Farewell, Diyarbakir.

My four companions had an appointment with friends in a distant suburb, so we went our separate ways. I spent more time in the narrow streets around the church, then went to examine the fortifications along the west side of the old city.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I had just finished walking along some of the wall, when I heard people playing drums and a wind instrument that may have been a qernete. I walked toward the music where a group of Kurdish men and women had linked fingers to dance in a circle. They were supporters of the HDP and it was not long before I was added to the circle and photos were taken. About fifty people had gathered to look on. The pious Sunni women wore solemn expressions betraying contempt for what was going on or regret that they could not join in. Most or all of those taking part in the dance were secular in inclination. Dancing proved a delightful thing to do as the shadows lengthened with the approach of evening.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I waved goodbye to everyone and went quickly to Gazi Caddesi to buy some lokum, then, returning to the hotel, called at a supermarket to buy a large piece of kasar cheese and orange juice. After a quick shower and a change of clothes, I left for my last proper meal in Turkey itself, an Adana kebap at somewhere in which I had eaten during an earlier trip, Nasir Usta Lokanta just outside the old city on Ali Emiri Caddesi.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I ordered a one and a half portion of Adana kebap and ayran knowing that water and salads would be brought as free extras. In fact, six free dishes arrived, one with slices of lemon and coriander, one with pulped tomatoes, one with tomatoes and lettuce, one with fresh onion, pepper and coriander, one with yoghurt and bulgar, and one with three portions of cig kofte. The lokanta was busy inside and out with many customers decidedly middle class in appearance. Based on the appearance of the children and women alone, most customers were secular in outlook or very relaxed about their commitment to Islam. With time to spare I delayed departure, not least because I was given a glass of tea to end the meal.

Nasir Usta Lokanta proved a fitting place to end the trip, given the quality of the food and the crisp and clean, female-friendly surroundings. It was not quite the trip’s best meal – my first meal in Sebinkarahisar and the late lunch in Solhan were better, partly because of the novelty of some of the food available – but I was delighted with what I had.

Nasir Usta Lokanta, Diyarbakir.

Nasir Usta Lokanta, Diyarbakir.

I went for one last walk around the old city concentrating on the area near the Ulu Camii and Nebi Camii, the latter mosque being where, even on a Sunday evening, about a dozen men sat among their boxes, tins and other necessities to polish or repair shoes.

It would soon be dark, but quite a lot of young women still walked around, albeit in the company of male relatives or friends. A more liberal air prevails in Diyarbakir than in cities such as Elazig and Erzincan, even though Sunni Islam is the dominant expression of religious faith. This said, especially in the parts of the old city where some of Diyarbakir’s poorest families live, women are often dressed from head to toe in loose-fitting black garments and they often cover their faces. Older women who do not routinely cover their faces pull their headscarf over their mouth and nose when unknown men come into view.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

I was reluctant to extract myself from the streets where lots of businesses remained open, people were milling around and there was much to enjoy (however, a lot of police were walking around and armoured motor vehicles had been parked at street corners). I would miss the lifestyle, the opportunities to engage with friendly people, the unusual destinations and the rarely visited monuments, but, in particular, I would miss engaging with some intelligent, forthright and assertive women who confound the stereotypes of women in overwhelmingly Muslim nation states.

It was now dark so I returned to the hotel. I arranged everything for the last time in my bags to spread the weight as best I could; read some of Gerard Russell’s “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: journeys into the disappearing religions of the Middle East”, the ideal book for the sort of trip that was about to conclude; showered again; finished the orange juice; and went to reception to pay my bill. I then walked the short distance to the taxi rank where I noted that it cost 20TL to get to the otogar because the otogar is further from the city centre than the airport! The insanity of it all.

A growing number of police and armoured motor vehicles had been coming onto the streets as nightfall approached. By 8.00pm helicopters were flying overhead. On the way to the airport armed police officers in cars and armoured vehicles had blocked some roads to traffic or were guarding important intersections. Diyarbakir felt like an occupied city. And the reason for the massive police presence? Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, was in the city attending a pre-election rally on behalf of the AKP. Because the AKP had become so unpopular in Diyarbakir, an extremely expensive and disruptive police operation had to be undertaken to guarantee his safety. Other than confirming that the AKP was the political party of government and could therefore demand that such a police operation be mounted, it was difficult to imagine what use the rally would serve because the vast majority of Diyarbakir’s population will vote HDP. Still, a few shots of Davutoglu in newspapers the following morning speaking to supports of the AKP in the HDP heartland will be good for AKP morale.

The taxi driver could not take me all the way to the terminal. I paid my fare before walking through a temporary barrier staffed by police officers who confirmed that people had a right to access the airport. It was obvious that disruption to normal routines would persist until Davutoglu returned to Ankara by plane later that night.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

After getting my boarding ticket for the flight to Istanbul and confirming that my big bag would not be seen again until I arrived in Manchester, I settled down in the departure area. My flight was delayed for about an hour because Davutoglu’s movements took priority. I read some more of Russell’s book concentrating on the Yazidis, a community I would have liked very much to have encountered, but would probably have encountered only if allowed access to a refugee camp. A refugee camp 10 to 15 kilometres south of Diyarbakir is said to contain many Yazidis, but, even if I had gone to the camp, I doubt the Turkish authorities would have let me in. During a visit to Midyat two or three ago, I was refused access to a nearby village because the road leading to it went beside a refugee camp.

I examined my wallet and found about 60TL. The Turkish lira was slowly dropping in value against major world currencies and the trend was likely to persist for at least a few months, so keeping the liras was unwise. Turkish and Kurdish passengers were enthusiastically buying boxes of baklava from the airport’s branch of Saim, one of Diyarbakir’s best sweet manufacturers, so baklava seemed the obvious thing to buy. I asked for half kilos of two varieties to fill a kilo box, but was not given the sweets until I had had one to eat. It tasted excellent and, back home, Hilary and I agreed that it was some of the best baklava we had ever consumed.

I looked around at my fellow passengers and noticed something that had been confirmed earlier during the trip: more Turks and Kurds are overweight now than ever before. A product of growing prosperity and a more sedentary lifestyle, excessive weight has led to an interest among the better-off in jogging, gyms, organic food and experiments with celebrity-endorsed diets. Men are more prone to being overweight than women, and young women, whether pious or not, are the people least likely to have weight problems. In fact, some young women are painfully thin. I, in common with many others, blame this problem on the adverts and photos of actors, models and other celebrities with ludicrously slim bodies which inspire in young women wholly unrealistic images of what constitutes desirability in appearance.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

The old city, Diyarbakir.

P.S. Partly because Diyarbakir had such a large Armenian population at the time, and partly because even more Armenians lived in the surrounding towns and villages, Diyarbakir became one of the cities where the number of Armenians murdered in 1915 and thereafter was the largest during the genocide. Christopher Walker describes Diyarbakir at the time as “an inferno of torture and murder”. In 2006, David Gaunt estimated that almost 70,000 Armenians met their deaths in Diyarbakir province and only 3,000 of the province’s Armenians remained alive after world war one. Some scholars put the figure for Armenians murdered in Diyarbakir province even higher than this.

P.P.S. On 23rd April 2015, the Armenian Apostolic Church canonised all the victims of the Armenian genocide in what is believed to be the largest canonisation service in history. It was the first canonisation conducted by the Armenian Apostolic Church in four hundred years.‪

Elazig.

I left about 2.30pm to confirm that minibuses departed for Diyarbakir the following morning, a Sunday, from the same garaj from where minibuses departed for Keban. Not far from the garaj the stalls of a large market had taken over some of the streets and many people had come to buy fruit, vegetables, cheese, olives, honey, clothes, shoes, bedding, tools, toys, kitchen utensils, plastic bowls and buckets, and many other things for the house and the garden. The atmosphere was delightful, so much so that I decided to look around more slowly after visiting the garaj.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

As I continued on my way I became aware that a woman was following me. She was aged about thirty-five, did not have a headscarf and wore a blouse that revealed most of her arms. As I entered the garaj she asked what I was up to, so I explained. It was soon confirmed that minibuses left for Diyarbakir roughly every hour the following day, then the woman asked if I had some spare time. I said I had plenty of spare time so she said, “Good. I would like to show you around this,” and she pointed toward a large, incomplete hotel beside the garaj. “I am the general manager of the hotel and we plan for it to be the very best in Elazig.”

