Saturday, August 23, 2014

Summer in Dersim


I have never seen the Dersim region covered by an official English guidebook. (Maybe that’s changed with the newest edition of Lonely Planet) God knows why. Fear of the PKK, obesiance to the general Turkish taboo on even mentioning the region or just simply not on the plate of the authors they choose? Whatever the reason, they’re missing out on perhaps one of the best regions of the country.  We spent a few days in Dersim this summer and this entry will hopefully give you enough of a taste to make you want to go there yourself and help you do it, too.

Dersim (whose official name, for the moment at least, remains Tunceli for those with maps) is culturally contrary and complex. Almost entirely enclosed by steep mountains and filled with canyons and gorges,  it was thus, for centuries, too difficult of access for the government to effectively control. It was and is populated mostly by Alevi Kurds speaking a dialect of Kurdish called Zaza by the mainstream and Dimilli by natives of the region.

An aside—Alevis, in brief, are a kind of fusion faith of Islam with local Anatolian animism and Bektaşi mysticism, all with a dash of Zoroasteriansm and Christianity. (Think Mexican Catholicism) They don’t worship in mosques, but rather places called Cem Houses, and men and women lead the worship together, mostly with music and dancing. Ali is the most important figure—and like Shiis, in their ceremonies they remember the massacre of Hasan and Husseyn at Kerbala. They have been ruthlessly, at times, persecuted by the state and the majority, most recently when a mob, most likely with government collusion, burned down the Madimak Hotel in Sivas which was hosting an Alevi convention. 35 people died in the fire.

Most people in Dersim setttled because they were fleeing something—either they were Alevis fleeing the massacres of Sultan Yavuz the Grim or, according to one researcher, Zoroastrian Armenians fleeing the recently Christianized Armenia. More recently, some came because they were seeking refuge from the Armenian Genocide or because they were bandits who made their living raiding travelers from the mountains. Whatever the reason and because they were largely Kurds and Alevi and preferred to act independently of the central government, they were not well-liked in Ankara and thus, in 1938, the Turks decided to pacify the region—relocating thousands on forced marches into exile and murdering thousands more in a feverish ethnic cleansing. The scars are still evident in the region today. The 1938 massacres is what gives the region it’s air of taboo—nationalist still stridently deny it ever happened (but if it did they deserved it, of course) though the current government has issued a mild apology for the events. In 1936, the name was changed to Tunceli (and some of the original Dersim lands parceled out to surrounding provinces) as part of a Turkification process and apparently a change back to ‘Dersim’ is now on the official docket—but we’ll see. Using the word ‘Dersim’, at least as far as I can see, marks you politically as against the nationalists so be warned.

Enough history—onto the travels.

We rented a car in Elazığ and drove up from Kovancılar, through Mazgirt. The first place we stopped was Tunceli, a city built on mountainsides surrounding the famous Munzur River. The weather was excruciatingly hot and so we ducked into one of the cafes along the river and had a glass of cold Coke on the terrace. The view was beautiful—the blue-green river wound under a bridge just below the cliffs from where we sat. There are dozens of terraced cafes around here. Many at night feature live music—some kind of free style where any musician can hop on stage and some following a schedule of professional musicians.
The Munzur River

A roadside 'scenic point' on the Munzur
An aside--Dersim produces some of the best music in all of Turkey, perhaps in all of the Middle East. It’s some witchy combination of suffering and independence and awe-filled nature and mountain-folk resiliance, perhaps. Or maybe, as the pop-culture site Ekşi Sözlük (Sour Dictionary) suggests, it’s because as Alevis and Zazas and Kurds, they are a minority of a minority of a minority. Just a brief and rather inadequate preview of music is called for at this point, for if you travel there you should have at least a passing familiarity. First, let’s start with Mikail Aslan from Tunceli who sings mostly in Zaza (Dimilli) but also in Kurmanci, Armenian and Turkish. He uses a blend of traditional instruments like the bağlama and occasionally western ones, especially the clarinet. Here’s one of my favorites by him, a tad upbeat in what generally is a genre of melancholy. It’s called Way Way Ninna 

Ahmet Aslan is his cousin from another Dersim city, Hozat. We saw him in concert last year at the Dersim Music and Culture festival and he was mesmerizing—one of those musicians who never really address the crowd and spend all their time absorbed in their art—a stellar live performer (even if he made the halay dancing crowds angry for not pandering to them). Here’s a rather melancholy one by him that I am fond of.

