Postscript two: events between the two 2015 general elections and the November election result.

But things changed very quickly and the changes were for the worse, as the article below in “The Guardian” newspaper (25.7.15), confirms. Turkey at last decided to take action against the Islamic State (good), but, for reasons difficult to understand, it at the same time attacked PKK positions in northern Iraq (bad), even though the PKK had done nothing substantive to threaten the ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK:

Turkey launched overnight air strikes against several positions of the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in northern Iraq for the first time in four years, the country’s government has said.

The air raids put an end to a two-year ceasefire between the Turkish government and the PKK, severely endangering the already fragile peace process started in 2012 in an attempt to end a bloody conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people over thirty years.

According to the office of the acting prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, the bombs hit several PKK targets in northern Iraq including shelters, bunkers, storage facilities and the Qandil Mountains, where the PKK’s high command is based. Turkish fighter jets also targeted Islamic State positions in Syria for the second night in a row, the statement said. In addition to the air raids, the Turkish military carried out artillery attacks against the Islamic State in Syria and the PKK in northern Iraq.

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

“Strikes were carried out on targets of the Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist group in Syria and the PKK terrorist group in northern Iraq,” the prime minister’s office said, adding that all anti-terrorism operations were “carried out indiscriminately against all terrorist groups.”

In a major tactical shift this week, Turkey decided to take a more active role in the US-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State, agreeing to open its air bases to allied forces as well as carrying out its own air raids. It is the first time Turkish fighter jets have entered Syrian airspace to attack Islamic State militants on Syrian soil. Previous air raids were conducted from the Turkish side of the border, according to the Turkish government.

Speaking at a press conference on Saturday, Davutoglu said almost six hundred terrorism suspects had been detained in co-ordinated raids on Friday and Saturday, including people with alleged links to the Islamic State and the PKK. “I say it one more time: when it comes to public order, Turkey is a democratic state of law and everyone who breaks that law will be punished,” he said.

In a first reaction to the attacks on their camps, the PKK leadership said that the ceasefire with Ankara had lost all meaning. “The ceasefire has been unilaterally ended by the Turkish state and the Turkish military,” said a statement on the PKK website on Saturday. “The truce has no meaning any more after these intense air strikes by the occupant Turkish army.” The group said the fallout and consequences of the overnight attacks would be disclosed later.

Mesut Yegen, a historian on the Kurdish issue, said that it was too early to say that the peace process was over. “So far the PKK has not given the order to fighters on the ground to launch a counterattack, but it is clear that the peace process has been weakened substantially,” he said.

It was unlikely that either the Turkish military or the PKK wanted an all-out confrontation. “As long as the attacks remain limited to the air strikes, there is hope that the peace process will continue,” Yegen said.

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

The raids on both the PKK and the Islamic State came after a wave of violence swept across the country last week. On Monday, a suicide bomber killed thirty-one Kurdish and Turkish activists in the southern border town of SurucPeople in an attack that Turkish officials blamed on the Islamic State.

After the bombing, tension has risen to dangerous levels in the predominantly Kurdish south-east, where many have long accused the Turkish government of directly supporting the Islamic State against the Kurdish struggle in Syria, a charge Ankara vehemently denies.

Later in the week the People’s Defence Force (HPG) – the armed wing of the PKK -claimed responsibility for the killing of two police officers in Ceylanpinar, a town on the Syrian border, in retaliation for the Suruç bomb. A policeman was killed in Diyarbakır on Thursday, while another officer was kidnapped there on Friday night. Violent protests against the ruling AKP’s failed Syria policies and their stalling of the Kurdish peace process have erupted in several cities across Turkey.

In two subsequent anti-terror raids across Turkey, hundreds were detained on Friday and Saturday, including people with suspected links to the Islamic State and to the outlawed PKK.

Ahmet Yildiz, a farmer and shepherd in Semdinli, a small town nestling between the Iranian and the Iraqi borders, said the sound of fighter jets kept his family up most of Friday night. Late on Friday, PKK fighters attacked a local police station wounding three officers.

“The planes are all around in the mountains,” Yildiz said. “I bought a flock of sheep because I believed that peace was finally going to come. But now I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know if I can take the sheep up to the pastures. I am very sad; we all are.”

The leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP) said it was time to stabilise the peace process. “We underline again how very much Turkey needs peace and a solution [to the Kurdish issue]. It is possible to solve our societal, historical and political problems through mutual dialogue, negotiations and through the development of democracy,” a statement said on Saturday. “The increase and perpetuation of violence will not bring a lasting, democratic and egalitarian solution for any side, or any part of society.”

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

 The update below summarises matters at the end of August 2015. It suggested to me that Turkey is entering a period of uncertainty that will be detrimental to most of its citizens:

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has approved the make-up of the provisional government that will run the country until the 1st November elections, including for the first time pro-Kurdish MPs.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was tasked with forming a caretaker government earlier this week after he failed to form a coalition government following an inconclusive vote on 7th June.

The two pro-Kurdish legislators are from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which for the first time managed to pass a 10% minimum vote threshold required for it to be represented in parliament in the June election. Davutoglu said HDP legislators Muslum Dogan and Ali Haydar Konca will become ministers in charge of development and of relations with the European Union.

The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its overall majority in parliament for the first time in thirteen years in the June polls. Erdogan appointed Davutoglu to form an interim “election government” which, according to the constitution, must be made up of all parties represented in parliament.

The cabinet spots are divided up according to the parties’ share of seats in parliament with eleven going to the AKP, five to the second-placed Republican People’s Party (CHP) and three a piece to the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the pro-Kurdish HDP. Opposition parties have refused to take part in the interim government, making the HDP – which the government accuses of being a political front for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – and the AKP major partners in the new cabinet.

Speaking to his party’s provincial heads earlier on Friday, Davutoglu said: “We will work just like a four-year government as we are heading toward 1st November.”

In a deviation from the party line, MHP legislator Tugrul Turkes, son of the MHP’s founder, Alparslan Turkes, accepted an invitation to serve as a deputy prime minister in a move denounced by the party’s leadership.

Davutoglu had to appoint non-partisan figures to fill the seats snubbed by the opposition parties. Selami Altinok, former Istanbul police chief, was appointed interior minister and foreign ministry undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioglu was named as the new foreign minister.

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

 The 1st November general election was a success for Erdogan and the AKP. It has been judged by European Union observers to be free but not fair because it took place in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation against a backdrop of escalating violence and the detention of government opponents, members of the media included.

The AKP won an overall majority of 317 seats with 49.5% of the vote (in fact, the AKP secured about four million more votes in November than in June). The AKP won the election on a pledge to bring stability and security out of chaos, but a majority of voters conveniently ignored that Erdogan and the AKP were themselves the cause of the chaos in that they broke the ceasefire with the PKK and directed more military might against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria than against the Islamic State.

In my estimation, the election result is a disaster for Turkey. Why? Because it will unleash dangerously high levels of Turkish nationalism and give to the Islamists, whether moderate or otherwise, the power to push through reforms that make the state far more sympathetic to mainstream Sunni Islam than is already the case. All non-Turks and non-Sunni Muslims in the republic have reason to regret that the AKP’s decision not to negotiate seriously to create a coalition government following the June election has paid off, for the AKP at least, if not for anyone else.

One of the few positive outcomes of the election was that the HDP won more than 10% of the vote (10.7%) and is therefore still represented in parliament, but its share of the vote declined from June and now it has only 59 MPs. Unrest in Diyarbakir, perhaps inevitably, followed. In Silvan, where some of the local Kurds had declared independence from the Turkish Republic, the result was greeted with considerable worry. In fact, across all of Turkish Kurdistan and in Tunceli province, majorities were deeply troubled that the AKP once again ruled alone. By the time we get to the next general election, Turkey will have been ruled by one party, the AKP, for no less than seventeen years, despite the few months this year (late August to the end of October) when the provisional government was in power, a government that included non-AKP MPs (see above).

Another positive outcome was that the AKP did not secure the 330 MPs required to call a referendum to amend the country’s constitution.

Just for the record, the CHP secured 25.3% of the vote and 134 MPs and the MHP 11.9% of the vote and 40 MPs. A small number of people voted for parties that did not reach the 10% threshold required for representation in parliament. The percentage of women MPs declined from 18% to 14.7%.

