Dersim: A Facet of the Silent Revolution in Turkey

In 21st-century Turkey, we are witnessing massive social transformations and changes that were inconceivable just years ago. Hrant Dink’s murder ignited the spark of self-recognition and self-assertion, and initiated a campaign of return to ancestral roots among Turkish-Armenians, especially in the Eastern Anatolian provinces. However, of the hundreds of districts and regions these “hidden Armenians” call home, Dersim (Tunceli, in Turkish) has a unique social and cultural environment with an exceptional spirit of rebellion and struggle, the features of which will constitute the bulk of this article. Dink’s assassination may not be the direct cause of this self-recognition in Turkey, but it was surely the spark that initiated the outburst, the desire to reclaim one’s Armenian identity.

Although the brutal massacres of the Kurds in Dersim in 1938 symbolize the epitome of the anti-minorities campaign of the Kemalist regime in the 1920’s and 1930’s, it also overlaps with Armenian grief. Some of the Dersim Alevi, Kizilbash, Zaza, Karabli, Yusufhanli, and Ferhatans that populated the area welcomed the survivors of the Armenian Genocide (mostly of whom came from the Erzinjan area) and provided them with shelter and protection, all the while knowing that it could endanger their own lives or the lives of their loved ones.1

Addressing this point, Max Erwin Von Scheubner-Ritcher, the  German vice-consul in Erzurum during World War I, wrote that the “Kurds played a very diverse role. Many allowed themselves to be hired as hangmen for the Armenians, waylaid deportation trains, killed the men, kidnapped the women, and took all valuables with them. Then there were obviously real agreements between the Turks in favor of genocide and the Kurdish tribes. But there was one exception: the Kurds from Dersim, the successors of the historical Kizzylbash, who were not members of the basic Sunnite belief, but rather of a Shiite orientation. These people turned out to be the most important saviors of the persecuted Armenians. They organized regular escape roads to Russia, which, in the following period, particularly in the 30’s, led to their own annihilation by the Turks who now followed Kemal…”2

Despite pressure and constant threats by the Ottoman government, the Dersim Kurds continued to shelter the Armenians. Unfortunately, the governmental response came two decades later, when the Kemalist regime brutally suppressed a “fabricated” Kurdish rebellion in Dersim by killing thousands of Kurds, as well as the sheltered Armenians—with an overall estimate of 70,000 killed. The government claimed this suppression was a punitive measure towards the Zazas, who supposedly treacherously protected the enemies of the state and the nation—that is, the Armenians. Yet, many saw it as a deliberate policy that aimed to disarm the region and expand state control, and, crucially, to empty the region by eradicating the last remnants of the Armenians—thereby finishing what their predecessors had started.

Most of the surviving Armenians, who had already converted and become Alevis, were deported or exiled to Istanbul or other parts of Western Turkey. The killings occurred in a valley called Lesh Dere (Valley of Corpses), whose name attests to the brutality of the massacres of 1938. Some consider this place to be the second Der-Zor, insofar as it is a mourning place for the Armenian people and overlaps with the genocidal policies of the Ottoman state, initiated in 1915.

How is this rebellious spirit of Dersim being revealed now during recent tumultuous events in Turkey? From the bourgeoning days of Kurdish nationalism, Dersim has been the revolutionary and socialist center of the Kurdish fighters. The ubiquitous presence of Turkish military bases surrounding Dersim’s perimeter demonstrates the importance and the danger this area poses to the Turkish government. Antranik Yeritsyan, in his book Dersim: Seyahatname (Dersim: Travels) written in 1900 in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Georgia, wrote, “Every year, bloody and fierce battles take place between the Turkish government and the Dersim Kurds. However, as the Kurds keep their orientation, they are still invincible.” Ironically, some believe that a vast number of the local population of Dersim Alevis are actually converts—Armenians who have embraced the Zaza identity and accepted the Alevi faith under various circumstances. The efforts of a single person—Mihran Prgitch (Mihran the Savior)—opened the path for other “hidden Armenians” to return to their origins.

