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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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).