To Cemisgezek and the Termal Hotel.

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

Between Hozat and Cemisgezek.

Between Hozat and Cemisgezek.

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

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

Cemisgezek.

Suleymaniye Camii, Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

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

The pazar, Cemisgezek.

The pazar, Cemisgezek.

Yelmaniye Camii, Cemisgezek.

Yelmaniye Camii, Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

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

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

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

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

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

The cemevi, Cemisgezek.

The cemevi, Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

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

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

Cemisgezek.

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

View south from Cemisgezek.

View south from Cemisgezek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pertek Kale and the ferry.

Pertek Kale and the ferry.

Sunset, Keban Reservoir, Pertek.

Sunset, Keban Reservoir, Pertek.

Sunset, Keban Reservoir, Pertek.

Sunset, Keban Reservoir, Pertek.

The ferry, Pertek.

The ferry, Pertek.

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

Termal Hotel, Pertek.

Termal Hotel, Pertek.

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To Ovacik.

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

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

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

The road to Ovacik.

The road to Ovacik.

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

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

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

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

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

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

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

View south from Ovacik.

View south from Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

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

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

Ovacik.

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

View north from Ovacik.

View north from Ovacik.

Between the town centre and the cemevi, Ovacik.

Between the town centre and the cemevi, Ovacik.

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

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

The gecekondu (?), Ovacik.

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

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

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

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

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

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

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

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

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

The cemevi, Ovacik.

The cemevi, Ovacik.

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

View west with the cemevi, Ovacik.

View west with the cemevi, Ovacik.

To 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 favourite 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 windows exist with bars across them 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 or not. 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 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 across 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 that 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 is 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 that 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 this 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 those with 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 that 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 have, in recent years, 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 kept prior to consumption, and the occasional recess in a wall where lamps or candles could be lit or small possessions stored. 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, whenever 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 in the village 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 drawn by a child painted a dull red colour. 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 and, the more I examined the cesme, the more I suspected that the whole thing was probably 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.