 

Mihran and the Union of Dersim Armenians

Mihran was aware of his Armenian origins since the age of 7, but for obvious reasons, was unable to fulfill his dream—to return to his origins—until 43 years later. What compelled him to take this step was the assassination of Hrant Dink, which deeply affected him. After the murder of his friend, Mihran (then called Salaheddin) began forming what is now called the “Dersimi hayerou mioutioun” (Union of Dersim Armenians), also known as “Dersiyad.” This association has now been operational for two years. To finalize his acculturation, in 2010, he converted from Alevism to Christianity through an official baptism and an application to the Armenian religious authorities in Yerevan. He then changed his name from Salaheddin to Mihran.

The formation of such an association can be seen as one of the rebellious features of Dersim, which manifests itself through numerous cultural events and articles published in the Union’s official newspaper, Dersiyad. The paper condemns the assimilative policies adopted by the Turkish government and the lack of cultural, ethnic, and religious freedom in the country. The issue of the “hidden Armenians” in the eastern provinces has thus been politicized, partly thanks to these articles that placed this problem on Turkey’s political scene and continued to call upon the issues first raised by Hrant Dink.

The creation of such a union and the return to Armenian identity is seen by these once-hidden Armenians as a step forward in their struggle for a more tolerant policy, defined by cultural, ethnic, and religious freedoms, as well as a respect for basic human rights. Thus far, an estimated 34 households in the Dersim region explicitly acknowledge their Armenian roots. According to Mihran, the current president of the Union, 85 percent of the local population in Dersim can claim Armenian origin in their ancestral chain, whether pure or hybrid. This claim is supported by Diran Lokmakyozyan, who in an article published on Akunq.net writes, “It is very hard to find a ‘Dersim-ian’ who is not the child of a returned-one.”3 (The expression “returned-one” is a reference to the exiled Armenians who returned to Dersim after the 1947 amnesty.4)

 

Expressions and identity

Another important aspect that characterizes this area and, especially, the “hidden Armenians” in it can be traced in the dialect and linguistic expressions used among the people at the local level. Closer scrutiny of their expressions—such as, “Alevi Muslim”—reveals that whereas most of them are aware of their ancestral origins, they refuse to accept it openly, especially to outsiders. (The reasons for this refusal constitute another essential topic interwoven with the issue of “hidden Armenians” in Turkey, yet it does not fall in the scope of this analysis.) According to Andranik Ispiryan, a Turkology professor at Yerevan State University, an Alevi does not say that he is an “Alevi Muslim.” Although “Alevism” was first derived from Islam, throughout the centuries it has diverted significantly from the orthodox Muslim faith. Concerning this issue, Captain Molyneux L. Seel wrote the following in 1914: “The Dersimli are styled by the Turks ‘Kezelbash,’ which means ‘red-head,’ a term of opprobrium which they apply also to the Persians and to other unorthodox Mohammedans. But a native, if he be asked what is his religion, will say that he is a ‘yol oushaghi,’ a picturesque term which might perhaps be best translated as ‘a child of the True Path.’ The sect called Kezelbash, though themselves repudiating the term Islam…”5

The “Alevi Muslim” expression could be a kind of defense strategy, since Alevis are still persecuted in Turkey. Or, it could contain a hidden message; the interlocutor may deliberately use it in order to show his/her Armenian identity.

In his article, Lokmakyozyan tells a story that reveals how language can unfold hidden identities. On his way to YesilYaz in Dersim, an area known for the residents’ open acknowledgment of being Armenian, he, along with Mihran and some friends, encounter an old woman—mamig or dadi—on the bus. Mihran attempts to persuade her that the bus is not a local, public one. After a few minutes of discussion, it turns out that she is in one of the families who openly acknowledge their Armenian identity, and is heading to the same place as Mihran and his friends. Yet, no matter how hard they try to get her to admit her Armenian identity, the woman abruptly states, “I’m an Alevi Muslim.” Interestingly, even though the mamig refused to openly accept her Armenian identity, her four sons had no fear of explicitly saying that “she, as well as we, are Armenians.”