The “Today’s Zaman” website has an excellent chart revealing how many people voted for each party in every province.

P.S. I recently read that Turkey would like the deserted medieval Armenian city of Ani, which overlooks the border with the Republic of Armenia east of the city of Kars, declared a world heritage site. Neglect and worse have resulted in very little of this once-magnificent city remaining, but here is another indication that at least some Turkish citizens in positions of political authority recognise the importance of at least some Armenian monuments, albeit primarily in the hope that, by preserving what remains, tourist revenues in a remote region will increase.

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

The Monastery of St. David, Aprank, near Tercan.

Postscript one: the June 2015 general election and its aftermath.

What eventually proved to be Turkey’s first of two general elections in 2015 took place on 7th June. At stake were the 550 seats of the Grand National Assembly. It was the twenty-fourth general election in the history of the Turkish Republic. Amid speculation that no party would win enough seats to govern alone, the result created the first hung parliament since the 1999 general election.

The Justice and Development Party  (AKP), which has governed Turkey since the 2002 election, lost its parliamentary majority, but remained the largest party in parliament with 258 seats and 40.9% of the vote. The AKP failed to win the 330 seats it needed to submit constitutional changes to a referendum and fell well short of President Erdogan’s personal target of 400 MPs. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) also fared worse than in the previous, 2011, general election winning 132 seats with 25.0% of the vote. Having been projected to win over many disaffected AKP supporters, the Nationalist Movement Party  (MHP) improved on its 2011 performance by winning 80 seats with 16.3% of the vote. The new People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose candidates had contested past elections as independents in order to bypass the 10% election threshold, fought the election as a party despite concerns that it might fall below the threshold and lose all its parliamentary representation. The HDP fared better than expected by winning 80 seats, the same as the MHP, with 13.1% of the vote. The indecisive result raised the prospect of an early snap general election.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

Campaigning before the election focused mainly on the declining economy, the ongoing Solution Process between the government and Kurdish rebels, the ongoing political conflict with the Gulen Movement and Turkish involvement (or, until July 2015 at least, the apparent lack of such involvement) in the Syrian civil war. Allegations of government corruption and authoritarianism, mainly originating from a 2013 scandal and the 2013 Gezi Park protests respectively, were also some of the issues raised during the opposition campaigns. The vote was seen by some as a referendum on Erdogan’s call for an executive presidency.

Accusations of electoral fraud and political violence also caused controversy during the election process. Candidates, activists, offices and motor vehicles were subject to politically motivated acts of violence and vandalism, culminating in the death of five HDP supporters after two bombs exploded during a rally in Diyarbakir on 5th June. The interference of President Erdogan, who was accused of covertly campaigning for the AKP under the guise of “public opening” rallies, was also controversial because the president is constitutionally required to exercise political neutrality. Despite fraud claims dating back to the hugely controversial 2014 local elections and numerous claims of misconduct in many provinces on polling day, the election was largely praised by the OSCE for being carefully organised, and was declared free and fair by the European Parliament.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The uplifting article below (sadly, the next post will reveal that the optimism was misplaced) appeared recently in “The Guardian” newspaper along with a photo saying that Feleknas Uca could be the first HDP member of parliament from the Yazidi community. Feleknas Uca is a woman:

The election result brought forth an embryonic new Turkey, but not the one the president wanted. It produced what is tantamount to a cultural revolution in Turkish political life. Women will pour (?!?) into parliament in Ankara in unprecedented numbers, 98 up from 79. Openly gay candidates won seats for the HDP. Most of all, the long-repressed Kurdish minority (one in five citizens) will be properly represented in the parliament for the first time with 80 seats.

“This is the first time that feminists in Turkey actively supported a political party,” said feminist activist Mehtap Dogan. “Up until now we have always done politics on our own, away from parliament. But this time we ran a campaign supporting the HDP because we believed in their sincerity when it comes to defending the rights of women, LGBTs and ethnic minorities.”

The HDP is the first party to introduce a quota of 50% female politicians, and all party offices and HDP-run municipalities are chaired by both a man and a woman. The party’s successful attempt to break out of ethnic identity politics and broaden its appeal well beyond the Kurdish issue owes much to leader Selahattin Demirtas’ magnetism and his message of outreach. But the mass protest movement, born in a central Istanbul park two years ago and which mushroomed into national protests that Erdogan crushed mercilessly, also fed into the HDP’s support.

“During the Gezi Park protests, many got an idea of what Kurds had to go through for years: the violence, the repression, the unjust arrests. It opened our eyes to the Kurdish suffering,” said Dogan. “At the same time, we saw how the pro-government press tried to turn our legitimate, peaceful protests into acts of terrorism.”

Just as Erdogan branded the protesters two years ago “riff-raff”, “terrorists” and “foreign agents”, in the election campaign he stoked division and malice by repeatedly smearing his HDP opponents as “terrorists, marginals, gays and atheists”. He asked religiously conservative voters not to cast their ballots for “such people who have nothing to do with Islam”. The tactic backfired as many religiously conservative Kurds shifted their votes from the AKP to a party that promised to represent everyone’s interests.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

A chart on the “Hurriyet Daily News” website about the June election result revealed the following about provinces in eastern Turkey. The HDP was the largest single party in Agri (79% of the vote), Ardahan (31%), Batman (73%), Bitlis (61%), Diyarbakir (80%), Hakkari (88%), Igdir (57%), Kars (45%), Mardin (74%), Mus (71%), Siirt (66%), Sirnak (85%), Tunceli (61%) and Van (78%). Of the provinces in which I spent time not already mentioned, the AKP was the largest party with 47% of the votes in Bingol, 54% in Elazig, 49% in Erzincan, 54% in Giresun and 59% in Sivas (Divrigi is in Sivas province). I was surprised to see that the AKP was the most popular party in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, but not surprised that it was in Malatya, given how Sunni Islam has impacted so detrimentally on the provincial capital in recent years. Our many friends in Balikesir must have been livid that the AKP was the most popular party in that province in the west, and I was shocked to see that Rize had a higher percentage voting AKP (67%) than profoundly conservative and pious Konya (65%). In only one province, Osmaniye, did the MHP emerge as the most popular party, so Osmaniye is somewhere I shall avoid for a while. The AKP remained the most popular party in all three of Istanbul’s electoral districts and both of Ankara’s, but the CHP was the most popular party in Izmir’s two electoral districts.

By common consent, the AKP was seen as the most obvious loser and the HDP the most obvious winner. However, as the largest party in parliament, the AKP had the opportunity to form a coalition with one of the other parties, but it was doubtful it would wish to do so. The AKP had forty-five days following the declaration of the election result in which to form a government. If it could not form a government, or if the coalition collapsed sometime thereafter, the president could call another election.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The difficulties the AKP had in forming a coalition government were as follows (although we now know that the AKP never seriously wanted to form such a government). The CHP was reluctant to enter a coalition with the AKP because the CHP remains Kemalist in outlook; its uncompromisingly secular inclinations render it almost impossible to contemplate collaboration with a religious party. The MHP would have loved to form a coalition with the AKP, but such a coalition, one including a Turkish nationalist party with links to shadowy extremist groups of a very violent nature, would definitely have derailed the AKP’s progress in recent years to woo the Kurds, a process which has made it very unlikely that civil war will begin again. The AKP would have found it impossible to work with the HDP because the HDP is as uncompromising in its commitment to secularism as the CHP and far more supportive of minority rights (ethnic, religious, sexual, etc.) than any mainstream party. Moreover, the HDP was now the leading representative of Kurdish interests in the Turkish Republic. However, the AKP believes (and I think the AKP is correct in its belief) that most ethnic Turks are not yet prepared to see Kurds in government, given that Kurds are still viewed by a majority of ethnic Turks as second class citizens who want to create from within the Turkish Republic a nation state of their own. There was also the legacy of the civil war and the fact that most ethnic Turks believe that blame for the war lies with the Kurds alone, and not with the decades of repression, discrimination and blatant denial of human rights predicated on government policies shaped by Turkish nationalism dating from the birth of the republic itself.

A remarkable thirty-two HDP members of parliament were women. The only party that did little to ensure women entered parliament in significant numbers was the MHP, which now had four women MPs. This said, women now made up 18% of parliamentarians, up from 14% before the election.

