darker vaults. Women’s gallery to the n. The mihrab is plain, but the stone mimber is excellently decorated… The son cemaat yeri is a portico on pillars whose pitched roof continues the slope of that covering the prayer hall. It has a single dome (in the middle). The minaret to the w. is clear of the prayer hall’s wall and was built two years later than the prayer hall. It has an octagonal base: the slender shaft is twelve-sided.

Library. This is to the w. of the courtyard. It is on two storeys and domed. The dome sits on an octagonal drum which is pierced with windows. Next to the library is the medrese. Turbe for Ziya Pasa’s daughter. It is square with two windows in each wall (except that one window is replaced by the door) and domed. By the turbe is a cesme whose shallow iwan has a keel-shaped vault… Of the caravansaray only the portal and parts of the walls stand. By the entrance there are animal reliefs and other decoration.

Yusuf Ziya Pasa Camii, Keban.

Yusuf Ziya Pasa Camii, Keban.

Yusuf Ziya Pasa Camii, Keban.

Yusuf Ziya Pasa Camii, Keban.

I walked the short distance to the church, which Sinclair says is Armenian. It has a basilican layout and the faintest remains of frescoes on the walls. The roof is intact; the windows, whether still in existence or blocked with stone, are easily identified externally; and internally you are confronted with a pleasing combination of columns and rounded arches. The structure is in such good condition that the Belediye, or town council, uses it to shelter some of its motor vehicles, dustcarts included.

The Armenian church, Keban.

The Armenian church, Keban.

The church, Keban.

The Armenian church, Keban.

The church, Keban.

The Armenian church, Keban.

The church, Keban.

The Armenian church, Keban.

The doorway leading into the church faces the local police station where a few officers engaged me in conversation as they stood on the steps leading inside. One officer held a large automatic rifle which hung from a strap over one shoulder and the others had handguns in holsters around their waists. I was offered a large glass of tea, for which I was very grateful. After an officer received a message on his phone, he and two of his colleagues made their way to a police car and prepared to leave to sort out a problem. Amazingly, I was asked to join them, which must have meant it was a minor problem, but I had to leave for Arapgir just in case traffic on the road proved very light. I walked to the office of a bus company running minibuses to Elazig and elsewhere because, earlier, I had dropped off my large bag to save carrying it around. I thanked the young man for looking after it and walked up the hill to the main road from Keban to Arapgir, noting along the way that many old houses have survived in the town. In fact, Keban has much to commend it, although it appears to lack a hotel in which to stay.

I stood in the shade of some trees waiting for a lift, but the traffic was light and most drivers indicated that they were going only a short distance, most of them to the dam holding back the vast Keban Reservoir. The dam made quite an impressive sight. It is 1,125 metres long and 210 metres high at its greatest point. Below the dam is a fish farm and below the fish farm a bridge carries the road to Arapgir across the river.

The dam, Keban Reservoir.

The dam, Keban Reservoir.

About half an hour after taking shelter under the trees, a man stopped his car and drove me into the quite wide valley below the dam. I was dropped at the south end of the bridge where a dirt road veered to the left to follow the river. The man was driving along the dirt road to inspect that everything was going well at a second fish farm. I walked across the bridge and, at the north end, bunting for one of the political parties flapped in the gentle breeze. Beside the river was a lokanta specialising in grilled fish from the nearby fish farm, but it did not look as if much dining would be going on the day I was passing through.

The fish farm, near Keban.

The fish farm, near Keban.

I had to wait about only fifteen minutes for the next lift and, on this occasion, was taken by a wonderfully friendly Alevi man and his son aged five all the way to the junction for the road to Malatya. The man farmed in a nearby village and one of his main crops was grapes. By now the road had ascended quite some height above the river valley and we were some distance onto the undulating plain. Snow-smudged mountains were shadowy presences in the distance. The mountains were the ones I hoped to get through the following day on my way to Divrigi.

I said goodbye to my hosts at the junction for Malatya and the man and his son waved as their motor vehicle turned around. The man had driven me some distance out of his way to ensure I would have a better chance of a lift to Arapgir. Amazing. Such kindness.

Ten minutes later I was in a large lorry delivering goods to the centre of Arapgir, so all my worries about travelling from Keban had proved unfounded. On the last section of the journey we passed some very large flocks of sheep and the first tented camps set up by nomadic families to care for such flocks during the summer months. Some of the tents were large bell tents. A few donkeys were tethered nearby. To the east another ridge of mountains was smudged with snow.

We turned off the road leading to Divrigi and began the descent to the centre of Arapgir, passing as we did so the pretty suburb and one-time separate village of Asagiulupinar. I had been to Arapgir once before, but only on a day trip from Malatya. I now intended to stay overnight to see what I had missed on the last occasion, Eskisehir, or old Arapgir, a few kilometres to the north of the modern town.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

I thanked the driver of the lorry for his kindness, then walked the short distance to the relatively new Arapgir Nazar Hotel, one of two hotels that have opened in Arapgir since my last visit a few years ago. I entered the very clean and attractively decorated lobby and was offered a room with en suite facilities and breakfast for 50TL for the night. The person at reception was a young female aged about twenty-two who did not wear a headscarf. The owner and his daughter appeared from along a corridor and I was invited into the man’s office where I was offered coffee. The three of us immediately got on well, above all because my companions were liberal Alevis with no time for the constraints of Sunni orthodoxy, and because I hoped, like them, that the forthcoming general election would confirm that the AKP can no longer dominate Turkish politics in the same way it has for over a decade. A picture of Ataturk hung on the wall above the large desk behind which the man sat, confirmation that the family would vote for one of the secular parties when the election took place.

I was asked why I had decided to stay overnight in Arapgir and whether I would travel the following day to Kemaliye, the small town on the Euphrates River about 30 kilometres to the north. I explained that Divrigi and not Kemaliye was my next destination, even though I knew that Kemaliye is said to have much to commend it, and I explained about Eskisehir, which I had not visited when last in Arapgir. My hosts could not understand the appeal of Eskisehir, but, as I found out later, this was due to the fact that they did not know much about it. But what they did know about was a village called Onar about 15 kilometres from Arapgir where there are no less than eighteen rock tombs dating from the Roman era and a 13th century cemevi, or meeting house, for Alevis and/or Bektashis to engage in ritual practices. They asked if I wanted to visit Onar. When I said I did, they replied, “Then we will leave in half an hour. Get ready and we will go in our car.” I could not believe my luck.

Arapgir.

Arapgir.