Here’s another rather melancholyone by Emir Erdoğan, a musician from the village of Zımteq in Hozat. In an interview, Erdoğan explained being a Dersimli thusly, ‘Dersim is the nationality of exiles. We suffered through two very serious forced exiles and in a sense, they’ve never ended for we are still in exile.’

Finally, I have to mention Aynur Doğan who sings in Zaza, Kurmanci, and Turkish. She is from Çemişgezek and has a voice like an atom bomb. True to form, the Turkish government banned her albums for a while and she was chased off the stage by nationalists at one of the concerts we attended a couple of years ago—a sure sign of quality in these parts. Here’s a sample.

There’s tons more but those four give you a taste.
The Munzur Gorge
From Tunceli we set out through the Munzur Valley. ‘Valley’ is a dictionary translation for the Turkish ‘vadi’, but only because Turkish generally doesn’t bother making a distinction between a valley and a canyon. Munzur Vadisi is a canyon—and the road winds along the blue-green Munzur River through a deep, forbidding gorge with cliffs of red, maroon, and umber rock that are utterly gorgeous. In my opinion, it rivals the canyons of America’s Southwest. The mesmerizing drive through the gorge alone is worth the trip. There are a few little trout restaurants along the river where people eat, drink and swim. This is one thing I love about the Dersimlis—they swim! The people over the border in Bingöl are afraid of water—either it’s too cold and it will shut down your kidneys or it’s too warm and will make your heart stop or it’s fresh water and so it sucks you under or it’s a dam lake so your foot will get caught on a house. But not the Dersim folks—they are in the water everywhere we look.

And here is where Seyid Rıza took the oath with his posse
Swimming at Halvori Boils
About 15 kilometers up from Tunceli Center you crest a narrow incline and start dipping down into a cleft between two steep canyon walls. There’s a turn off along the gorge wall toward a place the signs call ‘Halburi Gözeler’—göze means ‘spring boil’ and there are thousands of boils all along the river feeding the waters.  It’s a fantastic spot for a swim and a lunch—maybe one of the best places I’ve swum, ever. Certainly in the top 10.

To get to Halburi, you follow a sign to the ‘gözeler’ and veer off right onto a dirt road that winds down to the Munzur. After about five minutes, you spot a little cafe with tables set up amongst the tree roots that spider among the shallows of the river, so you can cool your feet as you drink your tea or beer. Here, the river bottom is all soft sand and clear at the shoreline, but brilliant cold green and deep in the center—you can jump from the cliffs on the other side with no problem. Across the water, bursting out of a cave in the cliff is a waterfall of ice cold spring water (the gözeler). The springs have made a bubbling pool inside the cave. I swam over to the waterfall and was joined by two local boys. In sun-drenched silence, we watched the trout play under a rocky overhang for a few seconds, then they asked my name and launched immediately into politics. They couldn’t have been more than fifteen. The conversation started with ‘Where are you from?’ and quickly jumped into ‘We are Alevis and we hate Erdoğan. Can you believe he wants to dam this river?’

Dams are a big problem in this region—but they didn’t start with the AKP. A similar river in my wife’s province of Bingöl, the Peri, has been dammed eight times since the early 80’s with a ninth one planned. The level of corruption is absurd—everyone knows these rivers can barely sustain one dam but someone is lining their pockets with the money from these projects. Most locals theorize that the government does it to disrupt the movement of guerilla troops.There are plans now by the government to dam the Munzur despite the environmental havoc it would wreak.

