Saturday, August 17, 2013

Day Trips in Conag--

The homemade candles for the 'ziyaret'--all old Armenian or Urartuan places become shrines for local Alevis
Day Trips in Conag (Or Xolxol, or Yalyadere, or Bingöl, or Kurdistan, or old Keghi)

Conag—our little Kurdish Alevi village in the mountains on the border of Dersim (Tunceli) and Bingöl. This was my second visit. (Here for introductory information)

The last time I was here I wrote a lot about how so much was undiscovered and unknown (Forgotten? Erased?). I had that point hammered in just a few notches more this time around. For a variety of reasons—it’s geographical remoteness, the difficulty of access, poverty, the thirty year guerilla war and the desire on the part of the Turkish government to draw attention away from any region that held a lot of Armenians—no one seems to know anything about the place and yet it is full of wonders. Yes, wonders. I will guide you on two brief day trips we took out of Conag as a starting point (It was a long summer and I have a lot to write about).


We rented a taxi one afternoon, wound down the paved road from the town of Xolxol (Yayladere), and turned right off the pavement onto a dirt and rock ‘road’ that went straight up a mountainside. The road was narrow and hair raising—to the right a straight drop down a cliff. It wound through stunted desert forests of oak and juniper with the occasional strand of tall mountain willows and poplars. We passed the village of Çux and pressed further into the wilderness with absolutely stunning views of a canyon that reminded me of the northern rim of the Grand Canyon back in Arizona—a little less steep and deep than the Southern Rim but more richly adorned with tree cover and colors in the rock. Here on the road to Pargasor the earth had stripes of yellow, red, orange and a kind of powder blue green.

The view from the road between Pargasor and Çux--these are the Dersim Mountains.

The village of Pargasor is in ruins—bombed into dust by the Turkish military. Empty shells of houses line the road. I stop here because, as mentioned before, aside from the road, these pile of rocks might explain one major reason why this place is so far off anyone’s radar. Just down from the village is the ruins of a ‘karakol’—a military outpost that was successfully raided by Kurdish guerillas back in the 90s, when the war here was at its peak. Mutual destruction. A decade ago, a trip like ours would have been impossible, by day, harassed and detained and possibly disappeared by the Turkish army, by night running the risk of confrontation with Kurdish guerillas.

The road winds down and down until finally it crosses a bridge that according to the only resource we could find on the region (Cevat Eran’s Bingölün Yayladeresi) is called Horvank Deresi (Creek)—an Armenian name and probably the final reason that no one knows about this place. The Turkish government has taken great pains for the past one hundred years to erase any indication of a strong Armenian presence here. Horvank—as far as I can find with my online Armenian dictionaries—means ‘Deep Monastery’.  I don’t know that this name is accurate or where Cevan Eran even found it because, unlike in most countries, there are no accurate maps of the region except those in the hands of the army, who, for ‘security’ reasons or else for the usual lack of anything systematic here, have not released it to the public. Finding a decent map of the East anywhere in Turkey has been problematic for me.

Horvank Creek is a picture post card—a rocky stream winding down through a canyon of red walls. The stream itself is lined with a bright green explosion of trees and plants—willows and poplars with leaves shimmering in the breezes; purple penny royal (pung in Kurdish), wild yellow daisies and host of water plants that I can’t identify. The water is full of trout (alabalık) and carp (sazan).
The Horvank (Pargasor) River Valley

Horvank Stream
North of the bridge is a stunning waterfall over a cliff wall riddled with caves--the name is İşkevt (ishkevt) according to Eran's book. The water seems to be coming out of the rim of the rock itself and falls in a sheet on the rocks below.
The falls of Pargasor (İşkevt?)

We hiked up to right side of the falls (past berry filled bear droppings) and found two entrances to what looked to me like cave churches I’ve seen all over the country—from the Frygian valley in Eskişehir to the churches of Cappodocchia. There was a dome carved into the cave ceiling beneath which was clearly an altar. Across from the altar on the other wall was an arched niche. There was a second level of caves above the first that according to a lot of people (locals who came here years ago, hearsay, and Eran’s book) have paintings of some sort on the wall, but they are inaccessible now. You’d have to climb up a slick wet rock face to get to them though there used to be a handmade ladder here whose remnants still hang precariously from the cave entrance. Again, according to word of mouth, these caves have been used over the millenia by various peoples—dating all the way back to prehistoric times. A similar cave up toward the town of Kiğı lies outside the village of Avank and is much larger—with writing in an ‘unknown’ script on the wall. I stood on a large rock that looked out over the valley, a vast wilderness of precipice and peak, and wondered if there were others.

The caves from the outside

The window from inside

The altar--above this is a rather smoothe dome that wouldn't show up in a photo


What in the hell is this place? Would a search of Armenian resources turn up anything? With this being on the borders of Mesopotamia could there be any connection with the birth of civilization? You know—that whole thing? From what I understand, archaeology in Turkey is a precarious business. First, no one official seems to really get why its important to study this old crap (in Olympos for example, the  municipality lets tourists tramp all over the ruins, charges them for it, then instead of using the money to help the researchers, keeps it for themselves). Second, sites with a non-Turkish connection are either systematically neglected or destroyed in the endemic nationalism that plagues this country (a guide in the Aegean region told his audience that Lycians were really Turks and proved that this land had always been Turkish while apparently the Turkish archaeologist in charge of the city of Ani used bulldozers to excavate. Bulldozers!) Third—the dams. There are three dams in the Conag region alone drowning, according to local word of mouth, loads of similar sites under water. The Turkish government has drowned a host of priceless Mesopotamian archaelogical sites and plans many more. Finally, there is a history of foreign scientist running off with stuff, which, given the local attitude toward antiquity might have saved countless priceless objects, but still irks people.