The deliberate usage of the “Alevi Muslim” parlance does show that the old woman considers herself neither Muslim nor Alevi, but is acting only out of a fear of outsiders. The underlying fear overshadows her tendency toward an open acknowledgment of an Armenian identity. However, interestingly enough, this does not curb her intimate rapprochement with Lokmakyozyan and his friends, as far as hospitality is concerned. It was “as if we were surrounded by our brothers and sisters,” he writes.

According to Ispiryan, although non-Armenian Alevis might use the “Alevi Muslim” expression as a defensive measure, the case is different when it comes to Dersim. The hidden message in the dialect of the old woman is decoded once we encounter other family members of the second generation, whose explicit acknowledgment of their true identity unearths the hidden denotation of the “Alevi Muslim” expression, when it comes to the usage by the first generation. Further research on the relationship between expressions and political/national psyche and identity might inform us on how “hidden Armenians” oppose the Islamic policies of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party by rejecting their Islamic identity mostly through the voice of the second generation—in this case, her sons. This refutation does not simply imply that they consider themselves Christians; it is a negation of the “Islamization”—and subsequently the “Turkification”—process that has been taking place since 1915.

Customs and rituals

A certain awareness is also seen at the two springs of Anahid in Dersim, a sanctuary viewed as a fountain of hope for the local population. The myth surrounding the springs tells the story of the Goddess Anahid, who has nurtured the Zaza and the Armenians, establishing a mutual love and friendship between them. The two springs symbolize the two breasts of the goddess. What is important for us is not the myth, but rather the rituals or the ceremonies held at the site. In the Islamic or Alevi culture, the usage of candles as religious symbols or items is absent. However, we see in Dersim—which is supposedly an Alevi-populated district—that each person who approaches the mentioned sanctuary kindles some candles with an accompanying prayer.

The myth surrounding the springs tells the story of the Goddess Anahid, who has nurtured the Zaza and the Armenians, establishing a mutual love and friendship between them.
The myth surrounding the springs tells the story of the Goddess Anahid, who has nurtured the Zaza and the Armenians, establishing a mutual love and friendship between them.

I visited the area a month ago. Once the locals knew that our group was made up of Armenians, a local jumped ahead and started playing Armenian songs on the radio. I believe this was an expression of intimacy and friendship, and perhaps a way to demonstrate to “visiting Armenians” that they, too, are Armenian. There was a mutual connection and closeness. Had it not been for the Armenian spirit that has prevailed since the formation of the Union, this act would probably not have taken place. This incident demonstrates the extent to which rituals are manifestations of underlying or hidden identities. This idea of a “prevailing spirit” is crucial; for, in stark contrast to Dersim, in other regions of Turkey similarly comprised of “hidden Armenians”—such as Van or other conservative regions—this scenario is not repeated. There, converted Armenians try to hide themselves as soon as they become aware of the “other visiting Armenians.”

 

Festivals and attire

Given the Islamic proclivities of the AK Party, the expression of anti-government sentiments can be traced in the way women dress. Unlike most women in rural Turkey, the majority of those in Dersim are unveiled. The absence of veils or headscarves hints at the rebellious, revolutionary spirit of Dersim. For, it is a refutation of the imposed Islamic veneer.

Furthermore, every year during the month of August, the region hosts a three-day festival where various cultural, folk, and artistic groups take the stage, and when, interestingly, the pictures of Che Guevara, Mao, and Kurdish martyrs, such as Sheikh Said, occupy the main square of the town. This appeal to communist and socialist leaders gives us a glimpse into the prevailing spirit in the region.

The language also plays a vital role here; the usage of Armenian scripts as well as Kurdish ones shows to what extent the area is semi-autonomous, given the strict prohibition on the usage of Kurdish in Turkey. The Union has its own stand during the festival, and young Armenians sell books on General Antranik and other revolutionary figures, as well as various leftist newspapers.

The Union has its own stand during the festival, and young Armenians sell books on General Antranik and other revolutionary figures, as well as various leftist newspapers.
The Union has its own stand during the festival, and young Armenians sell books on General Antranik and other revolutionary figures, as well as various leftist newspapers.

