Special for the Armenian Weekly
The issue of Islamized/Alevized Armenians has stirred a great deal of controversy and debate recently in academic, political, and social circles. For Armenians, Dersim—also known as Tunceli in modern-day Turkey, a place where hundreds of Islamized/Kurdified/Alevized Armenians are supposed to reside—is a region in eastern Anatolia surrounded by myths and secrets.
Throughout history, the interests of various regional and global powers converged in Dersim. It was known as a land of diversity and tolerance, where various cultures and languages—including Kurdish, Zaza, and Armenian—met and found solace throughout the centuries that shaped it. It is where the love of natural elements echoed, churches sanctified the land, and monasteries embellished it with a sense of mysticism still unknown to many.
It was those features of Dersim that pushed author Erwan Kerivel to publish his latest book, “Les Fils du Soleil: Armeniens et Alevies du Dersim” (SIGEST, 2013; translated as “The Sons of the Sun: The Armenians and Alevis of Dersim”). This article is an attempt to assess Kerivel’s work, a comprehensive and meticulous study of the origins of Alevism (a sect in modern Turkey), and the way in which Armenian paganism and, later on, various elements of Armenian Christianity helped shape the Alevi cult.
Divided into seven chapters, the book opens with a historical overview of Dersim and a description of the indigenous population. Regional conflicts, massacres, persecution, and the mass exodus of people mainly from north-western Persia (current-day Iran) into eastern Anatolia turned this region into an amalgam of various cultures. This cluster of newcomers were called Desiman or Dersiman, thus giving the region its name. Kerivel explains that the deportation of these people from Persia gave birth to a tribal system, the ashiret, that spread into Dersim, and outlines the most significant tribes of the region. He concludes the chapter by arguing that the inhabitants of Dersim ought to be identified as “Alevis Dersimis” (Alevis from Dersim) rather than Kurdish or Zaza Alevis.
Referring to the scientific works of well-established scholars such as Seta Dadoyan, the author tracks the link between the Alevism of Dersim and Armenian paganism, and demonstrates that the origins of the former ought to be sought in elements of the latter, and also in Iranian Mithraism. He contends that most of the cultic elements of Alevism in Dersim are adopted from an Armenian pagan tradition called “Arevordik,” or “Sons of the Sun”—hence the title of the book. Tracing the term “alev” back to its origins, Kerivel, having studied the features of Armenian paganism, explains that the use of the term “alev” or “alevi” actually comes from the Farsi “alaw,” which means sun (or “arev” in Armenian). After examining other rituals and cultic elements, Kerivel draws a clear parallel between Armenian paganism and Alevism, and the way in which one influenced the other. Therefore, despite the assumption that Alevism was strongly influenced by the Kizilbash movement of the 15th and 16th centuries that introduced Shiism, the second chapter concludes that the real origins of Alevism ought to be sought in the Armenian pagan rites, whose features were mostly influenced or directly derived from the Iranian Mithra tradition.
What is, then, so special about Dersim? Kerivel attempts to provide an answer to this question in the third chapter of the book, where the focus is on the cults, ceremonies, and rituals of the Alevism of Dersim, known as the Rae Haq, translated as the Path of Truth. The chapter identifies some of its most significant sanctuaries and pilgrimage sites—where, according to the author, natural elements are entangled with the religious, hence mystifying the region even more. One interesting religious feature that Kerivel highlights is the ocak (ojak or ojakh) system. An ocak is a geographical and historical center to which the Alevis are connected, he explains. It is where the first ancestors of a given tribe lived; there is a sense of attachment to the ocak, as they are named after religious figures supposedly linked to Prophet Muhammad through Imam Ali’s lineage. The author goes on to identify a significant number of ocak’s still in existence in Dersim, and explains the way in which the religiosity affiliated with these ocak’s manifests itself as the Path of Truth, or Rae Haq.
The fourth chapter is a compilation of eye-witness accounts from Western travelers, scholars, ethnographers, and geographers who passed through Dersim from the mid-19th century to the early-20th century, and witnessed first-hand the religious culture of the area. Starting from the mid-19th century, a large number of publications appeared about the existence of the Kizilbash culture in eastern Anatolia. Kerivel highlights a few passages that elucidate the overall features of the Alevi culture. One noteworthy hypothesis was by Prof. Hans-Lukas Kieser, who wrote of a national awakening among the Alevis that took place just years before World War I. This chapter importantly bridges the ancient history of Anatolia underscored in the earlier chapters to modern times, and lets the reader think about the mutual fate that the Armenians and Alevis shared in 1915 and 1938, respectively.