A story about the Urartu castle above the town of Xolxol tells it all. Some soldiers or locals went up their digging in search of Armenian gold as late as the nineties. The place has never been touched by archaeologists to my knowledge. After hours of fruitless digging they finally turned up a few skulls. Burials—often one of the richest sources of information. What do they do? In a rage—for how can they sell skulls?—they toss the useless bones off the edge of the castle walls and smash them below.

Still, what the hell is this place, these cave dwellings on the edge of Mesopotamia with Christian churches carved in their sides? Doesn’t anyone professional want to find out? Is it too late?

Day Trip 2—Quşaxli.

A second day trip out from Conag takes us down the same path—in a taxi on the paved road out from Xolxol and then right onto a road that winds straight up the mountain. This time, it’s the road that goes to the village of Hop but we stop just before the village at a path that winds up a peak that our friend from the village of Xıwek says is called ‘Quşaxli’, a word he guesses is Armenian because he can’t think of what it might mean in Kurdish. (It could be pronounced differently—Khushali? Hushali?) No one outside of Xıwek seems to know this word (or this location). A walking path winds around the mountain with a stunning panoramic view of the entire Peri River valley below, the dam, and all the mountains surrounding it. Behind you are the sharp cliffs and crags of Mount Taru.
Our shadows on the grass

The pillars on Quşaxli at sunset (They're the bumps on the tip of the hill)

At the end of the path, on the edge of the precipice, are two pillars of stones. There used to be three here but the third was destroyed by Turkish soldiers. The remaining two are badly damaged. The whole place was plundered in the perennial search for lost Armenian gold. (Any remotely Armenian looking place in the area has been scavenged ruthlessly—even a Turkish friend of ours visiting the village talked about digging up the pile of Armenian stones that serve as the village shrine to see what was buried underneath). Nevertheless, it is still grand. These stone pillars stand on the edge of a steep drop looking north toward the peak of Silbus, the holy mountain, and the old Urartuan castle above Xolxol.
The view as you walk down toward the pillars

The view of Silbus (Surp Luis?) from one of the pillars

Mount Taru as you walk back toward the main road

The rocks themselves are limestone and full of ancient fossils—I mean full. Every inch has impressions of coral, sea worms, and scallops. The numbers of them are stunning—layer after layer all the way down the cliff. I think of the fossils outside of Byblos back in Lebanon and wonder why no paleontologists has made it to this place to figure out what this ancient sea floor is doing atop the Kurdish mountains.
The fossils on the peak of Quşaxli

 We set against one of the ruined pillars and drank a small glass of beer and munched on homemade helva as the sunset over the mountains. We walk back in the sunset light—the view of Mount Taru is heartstopping. A fox follows us just off the road side. We stop by the Şawez fountain and have a drink of spring water and chill the last bottle of beer as the whole valley sinks into a deep pink and purple sunset light.

Let me say one last thing about why the richness of this area is so little known and explored. Emotion plays a role.  Hours of searching for clues about Pargasor and Quşaxli turned up almost nothing—but I did find lots of gaps. The Armenian presence in this area was eradicated. Churches and villages burned. Records burned. People cast into the Peri River in mass. On the net, I found lots of people—modern descendants of survivors—searching for answers, but they seemed to have run into all of the deadends I ran into. The records are gone. The old names erased. The memories deliberately destroyed. And what happened to the Armenians was repeated, in a smaller way, with the Kurds. People fled from this region in the 80s and 90s as villages were bombed and burned and hacked—very little is left. The memory and history was deliberately distorted by the government. No one who knows wants to go back and explore this place and relive these things—many are afraid to. For Armenians and Kurds alike thinking about what these old places mean is nothing but hurt and pain and loss.

One of our friends in the village told us a story—possibly apocryphal--he had heard from one of our local Kurds. The man’s grandfather had been one of the men who helped round up the Armenians. ‘A lot of us Kurds helped them,’ he said. ‘One of the Armenian leaders, just before he was shot, told my grandfather ‘You’re an idiot if you think this is the end, if you think they aren’t going to do the same thing to you one day.’ I found very few people in the villages who have any doubts about the Armenian Genocide or the role their forefathers played or about how the violence came back to them in the end.



Note: Place names are a perennial problem here—there are at least 4 modern languages competing to name the places in this article (Zaza, Kurmanci, Turkish, and Armenian) with a host of ancient languages preceding them. Plus there is a lot of deliberate changing of names to suit the politics of the time. For an interesting article on that—see here. Pargasor for example could be Kurdish or Armenian—sor apparently means stream in Armenian while it means ‘red’ in Kurdish. So if you are reading this, keep in mind that X would be GH in Armenian, could change to Ğ or G or K or H in Kurdish and in English Kh, H, K, C, or who the hell knows. The word Quşaxli might be Khusakri in another transliteration. İşkevt could be Eshkaft or just shkaut or skevt)