Armenian Weekly readers will remember well the historic first journey taken by 50 “hidden Armenians” from Diyarbakir (Dikranagerd) last August to Armenia. These brave individuals were the grandchildren of forcefully Islamicized/Turkified/Kurdified Armenians from 1915, who had the determination and guts to return to their roots after the reconstruction of Sourp Giragos Church in Diyarbakir, the first Armenian church to be resurrected in Turkey since 1915. As a reward for participating in an Armenian-language course organized by the local Diyarbakir Sur municipality and the Church Foundation, they were taken on an unforgettable journey to Armenia, to better understand their forgotten history, culture, and heritage.
I am happy to report that the “coming out” of the hidden Armenians is not restricted to Diyarbakir. Now, it is the turn of the hidden Armenians of Dersim (officially, the Tunceli province) in Turkey. Dersim is a vast mountainous region with beautiful valleys, dotted with hundreds of picturesque villages between Erzurum (known as Garin by Armenians) and Erzinjan (known as Yerzinga) in eastern Turkey. Prior to 1915, Alevi Kurds and Armenians populated the region. The Alevi Kurds, who have traditionally been sympathetic to the Armenians, did not participate in the 1915 massacre and plunder of the Armenians; in fact, they saved tens of thousands of Armenians, either by protecting them against the Ottoman Turkish Army within their own villages, or providing them safe passage toward Russian Armenia.
As a “reward” for protecting the Armenians and for “rebelling” against the new regime, the Alevi Kurds paid dearly 20 years later, in the 1930’s, when the Republican Turkish Army indiscriminately killed most of them, including thousands of assimilated, Kurdified Armenians. The army’s methods varied from assembling the civilian population—men, women, and children—into caves filled with poisonous gases, to killing them with machine guns.
Fast forward to today, and hidden Armenians are emerging from among the Alevi Kurd population of the region, reclaiming their Armenian identity, changing their Turkish/Kurdish names to Armenian ones, and beginning to learn Armenian. After overcoming numerous obstacles, and logistical and organizational challenges, an Armenian-language course was launched on Feb. 1, with dozens—young and old—registering for the three times-per-week classes. An Armenian and Alevi cultural association has also been formed, named “Deradost,” which stands for Dersim Armenians and Alevis Friendship Society. There is also “Dersiyad,” which promotes cooperation and support among Armenians in Dersim, as well as Dersim Armenians in Istanbul and abroad, mostly in Germany.
Similar to the initiative that took Diyarbakir’s hidden Armenians to Armenia, a trip is now planned for some of Dersim’s hidden Armenians to visit Armenia in late March. But there is an added significance and a historic first in this trip: All 12 of the participants are elected village officials of hidden Armenian villages in Dersim. During this trip, they will learn about Armenian history and culture, but, through TV and media, they will also show the Armenians of Armenia and the diaspora the historic Armenian churches and monuments from their own villages, prior to 1915 and now. The trip is sponsored by an individual from Canada, as well as by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, following several e-mails and phone calls between Lisbon, Dersim, Istanbul, Yerevan, and Toronto.
Details about this historic trip and the reflections of the Dersim village officials during their visit to Armenia will be revealed in future articles.