Filiz Kerestecioglu, who entered parliament for the HDP, is a lawyer and a women’s rights’ activist. Twenty-five years ago, she helped set up Turkey’s first shelter for women suffering domestic violence. The shelter soon emerged as the home of Turkey’s feminist movement. Filiz Kerestecioglu is reported to have said to the BBC that the increase in the overall number of women parliamentarians was “not satisfactory, but still, it is important”.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

The Armenian church on the island of Akdamar/Aghtamar, Lake Van.

To Mazgirt.

During what was to be roughly forty-eight hours in and around Tunceli, I heard the adhan only once. There is a very ordinary, modern, Ottoman-style mosque in the town centre, but it was never very busy. I suspect that most people who use it are not indigenous, but outsiders who had settled in the town permanently or temporarily, perhaps for work purposes.

And it was most definitely NOT the adhan that woke me at about 4.00am. I was startled awake by a far more interesting and rhythmic sound, that of an unaccompanied male voice repeating the same or a very similar phrase many times, with other voices, which sounded male but may have included those of a few women, repeating the phrase after the soloist. At one point I thought I heard drums emphasising the rhythm, but it could have been human voices creating the effect. The chanting, because this was the best way of describing what I heard, went on for about twenty minutes and I assumed it came from a nearby cemevi. Because I did not hear the same thing the following morning at the same time, I assumed it must be something peculiar to the Monday concerned. Alternatively, were Alevis and/or Bektashis marking an important day in their cycle of festivals and commemorations, a cycle that differs significantly from the cycle of festivals and commemorations important to mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims? Back home, because I found nothing significant about 25th May 2015 for Alevis or Bektashis, I concluded that what I heard was a routine practice confined to Mondays.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

I knew that a minibus left for Mazgirt, my main destination for the day, at 7.00am, but, if I left that early, I would miss breakfast. As it is, Mazgirt is not a great distance from Tunceli, so an early start was not essential. I ate breakfast, which was not as good as the best nor as bad as the worst so far. I enjoyed in particular the views south, east and north from the L-shaped room in which the food was served. This said, a woman prepared the meal and the food included loose butter as white as Lurpak, a local cream cheese, boiled eggs and flat-bread still warm from the baker’s oven. The woman wore casual clothes of European character and no headscarf, as you might expect in a hotel run by two men who appeared to be socialists or communists.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

The hotel's breakfast room, Tunceli.

The hotel’s breakfast room, Tunceli.

Because overnight I had an upset stomach, I returned to my room for a fourth and last shit to clear the system (as I knew from past experience, with an upset stomach regular shits are the best medicine and not medicine itself) and instantly felt a lot better.

At about 7.45 I left the hotel, walked to the bridge over the river carrying the road from Elazig to Pulumur and Erzincan, and made my way south toward Elazig and what I hoped would soon be the edge of town. But development persists for a long way, so much so that I flagged a minibus to Tunceli University’s campus, which I knew was about 7 kilometres from the town centre. The minibus went past many new buildings, most of which could not be more than ten years old. Some of the buildings coalesce into a quite attractive residential area with apartment blocks rising about eight to a dozen storeys. The blocks are painted bright colours and the apartments look comfortable. Every apartment has at least one balcony. Shops, offices, lokantas, bakeries and interior design and furniture stores occupy the ground floors, so the locality is a relatively self-sufficient suburb. This said, vacant plots exist among the apartment blocks and they are covered with litter and building waste.

None of the female students in the minibus or on their way to the university by walking or using other transport wore a headscarf. They and their male companions could have been conveyed to almost any campus in the UK and looked very much at home.

I got off the minibus when it turned off the road to Elazig to ascend the hillside to access the campus. I walked a short distance along the Elazig road to where an elderly couple were waiting for a minibus to Elazig via Pertek and the ferry that crosses the Keban Reservoir. The Elazig minibus arrived and, because it had the space, I went as far as the point where the road to Pertek branches from the much longer road to Elazig that I needed to follow to access Mazgirt. Once again, the driver would not take any money for the fare.

I was now about 8 kilometres from the junction for Mazgirt and confident that the next lift would get me at least that far. Five minutes later a van stopped and the driver and his companion said they were going to Mazgirt. The 11 kilometres from the junction to Mazgirt is through remarkably pretty undulating scenery dominated for most of the way by fields, orchards and pasture. In the distance are mountains and one of the mountains is the vast eruption of rock on which stands Mazgirt’s citadel. Mazgirt itself, a small and compact town, clings to the gently sloping wall of the mountain facing south. From the town there are wide views down the Munzur Cayi valley and over that of the lower Euphrates.

Mazgirt.

Mazgirt.

The citadel, Mazgirt.

The citadel, Mazgirt.

On the way to Mazgirt a car on the other side of the road ran over a puppy, but the driver did not stop to see if it had survived (nor did we stop, in fairness, but all three of us expressed anger and dismay that the driver running over the puppy could be so reckless and indifferent). The driver of the car in front of the one that ran over the puppy had applied its brakes so as not to do it any harm. Returning to Tunceli later in the day I saw that the puppy had not survived. Its body remained in the road where it had died.

I was dropped in the middle of Mazgirt, a town with an official population of just less than 2,000. A small square of irregular shape has the Hukumet Konagi on one side and, before leaving for Tunceli, I was invited inside by a police officer with whom I had some tea. Bunting of the different political parties hung from lamp posts and buildings, and the vans of the CHP pulled into town with the usual music blaring from loudspeakers (at one point in the Hukumet Konagi I had a conversation about Erdogan with a CHP bigwig or fixer. I was surprised that I had a far more negative impression of the president than he did).

Mazgirt.

Mazgirt.

Part of the square and a nearby street constitutes the commercial heart of the town and most premises are occupied by shops, small supermarkets, tea houses, lokantas, barbers, a butcher and a tailor. The dress of the women suggested Mazgirt has a largely Alevi population, so conversation was frequent and relaxed with everyone I met.

Mazgirt.

Mazgirt.

Although Mazgirt’s most important survival from the past is the citadel, I also examined two very ruined churches, the Ulu Camii, a turbe in excellent condition and some attractive old houses utilising stone, timber, plaster and, to fix holes in the walls or render roofs lightweight but watertight, corrugated iron or flat metal sheets. By the end of my short visit I liked the town a lot. I also liked the walk up and partly around the citadel majestically constructed on the mountain high above the town. During the walk I encountered beehives and wild flowers, the latter of enviable variety. Back in the town centre I alarmed a police officer when taking a photo of the landscaping that had rendered the small square a building site. He asked if I had taken a photo of an armoured vehicle parked outside the Hukumet Konagi. When I showed him the photos on my memory stick to confirm I had not, he relaxed and we shook hands. Mazgirt and its immediate surroundings had a much larger police and jandarma presence than I would have thought necessary, but, in fairness, some of the jandarma posts had been abandoned.

Mazgirt.

Mazgirt.

The police officer worried about my photographs was from Istanbul and had to serve in the small town of Mazgirt for two years. He was half way through his tour of duty and admitted that Mazgirt had come as quite a culture shock after living his whole life until twelve months before in Istanbul where secular and Sunni dispositions are vastly more apparent than Alevi.

Before leaving for Tunceli, I consumed two chilled ayrans in a small supermarket on the main square. By then I was very thirsty and in need of the refreshment.

Mazgirt.

Mazgirt.

By way of introducing Mazgirt to his readers, Sinclair notes that:

From the line of mountains extends a rocky arm pointing roughly south-west; from this again the delicate but formidable citadel rock breaks off towards the south-east; a remarkable detached tower of rock outlies it to the south-west. A bowl, where until the first world war most of the settlement lay, is thus enclosed on three sides by dark, broken cliffs: previously, part of the town had lain on the beginning of the descent towards the Munzur Cayi. The town has now moved.