This “rebellion” by Dersim’s Armenians is more symbolic than it is an outright struggle. What the stories and examples above share are the symbols they employ, and the signs of a rebellious and revolutionary mentality. It is through the analysis and interpretation of these symbols that one can grasp the mindset of the region. They constitute the various pieces of the same puzzle—incomprehensible, unless one puts together the different pieces, the symbols. The Dersim Armenians should be viewed through various perspectives of social, cultural, political, and contemporary history, in order to understand the implications for the other “hidden Armenians” in the Anatolian provinces. This symbolism is a continuation of the pioneering call for freedom that Dersim was—and still is—famous for in the pages of history. Although the struggle of the “hidden Armenians” in Dersim may largely be a modest and silent one, its implications on the transforming cultural and social environment of 21st-century Turkey are truly significant. Even if such transformations are occurring in Turkey because of its aspirations to join the European Union, the courageousness of the Alevi Kurds and the “hidden Armenians” of Dersim should not be overlooked.

The return to their ancestral and Armenian origins is one of the facets of this “silent revolution” that is attempting to revitalize the spirit of social reform and freedom, not by armed struggle (in the Armenians’ case) but by a courageous yet tacit rejection of what is deliberately being served—Turkish assimilation.

 

Sources

1) This group should be differentiated from the Zazaki-speaking Sunni Kurds, which were complicit in the brutal massacres of the Armenians in 1915.

2) The Armenian Genocide 1915/1916: Documents from the Political Archives of the German Foreign Office.

3) See http://akunq.net/am/?p=12582.

4) This significant number of Armenians is likely due to the amnesty granted by the government in 1947, when the “Dersim issue” was considered solved. By that time, most of the Armenians who had escaped the massacres of 1938 had already converted to Alevism. Thus, they were categorized as “Alevis” or “Muslims” and were granted the right to return to Dersim.

5) Molyneux L. Seel, “A Journey in Dersim,” The Geographical Journal 44/1 (July 1914): p. 51.

avatar

Varak Ketsemanian

Varak Ketsemanian is a graduate of the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (2014-2016). His master’s thesis titled “Communities in Conflict: the Hunchakian Revolutionary Party 1890-1894” examines the socio-economic role of violence in shaping inter-communal and ethnic relations by doing a local history of the Armenian Revolutionary Movement in the Ottoman Empire. Ketsemanian’s work tackles problems such as the development and polarization of mainstream historiographies, inter-communal stratifications, nationalism, and the relationship of the Ottoman State with some of its Anatolian provinces. He is currently completing a PhD at Princeton University, where his doctoral dissertation will focus on the social history of the National Constitution of Ottoman Armenians in 1863, and the communal dynamics/mechanisms that it created on imperial, communal, and provincial levels. Ketsemanian’s research relates to the development of different forms of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, revolutionary violence, and constitutional movements.

19 Comments

  1. Thank for this wonderful article. I have recently been trying to find out about the Kurds of Dersim as my father, his mother, sister and brother escaped from Kharpert through the mountains of Dersim. In his memoir, which we have just had transcribed, he talks about the underground escape route which the Kurds had organized. He remembers being puzzled by hearing what sounded like Armenian words spoken and having a feeling that some of these Kurds were actually Armenian. The journey was treacherous but the small family made it to the Russian border and to safety. Carolann Najarian

  2. This kid*sorry young man is brilliant.Should be encouraged…he may well be defined as a new come Armenian journalist comentator and then some.I shall refer to his post above later if i get time…
    Saludos

  3. A problem with this article is the oversimplified identification of the Dersimli as “Kurds”. There is actually no historical and very little ethnological evidence to support that “Kurd” label. In the 19th-century the word “Kurd” was used very loosely and mostly denoted a lifestyle rather than an ethnicity. Nowadays, Kurds aspire to political and cultural autonomy based on ethnicity, so it beholds us to use the term “Kurd” more accurately. Molyneux-Seel, mentioned as a source for this article, observed that the Zaza dialect spoken in Dersim is completely unintelligible to a Kurmanji-speaking Kurd. A generation earlier, Taylar reported the Dersim countryside to be full of the ruins of Armenian churches. The Dersimli are most likely the descendants of the region’s indigenous population that became “Armenian” and Christian when Armenia was the predominant power, then later evolved into the Muslim-Christian hybrid known as Kizilbash. The Kurds are not natives to the Dersim, and are historically recent incomers to most of the areas in Turkey that they now inhabit – so it is inappropriate to label the Dersimli as “Kurds”, regardless of the upset this truth might give to Kurdish “greater Kurdistan” irredentists.

