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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.