Staff at the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

Staff at the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

I am not used to attractive women much younger than me asking to spend time with them, so the hour or so that followed was great fun.

The hotel’s general manager is called **** and **** is, by the standards of almost any nation state, a remarkable woman, but to achieve what she has achieved in Turkey is astounding. Despite decades of the Turkish Republic being dominated by secular aspirations before the rise of the AKP, secular aspirations that included commitment to gender equality, Turkey has never provided girls and women with the same opportunities as boys and men, so the fact that **** has bubbled up to assume such a high status role in an industry still dominated by men is itself a rare achievement. But ****, who is married to a Turkish academic teaching at Elazig University, is Armenian. Yes, **** belongs to the very ethnic group, the Armenians, that suffered genocide during the first world war.

****’s career path has been an interesting one. She used to be a tour guide before entering hotel management in Bodrum, which she said she missed because of her affection for the sea. It was her experience of hotel management at that popular Mediterranean resort which opened up the opportunity that has arisen in Elazig.

View west from the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

View west from the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

**** showed me around the hotel and introduced me to some of her colleagues, including two of the men whose money has made the whole project possible. I could not believe the ambitions **** and her colleagues have for the hotel. I was shown the basement where the car park will be and the rooms nearby that have all the equipment required to provide gas, electricity and water, the latter both hot and cold. I also saw the spacious lobby, the offices, the restaurants, the kitchens, the outdoor café, the function and conference rooms, some of the bedrooms and suites, the hamam, the sauna and the salt room. I hope that their immense investment in money, planning, labour, high quality construction materials, luxury facilities and recruitment of staff meets everyone’s expectations and long-term aspirations for a healthy profit.

View north-east from the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

View north-east from the incomplete hotel, Elazig.

It was only gradually that **** revealed things about her Armenian background. Home is really Istanbul, but her husband is from Elazig and he wanted to return to the city of his birth when a teaching post arose at the university. **** came with him, obviously, and managed to secure the role of general manager at the soon-to-be-opened hotel (which overlooks the wide ring road, so views from the upper floors are very good in all directions, even to Harput in the north over the concrete jungle that comprises the city centre). She misses Istanbul very much, partly because its lifestyle is far more secular in character than that in Sunni-dominated Elazig, partly because she loves fish and Istanbul has many excellent fish lokantas, and partly because she is a long way from her Armenian family and friends (she did not know of a single Armenian in Elazig other than herself, so I told her about the Armenian I had met in Sahinkaya almost a fortnight earlier).

**** and her husband had recently entertained an Armenian film-maker in their home on the west side of the city, so this led me to wonder if they and I had encountered the same person, but, the more **** spoke about him, the more it was obvious we had met different people. I told the story about “my” film-maker hanging the Armenian flag from the damaged dome of the church near Sahinkaya and **** was visibly moved. The focus of our discussions shifted from the hotel and its final appearance toward the plight of the Armenian people past and present.

It took a while before I convinced **** that my interest in things Armenian was sincere and long-standing (a quick look at my blog entitled “In Search of Unusual Destinations” proved decisive), but once I had done so she shared some interesting information. A relative of hers had recently bought a house in Arapgir to re-establish a family link with the town severed by the mass murder of Armenians in 1915, and the film-maker she and her husband had met had been in the area because of family links with Harput.

It turned out that **** is forty-four years old. Despite all the pressures that exist if you wish to succeed as an Armenian woman with strong secular inclinations in overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Turkey in a sector of the economy still dominated by men, **** is thriving and remains far more youthful in appearance than I would have imagined possible.

At one point in our discussions **** asked what I was doing the following day (she wanted to invite me to her home, Sunday being the one day of the week she had off work). When I said that I had to go to Diyarbakir to catch my flight home late Sunday evening and would therefore be leaving Elazig in the morning, she said, “Okay. Never mind. That gives me a chance to buy some new shoes. I love shoes, but they get ruined at the hotel. Just look at these,” and she pointed to a pair of once-smart, flat but expensive shoes that had many scuffs on them. “I will replace them with four new pairs tomorrow.” A woman with strong secular values who thrives in a man’s world dominated by Sunni Muslims? An economically successful Armenian living among people who may be the descendants of Turks and Kurds who engaged in genocide against her forebears a hundred years ago? As if all this is not remarkable enough, **** has not compromised her femininity to get on in life.

How exciting to find an Armenian thriving in Turkey, even though the number of Armenians in the country is now so small, and even though so many Armenian monuments have disappeared, lie in ruins or suffer from such outrageous official neglect that their very survival for even a generation is very much in doubt.

Elazig.

Elazig.

I eventually got away about 4.15pm and went directly to the market to take some photos. The market was still very busy, but everyone seemed relaxed rather than boisterous. A chat with a very vivacious woman aged about thirty (she did not cover her head, but walked around with two female friends who had scarves) led to a nice photo as she gave the HDP’s V-sign. We parted company, but met again further into the market. On this occasion the woman pressed into my hand a boiled corn-on-the-cob that made an excellent snack.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

The market, Elazig.

By now I was thoroughly enjoying the atmosphere, so went to the lower end of the pazar to take more photos. I also walked to the main square where a group of men who sat on a bench engaged me in conversation as we consumed glasses of tea, then I had a last look at the covered pazar and spent time in a shop specialising in honey and all the equipment required to produce it. The man in the shop tried to give me a jar of honey to take home, but I explained about the problem of getting it through customs (it remains unlawful to bring Turkish honey through UK customs, not that the law had stopped me doing so in the past. My excuse for breaking the law in the past? In this respect, it is an ass).

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

I returned to the hotel to freshen up, then went out to find somewhere serving a pide. I had not yet had a pide, despite it being a favourite of mine. I did not have far to walk from the hotel to find a suitably clean and bright lokanta. Once inside I ordered an ayran and a pide with meat and cheese. The excellent pide arrived with a refreshing salad, but I could not get away until I had consumed two teas on the house.

I had a chat with one of the waiters. He was Iranian. He said that he had had to flee from Iran because the authorities regarded him as a dissident. He did not sympathise with the religious character of the constitution. He said, “I don’t like Muslims.” I said, “Are you Christian, Zoroastrian or Bahai?” He replied, “No. I have Muslim parents. I am Muslim. But Muslims treat Muslims badly. I have lost my belief in Islam because Muslims cannot treat even their brothers and sisters like brothers and sisters.”

Of course, Iran is an Islamic state predicated on a mainstream Shia understanding of how such a state should function. My encounter with the waiter was a reminder that, in the Islamic world, tyranny and oppression are not confined to Sunni Muslims alone.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

I went for a last walk around central Elazig concentrating on the streets east of the main square. It was now almost completely dark and girls and women were very rarely seen. I passed four of the city’s older hotels, one of which I had stayed in a few years ago. The hotel had had a face-lift that included plastic double-glazed windows (I recall that sleep had been very difficult because of the noise from the traffic in the street below). In fact, all the hotels had been up-graded to such an extent that I did not recognise them except for their names.

Elazig.

Elazig.