Halburi is spelled many ways, Xalwori on the Zaza sign near the restaurant and Halvori in a 19th century travel book I discovered—written by a Captain L. Molyneuz-Seel during an exploration he undertook of the region for National Geographic at the end of the 1800’s. Of ‘Halvori’ he writes, ‘About 300 feet above the river bed is the last Armenian monastery in Dersim, Surp Garabet Vank, and it only survives because the Kurds believe it possesses a miraculous relic of St. John the Baptist. To this day, Kurds make pilgramages to the monastery to be cured of diseases. Curiously enough, the disease which most frequently brings them to the monastery is said by the monks to be insanity. The community consists of one monk and his three nephews, without exception the dirtiest and most degraded looking people I have seen in all of Dersim.’

We saw no traces of a monastery here—though it would have been up on the cliffs above. The owner of the cafe, when asked about the name Halvori, said it was neither Turkish, Kurmanci, nor Zaza. We asked if he thought it was Armenian and he simply said he had no truck with the past. According to a book on Dersim by local Hüseyin Aygün, there were once 12 churches in the area. The book I speak of is Dersim 1938, the Official story and the Truth, and in it I find Halvori’s other claim to fame. It was here, at the very boils where I jumped into the river, that Seyid Riza and his alleys made an oath to resist the Turkish forces that were massacring Dersim’s villages. According to a book by Hüseyin Aygün, “In Spring, because of the military operations, all the clans were in an uproar. A meeting was held at the Halvori Boils in March. It was joined by Seyid Rıza, Seyid Hüseyin, and the Ağas Cebrail, Kamer, and Fındık. They arrived at the opinion that if the government’s intentions were bad, then they had the right to defend their lives. With this, they threw stones into the Munzur. They swore on oath, passing these rocks from hand to hand and tossing them in the water. A few months later, in the summer of 1938, Turkish soldiers gathered together all the villagers in front of the mills and massacred them, then threw the bodies in the river. For days, the river was clogged with corpses.”

There you have why perhaps so much of Dersims natural grandeur is also tinged with gloom and resistance. Here is this breath-stealing gorgeous swimming-hole in a beautiful canyon, and it’s filled with the ghosts of two genocides. It’s a jeweled, haunted, gorgeous, tough-skinned, welcoming and melancholy place.  

While traveling through the canyon you’ll see all sorts of banners, posters, and grafitti hanging from trees and strung—improbably—across cliff-faces. One of the one’s you will see most is Seyid Rıza himself, who, as mentioned above, was one of the leaders of the Dersim Rebellion against Turkish troops once they started ethnic cleansing the region. Turkey executed him for treason (if resisting a genocide is treason)—in a manner that I think still reflects a still-current national zeitgeist of ignoring the law and exacting a revenge for people trying to stop you from murdering them. The trial was conducted in a language none of the suspects understood and no translators were provided. Because Ataturk was coming to visit and because the prosecutors feared he might issue an amnesty, they pushed for a verdict on a Saturday, when courts do not normally operate. Seyid Rıza reportedly did not understand what was happening at all until he saw the gallows. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal or not, but his last words were, “I have a 40 lira watch. Give it to my son.” To which the gallows men replied, “We will hang him, too.” Rıza—who had already lost one child in the fighting said, referring to his children, “I have lost the key to these mountains! At least, hang him before me.” And of course, the authorities did not comply. Another famous last line, oft quoted, was this, “Ben sizin yalan ve hilelerinizle basedemedim bu bana dert oldu ama ben de sizin önünüzde egilmedim bu da size dert olsun.” I could not cope with your lies and trickery and this became a terrible grief for me, but I never lowered my head to you, and this will become a terrible grief for you.”