Of the citadel, Sinclair writes that:

In its basic shape this is a long platform with a rock rising out of the middle…

Lower platform. There are walls upstanding only at a few points. At the sharp nw. corner they survive to a good height… The facing material of what survives is a reddish and purple block, and the walls that we see are probably near in date to the Elte Hatun Camii (1252/53). Approaching up the e. skirt one finds a small complex of walls…: to the r. is a rather crude but gently rising rock-hewn staircase…

Upper platform… Circular rock-hewn pit (original purpose unknown): the rectangular block of masonry built partly over its w. edge is said to have belonged to a windmill. Just n. of the inner angle starts a rectangular floor created by hollowing out the rock slope, so that the inner rock wall, against which some medieval (?) masonry has been added, is of a substantial height. Perhaps originally a platform connected with a temple elsewhere on the terrace?

The citadel, Mazgirt.

The citadel, Mazgirt.

The citadel, Mazgirt.

The citadel, Mazgirt.

What I call the Ulu Camii, because this is how Mazgirt’s inhabitants designate it today, Sinclair identifies as the Elte Hatun Camii. The mosque:

in which a dark, purplish composite stone was used, was built in 1252/53 by a princess called Elte Hatun… The prayer hall is a rectangle of limited size. The entrance vestibule is against the e. half of the n. wall… Since it is a single-vaulted chamber whereas the vaults of the prayer hall are taken on piers, it had to be built higher than the prayer hall…

Portal. The muqarnas canopy is cut into the back wall of a deep and tall arched recess… Cesme… Simple muqarnas canopy.

The entrance hall has a domical vault and lantern above… The prayer hall’s vaults rest on four solid, fairly low piers. From the piers are sprung thick n.-s. arches, and the vaults, interrupted by wide ribs, rest on arches. There is a lantern dead in the middle of the roof. The mihrab niche is a rectangle inset into the wall, on whose face runs a plain concave moulding.

Ulu Camii, Mazgirt.

Ulu Camii, Mazgirt.

 Sinclair calls the turbe the Elte Hatun Turbesi, but:

The low quality of the carving makes this almost inconceivable. Perhaps 15th century. Eight-sided, pyramidal cap. Door to n., three windows placed at the other points of the compass… Door frame: roughly executed plain mouldings. Either side, two vertical bands of an extraordinary incised decoration.

The turbe, Mazgirt.

The turbe, Mazgirt.

 The church in a better state of preservation is the Armenian Church of Surp Hakop. According to Sinclair:

Its ne. and e. sides, apparently lying against the hill, are in reality banked up with gradually accumulating loose earth. The church is a strangely short rectangle. The apse and the side chambers are conceived of as openings dug into a mass of masonry filling the e. end and faced in a clean wall. The nave, not much longer than it is wide, is roofed by a broad barrel-vault steadied by a powerful rib. From the springing-line upwards, the w. wall has disappeared, leaving only the bases of the three windows in this wall. Large cut blocks are used on the sw. corner. Thus the doorway and its relieving arch are executed in this masonry. Note muqarnas-style decoration of capitals of rib and at base of arch leading to apse.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Perhaps 16th or 17th century; however, the church has the appearance of being reconstructed from the ruins of a predecessor whose e. end was of a similar design, but whose nave would have been longer and thus better proportioned.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Church of Surp Hakop, Mazgirt.

Not all that Sinclair describes above survives today, but even less remains of the second church, which is also likely to be Armenian. Nonetheless, I provide in full Sinclair’s brief description so we acquire an insight into what has been lost:

That of the Mother of God. N. side chamber; beginning of apse and apse arch; arch now blocked, which once separated n. aisle from nave, part of vault over nave are left. Probably a basilican church. Date extremely hard (to estimate); possibly medieval. Arches in brick.

Church of the Mother of God.

Church of the Mother of God.

Although too small to support of hotel, even a very simple one, Mazgirt is a delightful place in remarkably attractive surroundings and well worth visiting for at least a few hours.

Mazgirt.

Mazgirt.

I walked out of the town past a modern school and a driver stopped his car to ask where I was going. He drove me all the way to the centre of Tunceli where he had business to conduct and shopping to do. Until we arrived among the kipple cluttering the south end of Tunceli, the journey was scenically a delight.

Tunceli (and the Dersim massacres of 1937-1938).

Back in Tunceli I quickly freshened up at the hotel, then went for a walk through the town centre, along the river and to the otogar to check on whether minibuses left the following morning to Mazgirt (they did, but not at a time convenient for me). After ascending from the river through a park where many large snails crossed a stone footpath, thereby risking death under shoes worn by careless or vindictive humans, I came across two large plaques set into a stone wall reminding people about “Dersim 1938”. On both plaques males wore loosely tied turbans.

Perhaps the best of the easily accessed accounts of the Dersim massacres that began in 1937 and ended in 1938 can be found in the “Online Encyclopaedia of Mass Violence” which has a case study entitled “Dersim Massacre, 1937-1938” last modified in 2012. Because so little is known about the massacre outside Turkey, I quote at length from the case study. As you will see, it has very obvious links with the Armenian genocide and its aftermath:

In 1937 and 1938, a military campaign took place in parts of the Turkish province of Tunceli, formerly Dersim, that had not been brought under the control of the state. It lasted from March 1937 to September 1938 and resulted in a particularly high death toll: many thousands of civilian victims. Contemporary officers called it a “disciplinary campaign”, politicians and the press, a “Kemalist civilising mission”. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, however, in a November 2009 speech, referred to it as a “massacre”, which can be considered an historically appropriate term. It took place when the Republic of Turkey was consolidated – in contrast with the repression of the Kurdish Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925 or the Kocgiri uprising in 1921. The campaign in Dersim was prepared well in advance and therefore was not a short-term reaction to a specific uprising. President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk stood personally behind it and died shortly after its end.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

After the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne had recognised the Turkish nationalist movement as the sole legitimate representative of Turkey and admitted its victory in Asia Minor, the Republic of Turkey was founded. The nationalist movement implemented revolutionary changes from above, such as the abolition of the caliphate in 1924, and the introduction of the Swiss civil code in 1926 and the Latin alphabet in 1928. Broadly acclaimed as a successful modern nation state, the Turkish Republic rebuilt its international relations in the 1930s and succeeded, in a deal with France and the League of Nations (of which it became a member in 1932), in incorporating the Syrian region of Alexandretta into its national territory in 1938 and 1939. However, radical Turkism (Turkish ethno-nationalism) with racist undertones marked the ideological climate of the 1930s, while cosmopolitan Ottomanism and Islam were radically evacuated from the political sphere and intellectual life. Kemalist Turkism – the ideology of the new political elite tied to the one-party regime – albeit triumphalist, expressed the need for a connection to deeper roots and made a huge effort to legitimise Anatolia as the national home of the Turks by means of historical physical anthropology.

The region of Dersim, renamed Tunceli in 1935, stood markedly at odds with the politico-cultural landscape of 1930s Turkey. In a 1926 report, Hamdi Bey, a senior official, called the area an abscess that needed an urgent surgeon from the republic. In 1932, the journalist and deputy Nasit Ulug published a booklet with the title “The Feudal Lords and Dersim”; it asked at the end how a “Dersim system” marked by feudalism and banditry could be destroyed. After Hamdi Bey, General Inspector Ibrahim Tali, Marshal Fevzi Cakmak and Minister of the Interior Sukru Kaya collected information on the ground and wrote reports concluding the necessity of introducing “reforms” in the region. The need for reforms for Dersim, together with military campaigns to effect them, had been a postulate since the Ottoman reforms, the Tanzimat, of the 19th century. Several military campaigns had taken place, but had brought only limited successes. In parts of Dersim and other eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire, in which Kurdish lords had reigned autonomously since the 16th century, the state had established its direct rule only in the second third of the 19th century, though it depended still in the republican era on the co-option of local lords to maintain its rule. The central parts of Dersim, by contrast, resisted both co-option and direct rule until the 1930s. Nevertheless, Dersim had been represented by a few deputies in the Ottoman parliament in Istanbul and, since 1920, in the national assembly in Ankara.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Dersim is a mountainous region between Sivas, Erzincan and Elazig (renamed from Elaziz in 1937. Turkification of local names began during world war one). It covers an area of 90 kilometres from east to west and 70 kilometres from north to south, and had, according to official estimates in the 1930s, a population of nearly 80,000, of which one-fifth were considered men able to bear arms. Dersim’s topography allowed cattle breeding, but only little agriculture. It offered many places for refuge and hiding: valleys, caves, forests and mountains. These had been vital for the survival of Dersim’s Alevi population. The Alevis venerated Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law. They refused to conform with sharia and remained attached to unorthodox Sufi beliefs and practices widespread in Anatolia before the 16th century, when the Ottoman state embraced Sunni orthodoxy. Their beliefs were mostly linked to Anatolian saint Haci Bektash (13th century). Since many Alevis had sympathises with Safavid (and Shia) Persia in the 16th century, they were lastingly stigmatised as heretics and traitors.