When I stopped to admire some over-the-top wedding dresses in a shop window, the owner invited me inside to take a few photos. The owner had no customers, but his shop would remain open until about 9.00pm in the futile hope some might arrive. However, with dresses far outnumbering suits, the chance that anyone would pop in was very small because women, his most likely client group, were deserting the city centre streets as quickly as they could. This said, it was great fun examining the clothes (many dresses cost at least £400, a lot of money by Turkish standards, and they came in many colours and styles), so much so that I stopped at a second shop specialising in wedding garments before walking to the west side of the city centre. Here, only two or three blocks south of the Mayd Hotel, a street is attracting some very exclusive shops. Some of the shops meet the needs of rich pious Sunni women who want clothes which, although they ensure everything but the face and hands are covered (some young women might also reveal their toes if wearing shoes without socks or tights), will nonetheless guarantee that people admire their appearance. The headscarves, tops, trousers, coats and other garments had been carefully made and styled (on some fabrics were leaves, flowers and intricate patterns), but by Turkish standards they were extremely expensive. I also saw a shop with a vast selection of expensive and brightly coloured handbags, some of which were enormous (pious young Sunni women liked large handbags almost as much as eye-catching headscarves, tight-fitting jeans, make-up and, sometimes, shoes with high heels), but a shop selling chocolates detained me the longest.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

What did my walk around the shops reveal? Pious Sunni women are still required to cover up to a wholly inappropriate degree, especially given how hot most of Turkey gets in summer, but if the Sunni women are young and rich they know how to make an impression. You are young, female, Sunni and rolling in liras? Do not hesitate to flaunt what you have by splashing out on clothes, shoes and accessories of unquestioned quality, but do not dare show off more than your face, hands and an occasional toe, because, if you reveal too much, you have only yourself to blame if men want to sexually assault you.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Just before turning in I witnessed an alarming incident at a street corner not far from a large, city centre mosque. Two police officers drove up on their motorbikes and began interrogating a male aged about sixteen or seventeen. The young male looked frightened as one of the officers unleashed a torrent of words in a raised voice. The second officer began rummaging among some litter carelessly pushed into plastic bags and cardboard boxes, thereby spilling the contents onto the pavement. He was looking for something, but his search proved unsuccessful. He walked over to a plastic chair, presumably the property of the young male, and stamped on it with his heavy boots. The chair very quickly broke into many pieces, thereby rendering it of use to no one. A few last stern words were directed toward the young male, then the officers rode off in a hurry sounding their sirens, the latter perhaps for extra effect. Were they going to deal with another incident or were they getting away quickly before members of the public could establish their identity?

Elazig.

Elazig.

As for the young male, he melted away among the pedestrians along a dark side street, his self-respect and street credibility severely dented. The many onlookers, all male, briefly chatted among themselves before resuming whatever they were engaged with. Their lack of emotion suggested that the incident they had witnessed was not abnormal and one that had to be put up with, even though some of them must have felt the police had over-reacted. Their apparent indifference about the plight of the young male suggested that they were grateful they themselves had done nothing to incur the wrath of the police officers. But their indifference also suggested that ordinary Turkish citizens still feel powerless in the face of state institutions and/or when confronted by uniformed representatives of the state. Even in 2015 it looks as if the police have power and authority that remains undiminished from earlier, more deferential and dictatorial times. Or is it the case that in recent years Erdogan has encouraged the police to be more assertive in how they exercise their power and authority?

All I can assume is that the young man had been selling things on the street, perhaps without permission to do so (I imagine that people trading on the streets need a licence), but the police officers had acted in a manner both inappropriate and disproportionate. The incident brought back memories of how uniformed representatives of the Turkish Republic had acted in inappropriate and disproportionate ways in the past. I wondered if enough had been done to bring the police and other uniformed personnel under control. Such servants of the state were meant to protect members of the public, not oppress them.

Elazig.

Elazig.

To Elazig.

I ate breakfast with five men who had arrived overnight, three of whom were responsible for the large, open-topped truck destined to deliver a heavy load in Ankara. The best elements of the meal? The honey in its comb and glass after glass of tea.

I settled the bill, then walked to the office of VIP Taksi from where transport departed for Elazig. After a short wait, I and six other passengers got aboard a small but comfortable minibus and, for 25TL each, were driven to our destination with only one break of about fifteen minutes. One man was destined for Elazig Airport from where he was catching a flight to Istanbul and, when we arrived at the edge of the city, the driver let him out at a major intersection from where a minibus or taxi would take him to the terminal.

Solhan.

Solhan.

There were two women on the minibus. The older of the two – she was aged about fifty-five – wore loose-fitting clothes that she had layered over the top half of her body. Shalwar completely covered her legs and a large headscarf covered her hair and ears. All the items of clothing had flowery patterns on them, but, because the pattern on each item was different in design and colour and burst forth from dark backgrounds, her clothes looked shabby and did not complement one another. On her feet were dark-coloured socks with a bold geometric pattern that probably came from her husband’s chest of drawers, and old, flat leather shoes black in colour. The number of items she wore on the top half of her body was inappropriate on a day when the temperature promised to reach about 30 degrees centigrade, but this is how women in Turkey are expected to dress on the Sunni side of the street, especially once they enter their mature years.

The other female passenger was aged about twenty-five. She wore jeans, a tight-fitting blouse and no headscarf, and knew she was being watched closely with lustful intent, both before getting into the minibus and while in transit. She was that rarest of things in Solhan, a woman defying the dress conventions encouraged by orthodox Sunni piety.

Of course, there is no expectation that males conform to a particular dress code, provided they dress in such a way as to keep most of their body covered. Heads can be uncovered at all times, even when visiting mosques, and younger males are very keen on baseball caps, some of which confirm an affection for the USA. Tight-fitting clothes are the norm for men until a majority attain middle-age, after which tops and trousers sag and flap a bit as portliness sets in. Only the very oldest Kurdish males wear shalwar nowadays, but the number who do declines with every visit I make to eastern Turkey. Sad.

Needless to say, the vast majority of Sunni Muslim males seem happy for such inequality in terms of the dress code to persist because it confers on them advantages of a somewhat dubious nature vis-à-vis girls and women. Do the Sunni males who enjoy such advantages ever stop to consider how unfair this is on girls and women, and how uncomfortable it must be for girls and women to comply with the dress code, particularly in the hot summer months? Of course not, otherwise the dress code would have been modified ages ago to remove the inequality that prevails.

Perhaps because it was the last time I would be in such green and pleasant upland surroundings, I thoroughly enjoyed the drive through the hills, the mountains and the forests as far as Bingol. There were many places where we passed beehives arranged in lines on hillsides and in pasture full of wild flowers. There were also about six tented camps where nomads lived during the summer to look after the beehives or their large flocks of sheep. Cattle grazed on some of the pasture.

Bingol is about 1,000 metres above sea level and has an official population of just over 100,000. As the day before it looked overwhelmingly modern and, with so much construction taking place, it would look even more modern two or three years ahead. Despite the attempt to make the modern buildings attractive with a few post-modern embellishments and brightly painted walls in more than one colour, large areas of Bingol appear somewhat sterile and impersonal. This is due partly to the sheer size of many of the structures, which were designed in a similar style and built at more or less the same time. Because wide boulevards with a lot of traffic are overlooked by many of the largest structures, the feeling that contemporary Bingol is more dystopian than utopian is increased. This said, I imagine the central business district has some redeeming qualities such as narrow and winding streets lined by thriving businesses, and the city as a whole is enclosed by seductively attractive landscapes. One of Bingol’s up-market hotels would make a very comfortable base for two or three nights to visit some of the surrounding towns and villages, few of which are known by people other than those who live in Bingol province itself.

The young woman began coughing, but everyone ignored her. I reached over to give her my water bottle and she accepted it gratefully.

The delightful upland scenery persisted west of Bingol, but, gradually, the mountains became rounded hills and the valley widened until it became in effect gently undulating but verdant upland plain. Pasture mingled with fields and orchards. Sheep continued to outnumber cattle.

We stopped so the driver could have a rest at the point where the road leads north to Kigi. I regretted that I did not have another one or two nights in Turkey to travel to Kigi to spend longer among Armenian ruins in the mountains.

Between Bingol and Elazig.

Between Bingol and Elazig.

Between Bingol and Elazig.

Between Bingol and Elazig.

At Kovancilar a road leads north to Mazgirt and Tunceli, and a sign at the junction points toward Ekinozu Kilisesi. Back home I found that Ekinozu Kilisesi is that rarest of things, an Armenian church that enjoys official recognition by the provincial Turkish authorities. Photos of the church on the internet suggest it remains in quite good condition and that other ruins, a cesme included, exist nearby. The ruins suggest that the church was once a monastic complex.