The other poster face you will see is that of Ibrahim Kaypakkaya, the iconic image of him being that of a kind-looking, young worker type in a granpa hat. He was the leader of the Turkish communists and formed the organization TİKKO (workers and peasants liberation army) which was the armed wing of his version of the Communist party. They were active in the Dersim region, where he was finally caught after a battle with government forces and brought to Diyarbekir prison. There, as was most everyone who was brought to Diyarbekir’s prisons, he was tortured before being executed. MIT (Turkey’s CIA, not the university) called him the ‘most dangerous revolutionary in Turkey.’ He is revered now as a kind of Turkish Che Guevara for having spoken out against Kemalism and the rather monolithic ideology of the Turkish State.

The road to Ovacık
And speaking of communists, we speed past the occasional images of these guys toward our ultimate destination, the source of the Munzur River (The Munzur Gözeleri) which lies just 15km north of Ovacık, a town which recently elected the communist party to head the municipality. I know, crazy! The road through Ovacık is breathtaking—a flat red plane of farmland that runs straight into the stark wall of red and maroon peaks of the the Mercan Mountain range. “This looks like how I always imagined Uzbekistan or one of those countries,” says our traveling companion, Carolilna. There seem to be no trees on the mountains—just cliff and crag, rock and precipice. They are utterly breathtaking. We stop in Ovacık for some fruit and snacks—I don’t know that a see any signs of a communist government anywhere, but the beer if 50 kuruş cheaper and the grapes are good.

Communist Ovacık with a little nod to Gezi
The Gözeler are 15 kilometers further up at the end of the road. We park in a kind of festival atmosphere among vendor stalls and outdoor gözleme restaurants. The water is below. Each set of boils is enclosed by a wall that captures the spring water in a bright, clear pool. People fill their water bottles here, and the water is so cold that just holding my hand in it for more than five seconds freeze-burns my skin. We hike up a trail behind the boils where you find more springs popping out the mountain side in little streams, though there was not much snow this year and lots of dry streambeds spider-web through the meadows as evidence of the drought. The trail winds into the high pastures and valleys of the Mercan peaks and offers stark views of the valley below with its bright green poplars and willows along the water’s edge.

The shrine at the entrance to the gözler
The valley above the boils
At the entrance to the Gözeler is a shrine in the side of a mountain called a ‘Ziyaret’ in Alevi culture, which means ‘visit’ in Turkish. Some Alevi traditions are animistic—if there is a cave or a spring or a mountain top, then people will set up a shrine to the power that dwells there. Generally, you light candles and pray or make wishes. Some ziyarets are thought to have the power to heal. We see these ziyarets all throughout the Dersim region. A man at the boils sells us candles for 30 kuruş each. After we light them, he hands us a piece of lokma (parxaç in my wife’s region of Xolxol) which is a sacred bread appropriate for the atmosphere of the place.

People climbing rocks above the willows at the boils

Folks dancing the govend/halay in the meadows above the boils
Among the pools of the boils are picnic tables and families enjoying a days outing. People barbecue and play volleyball or just sit and chat on the bridges.

We stay the night near Ovacık in a bungalow cabin called Elbaba Camping. It sits up from the river and has wonderful views of the Mercan mountains. The owner is named Mahmut Bey and he’s a bank of information on everything from geology to biology to local history. We learn from him just how much of the region we have missed. North of here is a waterfall called the 40 Stairs Fall (Kırk Merdiven Şelalesi) which is one of the highest in the world. Also nearby is Mercan Canyon, even more stark than the Munzur Canyon, he promises, and there’s even a third canyon accessible only by strenuous hiking. Over the peaks of the the Mercan mountains are 7 crater lakes and another gorge called the Havaçor. Mahmut Bey offers hiking tours to all of the above which, unfortunately, we did not have the time to take advantage of.