The first language of the Dersim Kurds, as they were called by contemporary observers, was not Turkish but Zazaki (the main language) or Kurmanji. Kurdish nationalism had had an impact on a few Dersim leaders and intellectuals since the early 20th century. They supported President Woodrow Wilson’s principle of self-determination after world war one and linked an articulated ideology to Kurdish activism, as General Fevzi Cakmak complained in his 1930 report. Cakmak therefore demanded the removal of functionaries of “Kurdish race” in Erzincan. The Kocgiri uprising in 1921 had been the first rebellion marked by overt Kurdish nationalism; it, too, had taken place in an Alevi region at the western boundary of Dersim.

Though the declaration of a secular republic and the abolition of the caliphate in early 1924 won over many Anatolian Alevis, most Alevis in eastern Anatolia remained distrustful. This divide coincided by and large with that of Turkish- and/or Kurdish-speaking “eastern Alevis” outside the organisation of the Bektashis on the one hand, and “western Alevis” reached by the reformed Bektashi order of the 16th century and thus domesticated by the Ottoman state on the other. Dersim had important places of religious pilgrimage, some of which were shared with local Armenians. Its seyyids claimed descent from Ali and entertained a network of dependent communities in and outside Dersim. The Young Turks and the leaders of the Turkish national movement after 1918 had co-opted the Bektashis, of which a leader had in vain tried to win over the chiefs of Dersim to fight alongside the Ottoman army against the invading Russians in 1916. Two limited rebellions then broke out and armed groups harassed the Ottoman army. Dersim was the only place more or less safe for Armenian refugees during and after the genocide of 1915, which mainly took place in the eastern provinces.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

After the establishment of the new state in Ankara and the repression of the Kurdish uprisings of the 1920s, the attention of the government turned more and more to Dersim, described as a place of reactionary evil forces, of interior and exterior intrigues, and hostage to tribal chiefs and religious leaders. Dersim could, in fact, be described as a pre-modern, tribally split society; it became increasingly isolated after 1920. At the same time, according to Hamdi Bey who visited Dersim in 1926, it was growing more politicised  to the point of adopting openly anti-Kemalist Kurdish positions. Sustained contacts with Hoybun, the Kurdish and Armenian organisation founded in Syria in 1927, were not, however, possible.

Economic problems and banditry had a long history in Dersim; they became more acute due to the region’s isolation and the bad economic conditions after world war one. Yet, in the late Ottoman era, new currents had begun to permeate Dersim and the areas adjacent to it. These included labour migration, emulation of quickly modernising Armenian neighbours, the desire for education and attendance at new – Armenian, missionary, or state – schools, as well as the spread of medical services. Compared with the situation in the early republic, late Ottoman eastern Anatolia had been pluralist and culturally and economically much more dynamic.

The 1934 Law of Settlement legitimised in general terms the depopulation of regions in Turkey for cultural, political or military reasons, with the intent to create, as Minister of the Interior Kaya stated, “a country with one language, one mentality, and unity of feelings”. The law was conceived in order to complete the Turkification of Anatolia in the context of the new focus on Dersim in interior politics.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

In October 1935, Italy began a brutal invasion of Ethiopia during which it used chemical weapons and killed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. For the prominent theorist of Kemalism at the time, deputy and former minister Mahmut Esat Bozkurt, Mussolini’s fascism was nothing other than a version of Kemalism, even though Turkey’s and Italy’s foreign policies contrasted. In 1930 Bozkurt had spoken of a war between two races, the Kurds and the Turks, and had gone so far as to say, “All, friends, enemies and the mountains, shall know that the Turk is the master of this country. All those who are not pure Turks have only one right in the Turkish homeland: the right to be servants, the right to be slaves”.

These elements formed the context when, in December 1935, Minister of the Interior Kaya presented a draft law, commonly known as the Tunceli Law, that once more labelled the region a zone of illness that needed surgery. In terms of national security there was no urgency; non-military officials of the state were not molested on entering Dersim, e.g., for the population census of every village in 1935. The law passed without opposition in parliament or the press, both being controlled by the Kemalist People’s Republican Party. Dersim, formerly part of the province of Elazig, was established as a separate province, renamed Tunceli and ruled in a state of emergency by the military governor, Abdullah Alpdogan, the head of the Fourth General Inspectorate…

Hamdi Bey’s 1926 report had already called for strong measures and labelled the attempt at a peaceful penetration of Dersim by schools, infrastructure and industry an illusion. Against this background, actors on both sides were separated by a rift and unable to find a common language, albeit in an unbalanced dialogue. Seyyid Riza, perhaps the most important tribal chief, in addition to being a religious figure, insisted on autonomy and the revocation of the 1935 Tunceli Law. He seemed to have believed initially that Dersim could not be subdued militarily. He had worked for years, partly successfully, to unite the tribes.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

After several incidents in March 1937 which included attacks by tribal groups against the new infrastructure in Pah and a police station in Sin, the military campaign was launched. With 8,623 men, artillery and an air force at its disposal, Ankara possessed superiority in numbers and materiel. On 4th May 1937, the Council of Ministers, including Ataturk and Fevzi Cakmak, the Chief of General Staff, decided secretly on a forceful attack against western central Dersim, an attack to kill all who used or had used arms and to remove the population settled between Nazimiye and Sin. The same day, planes dropped pamphlets saying that, in the case of surrender, “no harm at all would be done to you, dear compatriots. If not, entirely against our will, the [military] forces will act and destroy you. One must obey the state”.

In the following months, the army successfully advanced against fierce resistance and changing tribal coalitions led by Riza, allied tribal chiefs and Aliser, a talented poet and activist. Unity among the rebels was far from achieved; only a few tribes formed the hard core of the resistance. On 9th July, Aliser and his wife were killed by their own people and their heads sent to Alpdogan. Also in July, Riza sent a letter to the Prime Minister in which he vividly described what he saw as anti-Kurdish policies of assimilation, removal and a war of destruction. Via his friend Nuri Dersimi, who had gone into exile in Syria in September 1937, he also sent a despairing letter to the League of Nations and the foreign ministries of the United Kingdom, France and the United States, none of which answered. On 10th September he surrendered to the army in Erzincan. Messages of congratulation were sent to Alpdogan by Ataturk, Minister of the Interior Sukru Kaya and Prime Minister Inonu, who had visited Elazig in June. Shortly before Ataturk visited Elazig, Riza was executed in the city together with his son, Resik Huseyin, tribal leader Seyit Haso and a few sons of tribal chiefs. The executions were hastily organised by Ihsan Sabri Çaglayangil, later the Foreign Minister.

Despite the setbacks of 1937, Dersimi groups resumed attacks against the security forces in early 1938, saying that they would all perish if they did not resist. The military campaign took on a new and comprehensive character as the government embarked on a general cleansing in order “to eradicate once and for all this (Dersim) problem”, in the words of Prime Minister Celal Bayar in parliament on 29th June 1938. Also in June 1938, military units began to penetrate those parts of Dersim that did not surrender between Pulur (Ovacik), Danzik and Pah. On 10th August, a large campaign of “cleansing and scouring” started. It ended in early September and cost the lives of many thousands of men, women and children, even of tribes that co-operated with the government.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

According to official statements, the military campaign of 1937 targeted bandits and reactionary tribal and religious leaders who misled innocent people. On a secret level, however, right from the beginning – in particular, with the decision of the Council of Ministers of 4th May 1937 – groups of the people of Dersim as a whole were targeted, at least for relocation as allowed for by the 1934 Law of Settlement. Those targeted feared, as in Kocgiri in 1921, that they would perish like the Armenians if they did not resist. The campaign in spring 1937 concerned the regions in which most clashes occurred, between Pah and Hozat. Villages were to be disarmed and people removed, but the main violence targeted armed groups.