The church and its associated ruins are in the village of Ekinozu, which used to be called Habab, Hebap or Khabab. Armenians know the village better as Havav. An article I accessed on the internet suggests that the cesme has been restored and that, during Ottoman times, the village had a population of about five hundred. The same article suggests that the village once had two cesmes, three Armenian churches and an Armenian monastery. However, I am confident that one of the three churches was part of the monastic complex itself.

Sinclair has a short description of Havav which appears to confirm that my speculation about the ruins is correct. He refers to “the village church of Surp Lusavorich (the Illuminator)”, Surp Astvatsatsin (Mother of God), the church of the “monastery of Kaghtsrahayats Vank, probably medieval”, and Surp Kataoghike, a “partly ruined church”.

I recognised the very pretty mountains south of Kovancilar that overlook Palu and the Murat Nehri, and the extension of the Keban Reservoir that the road runs beside for about 30 kilometres to Elazig. The scenery was now merely pretty because gardens, orchards and fields of wheat dominated the gently undulating valley floor and pasture the rounded hills to the north and the south. I detected a hint of yellow among the shades of green, which, along with the visibility marred by a slight haze, suggested that the hottest months of the year were not far off.

The journey from Solhan to Elazig is about 180 kilometres, but I had been charged less than £7. I had travelled in a motor vehicle not dissimilar to some taxis or minicabs in the UK. Even if I had travelled a distance of 180 kilometres in a bus in the UK I would have been charged far, far more than £7, but it would have taken much longer to complete the journey and the seat would have been far less comfortable than in the Turkish minibus.

The minibus dropped me very close to the city centre and less than ten minutes later I was in a room in the Mayd Hotel. I had decided to stay overnight in Elazig rather than Diyarbakir knowing I could do my shopping more easily in the former than the latter city. The price for the room was the same as before. I was given a slightly better room than when I had stayed almost two weeks earlier, but the balcony was at the back of the hotel overlooking a small, litter- and rubble-strewn open space enclosed by ugly buildings. The upside? The room was very quite at night.

View from the balcony, Mayd Hotel, Elazig.

View from the balcony, Mayd Hotel, Elazig.

I was out of my room not long after 1.00pm and spent a pleasant hour or so in the pazar buying black olives, green olives, dried apricots, fruit leather and a kitchen knife. I bought the kitchen knife in a small shop not far from the covered section of the pazar and one of the two men working behind the counter sharpened the blade while I waited. Both men were aged about fifty and had beards that suggested they had undertaken the haj to Makkah. I then went to the large shed where men sold flour and dried beans to buy four bars of bittim sabunu. The bars cost only 1TL each. I toyed with the idea of buying many other things, pistachios included, but so many Turkish food items are easily found in the UK now, albeit at prices higher than in Turkey itself. I confined my avaricious inclinations to essentials.

Elazig.

Elazig.

I returned to the hotel to drop off my purchases, then went to the pazar a second time to buy a pair of black leather shoes and smart but casual trousers. The trousers were significantly discounted and the length of the legs adjusted in a tailor’s shop so they fitted perfectly. As I waited for the trousers to be returned, I chatted with some very friendly men who owned the nearby shops, including the ones from where I bought the shoes and the trousers, and tea and coffee were generously provided. Business was slow and I provided some much-needed diversion.

The bazar, Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

The pazar, Elazig.

My walk around the pazar confirmed that most shops selling clothes, shoes and scarves for older girls and women stocked items that would appeal only to conventionally pious Sunni women. Shops selling fashionable clothes that might appeal to non-Muslims in Europe or North America were for males only. Such shops sought to target local males aged about fifteen or sixteen to their late thirties.

Between my two visits to the pazar, I called at a small café for a portion of borek washed down with limon. This proved exactly what I needed to sustain me until the evening, when I intended to eat a proper meal.

Borek and lemon, Elazig.

Borek and limon, Elazig.

As I finished the borek, I gave some thought to the money that remained. The trip had proved so inexpensive that, even with over a day to go and the possibility that I might buy a few more things for home, I would probably get by without accessing an ATM. This would mean that I would get through the whole trip with only the money I had brought from the UK. Remarkable. Moreover, despite having a significant sum of money with me at the start of the trip, not once had I felt vulnerable to theft, even in Diyarbakir which has a reputation for tourists falling victim to thieves. This said, I have always found theft far more of a problem in Istanbul than Diyarbakir.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

Elazig.

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 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 is 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. 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 the national assembly 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 the national assembly 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 Caglayangil, 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 Riza 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 articulated 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 national assembly 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 in Dersim 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 if they did not want to 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 believe that genocide took place, and many more will believe the same when scholars can access official documents in greater quantity.

By the way, note 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 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, extermination. However the soldier regarded the Dersimis at the time of the massacres, he lacked empathic understanding for people with whom he differed. Hmmm. Does a similar lack of empathic understanding prevail among members of some or all of today’s brutal Islamist groups, the vast majority or which are Sunni Muslim? I think it does. Such groups currently operate 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.

Tunceli.

Tunceli.

Although it was Sunday, some of the shops in the pazar were open, so I bought a few things to eat 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 thought it was wonderful that a foreign male was daft enough to stay in 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, remembered 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 muffled human voices and the occasional car engine firing up.

Before going to sleep I thought about two women (neither wore a headscarf) in their late twenties or early thirties who sat in a posh pastane near the otogar and flirtatiously waved and smiled when I walked past them, of a 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 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 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 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 a few 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 Asagitorunoba.

I left Ovacik’s cemevi to take a few more photos of it and the grassy plain on which it stands. As I put my camera away a car drove past, drew to a halt about 50 metres down the road and backed up. The driver asked, “Where are you going?” I said, “To Asagitorunoba.” The driver had three companions with him and discussion followed before the driver said, “Come on. We are not going to Asagitorunoba, but will take you as far as we can.” I got into the car and a bottle of Efes Malt was offered, which I took gratefully and consumed far more quickly than politeness required.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

The men were going to a wedding in a village to the west of the road to Tunceli and, to access the village, they had to cross the Munzur Cayi on a rather dilapidated suspension bridge before ascending a dirt road for a few kilometres. Predictably, I was asked to join the wedding party, which would have been a wonderful experience because it involved Alevis (segregation of the sexes, so often encountered in Sunni Muslim weddings, would probably have been frowned upon, as it should be), but, had I done so, there would have been problems getting back to Tunceli and I would have had to give up on Asagitorunoba. I politely declined the kind invitation, but thoroughly enjoyed the company of the four men, albeit briefly (three men described themselves as Turkish Alevis. The fourth said his grandmother had been Armenian, but he described himself as a Kurdish Bektashi). When we arrived at the bridge leading to the village, only the driver remained in the car to drive it across. His three companions walked.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

Between Ovacik and Asagitorunoba.

Not long after waving the car and its passengers off to the wedding, and only about 500 metres further along the road, a minibus appeared and I flagged it for a lift to Asagitorunoba. Because the minibus was crowded I was ushered to a stool between two fixed seats. I found myself beside two female students in their last year at high school. One of the young women was very pretty and the other handsome, and the handsome one had an unusual example of metalwork piercing her nose on the right-hand side. Dressed in European or North American clothes and without headscarves, it was obvious they were Alevi, but I was still surprised when they introduced themselves and initiated a conversation. I think most of the other passengers must also have been Alevi because no one thought what they did was in the least improper; in fact, I think they were glad the young women had such self-confidence because it meant they found out a bit about someone who was, by local standards, a somewhat exotic individual (foreign tourists are still very rare in Dersim in general and Tunceli in particular). Interestingly, we shook hands at the beginning of the conversation and when I left the minibus at my destination. Moreover, the driver refused to accept any money for the ride.

As I waved the minibus off, I thought about how different the journey would have been had most passengers been Sunni Muslims. Males and females unknown to one another would have sat apart, they would have ignored members of the opposite sex and the journey would in all likelihood have passed in silence unless a baby or young child had been present and ill or in pain or distress. During the journey just completed, males sat next to females they did not know, people chatted with total strangers, a relaxed atmosphere prevailed and men and women who had never met before could make physical contact without anarchy breaking out.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba is a small, dispersed settlement that spreads over a gently inclined grassy bank just below quite a steep hillside on the north side of the river. Two bridges cross the river, one of which carries a road that leads to a nearby village to the south. Beside the road bridge is a suspension bridge no longer suitable for motor vehicles. Although the old wooden decking is in a state of disrepair, I could not resist walking across it. Another road leads into the hills to the north of the river where two more villages exist.