  4. “In the 19th-century the word “Kurd” was used very loosely and mostly denoted a lifestyle rather than an ethnicity. Nowadays, Kurds aspire to political and cultural autonomy based on ethnicity, so it beholds us to use the term “Kurd” more accurately.”
    .
    Did you work for the Turkish government in the 1980s?

  5. Steve, when you say:

    “The Dersimli are most likely the descendants of the region’s indigenous population that became “Armenian” and Christian when Armenia was the predominant power”

    What do you propose was the ‘indigenous’ population?

    Let’s keep in mind the Turkish propagandist narrative: “In Antiquity Anatolia was home to many civilizations” – No it wasn’t. At least not as ‘distinctly’ different peoples, which in their version of history “the Turks are just another one of them, in a long line of many peoples.” i.e. “The Armenian Genocide wasn’t so bad after all” i.e. “The Turks deserve to be there just like anyone else despite having to do a Genocide on the indigenous population.”

    Such “civilizations” in antiquity had kinship to one another which eventually forged two distinct peoples. Armenians in the east and Greeks in the west. Anatolia was no more full of civilizations than say the area which is considered present-day Germany prior to unification in 1871 of the German States.

    As far as Kurds I also recall reading someplace that the Ottoman Empire settled Kurds in this region (western Armenia) as a result of conflict with Persia after which significant numbers of Armenians were forced into Persia as well as Constantinople (Istanbul) in the early 17th century.

    • By indigenous population I meant the first peoples to live in the Dersim region in a settled way. Dersim does not lie along trade routes or invasion routes and is somewhat cut off from the rest of the Armenian highlands (Dersim is not in Anatolia, it is just to the east of the eastern edge of Anatolia), so I think that once the region had a fixed, settled population it is reasonable to argue that that initial population would have remained there and is essentially still there. The drift of the population from Christianity to Islam would not have resulted in a major population change, and the massacres and deportations of the 1930s probably did not result in many new incomers. Such a long established population cannot be real ethnic Kurds (assuming such a thing exists) because Kurds are recent arrivals in an historical timescale. Classical sources speak of numerous distinct peoples living in Anatolia, each with their own states and cultures, but by the middle Byzantine period they are all just being called Greeks. This does not mean the original population left or died out, it just means they became willingly assimilated into the dominate culture of the time, the Christian Greek one. The same thing I think happened to the indigenous population in Dersim – only they became Armenians.

    • Steve:

      {“cannot be real ethnic Kurds (assuming such a thing exists)”}.

      What is the basis for you doubting that Kurds are a distinct, existing ethnos ?
      They are classified to be Iranian people, like Lezgies, Talysh, etc, but the identification ‘Kurd’ has been around for several thousand years, as far as I know. Historically inhabiting Zagros Mountain range (to the best of my knowledge).

      They may still be in the formative stage as a nation, and tribal identity appears to be stronger than national identity at this time.
      But is there a scientific reason to doubt that “…such a thing
      exists” ?

  6. As good as this article is, the idea that the indigenous population of Dersim or most of eastern Anatolia being anything but Armenian is a bit fanciful. The earliest recorded peoples on that land, by virtue of the numerous ‘perts’ that dot the countryside, were the Urartians, aka, ancient Armenians. Of course, what were their predecessors called? I can be quite certain that the ancient inhabitants of the region were not Greeks, nor Kurds – who by the way, after several thousand years, never developed a written language of their own. Along with this, we need to remember that invaders, conquerors and empires washed over eastern Anatolia/Armenia for many millennia, but the natives clung to their soil both before and after, going back to well more than 10,000 years. The region has not been called the cradle of civilization for nothing…it is a very serious label that we need to embrace and develop with solid scholarship and science.