Halli, who amply cites military documents, scarcely uses the word “imha” (annihilation, destruction or obliteration) for this period. This changed with the summer 1938 campaign, which employed massive violence against the whole population, even beyond the parts of Dersim that did not surrender and that had been declared prohibited zones under the Law of Settlement. The Council of Ministers decided on 6th August 1938 that 5,000 to 7,000 Dersimis had to be removed from the prohibited zones to the west. “Thousands of persons, whose names the Fourth General Inspectorate (under Alpdogan) had listed, were arrested and sent in convoys to the regions where they were ordered to go”, wrote Halli in 1972.

Also targeted for relocation were numerous families living outside these zones or in areas neighbouring Dersim, if they were considered members of Dersimi tribes. Notables living outside Dersim were killed in summer 1938, as were some young Dersimis doing service in the army. For the killing of surviving “bandits”, an order by the Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior, the Minister of Defence and the Military Inspectorate proposed to use the Special Organisation, known for its role in the mass killing of Armenians in 1915 and 1916 and the murder of targeted individuals.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

According to Halli, “thousands of bandits” were killed in the first week of “cleansing and scouring” from 10th to 17th August 1938, but he mentions no comprehensive number for all those killed during the whole campaign. From his detailed narrative, however, which gives precise numbers or mentions a “big number” of killed persons for dozens of incidents, deaths likely totalled considerably higher than 10,000. An unpublished report by Alpdogan’s Inspectorate, recently quoted in Turkish newspapers, mentions 13,160 civilian dead and 11,818 deportees. The high number of deaths and ample written evidence prove that the killings were not limited to the insurgent tribes alone. A comparison of the censuses for 1935 and 1940 shows that the district of Hozat, with a loss of more than 10,000 people, was the most seriously affected part of Dersim. A proposed number of 40,000 victims seems, however, implausibly high.

According to Çaglayangil, the army used poison gas to kill people who hid in caves. Many others were burned alive, whether in houses or by spraying individuals with fuel. Even if people surrendered they were killed. In order “not to fall into the hands of the Turks”, girls and women jumped into abysses, as many Armenians had in 1915. The suspicion of having lodged “bandits” or, according to witness accounts by soldiers, military units’ desire for vengeance, sufficed as justification to kill whole villages. Soldiers confirm that they were ordered to kill women and children. One has to bear in mind that the Dersimis were seen – and declared so by officers – as Alevi heretics, sometimes as crypto-Armenians. When jandarma posts were established in the 1930s, jandarma even investigated whether local young men were circumcised. Uncircumcised men were thought to be Armenians.

“It is understood from various sources that, in clearing the area occupied by the Kurds, the military authorities have used methods similar to those used against the Armenians during the Great War: thousands of Kurds including women and children were slain; others, mostly children, were thrown into the Euphrates; while thousands of others in less hostile areas, who had first been deprived of their cattle and other belongings, were deported to vilayets in Central Anatolia”, reported the British Vice-Consul in Trabzon on 27th September 1938. His report is the exception to the rule that there exist no reports by foreign observers in or near the theatre of events because Dersim and the whole of eastern Turkey was generally closed to foreigners.

Documents and testimonies relating to the massacres do exist… They all agree that systematic massacres took place. Soldiers and survivors add that targets included civilians, women and children.

Accustomed to looking up to the state and army as omnipotent entities, most soldiers feared even decades afterwards to speak about their experiences. However, in 1991 Halil Colat, an ex-soldier, said, “When we came to the headquarters, we learned that discussions had taken place between the officers. A few said that these people (women and children in Hozat who had not given information on the whereabouts of the men) had to be annihilated, but others said that this was a sin… They (finally) ordered us: ‘Annihilate all you can apprehend…’ And that day we soldiers, in a horrific savageness and craziness, gathered the women, girls and children in a mosque – it was in fact not like a mosque, but rather like a church – closed it, sprayed kerosene and easily burnt them alive”.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Dersimis themselves have collected an important number of private documents, conducted interviews and built up internet sites. Recent work has added important material. A scholarly “1937 to 1938 Dersim Oral History Project” was launched in 2010. However, a main archive or centre of documentation for the Dersim massacre does not yet exist. The only nearly contemporary Kurdish history of the event is a chapter in Nuri Dersimi’s book of 1952, which includes testimonies. The author himself had left Dersim before the campaign.

Documentary novels and memoirs of the period have been written since the 1980s, e.g., by Sukru Lacin, a founder of the Turkish Workers’ Party in 1963 and not a sympathiser with Rıza or Kurdish nationalism… Lacin confirms that the campaign of 1938, and the forced removal of populations, covered parts of Dersim such as Mazgirt, Pertek and Nazimiye that did not refuse to pay taxes or enlist people in the army. He confirms that villages in Erzincan province in the districts of Refahiye, Cayirli, Uzumlu, Kemah and Tercan, where relatives of Lacin lived, were also targeted because their inhabitants were Alevi Kurds and were said to have relations with Dersim.

In the years after 1938, the one-party state and its press continued to maintain the image and memory of a necessary and fully successful campaign of pacification followed by sustained efforts at reconstruction. This is also the content of the book entitled “Tunceli is made accessible to civilisation” published in 1939 by Nasit Ulug, then the director of “Ulus”, a daily newspaper. Ulug described the punishment of “bandits”, but made no reference to mass killings. He provided a panegyric to the Turkish army, to which the Turkish nation had once again to be infinitely thankful… The Western and the Soviet press largely followed the Kemalist narrative of a civilising mission against reactionary conservatives. Only the press in the USA seemed to voice criticism of both the violent campaign and its undemocratic political framework. Like the European press, however, it lacked independent sources of information.

Heroic reports that recounted Kurdish exploits, resistance and the foundation of an independent Kurdish government appeared in the Armenian press in 1937. A simultaneously tragic and heroic memory of Dersim in 1937 to 1938 is to be found in the 1952 book and the memoirs of the Kurdish nationalist Nuri Dersimi, who was in contact with Armenians since the beginning of his exile. Dersimi’s texts, which underlined the barbaric aspects of the campaign, were seminal for the memory of the Kurdish nationalists, but he was also criticised by Dersimis as an instigator who left the country when it became dangerous.

The one-party regime met its end in the years after 1945. In 1947 the government repealed the Tunceli Law and relocated people were allowed to return to their villages. The state of emergency was lifted in 1948. Henceforth, memories dissenting from those promoted by the former one-party regime as well as on-going realities in Tunceli – poverty, the absence of schools and health services, etc. – could be acknowledged, though not freely. The army, the main actor on the ground, as well as the state and its founder, Ataturk, who had stood behind the Tunceli campaign, could never be openly criticised. The memory of the Dersim campaign as at least partly ruthless and misguided can also be found in letters of pious soldiers to the spiritual father of the Nurculuk, Said-i Nursi.

After 1945, Turkey stood under the shadow of the Cold War. Right and left claimed Ataturk’s heritage and did not question dark sides of the Kemalist “civilising mission”… The memory of the Dersim campaign as mass violence by the state and its army was nevertheless articulate in leftist circles, in particular among leftists from Tunceli, but also more generally among those with Alevi and Kurdish backgrounds.

The military putsch of 1980 crushed the Turkish left. After this experience, leftist circles critical of the state began to be more open to the Kurdish perspective that the Turkish state had always reacted with mass violence and denial against even moderate Kurdish claims. More detailed memories, detached from the Kemalist state and ideologies of progress and civilisation, have been recounted since the late 20th century. A “renaissance” of long-suppressed ethnic and religious identities and histories took place at the dawn of the post-Cold War era. Turkey’s EU candidature in 1999 and the AKP government since 2002 contributed to a more liberal context in which the military, the main actor of the campaign of 1937 to 1938, partly lost for the first time its hitherto sacrosanct, unchecked position at the top of the state.

During the so-called Kurdish or democratic opening of autumn 2009, on 17th November Prime Minister Erdogan called the events of 1937 to 1938 a massacre. For the first time, the memory of the Tunceli campaign as one of pacification and a mission of civilisation was publicly challenged at the governmental level, whereas the Republican People’s Party, that ruled Turkey when only one political party existed, had trouble in defending what for seventy years had been the official version of history. The latter version is nowadays widely seen as unacceptable, as is evident in media discussions from autumn 2009 onwards. It appears today as the position only of Turkish ultra-nationalists.

