To Tunceli.

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

The breakfast room in the Gulistan Hotel, Erzincan.

The breakfast room in the Gulistan Hotel, Erzincan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

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

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

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

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

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

View east from Tunceli.

View east from Tunceli.

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

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

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

The HDP headquarters, Tunceli.

Ataturk's statue, Tunceli.

Ataturk’s statue, Tunceli.

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

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

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

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

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

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

Posters with pictures of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya included, Tunceli.

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

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

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Erzincan.

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

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

The mosque near the old otogar, Erzincan.

The mosque near the old otogar, Erzincan.

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

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

Hilton Garden Inn, Erzincan.

Hilton Garden Inn, Erzincan.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

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

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

The pazar, Erzincan.

The pazar, Erzincan.

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

The pazar, Erzincan.

The pazar, Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

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

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

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.                          

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

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Eski Erzincan.

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

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

The railway, Erzincan.

The railway, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

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

The first hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The first hamam, Eski Erzincan.

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

Beehives, Eski Erzincan.

Beehives, Eski Erzincan.

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

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

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

The gatehouse, Eski Erzincan.

The gatehouse, Eski Erzincan.

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

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

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

The hexagonal tower, Eski Erzincan.

The hexagonal tower, Eski Erzincan.

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

Part of the city wall, Eski Erzincan.

Part of the city wall, Eski Erzincan.

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

The cemetery, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

The cemetery, Erzincan.

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

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

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

Sinclair notes that:

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

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

The second hamam, Eski Erzincan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The medrese (?), Eski Erzincan.

The medrese (?), Eski Erzincan.

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

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

The railway station, Erzincan.

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

The footbridge at the railway station, Erzincan.

The footbridge at the railway station, Erzincan.

To Erzincan.

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

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

The otogar, Sebinkarahisar.

The otogar, Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

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

The otogar, Susehri.

The otogar, Susehri.

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

Tea beside the cesme, Sushi.

Tea beside the cesme, Susehri.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.