Dersim (Tunceli & Erzincan)

East Turkey

August 2019

In this essay I am welcoming you to the very special place Dersim that is like a hidden jewel in Anatolia. Dersim is a vast land in Eastern Anatolia Region of Turkey. My journey took place mainly around the provinces; Tunceli and Erzincan and around Pülümür and Munzur valleys.
The main reasons that took me here are; its breathtaking wild nature and the tradition of wisdom it had been holding through many centuries. There is something so distinctive, deep and esoteric about this place. Its depth is so alive in the energies of mother nature, in people’s hearts and traditions. Dersim showed itself to me in such a way that it became a sacred home I cherish in.

The best way to reach this region is to take the Orient Express train from Ankara and get off at Erzincan after 700km. This train journey is a special experience that takes you all along the central plateau of Anatolia where first you see vast flat fields. Then you reach Fırat river that is one of the longest rivers of Turkey. Railway proceeds along this river for hours and hours and the view at every point is magnificent.

Erzincan (above) is a mountainous area. In the following days I would be exploring this region quite in detail.

My first stop was at Çağlayan (Girlevik) Waterfall in Erzincan. This was the place where I asked for permission from the energies to be welcomed into the beauty and wisdom of this magnificent lands. I expressed my commitment to be pure and loving to each and everything that would be offered to me.

Pülümür Valley is a spectacular canyon-like valley uniting Erzincan and Tunceli. The road and the river meander side by side between red coloured rocky mountains. If you are lucky you can see wild goats wandering around at high points.

After you reach Tunceli over Pülümür Valley, you go into another one; Munzur Valley. Strong Munzur River accompanies you all along the extremely curvy way. This view above is from a cliff named ‘38 Kayalıkları’ that has an important place in the local people’s memory due to some tragic events happened at 1938.

And eventually I arrived at little town Ovacık which is seen as the heart of whole Dersim. A wide line of epic Munzur mountains can be seen from here. (above) There are many routes going into the heart of these rocky mountains that take you to different valleys, waterfalls and upper plateaus. Like; Havaçur, Ziyaret, Fkirik, Karagöl, Rahan, Satır, Kırk Merdiven, Kepir, Mercan, Işıkvuran. It is a paradise for trekking.
Could it be a better place for camping (above)? Munzur mountains and Munzur river in the front and at the back nice green fields that the cows come everyday for grazing. In the following days I would be staying here with my friends.

It was pleasing to see that here in Ovacık, agriculture is still away from industrialisation and chemicals. The farmers are conscious in their productions and they take care of the well-being of their animals. The locals were bringing us fresh harvested vegetables from their gardens and colouring up our days with their warm hearts, great hospitality and generosity. Serdar was one of them. (above, right) Sometimes alone, sometimes with his lovely family, he was coming by everyday to graze his dear animals. Our talks always warmed my heart.
In our camp, we all rejoiced in every moment together here. We enjoyed our company while cooking, eating, swimming in ice cold water, sleeping under willow trees, having long conversations, hosting many visitors each night around the fire, making music, singing… All were touching experiences that gave way to dear friendships.

In Dersim, open-mindedness and understanding is always there in people’s words and glances. In the roads of Ovacık, it is ordinary to see an old village man sitting with a mohawk girl with many tattoos. All differences are welcomed with no distinction which is not so common in the conservative mid parts of Anatolia. From the young to the elders, there is sincerity and dignity in all people’s attitudes. I find the egos more content and humble. This is giving me the idea that spiritual virtues that is formed by beliefs and traditions of ethnic origin is penetrating into life. (I will tell more about these in the lines further below)
Despite that it is a remote area in between the mountains, Tunceli has the highest rate of literacy in Turkey. I have met many people who have deep knowledge on many different subjects like history, music, belief, folk-literature, sociology, antropology, medicinal plants and healing. What impressed me the most was that all these people were so attentive on the conservation of the heritage of old knowledge that has been passed onto them. Old seeds are preserved, nature friendly old techniques of agriculture are unexceptionally applied, old tales, stories, musics, the wisdom of healing, all are recorded.