  7. Thank you for a very informative article.
    I now understand better my own experience when I visited our ancestral homeland in 1992. I spent a night in Terjan (now spelled Tercan on maps) and went to the local out-door bazaar the next morning. Many of these people looked sooo Armenian, so I asked one vendor (in public) where he was from. He said he was from “Ägri dag”. I immediately (and stupidly) followed with “Kurd me sen, ermeni me sen?” I saw an unexplainable worried-smirk on his face and he replied: El-hamdulillah, we are all muslims!

  8. Parev, I’m the author of “Children of the Sun, Armenians and Alevis from Dersim”, published by Sigest Editions in french language. Just want to correct something you wrote in this article: “In the Islamic or Alevi culture, the usage of candles as religious symbols or items is absent.”
    It’s not true to write that in Alevi culture the usage of candles is absent. Since a very long time, Alevis use candles in both pilgrimage (ziyaret) and community ceremony (cem). This due to the fact that Alevism in Dersim come from persian Mithraism, a religion and beliefs where fire and sun are omnipresent. Pagan armenians called “Arevordiks” also use candles and fire in religious cults. Alevis or “Kizilbash” were known as “terah sonderan” or “mum söndü” litterally “Those who switch off candles” cause during their secret ceremonies of Cem, there is one moment they switch off the 3 candles (Hakk (God), Muhammed, Ali). So the use of candles by Alevis is very well-known and not a sign of their Armenity. with kind regards from France. Erwan

  9. Hi, as a child of Dersim, i would like to greet all. First of all I want to say to Steve that we have always seen ourselves as Kurds. The fact that Zaza and Kurmandshi sounds different and they don´t understand each other is normal, because none of the Kurdish dialects understands the otherone. Your thinking is the same as the turkish gov. they are trying to split the kurds arguments… To our Armenian friends, who had to flee at the time. I would like to say this: You are always welcome in OUR city we have been lived together for centuries.

    Sinan K.

  10. My great grandfather was a leader of an Armenian village in Dersim. The Muslims of Dersim were former Armenians. This is probably why they saved so many Armenians in 1915. The name “Dersim” comes from “Der Simon” who was an Armenian priest. He was burried in Derim. There is an Armenian book entitled “Badmoutium Charsanjakee Hayots”. In this book it also states that the Kurds of Dersim were former Armenians. There was a St. Garabed Monastery in Dersim (not to be confused with the one in Mush). On the named day of the saint the kurds would travel up to the monestary on their knees and would pray to the saint. No real Moslem would do this. My grandmother were saved by “Kurds” of Dersim during the genocide who knew her father. The kurds also had practices in Dersim similar to the Armenians. I recommend everyone interested about the Armenian community of Dersim to read the above mentioned book.

  11. My english is not very good. I tried to understand but very little was done to. In our teaching, God is the heart of what people in what heaven is. We live our faith in Islam influenced by many ancient peoples of the region, we see a separate beliefs. More Zoroastrianism and Islam pangasizm effects are seen.

  12. Iam borned in Mazgirt/Dersim,,,my father, his mother and whole his family also lived in Mazgirt/Dersim as far as i know, also their ancestry,,,And my mothers father from Pertek /sagman village who moved to Pertek long time,,in my mother doesnt know many things but she remember that people were use to tell her family that they were Armenian(She is 75 years old),, so i am know totaly confused and i ve been searching for my identity, because i feel always that my family Armenian descendant,,,What can i do?? which source you recommend me and how can i find these books,,, i can read in French , English and Turkish,,,,my parents cant speak kurdish,,,,my best greetings

  13. wonderful article – to serdal and others in DerSim – get your DNA tested by FamilyTreeDNA.com and your family roots will be revealed. I believe this is the best way for you to become acquainted with your true relatives. The Armenian DNA Project will be helpful in this effort.

  14. it has been a thousand years since Turks conqured Anatolia. Who ever has the strength to take it back, please feel wellcome. No hard feelings for Conqurers…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*