In all, there are only twenty or so houses in Asagitorunoba and a small, abandoned jandarma post. The houses are a mixture of old and new, and the old ones outnumber those of more recent construction. Most of the old houses are single storey and have flat roofs. They are constructed with a brown stone with a hint of red and I assume the stone was quarried locally. However, there is a stone house with rooms spread over two storeys. A veranda at ground level on the south-facing façade is crowned with a balcony above. Tall wooden columns rise from the floor of the veranda to support the balcony, and from the floor of the balcony to support the roof. These features and the size of the building itself suggest that the house may have been built for a relatively wealthy family, by local standards at least, although the building’s current shabby appearance implies a poor family lives in it now. In fact, none of the houses in the village look as if they now shelter anyone wealthy.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Beekeeping is popular. When I saw wooden beehives resembling long, slim barrels indistinguishable from beehives I have seen before in the Hemshin area not far from Rize, I asked some men and women sitting around a table on the veranda of an old stone house of one storey if I could take some photos. I was encouraged to shoot to my heart’s content, after which I was invited to join them for glasses of tea.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

There were seven people altogether, five men and two women aged roughly thirty to seventy. Both women wore headscarves, but in the way that was becoming increasingly common the more time I spent in Aleviland: the headscarves were arranged loosely on top of the head like a hastily tied turban and no attempt was made to cover the ears or all the hair.

Both women smoked cigarettes. If a woman smokes cigarettes in Turkey, many pious Sunni Muslims regard the habit as one that suggests extreme immorality, perhaps of a sexual nature, but to the great majority of Alevis and Bektashis, all they see is a woman asserting her right to do as men do. Put a little differently, when a woman smokes a cigarette, Alevis and Bektashis see a female asserting her independence vis-à-vis males.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

I had assumed I was in the company of Alevis, but things were not quite as they appeared to be to someone who still has a lot to learn about the region’s ethnic complexity. The women and four of the men were Kizilbash and the fifth man was Armenian. I confirmed with my companions what was obvious from the evidence of my eyes, that the Kizilbash regarded the Armenian as their good friend and vice-versa, and then we chatted about how everyone made ends meet economically. The Kizilbash concentrated on making honey and growing crops in fields and orchards, but the Armenian reared sheep and goats for the meat market. A little later I saw the Armenian drive his large flock of sheep and goats along the road leading to the two villages to the north. About half a kilometre from Asagitorunoba he waved the livestock off the road and onto pasture on a hillside overlooking the river below.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Turks, Kurds and (albeit a very small number of) Armenians living together, as do Alevis, Sunni Muslims, Kizilbash and people with no religious faith, and as do speakers of Turkish, Kurmanji, Zazaki and Armenian. Dersim is my kinda province.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

I walked up the road leading to the two villages north of the river, primarily to secure views over Asagitorunoba and the glorious scenery that encloses it. A man stopped his motorbike and kindly carried me a little further into the mountains from where the views were even more spectacular. By the time I got back to Asagitorunoba I had seen the village and the Munzur Cayi from high above, the hills enclosing the valley and the more distant mountains with their forest and smudges of snow. Wild flowers grew everywhere and most of the sky was blue. It was now late afternoon and the visibility excellent.

View south above Asagitorunoba.

View south above Asagitorunoba.

View west over Asagitorunoba.

View west over Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Small though Asagitorunoba is, I spent another half hour examining some of its houses, small gardens and beehives, then chatted with a young man who lived in a house with his parents at the easternmost extremity of the settlement. I was reluctant to leave because, as so often happens in Turkey, I had found a dot on the map that had worked its way under my skin. And why had it got under my skin? I was in one of the most beautiful areas of a country with hundreds of beautiful areas, and the ethnically mixed people I had met were reassuringly liberal and inclusive. This said, Tunceli shares with Asagitorunoba exactly the same qualities, although it is obviously much larger. Was I on a winner? Of course I was.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

Asagitorunoba.

I began walking along the road to Tunceli knowing a minibus to my destination would eventually catch me up, but, after about fifteen minutes spent beside the river mostly in the shade cast by mature trees, a car stopped and the driver offered me a lift. The driver had two male friends with him and they were in a hired car they had picked up a week earlier at Elazig Airport so they could tour Dersim, the region from where all three originated. They had a 9.30pm flight to catch to Istanbul where they now lived and worked. The driver of the car ran his own company in the town of Gebze not far from Istanbul’s second airport.

Leaving Asagitorunoba.

Leaving Asagitorunoba.

Two of the men were Alevis and one was Kizilbash. They considered themselves Turkish by ethnicity. They were very pleasant company, but all of them had the usual concerns about Sunni Muslims, Erdogan and the lack of minority rights. They came across as gentle but perceptive and reflective individuals, individuals who knew what it meant to suffer discrimination and oppression because of their identity.

To Ovacik.

I wanted 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 easily return to Tunceli.

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 overlook 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 lay 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 frequently cut off 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 politics 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 were exceptionally attractive (puffs of white cloud clung to the highest peaks) and the town itself was a delightful mixture of old and new with plenty that was overtly eccentric. There was a large police and jandarma presence, the latter in a fortified compound, which meant I had to point my camera with some care. At least three hotels looked more than adequate for a short stay, and there were plenty of shops. Bars and lokantas sold good food and alcohol, and an ogretmen evi was just north of the road to Tunceli. The oldest surviving buildings in the town were houses, some of which were timber-framed while others were made with stone, and a lot of buildings old and new utilised corrugated iron and flat metal sheeting to excellent visual effect. I chatted with a teacher who emerged from the ogretmen evi 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 had been turned into fields, but most of it remained pasture for sheep and cattle. Inevitably, lots of wild flowers prospered in late spring and early summer. Ovacik was an absolute gem and one year I would love to stay in it overnight, although at present it had one minor short-coming. Roads led 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 appeared 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 although 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, 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 belonged 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 lived 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 to 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. 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. Nearby 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 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 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 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 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.

Erzincan.

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

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

The mosque near the old otogar, Erzincan.

The mosque near the old otogar, Erzincan.

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

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

Hilton Garden Inn, Erzincan.

Hilton Garden Inn, Erzincan.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

To the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

Near the new otogar, Erzincan.

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

It was now about 6.00pm, the sun was shining and it seemed the perfect time to walk around the pazar. This I did and was soon reminded not only of its size but that it lacks a covered section of any great significance. When in the part of the pazar where many shops sell dried fruit, nuts and other foods that last a long time such as lokum, pestil, kome and honey, I met a man who had given me a bag of mixed nuts a few years earlier. As we chatted, he introduced me to some family members helping out on a Saturday afternoon. The vast country that is Turkey contracted to a small and intimate place where you might bump into people you know no matter where you are. I did not leave until we had had a drink together and was given another bag of mixed nuts.

The pazar, Erzincan.

The pazar, Erzincan.

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

The pazar, Erzincan.

The pazar, Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

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

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

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.                          

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

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

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

Erzincan.

Erzincan.

Sebinkarahisar.

I walked along the main street a short distance, then noticed a sign for the Basaran Hotel. At reception I was offered a room for 35TL a night with en suite facilities and breakfast. The hotel was clean, quite comfortable and centrally located, but the overnight cost was ludicrously low. After confirming the room was okay and the price for real, I committed to the two nights. I quickly unpacked a few things and freshened up, then set off for the citadel. It was late afternoon and the light at its very best. This was too good an opportunity to miss.

Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

It was a brisk walk of about ten minutes to the foot of the mountain from where a very good path leads to the entrance to the citadel. In the old part of Sebinkarahisar is an almost abandoned pazar because most commercial activity has now relocated to the modern town. Near the pazar are many old houses, those with timber frames outnumbering those made with stone. Some of the timber-framed houses are very large and, although they are lived in by families too poor to adequately maintain them, a little tender loving care will secure their future for at least another generation or two. The pitched and corrugated iron roofs of the houses commonly shelter storage spaces open to the elements because walls are often absent. Gardens, trees, dogs, cats, cockerels and hens made it feel as if I had strayed into one of the nearby villages. Males and females made sure I went in the right direction although it was obvious where I had to go. Some mature trees had been savagely polled, which gave them a surreal appearance. Although the one-time business premises in the pazar look forlorn, they are very photogenic, as is most of the old town. Many of the pazar’s buildings have unwanted wooden, metal and household items stored behind locked doors. Some of the stored items will become collectible in a few years.

The citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

The citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

The citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

The citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

The pazar, Sebinkarahisar.

The pazar, Sebinkarahisar.

The pazar, Sebinkarahisar.

The pazar, Sebinkarahisar.

Polled trees, Sebinkarahisar.

Polled trees, Sebinkarahisar.

I arrived at the last building in the old town and walked along a road that turned into a path. The path zig-zagged up the mountain to a gateway in the outer ring of fortifications. Views from the path were excellent the higher I ascended, but, once within the citadel and walking around its extensive site, there were even better views, and on this occasion in every direction rather than primarily to the west. Even without the citadel on its summit the mountain would be worth ascending for the views. I was especially impressed with how the countryside opened up toward the south and how the road to Giresun very soon entered the mountains to the north. I looked to the south-east hoping to identify the Greek monastery that was my main destination for the following day, but could not identify it with the naked eye. Then again, I was not sure where its exact location was.

The path from the old town to the citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

The path from the old town to the citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

Part of the old town, Sebinkarahisar.

Part of the old town, Sebinkarahisar.

View west from the citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

View west from the citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

View north from the citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

View north from the citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

In Turkish, “sebin” means “alum”, “kara” means “black” and “hisar” means “castle”, so the name “Sebinkarahisar” can be translated to mean “black castle of alum”. The castle is the citadel, of course, and its ruins are, as the name of the town suggests, very dark in colour. Because the rock used to build the citadel is the same colour as that of the mountain on which it stands, it is safe to assume that the stone for the fortifications was quarried locally. Given worries expressed earlier about over-zealous restoration, the thing I liked best about the citadel, beside its vast size, its spectacular position and the remarkable amount that has survived the ravages of time, is that only remedial work had been undertaken to keep it in its present condition. Consequently, it was easy to connect with what it was like when intact.

Sinclair devotes no fewer than four pages to the citadel, although two of the pages are taken up with a very detailed plan of what survives. Here I provide a summary in an effort to convey something of the majesty of the ruins:

In the 9th to the 11th centuries Sebinkarahisar was the centre of a Byzantine theme, in other words, a district the military obligations of whose inhabitants formed the basis of the army organisation. Its citadel rock rises abruptly out of the cultivated and gently rising west side of the Buyuk Irmak valley. On the summit of the rock is a small upper citadel; below this the greater part of the rock, which is about a kilometre long, was encircled by a second wall… It seems probable that in the middle ages the majority of the houses were on the same site as the present (old) town and on the slope between the two, because of the shortage of suitable ground within the outer wall of the citadel…

The roughly square upper citadel (probably Ottoman) includes a big octagonal tower in the middle of the wall opposite the gate. The outer wall, mainly mid-Byzantine and only preserved in short stretches, takes in that part of the main ridge of the rock which rises southwards to the second summit, and a spur going roughly se. from the highest part of the rock.

The octagonal tower, the upper citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

The octagonal tower, the upper citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

After the towering gateway in the outer walls, one goes through a depression in the main ridge and moves over a slope, keeping the summit to the left, to the rock’s e. side. Below the path is a brick-arched entrance to a rock-cut staircase originally leading to the underground water level. The brickwork may date from the time of Justinian (6th century CE). There are four other rock-cut staircases to cisterns, all blocked.

The gateway in the outer walls, Sebinkarahisar.

The gateway in the outer walls, Sebinkarahisar.

View south over part of the lower citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

View south over part of the lower citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

View north over part of the citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

View north over part of the citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

The alum which supplies part of the town’s present name was mined on a large scale from the 14th century and used for cleaning cloth in the then expanding European textile industries. The mines are at distances of 15-20 kilometres up the old road to Giresun, which is to the west of the present road…

Upper citadel… The towers on the two easterly corners and by the gate are rounded and open-backed… The (octagonal) tower has four storeys…

Outer circuit. The rock tails off towards the s. in a spur; the fortifications end here in a small enclosure… Beyond this the spur drops, and then continues in a pinnacled knife-edge. A second spur… (with) traces of wall on this spur’s outer edge, and a stretch with triangular tower and semi-circular tower on its se. side… On the w. side of the rock just a few fragments mark the wall’s course until the stretch in which the present entrance is built… Further on the whole rock’s nw. corner forms a triangular apron…

The citadel and the rocks that form its southern extremity, Sebinkarahisar.

The citadel and the rocks that form its southern extremity, Sebinkarahisar.

The entrance. The upper of the two towers either side of the gateway is of small and neatly cut but heavily weathered blocks, and the same masonry continues for a short stretch south-westwards. The tower probably represents a medieval Turkish reconstruction of part of the mid-Byzantine work. The rest of the wall in which the gateway is cut is Ottoman.

It was now about 6.00pm so I returned to the old town to take some photos. I saw a woman washing sheep’s fleeces in a large, shallow, blue plastic bowl. Nearby were five mature cats, all her pets, and down the road a bitch was followed by her puppies as she looked for something to eat. On the edge of the pazar I met two elderly brothers who earned some money repairing and making wooden doors in just the same way they have been repairing and making doors for about fifty years. I took photos of the brothers and the results of their labour, some of the latter being propped against a wall in the sunshine. One brother got very emotional when I showed him the photo. He shook my hand vigorously and spoke in an animated fashion with two people who walked by. I got the impression it was one of the first times he had been photographed.

Carpenter, Sebinkarahisar.

A carpenter, Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

A little later I came across the ruins of an old han with exposed arches on two levels revealing where the rooms had once been. Nearby, four women wearing headscarves and aged about twenty-five to thirty-five chatted with one another as they plucked mint and the leaves of other herbs from stalks collected earlier in the day.

The han, Sebinkarahisar.

The han, Sebinkarahisar.

I had spent most of my day with Alevi Kurds who have a very relaxed attitude toward tobacco and alcohol, but in Sebinkarahisar the dress of the women and the appearance of many of the men suggested that I was in a town with a Sunni Muslim and Turkish majority. For this reason I was reluctant to take photos of women. In fact, some women watched me warily as I walked by to ensure I did not use my camera on the sly and a few covered their face with their scarf when I came into sight. This said, two or three women did chat with me, but only when they were sure that men they might know could not witness what was going on.

Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar had a large number of dogs, perhaps the most dogs encountered on the trip so far. Some dogs were cared for properly as pets and some were kept to guard property. The latter barked and bared their teeth in ways that caused me some alarm. However, the largest number of dogs roamed at will and seemed to be feral. The foot-loose and fancy-free dogs every so often formed gangs of different sizes, but, as far as I could tell, did not pose threats to humans.

Sebinkarahisar is in Giresun province and, a few years ago, Giresun University opened an outpost in the town that now meets the educational needs of a considerable number of undergraduate students. A lot of the female students dress in ways that satisfy pious Sunni Muslims, but I found it odd that most make sure their trousers are very tight, even when wearing a headscarf that covers their hair and ears.

I called at a small supermarket to buy two ayrans to quench my thirst, then walked along the main road in an easterly direction to see again the view that had first got me so excited about Sebinkarahisar. I walked into a parking lot behind a large building where the Belediye parked its idle motor vehicles, dustcarts included. The views, although over piles of waste and debris awaiting disposal or recycling, were very impressive toward the citadel.

The citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

The citadel, Sebinkarahisar.

I returned to the hotel to shower and change my clothes. I planned to have a sit-down meal because I knew I could do justice to one.

