Dersim and The Armenians of Dersim -
Civilnet.am has prepared a documentary on Dersim and the Armenians in Dersim.
The idea of founding the Union or Dersim Armenians belongs to Salaheddin Gultekin. He renounced his name Salaheddin and became Mihran. In the same way, after long tribulations, he managed to have “Christian” written on his identity card instead of “Muslim”. Mihran’s relatives did not appreciate his actions, and their first reaction was that they are being exposed.
The head of Dersim Armenians in Istanbul is Ismail Cem Halavurt who says that “the Union of Dersim Armenians aims to unite the Armenians of Istanbul and Dersim. Its aim is to bring Armenians who were forced to abandon their own community, religion, language, because of the ongoing cultural genocide following the Armenian Genocide, back to their identity after a hundred-year break”.
Just like many other Dersim residents, Ismail Cem Halavurt has been baptized. His baptism took place in Armenia. “I was asked to choose a name during my baptism, and I chose Stepan. I like that name because of a hero named Stepan in the book, “The 40 Days of Musa Ler” which tells the story of the resistance of the Armenians from Musa Ler. The book had a great impact on me. Stepan was the son of the resistance commander” says Halavurt.
The Dersim territory, which is now officially called Tuceli, is situated in the eastern part of modern Turkey. It coincides with the Tsopq or Fourth Hayq administrative district of Historical Armenia. According to Armenian tradition, the name Dersim came from the region’s spiritual leader Der Simon, who convinced the local population to convert to Alevi religion in the 17th century, thus escaping the deportations. After the Armenian Genocide, many Armenians continued living in the mountainous region.
“From a religious point of view, the majority of Dersim Armenians live as Alevis, and from the national identity perspective- as Kurds or Zaza, the majority is Zaza. But it does not matter, as I said, Dersim is different. All the Kurds in Dersim know which family is Armenian. That is never forgotten. Go to Dersim and say names, they will confirm those are Armenians, or if you say a village name, they’ll say it’s an Armenian village. That is never forgotten. Because they managed to preserve their identity in various ways. They’ve always lived together, the most beautiful tradition of Dersim Armenians was inter-marriage. They never married girls from other areas. That is how they managed self-preservation and survive as a unit” says Halavurt.
Savas Sahin was born in Dersim, in Kizilcik village of the Mazkert region of Dersim; he’s a Kurd-Alevi. “ The village were I was born is an old Armenian village” says Sahin. “When I was little, about 8 years old, I remember the vineyards and mulberry trees in the village. When we strolled around with my grandfather, he told me those were left by the Armenians. So up to this day, we eat the grapes and mulberries planted by the Armenians”.
In recent years, Union member Altinkaya often visits Dersim. His family left during the 1938 Dersim massacres. “There are many hidden Armenians in Dersim. I became acquainted with them two years ago, as well as last year, during the Dersim festival. Without our asking, they came to us and said that their grandfather or grandmother was Armenian; that is they had Armenian roots. There are many hidden Armenians” said Altinkaya.
Ismail Cem Halavurt
“I cannot say the exact number of Armenian in Dersim” says Halavurt. “There are Armenian villages that have about 30 households with 3-4 members each. There are Armenians in Dersim who feel themselves Armenian, but have nothing to do with Christianity having abandoned their language and religion. They are Islamized, but not fully accepted by Muslims or Alevis. After 1915, a portion of Armenians was Islamized and they indeed live as Muslims. That is not the case of Dersim Armenians. They adopted the Alevi religion, which is a very tolerant religion, that’s why we cannot claim they are Islamized. They don’t even consider themselves Muslims, and although Muslim is stated in their documents, they have nothing to do with Islam, and there is very little Alevi influence, and that’s on the culture, not on the religion” says Halavurt.
“Some Armenians hide their true identity’’, says Sahin. “There was a house in the neighboring village, everyone said- Look Armenians live there, and we looked at them strangely. They were the only Armenians I knew, but years later, especially during the last 4-5 years, several families started revealing their true identity more easily”.
The Union of Dersim Armenians currently has 80 members, but the leaders state that if work is done among Dersim Armenians, the number could grow from 500 to 1000. “Religion is not a precondition for being a member, being Armenian is. Being Christian is not a precondition, and Dersim Armenians coming to Istanbul are inclined towards the church’’ says Halavurt, “they give their children Armenian names, want to live by their own language and religion. But not all members of the Union are Christian. If we stress the religion, we will separate Dersim Armenians from one another”.
Speaking about the programs of the Union’s Cem Halavurt says: “our main goal is to have a representation in Dersim, carry out some work towards preserving the Saint Garabed Armenian church. The Saint Garabed church, which operated until 1938, has a great importance both for Armenians and Kurd-Alevis. Besides, we plan to implement some plans towards the social and economic development of Armenian villages of Dersim. We also want to be a bridge between the Dersim Armenians and the Patriarchate in Istanbul, because if a Dersim Armenian goes to the Patriarchate alone and wants to get baptized, he has to prove he is an Armenian. So, on the one hand we prove to the state that we are Armenians, and on the other hand- we prove this to the Patriarchate. This is a very heavy burden for us Armenians. There is this perception among Dersim Armenians that the Armenian community does not accept us, since we have changed our names and abandoned our culture. And when you go to the Patriarchate, which demands proof of your Armenianess, setting criteria for you, usually the Dersim Armenian retreats, takes a step back and gives up. Of course the Patriarchate has also its reasons to act so. In this case, the Unioon of Dersim Armenians tries to create relations based on mutual trust, acting as a bridge between the Patriarchate and Dersim Armenians”.
The Dersim Armenians living in Istanbul give their children Armenian names, send them to Armenian schools and take steps in learning Armenian. Cem Halavurt also thinks about learning Armenian. In 2013, the residents of Dersim commemorated the Armenian Genocide in their native Dersim.