Mahmut Bey is an interesting guy. His campgrounds/hotel is full of birds—ducks, geese, chickens and pigeons, all of whom come waddle-running when he whistles. For a while, he had a sort of pet bear that he fed honey to just outside the hotel grounds. ‘It got to where I would find him sitting out on the roadside around dinner time!’ Mahmut Bey explains. ‘But I stopped doing that. A biologists told me that it would hurt his immune system because he would stop hunting and only focus on what I fed him.’ He also knows a lot about the local flora of the region—with books upon books about the different herbal treatments they are useful for.
El Baba Camping


Elbaba has a firepit and Mahmut Bey’s staff set up a large screen to watch movies. We watched Animal Planet as we chatted around the flames and sipped beers. In short, we loved Mahmut Bey and Elbaba and would highly recommend him to anyone staying in the region. It’s worth a few days in that mountain air.

Taking a right out of Tunceli City brings you to the Kutu Deresi, or Box River. The river is famous for ‘flowing red’ during the Dersim Massacres of 1938. Now it flows a bright pretty blue among small reddish gorges of it’s own. We stopped at a little cafe along the Kutu and had a delicious fried trout by the water. I swam of course—the water was so cold it took the breath away but the scenery was, as usual, breathtaking.
A cafe along the Kutu Deresi

A delicious fried trout

A distant waterfall from the roadside, on the way to Nazmiye

We continue up the river toward Duzgun Baba, a holy mountain to the Alevis, passing waterfalls and gorges and picturesque little villages of stone houses. The turn off for Duzgun Baba winds up a tiny curving road past flocks of goats and little creeks until the pavement gives out on the slopes of Duzgun itself. At the base of the mountain you can have tea or sacrifice a goat if you want, and then begin your ascent. The climb is not hard—you never have to do anything too serious or strenuous, but you should be fit and wear long pants—there are thistles and thorns everywhere. At the top is a gorgeous view of all the surrounding region—kilometers and kilometers of mountains. There’s also a ziyaret—a long pile of rocks that’s supposed to be mark the place that the saint disappeared.

From the climb up Duzgun Baba

From near the peak of Duzgun Baba

The ziyaret at the top of Duzgun
From the slopes of Duzgun you can see Mt. Silbus in the distance
The story of Duzgun is this. In Zaza, his name is Bava Duzgi and he was a shepherd during a time of severe drought. Only Duzgi’s goats seemed to be flourishing during the drought and curious as to how it was possible, Duzgi’s father, a Dervish, followed him up the mountain to watch him pasture his animals. There he saw his son wave a staff over the earth which immediately began to flower. One of the goats noticed Duzgi’s dad as he fed and sneezed. Duzgi looked up to see what the goat was bleating about. “What’s up? Did you see my father Mahmut?” he asked and then caught sight of his father out of the corner of his eyes. ‘Ashamed of having called out his father’s first name,’ the signboard at the mountain somewhat mysteriously explains, ‘Duzgi ran up the mountain and vanished. In three steps he cleared five kilometers and those three footprints are still visible on the mountain today.’ He is considered the strongest saint in Dersim and according to the aşık’s (Dersim’s traditional bards), he is the head of 366 saints. The mountain possesses certain powers, thanks to the saint. It can give a person a son, for example, and also can solve personal problems among people. If you have an issue with someone, you simply climb to the top of the mountain and pray for advice.

After Duzgun we drive  back down and take the road toward the town of Nazmiye. At the town center, we turn left to head up toward a place called Der Ova—a ‘waterfall’ recommended to us by one of the locals. We’re not sure exactly what to expect as the road gradually gets rougher and rougher and we shift into lower and lower gears. The scenery reminds me of the Painted Desert of Arizona—rocks and cliffs suddenly give way to these cone-hills of chemically colored sand, earthy maroons, reds, oranges, greens and yellows. A ‘kalekol’ or ‘police fortress’ looms up on our right. It’s a new one—freshly constructed. This is the Turkish government’s answer to the so-called Kurdish peace process, dozens of new military bases all throughout the region. The military presence has been heavy since we crossed the official Tunceli border, actually.  A couple of panzers were stopping cars just outside of Mazgırt for instance.