Sebinkarahisar may have an overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population, but some Sunni women work in businesses around the town. One such business where women work is Sevim Ana Ev Yemekleri, a lokanta on the main street. In fact, the lokanta is owned and run by women and, being thus owned and run, was bound to serve food a little less ordinary. I went inside and began chatting with three female university students and the owners themselves. In fact, only one other male, an elderly customer, was inside at the time, although two or three males popped in and out while I waited for and ate my food.

Although one of the university students wore a headscarf, she was happy to chat with me. She came from Gaziantep, which provided the ideal opportunity to celebrate the city’s enviable reputation for high quality food served in very good lokantas.

The food at Sevim Ana Ev Yemekleri was excellent. I ordered two icli kebaps as good as if they had been made in someone’s home, manti with a warm yoghurt and pepper sauce, a very runny and therefore refreshing cacik, salad, a creamy sutlac still warm from the oven and yet another ayran. Bread arrived with the salad and I was given tea to conclude the meal. The bill came to 25TL, but only because I insisted on giving Fatma, the young woman with a headscarf who served me, a tip she thoroughly deserved. When I handed Fatma the money, everyone in the lokanta clapped their hands and said a few appreciative words. Fatma had a special need, but it was not obvious what it was.

Sebinkarahisar.

Sebinkarahisar.

To help digest the large meal I went for a walk around the town centre. Sebinkarahisar is not a large town by Turkish standards, but its pastanes, lokantas and food shops confirm that it takes matters to do with eating and drinking seriously (although I saw only one place selling alcohol). I looked around some of the shops specialising in sweets such as kome and pestil, then walked to a supermarket near the hotel to pick up a litre of orange juice just in case I was thirsty during the night. All the ayran and yoghurt I had consumed should have ensured that thirst would be the least of my problems, but I was not taking a chance.

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 drove dustcarts for the Belediye. 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 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 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 criticised 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, almost 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 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 steep approach 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 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 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 parts 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 had no adverse effects the following morning. Being an organic wine, perhaps the detrimental after-effects 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 the 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. But 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 met PKK sympathisers or people claiming past or present allegiance with the movement, I have never felt in any danger. 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 cemevi 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 cemevis 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.

To Onar.

I went to my room, unpacked a few things, freshened up and returned to the lobby. Two minutes later I was in the family’s very new 4WD car and we sped off along the road toward Keban. A left turn took us to Onar, a journey from the junction of only 4 or 5 kilometres. In Onar we called at a house on the edge of the village where Ismael lived, an author of thirty books who, although older than me, remained mentally and physically very able. Ismael offered to show us around a village he clearly loved to bits. After spending about half an hour getting to know each other and eating a Thornton’s chocolate, a box of which were a gift from a friend who had recently returned from the UK, we got into the car again and drove the short distance to the centre of the village.

What followed was simply astounding and, although there are more pretty villages in Turkey than Onar, by the end of our grand tour the settlement had emerged as one of my favourites anywhere in the vast republic.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar nestles in gently undulating countryside which, in mid-May, is very green and enriched by masses of wild flowers. Distant mountains smudged with snow add to the visual delights, as does a valley to one side of the village which is where some of the tombs are found. The village has a quite densely packed core, but also some houses that are on their own not far from the centre. The great majority of houses, some of which are substantial properties, are old and made with stone, but some are made with mudbrick. While most stone houses are still lived in, some of the mudbrick houses have been abandoned and lie in ruins. Some unusual square and rectangular windows exist with vertical bars made with squared-off lengths of wood, iron door furniture has survived from the Ottoman era and a few plaster walls around front doors manifest painted decoration in the form of plant-life. Dry stone walls enclose small gardens. Corrugated iron covers many roofs and flat metal sheets patch crumbling walls. With paths rather than roads leading from house to house, and old roads within dry stone walls too narrow for motorised traffic leading to the pasture, the fields and the orchards surrounding the village, Onar is a delight to navigate. The narrow roads just mentioned also lead to the open countryside where more Roman remains are encountered among the wild flowers and herbs that prosper on gently inclined hillsides. The views from the hillsides are extensive. As we walked around we picked fresh almonds from the trees.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar.

Onar.

Ismael and the owners of the hotel knew many people in the village and we therefore stopped a number of times to chat, to have glasses of tea or, in one case overlooking the valley mentioned earlier, to consume glasses of excellent ayran described to me as organic. It quickly became apparent that almost everyone living in Onar is Alevi or Bektashi rather than Sunni Muslim. This meant that, among other things, women are as forthcoming with conversation as men, women shake the hands of unknown males and talk with them without attracting criticism or being thought to behave in a shameful manner, and, although some women wear a headscarf, they wear it most often to protect themselves from the sun and therefore are very careless about whether it covers their hair and ears. It was lovely to be among people who, in a predominantly Muslim environment, have a genuine commitment to gender equality and do not merely pretend that such equality exists. Near the end of our grand tour we met three elderly women sitting in the shade cast by an old house. All three were drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. But for their sex, they could have been a small group of Turkish males doing what Turkish males do all the time, but such a scene involving Sunni Turkish women in full public view is almost unthinkable, even in 2015.

At one point during our grand tour, the daughter of the owner of the hotel disappeared for twenty minutes before returning with a half litre plastic bottle full of wine for me to consume later in the hotel. In common with the ayran, it was described to me as organic. I was told that Alevis and Bektashis in and around Onar consumed exactly this wine when engaging in some of their ritual practices.

Onar’s cemevi was one of the most unusual monuments I saw on the whole trip. Since buildings now enclose it on at least two sides, you can easily walk past it without knowing it is there. Moreover, to access the cemevi you go through an old wooden door that, at the present time, does not say what lies behind it. Behind the door you walk along a narrow passage with a low roof before reaching the cemevi itself. The cemevi is roughly square in shape, but the walls and floor are made of mud and are therefore smooth but somewhat uneven because of gentle undulations. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of all is the roof, which comprises of logs supported on wooden columns. The logs, many of which are blackened as if fire or soot has discoloured them, have been arranged in such a way as to create what is roughly a dome. A window exists where a wall transitions into the domed roof. Along two walls are some tall receptacle-like structures, some shaped like cans and others shaped like glasses tapering a little toward the floor. About 1.5 metres tall, they look as if they are made of mud.

The cem evi, Onar.

The cemevi, Onar.

The cem evi, Onar.

The cemevi, Onar.

The cem evi, Onar.

The cemevi, Onar.

There are a few electric lights and rugs and carpets to cover the floor (the rugs and carpets lay on top of the receptacle-like structures just mentioned). In one corner is a platform raised about half a metre above the floor with a cupboard blocking the way into a small space divided from the rest of the room by three bulky wooden columns supporting the beams that hold up the roof. Ledges along two walls reminded me of sofas in an old Anatolian house and, in common with the sofas, are probably meant to be sat on. There is also a mud wall that does not rise the full height of the building but nonetheless creates a second, more secluded space than the one already mentioned, despite the absence of a door.

The cemevi, said to date from 1224 and have been built by Seyh, or Sheikh, Hasan Oner, is a seriously interesting survival from the past, one of the most interesting buildings for ritual purposes I have ever encountered anywhere on my travels. But neither it nor the Roman tombs are mentioned in Sinclair’s monumental work. In fact, Sinclair does not mention Onar once. His monumental study has revealed to me more about eastern Turkey and its architectural and archaeological treasures than any other scholar, but the absence of Onar from his four volume work confirms that a lot more remains to be discovered and/or discussed.

Alevis and Bektashis use cemevis for a variety of purposes because, in the strictest sense, the name means a house or place of gathering, meeting or assembly. As far as we can tell, such gatherings, meetings or assemblies used to be held exclusively outdoors after dark and people used candles and torches so they could see. Such outdoor gatherings still persist in some areas where Alevis and Bektashis live, but they are usually held during daylight hours. Worship in the sense that mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims understand and that is undertaken every day in every mosque around the globe, does not take place, partly because Alevis and Bektashis believe that the mere engagement in routines shaped meticulously by tradition will not secure for the believer the main purpose of religious rituals of any kind, some sort of contact with or insight into the divine, no matter how fleeting that contact or insight might be.