In contrast with the aftermath of the Kocgiri revolt in 1921, there were neither critical discussions in the Turkish parliament nor legal claims that officers responsible for brutality and mass killing of civilians should be put on trial. This is even less the case for Dersim because the Law of Settlement and the Tunceli Law had prepared the legal framework for the campaign and the removal of the Dersimis in advance… Legalism disguised the breach of law against citizens, as in other authoritarian or fascist regimes of the 1930s…

Historical sociologist Ismail Besikci was the first scholar to research the Dersim campaign; to emphasise the legalist but illegitimate, anti-constitutional framework in which it took place; and to call it, in a book of 1990, a genocide. Anthropologist Martin van Bruinessen proposed, in an article of 1994, the label “ethnocide”, arguing that the destruction of Dersim’s autonomous ethnic culture, not of its population, had been the campaign’s main intention. Though declared as a Turkifying mission of civilisation, the intent “to destroy, in whole or in part” – according to article 2 of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – the Dersimis, as a distinct ethno-religious group, then labelled as Alevi Kurd and partly as crypto-Armenian, and of “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” is manifest. This is well documented. In a comparative legal perspective, Besikci’s position may be supported by later jurisdiction based on the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

A restrictive historiographical use may, however, reserve the term genocide for mass killings of the 20th century in which a higher proportion of a larger ethno-religious group was killed and the future of the whole group in its habitat was destroyed, as in the case of the Ottoman Armenians or the European Jews. In both latter cases, those responsible considered the targeted groups to be inassimilable to the nation. The Dersim massacre concerned parts of the Dersim population, whereas other parts were removed and the main part could remain in place. As a result, the area’s informal autonomy and, in part, its ethno-religious habitat were suppressed. Extermination in 1938 had targeted first those whose tribes and families were involved in the resistance. But it also included others, among them relatives who were not in the resistance, and even people living outside Dersim. Principally, however, the Kemalists who were responsible for the campaign considered that the Dersimis could be assimilated into the nation state.

In studies on Turkey across all disciplines, the Dersim campaign remained under-researched until the late 20th century. One scarcely finds mention of it in the major university textbooks on Turkish history. To this day there still do not exist monographs or detailed research articles in Western languages, except the translation of Besikci’s book and a few articles or book chapters. The dark sides of Turkey’s foundation and early history, from the Young Turks’ one-party regime to the Dersim campaign and later pogroms against non-Muslims, have long been under-researched both inside and outside Turkey for political reasons and because of simplistic notions of progress versus religious reaction in Western scholarship on Turkey.

In recent years, a fresh look at these topics and the Dersim campaign has finally emerged. The fresh look includes the particularly silenced Armenian aspects of Dersim – a dimension that Western scholarship long failed to grasp. The lack of access to the military archives, however, said to be in the process of classification, seriously hampers comprehensive research on the Dersim campaign. The military archives could answer questions such as the hierarchical level at which the order was given to massacre people, women and children included; to what extent poison gas was used against people in caves; and whether there were, as it seems, absolutely no orders against or punishments for widespread brutalities such as burning alive, slashing open pregnant women and stabbing babies.

In contrast to state-centred rightist or leftist traditions – which explained the high number of civilian dead to be collateral damage of a necessary campaign against reactionary rebels – recent scholarship elaborates on the problematic aspects and the victims of the Dersim campaign. It puts it in the context of the Republican People’s Party’s suppression of any opposition. It frames it as an ethnocide, the “deliberate destruction of Kurdish ethnic identity by forced assimilation”. It also sees it as a genocide committed against the backdrop of a colonialist enterprise, bearing in mind that the Turkish political elite did not know “Kurdistan” any better than 19th century European elites had known their overseas colonies. Another interpretation stresses the logical and chronological coincidence with the Turkish History thesis that claimed Anatolia to have been for thousands of years the home of the Turks (utter nonsense, of course) – a racial speculation that revealed an aporia of legitimacy and a dead-end of ultra-Turkist Kemalism. It implied the wish to make disappear all remaining vestiges of non-Turkish presence and heterogeneous Ottoman co-existence. These vestiges reminded state-centred elites of a period for which they felt distress and shame; a period marked by the tedious Oriental Question, in particular the Armenian Question, and by the lack of governmental sovereignty. It involved a deep-seated fear of de-legitimisation.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Once back home and in possession of the information above, a lot of what I saw and heard in Dersim made more sense. I understood far better why so many Kurds, whether Alevis or not, call Ataturk a dictator and/or a fascist; why Alevis in particular have such strong distrust for Sunni Muslims, Turkish nationalists and uniformed representatives of the state; and why almost all Dersimis lack confidence in the government in Ankara, which only in the last decade or so has sought to provide the people of Dersim with the services, facilities and opportunities accessible to Turkish citizens almost everywhere else in the vast republic. But I also understood far better why the expressions of friendship between Armenians and non-Armenians have a sincerity about them in Dersim that is greater and more convincing than in any other region of Turkey I have visited in recent years. Note that Armenians and Alevis shared some sites of religious pilgrimage; that “Dersim was the only place more or less safe for Armenian refugees during and after the genocide of 1915”; that “crypto-Armenians” lived in Dersim in the 1930s (and still do, but in reduced numbers); that Armenians and Kurds worked together to further matters of mutual concern and/or interest; that Dersimis felt they had to resist state oppression in the 1930s otherwise they would perish in the same way as the Armenians had perished in 1915 and thereafter; and that, in order “not to fall into the hands of the Turks”, Kurdish girls and women “jumped into abysses, as many Armenians had in 1915”.

But the above also begs the following question: Did the people of Dersim in 1937 and 1938 suffer an act of genocide just as the Armenians had in 1915 and thereafter? Despite far fewer Dersimis being massacred in 1937 and 1938 than Armenians in 1915 and thereafter, the evidence above is, I would suggest, extremely persuasive. If events in Srebrinica in 1995 can be declared (correctly) an act of genocide, those in Dersim and elsewhere in 1937 and 1938 must also be genocide. What is interesting is that a growing number of Turkish nationals who are not Kurdish or Alevi incline this way already, and many more will do the same as official documents are accessed by scholars.

By the way, note above the intriguing reference above to “a mosque – it was in fact not like a mosque but rather like a church” in the quote attributed to a soldier involved in a particularly brutal, upsetting and wholly unjustifiable massacre. I think we can safely assume that the soldier refers to a cemevi. If he is referring to a cemevi, his ignorance about Alevis is telling. Perhaps he was a conventionally pious Sunni Muslim who had never shown the least interest in Alevis because they were regarded as heretical in the extreme, or perhaps he was so imbued with the radical atheism of the Turkish Republic of the 1930s that he distrusted anyone with religious convictions. Alternatively, he may have bought completely into the Turkish nationalism of the time which, while admitting that Kurds existed, regarded Kurds as an inferior race of people who needed “civilising” by assimilation or, if averse to assimilation, subjected to massacre. However the soldier regarded the Dersimis at the time of the massacres, he lacked empathic understanding for people with whom who differed. Hmmm. Does a similar lack of empathic understanding prevail among some or all of the brutal Islamist groups, the vast majority of which are Sunni Muslim, currently operating around the globe with a blood-lust that cannot fail to shock the vast majority or people whether they have a religious commitment or not? I think it does.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Although it was a Sunday, some of the shops in the pazar were open, so I bought a few things to eat a light meal on my balcony (I did not feel like a full meal, despite not eating much during the day, but resolved that I would have a treat in a lokanta the following evening to bring to an end my brief stay in Tunceli, a town that by now I was slightly in love with, not least for the wonderfully forthright and friendly women who clearly think it is wonderful that a foreign male is daft enough to visit their infrequently visited home town). I bought a small pot of honey from Ovacik still in its comb, a large pot of yoghurt (which I could keep chilled in the fridge in my room if it remained unfinished) and a bottle of Efes Malt, the latter for the very reasonable price of 4.5TL. I sat on the balcony and, as I ate and wrote, tried to remember all the things I had done in the day. Not long before nightfall the wind picked up, dark clouds hung over the mountains to the south-west and thunder and lightning added a sense of drama before rain fell with heavy droplets. Businesses that had opened for the day shut and the streets began to empty. By 9.00pm I could hear only the rain, a few human voices and the occasional car engine firing up.