There is an immense depth in the talks of elders. You learn many things from them about the history and traditions. The woman above on the right is Grandma Gülsüm. She speaks in Kırmançki which is a dialect of Zaza language that is used in this part of Anatolia. I didn’t know even a word from this language but it wasn’t an obstacle for us to communicate. Her eyes, her embrace were telling me many things. With her sentimental old voice she sang us a requiem. By this way she expressed the loneliness and the grief she has been holding for many years. It moved all of us into tears.
There are some old traditions that are still alive here. For instance, women get prepared before dawn, then at the time of the sunrise they pray to the sun. Another tradition is Gağan; at the last Thursday of the year people clean their houses in detail with vinegar. They put some supplies in front of the houses of people who are in need. Again on a Thursday, at the breeding season, after the newborn lambs and goats are fed enough with milk, people celebrate the outgoing of the new borns into the nature.

Anything you learn about a geography or a culture beforehand can not take the place of the taste of experiences you have at that place. Here seing the mountains, valleys, rivers, wild animals with your own eyes is utterly different. Here listening to the people’s stories, memories, griefs, longings, dreams is totally different. It is a unique experience indeed.
Now I’m going to tell about the spectacular views I wittnessed during my treks into the heart of Munzur mountains.

I did 2 one-day treks into two different valleys; Kırk Merdiven and Mercan. They were really remarkable experiences to explore the gates of Munzur mountains that gift magnificent landscapes, rivers, waterfalls and flora.
It is an area where mostly you can see no tree at all, no rock to go under to cover yourself from the scorching heat of August.

On one side I was letting myself into the breathtaking scale of the rocky mountains, on the other side I was walking fully watchful, knowing that I was in the wild. The valleys were so silent. Once in a while I was hearing the yells of the raptors flying above. Sometimes I was screaming towards to the grand rocks and listening to the echo floating in the valley.

Knowing that I was in the wild lands of bears and wolfs it was interestingly giving me a strong life energy that I felt deep in my cells. Rarely there occurs some bear attacks in the mountains. With curiosity I listened to many stories from the locals about bears. I asked many questions like what is their nature, how do they act and so on. So to speak, I called them. And they came! One night I saw a young one near the road in Munzur valley. Ahh how cute and adorable he was. When he saw us suddenly, he got excited and didn’t know what to do but just sat on the ground with wonderment in his eyes.
And on another night on fullmoon, an adult bear came to our camp site. As hearing some sounds around the trees, my friends targeted the light into the darkness to see what was happening. Then they came face to face with the bear. Most probably because of the sudden strong light, the bear started to chase after my friends. I hide myself in the tent but felt the forceful footsteps of the bear running. Luckily nothing happened. We then understood that he was there for the wild apple tree. We kept on tending the fire all night long till the sunrise and laughed at our scary but lucky experience.

In winter all the groundcover is coated with snow. In summer people graze their animals at the upper plateaus which is mutually used with wild life. Fauna consists of many species; wild goats, partridges, eagles, brown bears, wolfs, wildboars, rabbits, caracals, martens, wolverines, red spotted trouts. There had been some traces found that indicate Anatolian and Persian leopards are still existing in the area.

Wild goats are accepted as sacred here. They are taken as the guides that know about the wild life more than humans. Here it becomes reversed, here animals, trees, rivers, rocks become the master. (wayir)

Regarding the biodiversity of flora, Munzur mountains is an important region not just in Turkey but also in Europe. Here, around 1500 different plant species are recorded. 228 of them are endemic. At this hot season of August it was quite surprising to see many types of medicinal plants and bushes even in the parts where the water can not reach. Especially the plant diversity along the rivers was remarkable.

Due to this biodiversity of flora, beekeeping is quite common in the whole region.

Unlike Kırk Merdiven valley, Mercan valley was greener due to the river that flows along the valley bottom. This is Mercan river (above) that feeds Fırat river which is one of the largest river of Anatolia.

Even in this arid season it was pleasing to see the river flowing this much strongly. Along the river we see many different types of trees like; oak, poplar, willow, juniper, elm and ash tree

In Mercan valley as you proceed upper you come across with some natural ponds. This clean clear water may be the most coldest water I have ever put my feet into. In couple of seconds your body starts to get numb.

I enjoyed each trek in this magnificent landscape of Munzur. They filled me with excitement, joy and admiration.