Anyway, we arrive at Derova and find a trout farm on a creek and a trail up to a large cliff wall that stretches maybe a hundred meters along the forest. A waterfall tumbles over the full length of the cliff and  a cafe has been constructed along the base of the falls. Some of the tables sit in the water.
The falls along the cliff wall at Dereova Cafe

A flower near the falls

A view from the tables in the cafe
We stop and have tea here, listen to a random performance by an old moustachioed aşık and then hike up into the mountains on a flower filled trail streaked with more mini-falls and streams. Like everywhere else in Dersim, the place is so tranquil and beautiful that we end up staying for a couple of hours instead of the intended few minutes, and then that doesn’t seem enough. There’s a story about Derova in Molneux-Seel’s book on his travels in Dersim. I quote:

“Der Ova is a corruption of the Armenian, Der Ohan or ‘Father John’. There was once a monastery and Armenian community here and this is the story of how it came to be abandoned. Forty years ago (1860ish) here lived a certain Armenian Melik, very rich and wealthy who had acquired such renown for his wisdom that the Kurds, whenever a dispute rose among them, used to appeal to him and accept his decision. One day, forty Kurds from Kutu Dere came to him and asked his decision in the case of a dispute that threatened to cause a bloody feud among them. During their stay at Der Ohan, the Kurds one day ventured to address some words of love to the beautiful daughter-in-law of the Melik as she was drinking from a well. The young Armenians were so incensed at this that that same night they massacred the entire Kurdish deputation. Then, fearing terrible vengeance, they collected their animals and possessions and took refuge in some villages around Erzincan. The fugitives numbered about 300, only a few old men with their wives stayed. Of these one survivor remains in the village to this day. The old man has two sons and two daughters, whom have all married Kurds and become Moslems.”

We head back to Elazığ on a different route—turning right out of Tunceli toward the town of Pertek. We don’t have time to stop in Pertek except for a bathroom break—but the restaurant we choose is so friendly what we can’t just take a leak and leave. They start to show us all the pictures of Dersim on the wall and explain each one. We finally have to beg a time crunch to escape their enthusiasm. The town if full of large adobe and stone houses that I have seen nowhere else in Turkey and sports a mosque that looks a lot like the black and white mosques in Diyarbekir. The road to Elazığ, as it turns out, is on a ferry across the Murat Dam. In the middle of the pale powder blue lake is the grand Pertek Castle which looms up picturesque as we cross the water. A scenic end to a scenic trip. On an another trip, I think Pertek would be worth a half-day stay. There’s a hot spring and the castle here and some grand mountain scenery.

Pertek Castle from the Ferry
The more people we talk to the more we find out about how much there is to see in Dersim. The town of Hozat, for example, you can find the 4000 year old Iron Age caves of Kalecik Village or the 3000 year old newly discovered ancient ruins of Rabat Castle. We will definitely be heading back.


Travel Info:

Transportation: You can rent a car—which in my opinion is the best thing to do—in Elazığ. We rented from Seyran Rentacar, run by Ömer Bey who was an excellent host. He even drove us around to do a few little errands before he took us to the airport to pick up our friends who were joining us on our Dersim trip. The car, in the summer rush (when nothing anywhere was available, reserve ahead!) was 120 TL a day. The phone number is 0530 263 9136. Ömer Bey speaks enough English to set you up. There are also minibusses that go to Tunceli from Elazığ airport and then minibusses from Tunceli center that go to all the places I’ve mentioned above.

For lodging—we stayed in student dorms, but also in Ovacık, at El Baba Camping, run by the excellent Mahmut-Bey. The food is good, breakfast is provided (and very local), and he provides information on rafting and leads his own treks. He speaks German but very little English—still, it’s enough to book.