Before going to sleep I thought briefly about two women (neither wore a headscarf) in their late twenties or early thirties who sat in a posh pastane near the otogar and rather flirtatiously waved and smiled when I walked past them that evening, of the woman (with a headscarf) who played backgammon with a male friend in one of the tea houses in the pazar, and of the encounter I had had earlier in the day with the two female high school students on the minibus that dropped me at Asagitorunoba. I also thought of the women in Asagitorunoba who smoked cigarettes and chatted with me with exactly the same relaxed informality as their male companions.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

What is it that so many Sunni Muslims find threatening about such interactions between males and females? Moreover, segregation of the sexes does not mean that girls and women are less prone to violent assault, sexual included, than in nation states where segregation of the sexes is absent. In fact, evidence from many nation states around the globe where de jure or de facto segregation of the sexes exists suggests that women suffer more violence at the hands of males, not less. There are also indications that the sexual abuse of boys and young males is much higher in nation states where segregation of the sexes prevails. A dreadful case of large-scale child sexual abuse in Pervari some years ago led to revelations that such abuse is widespread in Turkey. Indeed, statistics suggest that child sexual abuse in Turkey is far greater than child sexual abuse in the UK.

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.

Arapgir and Eskisehir.

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

The restored bridge, Arapgir.

The restored bridge, Arapgir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The cathedral (?), Arapgir.

The Armenian cathedral (?), Arapgir.

Recycled stone from an Armenian cemetery, Arapgir.

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

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

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

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

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

An old house, Arapgir.

An old house, Arapgir.

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

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

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

Eskisehir.

Eskisehir.

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

The restored mosque, Eskisehir.

The restored mosque, Eskisehir.

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

The church (?), Eskisehir.

The church (?), Eskisehir.

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

Near the restored bridge, Eskisehir.

Near the restored bridge, Eskisehir.

The restored bridge, Eskisehir.

The restored bridge, Eskisehir.

Veysel and the restored bridge, Eskisehir.

Veysel and the restored bridge, Eskisehir.

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

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

Overlooking Eskisehir.

Overlooking Eskisehir.

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

View from the dustcart, Arapgir.

View from the dustcart, Arapgir.

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

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arapgir.

Arapgir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manchester (the United Kingdom) to Diyarbakir (the Turkish Republic).

Demand for seats on planes to Turkey in mid-May must have been quite low because I secured return flights with highly regarded THY from Manchester to Diyarbakir via Istanbul Ataturk Airport for only £214. Moreover, I got to my destination on the evening of 15th May generously fed and watered and only twenty minutes late.

The flight from Manchester carried plenty of British people, some quite elderly and of diverse ethnic origin, destined for a city break of a few nights in Istanbul. I wondered what they would make of the now-vast city on the Bosphorus that spreads like a virus every which way into the surrounding undulating countryside, and in a manner rendering the once distinctive city increasingly like any other, particularly in the suburbs where houses and apartment blocks of similar design, and shopping malls, office blocks, hospitals, schools and industrial estates, could be deposited in a hundred other nation states and not look out of place. I have heard worrying stories about how, in recent years, much effort has been devoted to smartening up even the imperial heart of Istanbul so that the hordes of tourists that now descend on the city will feel more at home. It really was time I returned to the city for a few days to see for myself what remained of the things that first sparked my love affair with Turkey. Would I be reassured or repelled by what I found? A bit of both, in all likelihood.

The view from gate 105, the domestic terminal, Istanbul Ataturk Airport.

About a third of the passengers on the flight from Manchester were Turkish nationals, or Turks and Kurds of British nationality, travelling to destinations in the republic further south or east. After getting through passport control and having my visa confirmed (visas for the Turkish Republic can now be downloaded electronically in advance of arrival), I collected my large bag from one of the many luggage carousels and followed them to the domestic terminal. Once I arrived at gate 105 from where the Diyarbakir flight was due to leave in about an hour’s time I was the only person, other than two or three women married to Turks or Kurds, who was not a Turk, a Kurd or an Arab. Although some of the women around me dressed in a manner that Erdogan, the economically liberal but socially conservative Sunni president, would have approved of (they wore headscarves, loose-fitting lightweight coats that reached to the ground, two or three layers of clothing under their coats, socks or dark tights and flat shoes of simple design but shabby appearance), most women wore what might be called conventional European or American clothes (trousers such as jeans, tee-shirts or blouses, and trainers or leather shoes with heels) and definitely no headscarves.

Matters associated with the second flight were so informal that it almost felt as if we were catching a bus rather than a plane. At Diyarbakir itself, and in contrast with a visit I had made a few years ago, I was not taken to one side so the contents of my luggage could be checked by uniformed representatives of the state.

One of the best things about Diyarbakir is that the airport is relatively close to the city centre, so much so that I could walk about 500 metres to a busy intersection, where I had a chat with a woman aged about thirty in trousers and a tee-shirt who had flown from Istanbul on the same plane as me. We chatted as if in a European city where it is normal for people of the opposite sex to talk with one another. The Muslim Middle East, which so frequently requires rigid segregation of the sexes, seemed far away. I asked if she was a writer – she had been reading a diary of her own composition on the plane – and she said, “Sort of.”

I waited beside the road for a minibus to take me to the edge of the old city. I stood beside an elderly couple also destined for the same area and we began to talk. They said they knew of a recently opened pansiyon in which I would like to stay. Because it was not yet 10.00pm, if the pansiyon turned out to be no good I could easily identify somewhere else to stay, so I let the couple lead the way.

As the minibus drove into the old city via Mardin Kapisi, we passed a lot of police vehicles, some armoured, parked at important intersections. We also passed large, heavily fortified compounds in which army personnel were installed. Diyarbakir felt and looked like an occupied city where unrest might break out at any moment.

We got off the minibus almost as soon as we crossed the point at which the two main roads in the old city, the ones running north to south and east to west that subdivide the area into four sections of almost equal size, meet and, facing north, took a turn to the right away from the Ulu Camii and the main section of the pazar. We nonetheless remained in a section of the pazar itself, although most businesses had shut for the night (a bakery, a tea house and two shops selling food other than bread remained open and, it being Friday and the start of the weekend, a few people were walking around). About 100 metres down the road we turned right onto an even narrower road, one wide enough only for a donkey or motorbike, and, about 40 metres along, arrived at the entrance to the pansiyon. I met four young people, male and female Kurds, who, collectively, ran the place and, after shaking hands with them and having a short chat, was ushered into the courtyard around which the pansiyon is arranged.

Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

Aslihan Antik Pansiyon, Café ve Restorant.

The flat-roofed pansiyon, an old stone house that spreads over two floors, was described to me as a one-time Armenian home. If it had once been Armenian I could detect nothing that obviously rendered it such, but it was a delightful place not far from Surp Giragos Church, the only Armenian Apostolic church that still functions in Diyarbakir. I was told that a room for the night cost 60TL, but it came with a breakfast that I was told I would enjoy very much. I had to share washing and toilet facilities with others, but the room I was allocated was next door to what Americans would call the bathroom. Moreover, the large room was simple but spacious and windows overlooked the courtyard and the street outside.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church from the roof of the pansiyon.

Surp Giragos Armenian Church from the roof of the pansiyon.

I had glasses of tea with the man in charge of the pansiyon for the night and the couple who had led me to it, then the couple left for home, which was nearby because they said they could see from their house the bell tower of Surp Giragos Church. After the couple had gone I was offered a glass of red wine made by Syriac Christians in the vineyards around Mardin or Midyat. It had been my intention before leaving the UK not to have any alcohol when away, but when offered such wine by someone so grateful that I was staying the night, I succumbed to temptation immediately. The glass was a generous one and the wine very good. I was having a delightful start to the trip.

The courtyard of the pansiyon.

The courtyard, the pansiyon.

I had a brief chat with a Turkish couple from the west of the country who had just finished a meal with wine in the large dining room overlooking the courtyard from the side furthest from the door leading to the street, then I prepared for bed. I had a very good night’s sleep. From midnight, the only sounds I heard until about 5.30am were the occasional raised voice, the bark of a dog and the day’s first adhan, or call to prayer.

The courtyard of the pansiyon.

The courtyard, the pansiyon.