The posts about this bicycle tour from Antalya to (spoiler) Bitlis were written shortly after the section described. Until now. It’s been almost two months since Hacer, Ferda, and I entered Dersim Province, dropping into a pretty canyon, crossing the Rabat Çayı (a creek), and switchbacking up the other side above one of the many arms of the huge Keban Barajı (a reservoir).
I have multiple excuses for this post’s delay, but the main one is that this is not an easy region to write about. There’s the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the Dersim Rebellion of 1938, the forced evacuation (and often destruction) of Kurdish villages in the early 1990s, and the current ongoing “operations” that are perhaps even more devastating than the 1990s. It’s a grim recent history.
These events are hardly limited to Dersim. They affected everywhere that Ferda and I visited from here till the end of the trip: Çemişgezek, Hozat, Ovacık, Dersim (merkez), Mazgirt, Karakoçan, Bingöl (merkez), Genç, Lice, Kulp, Muş (merkez), Güroymak, and Bitlis (merkez). It appears that Dersim (or, perhaps more accurately, the Zaza areas which include Karakoçan and Bingöl as well) have mostly been spared from the current offensive, but those areas were the worst to suffer during Atatürk’s “Dersim Massacre” against Alevis in 1938.
Understanding is complicated by the fact that, as Christopher de Bellaigue (I have his book, Rebel Land, in front of me) points out, “Turkish historians … have whitewashed the history surrounding the Armenian Genocide.” He goes on to say “‘a genocide fixation’ has blinded both sides to all shades of gray.” The events in Dersim in 1938 suffer from the same problem: those who have elevated Atatürk to god-like status, one who can do no wrong, and on the other side, current president Erdoğan, who says the Dersim Massacre was “an operation which was planned step by step”.
Of course, we didn’t meet locals who remember either of those events directly, but plenty of people clearly remember the army’s advance through the mountains and villages in 1993 and 1994. A few were even willing to talk about it. One shepherd described what he remembered from the the village of Toratlı in 1993 (or 1994?): thousands of soldiers walked through the mountains, burning everything; they didn’t have tanks or vehicles, but they had helicopter support, dropping bombs. This shepherd fled with most of his fellow villagers to Çemişgezek.
How were we affected directly traveling through this region? Well, most visibly it was the frequent jandarma checkpoints and posts, situated on top of so many hills that we were rarely out of sight of one of these. The second issue was that just hearing the names –Çemişgezek, Ovacık, Dersim– filled Ferda and Hacer with fears of “terrorists” (the word the Turkish press always uses when describing the government’s operations in this region). Their leading questions and fixation on the negative responses meant that they were often scared of leaving main roads and camping, two essential aspects of bicycle touring. One fear led to another: dogs (legitimate, to a degree), bears (irrational, as we not once saw tracks or scat), and covid 19.
Finally, even though we cycled less distance and elevation than when I was riding by myself, I found this section more physically challenging because we were riding in the heat so much. On my own I had been doing most my riding in the mornings while with Ferda and Hacer we mostly rode in the afternoons. They like to sleep in and take many long morning breaks.
Ok, sorry for the long introduction. Dersim İli (Province) frequently has nice scenery:
and rarely villages that still have people. Here’s a door in Gedikler:
For historic buildings Çemişgezek was our best stop in the province. I would have spent longer, but Hacer was particularly scared of covid 19 here. We missed the historic bridge over the Tağar River and the (perhaps?) Kapadokya-style dwellings in the cliffs on the other side of the river from town. We did ride by this building:
Here’s the Selçuk Yelmaniye Mosque built in 1404:
with beautiful tiles on the mihrab:
From Toratlı to Hozat we were mostly on unpaved village roads:
In this region it was common for gravestones of the first born son to be carved in the shape of a ram. Sadly most of these have been stolen. We found this one in the village of Segedik:
In Hozat it was clearly pepper drying season. The strings of colorful peppers reminded me of Christmas lights in the US.
The most famous place in Dersim (province) is the flat Munzur Valley with the Mercan Dağları rising steeply to the north.
We tried to sort of take a rest here with four different stream-side campsites separated each by a short day of riding and daily swimming.
Our biggest complaint was the trash, and the worst of the trash was at the area’s most famous (and thus most visited and in hindsight most disappointing) attraction, Munzur Gözeleri. In spite of the signs almost everywhere telling people not to leave trash, we filled a garbage bag of trash at every campsite before putting our tents up. This is a problem everywhere people go in Turkey, but it was particularly disturbing in the Munzur Valley, being among the most beautiful places in Turkey.
The best thing about Dersim are the educated, open-minded people (the locals are the ones putting up the “no trash” signs). Historically the persecuted (Armenians and Zaza (Kurdish Alevis)) have come to escape persecution, previously possible because of region’s isolation. As we’ve seen for over a century, that doesn’t work any more so the locals now live largely overseas. According to this research, the ones who remain in Dersim are the most highly educated people in Turkey with the lowest levels of life satisfaction.