Shifting from the Alevism of Dersim, the fifth chapter is an overview of Armenian Christianity, which officially began in 301 with St. Gregory the Illuminator. Throughout the first decades of its establishment, the Armenian Church underwent great difficulties and conflicts as it struggled for religious hegemony over the Armenian people against its counterpart, Persian Zoroastrianism. The chapter reviews the overall religious structure of the Armenian Apostolic Church, and outlines its clerical hierarchy. The author then provides a picture of the monasteries and churches spread throughout Dersim. The large number of Armenian religious institutions in Dersim implies that a significant number of Christian Armenians populated the region before the genocide. As he did before with the case of Armenian paganism, Kerivel draws a parallel between Armenian Christianity and the Alevism of Dersim, identifying some of the religious rituals present in both. He thus demonstrates the depth of the syncretism of the Alevism of Dersim. An important aspect of this chapter is its reference to the conversions to Alevism that took place throughout the centuries, and that accounts for the hundreds of Armenian Alevis now living in Dersim. This number grew significantly during and after the genocide, as discussed in subsequent sections. Referring to historical documents, academic works, and survivor accounts from Dersim, Kerivel highlights the primary reasons many Armenians converted to Alevism throughout history.
Chapter six deals with the transition from the religious features of the Alevism of Dersim to the actual social and political events that shaped modern Alevism, during and after the genocide of the Armenians in 1915. Many historical sources claim that the Dersim area served as a shelter for Armenians escaping from the Ottoman massacres and deportations. They also converge on the fact that many Alevis of Dersim hid survivors and refused to surrender them to the Ottoman authorities. According to Prof. Lukas-Kieser’s work, 30,000 Armenians succeeded in escaping the horrendous massacres by the Turks. The chapter provides numerous examples of the heroic acts by tribal leaders who refused to hand over the Armenians. Moreover, when the Russian forces were on the offensive in May 1915, and when the Turkish authorities called upon the Alevi clans of Dersim to join the Ottoman Army for a jihad against the enemy, the majority of Alevis rejected it. Thus, we may say that this chapter is dedicated to the brave Alevis who helped many Armenians survive the genocide—often at great risk—and is an homage to those who lost their lives. Yet, keeping his objectivity as a historian, Kerivel also points out that despite the fact that many helped the Armenians survive, some tribes collaborated with the Ottoman authorities and participated in the massacres—an important fact to bear in mind, he says, when assessing the overall role of the Alevis of Dersim during the genocide.
Of course, sheltering the Armenians came at a high price, and the Alevis paid it no later than 1938. The massacres of the Alevis of Dersim by the Kemalist regime constituted the primary focus of the seventh and final chapter of the book. As the author rightly points out, the Armenians and the Alevis had a common, cruel fate—they were the victims of a genocidal policy as well as a racist ideology. Interestingly, he argues that the annihilation of the Alevis of Dersim had been planned long before 1938. Moreover, the chapter is an attempt to illustrate the way in which the military operations of the Kemalist Army that led to the massacres of the Alevis were legitimized through a legislative arsenal put into practice by the regime. The objective, it turns out, was not only the extermination of the Alevis from the semi-autonomous Dersim region, but also the eradication of the remaining Armenians who had found shelter there after the genocide. Referring to survivor accounts, the chapter provides a vivid description of the massacres that took place in Dersim and that eradicated the mystic culture and the religious diversity that had long characterized this land.
Erwan Kerivel’s Les Fils du Soleil is a comprehensive work that not only displays the parallels between Armenian Christianity and the Alevism of Dersim, but attests to the commonalities in the mutual, gruesome fate of both cultures. In addition to being an historical work that deals with the evolution of Alevism, it is a study that makes us think about the present and, certainly, the future. The very informative aspect of each chapter helps us realize that despite our linguistic and religious differences, we share a common history and a collective memory.
As the author says in the end, “the chains of friendship between Armenians and Alevis were shattered by the tragic events of the past, and it is for the sake of reforming those lost chains, that I set about to write this book.” Kerivel’s work helps us to better understand the urgent need for joint programs and cooperation, because when it comes to genocide recognition and the acknowledgment of crimes against humanity, we both have a common interest.