People of Dersim see Munzur river as sacred. It really touches my heart to see a tradition who takes the elements of mother nature as sacred. And it is common here. They take rivers, old trees, wild goats, the sun, the moon, the polar star, the fire as sacred. It is like the mark of the old ancient times when God was not seen as a seperate entity from mother nature.
Many people pay visits to the source (above, right) of this gorgeous river, they pray and give their blessings on the water. This freezing cold water gives a remarkable vitality to your body, mind and spirit.

In my travels in Nepal, India and Thailand I had the chance to dive deep into the discovery of wisdom by the gifts and blessings of many teachings and teachers in Buddhist, Yogic traditions and Advaita Vedanta. I learned meditation and I have greatly benefited from having meditation as the main practice in my life which gave me an immense inner peace and showed me the reality.
So for some time I’ve been offering sessions and meetings on meditation in the places I pass by in my travels. I talk about the fundamental foundation of meditation, give guided meditation sessions even to the small groups of people. Here in Dersim I had the chance to organise two ‘Introduction to Meditation’ meetings.
It was two beautiful and beneficial meetings for all of us. I was so delighted to offer these by sacred Munzur river. I do my meetings on donation base. At the end of two meetings we donated all the contribution to the trees that will be planted near the source of Munzur river. May them bring food and shelter to many animals. May them bring shade, fresh air and healing to many people.

One day we went on a day journey back to Pülümür valley in Erzincan. In the little village Armağan there was a harvesting festival of the special heirloom variety of wheat called Karakılçık. In the whole area the production of this particular seed is promoted. Formerly I worked as a seed saver in my life and this subject is always in my attention. I still try to do my best to create awareness on going back to using old seeds and protecting our heritage of biodiversity.

The festival started with the prayers of Zeynel Dede (above). Dede is the spiritual leader of the community. Packages of seeds distributed to the participants. We listened to the traditional songs of local musicians. We gathered around abundant big tables and ate this delicious traditional food called Şir or Zerbet.

One of the common practices of the belief here is performing visits (ziyaret) to natural sites that are believed to be imbued with sacredness. I had chances to visit some of them like Ana Fatma, source of Munzur, El Baba and Çirik. At the day of the festival, my experience at Çirik was one of a kind. This visit is to an almost thousand year old juniper tree (above) that is in between some mountains that probably I can not find again. It is believed that the tree holds the spirit of two enlightened women.
As we arrived at the point a strong energy embraced me right away. I sat under the tree, closed my eyes and immediately found myself in an immense consciousness. It was as strong as the powerful energy I experienced by the sacred mountain Arunachala in India. There are some points at this planet that hold a high powered magnetic field. And at those points if you are capable of opening yourself to the energy you can go beyond the mind and meet the depths of your true nature. Feeling the blessings shed me into tears out of love and gratitude. The impact stayed with me more than couple of days.

At the end of the day we all went to another village for a magnificent feast. Almost fifty people sat by the same table which was garnished by many different traditional food. What an abundance, what a generosity. Then the night continued by the fire with traditional musics of many local musicians. We sang altogether and celebrated the sisterhood, brotherhood of mankind.
In this essay I need to tell about the tradition of belief that is distinctive here and it has a big impact in people’s perceptions and way of living. Alevism is an old tradition of belief that is also practiced in this part of Anatolia. Alevis are found primarily in Turkey among ethnic Turks and Kurds and make up somewhere between 10-20% of Turkey’s population.
Most Alevi activity takes place in spiritual sisterhood and brotherhood. One of the main practices of Alevis is the Cem ceremony that features music, singing, and sometimes dancing (Samah) in which both women and men participate. The songs with mystical poetry in their lyrics are sung. The ritual instrument known as bağlama (a string instrument) is played. Because of this old tradition Alevis have a significant role in Turkish music and poetry.

When Alevis say; ‘God is one’, they don’t see God seperate and apart from all the plurality or diversity of the universe. To make a distinction between the creator and the one that is created is plurality. And plurality is the separation of pure consciousness from the divine source. It is seen as an illusion, a veil alienating creation from the ultimate reality. They see God as the all-inclusive completeness.

I would like to finish with the song ‘Çem Vano’, of a local but a very famous musician Mikail Aslan. I believe it will bring you the sacred wind of Munzur mountains and rivers:

**In this essay, there are some excerpts I’ve used from the report of Dersim Ecology Council that is a collaboration of many academicians from different disciplines. The name of this work is: “II. Dersim Şifa Geleneği Sempozyumu Raporu”

The Author