Alevis and Bektashis take their inspiration from the mystical side of Islam best exemplified in the many Sufi groups found throughout the Islamic world. Such Sufi groups have always experimented with different means to attain contact with or insight into the divine. Such means include music, song, poetry, dance, food and, in some instances, the consumption of alcohol, hashish and/or marijuana (for some Sufis, alcohol, hashish and/or marijuana are meant to inspire ecstasy or induce a trance-like condition. Such Sufis believe that during such ecstatic or trance-like states contact with or insight into the divine will be achieved). Today, cemevis are used by Alevis and Bektashis to attain contact with or insight into the divine and in most cases use is made of music, song, food and alcohol (wine and/or raki will be consumed, but not in large quantities). Already it can be seen why mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims might regard Alevis and Bektashis with suspicion, but more orthodox Muslims also dislike how Alevis and Bektashis have been willing, in common with Sufi groups, to co-opt aspects of belief and practice they deem worthwhile in expressions of religion that differ from theirs. Thus, Bektashis in particular refer to a “trinity” consisting of Allah, Muhammad and Ali, and during their ritual practices wine or raki is consumed with bread in what is an obvious imitation of the eucharist in many Christian denominations. Perhaps the inclination to co-opt beliefs and practices from different sources helps explain why, as a general rule, Alevis and Bektashis have been far more tolerant and respectful of people who subscribe to beliefs and practices that differ from their own, while, as a general rule, Sunni and, in some instances, mainstream Shia Muslims have not only treated such people like, at best, second class citizens by according them fewer rights and opportunities, but also periodically subjected them to forcible conversion and/or murder and massacre.

There is another thing that causes mainstream Sunni Muslims to have doubts about Alevis and Bektashis and this is the fact that Alevis and Bektashis seem to manifest far greater affection for Ali than for Muhammad, so much so that one of the most obvious ways of telling you are in an Alevi or a Bektashi home is if you see hanging on the wall a picture of Ali looking not unlike Jesus, although his hair is always black.

I have always enjoyed time spent in the company of Alevis and Bektashis and, in recent years, have had increasing doubts about many of the Sunni Muslims with whom I have engaged. I am now far more clear in my mind why this is so. Most Sunni Muslims are preoccupied with Islamic orthodoxy and imposing on themselves and others what passes for such orthodoxy, while Alevis and Bektashis are much more committed to a philosophy shaped by live and let live, openness to new ideas and conforming to the golden rule. It is probably because of this philosophy that, nowadays, Alevi and Bektashi men and women engage in ritual practices together and as equals, and why even a confirmed atheist such as myself is welcomed into their company.

Onar and new friends.

Onar and new friends.

Onar and new friends.

Onar and new friends.

The tombs at Onar have been cut from the rock itself, usually in a valley wall. The chambers containing the tombs are shaped roughly like a cube or cuboid and smaller cavities to contain the dead usually exist in the three walls that do not include the entrance. The cavities for the dead have arches above them and the bodies lay on flat surfaces about a metre above the floor. Sometimes the floor itself has smaller cavities, no doubt also for the dead to lie in. The tombs would appear to be late Roman, perhaps 2nd, 3rd or even 4th century CE. Carved decoration, of stylised plant forms or repeated geometric shapes, is often encountered, the repeated geometric shapes sometimes drawing the eye to the edge of the arch above the individual resting places for the dead. Above a few arches are shallow recesses which may have contained a stone tablet inscribed with information about the dead person that lay below. There are also cavities in which wine was made and stored prior to consumption, and the occasional recess in a wall where lamps or candles could be lit or small possessions displayed. Sometimes the stone at the entrance to a tomb chamber has been carved to resemble columns. Each column has flat faces, a base and a capital. As a general rule, the stonemasons who carved the tomb chamber entrances were not as skilled as those who carved the plant-life or the geometric shapes along the arches.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

I was reminded, perhaps inevitably, of Cappadocia and there were times when I thought some of the “tombs” may actually have been troglodyte homes. I also wondered if some of the structures had links with Christians, but I did not see anything that proved for definite that Christians might have been associated with some of what survives at Onar. This said, because Christians in the Roman Empire still suffered persecution into the early years of the 4th century (and persecution persisted beyond that date under certain rulers), they would have been unwise to advertise their existence too overtly.

Next to one recess in a wall is a carving resembling the Buddhist symbol for the eightfold path to enlightenment. In other words, it is a circle with what looks like eight spokes radiating from the centre. I am not for one moment suggesting that this carving has been left by Buddhists and it looks too perfect and clean to have been carved at the same time the tombs were used by people in the Roman Empire, but it did intrigue me. Had it had twelve “spokes” I would have associated it with Shia Muslims and/or Alevis due to their affection for the twelve imams, the last one of whom is “hidden” and will return at some point in the future in just the same way that Christians believe Jesus will return as the messiah. I could sense already that, once home, I would want to very quickly return to this remarkable place because, when I return to somewhere in Turkey, I find something new that is ample reward for the effort.

Entrances leading into the tomb chambers are themselves cut from the rock and are usually devoid of additional stonework to reinforce or ornament them. Rectangular in shape, they are sometimes a little wider at waist height as if people were obese at the time the tombs were used. Some entrances are framed externally by an arch, but in at least one case an entrance has an eye-catching triangular feature above the doorway. Additionally, the rock immediately below the triangle has been carved in such a way as to convert what would be the door’s lintel into a shape resembling a bell. Another doorway has a narrow vertical window above it, presumably to let additional light into the tomb chamber.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

The most remarkable tomb chamber is the one we looked at last before walking into the countryside to examine yet more Roman ruins among the wild flowers and herbs. The tomb chamber has a wall with the sun, horses, triangles, squares and hook-like shapes resembling waves that look as if they have been drawn by a child using a dull red paint. All these except the sun, which features only once (although near the sun is what looks like the figure of someone who might be playing a musical instrument or hunting), are painted in continuous lines, the triangles and hook-like shapes being joined one to the other.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

A Roman tomb, Onar.

The wall I have just described is to your left as you look in through the small entrance. Ahead, beside a square doorway leading to another section of the tomb chamber, are more examples of painting, in this case of at least one human figure and what looks like a deer and a camel. These have been painted with less care than the patterns, etc. on the left-hand wall and have also suffered more damage or deterioration, perhaps because they face the entrance and light has taken its toll. The human figure stands next to what looks like a small house with a pitched roof, but it might be a crude representation of one of the tomb chambers themselves. The right-hand wall also has things painted on it, but of these the only one that really stands out is a human figure riding a horse. The human figure appears to be holding at least one weapon and it looks as if a flag on a pole might be part of the portrait.

The walk into the countryside resulted in encounters with fresh almonds, flowers, herbs and sublime views of the village in its seductively beautiful setting, and chats with men and women working in their fields or gardens. As for the Roman ruins themselves, most seemed to be associated with the production of wine. A majority of the cavities and related channels required to make and store the wine had been cut from the rock itself in just the same way as the tomb chambers we had already examined.

More Roman ruins, Onar.

More Roman ruins, Onar.

But Onar has one last treat, an old cesme with arches, troughs, channels and pools of most unusual design and size. One pool is partially housed within a cube made of stone and one side of the cube has an opening with a shallow arch above it. Three sturdy lengths of wood have been positioned in front of the arch to provide additional support for the roof. A larger pool to one side of the cube of stone has a stone wall behind it. The more I examined the cesme, the more I suspected that the larger pool was once covered with a roof.

The cesme, Onar.

The cesme, Onar.

The cesme, Onar.

The cesme, Onar.

I have written at length about Onar because, even if the village did not possess the cemevi dating from 1224 and its much older Roman remains, it would be a destination worth visiting for anyone who wants to engage with a remarkable settlement and its very friendly inhabitants. Onar’s beautiful rural setting is, of course, an additional reason for making a detour. I was very grateful to my three new friends for showing me around a place that proved one of the most notable I was to visit on a trip that had many notable destinations.

Onar.

Onar.

We walked back to the car, spent a little more time in Ismael’s company (he told me he had a website, which, at home, I examined with great interest), then I was driven back to Arapgir through countryside that looked even more attractive than earlier in the day because the sun was lower in the sky.

Onar and new friends.

Onar and new friends.