The seemingly pro-Armenian position of the Alevi-Arevi Kızılbaşs could not help but worry the authorities who were pursuing an anti-Armenian policy. The Turkish state was aware of the widespread belief at the time that “the distance between Alevis and Armenians is the size of an onion peel”. The emphasis on the special identity of the Kızılbaşs as distinct from the Sunnis also caused uneasiness among the Young Turks, who looked for useful explanations “in the Armenian context” to fight against this identity. One of the Young Turks, Rıza Nur, presented the Young Turks’ general approach to this problem by stating that the special identity of the “Turkish Kızılbaşs”, which differed from the Sunnis, was a result of the “false Armenian propaganda” of the Abdülhamid period.

 It is clear that the political attitude of the government towards the Alevi-Kizilbash people of Dersim, at least for the last one hundred and fifty years, is expressed not only in the self-isolation of Alevis against Sunnism, but also in the special Armenian-Alevi past. 

Dersim Alevis knew this best.  In 1915, the preparation and implementation of the genocide against Armenians caused great alarm among the Alevis of Dersim. There was a strong belief that the next step would be coercion, if not massacres, to force them to renounce their Alevi identity. This was a serious reason why the “Armenian volume” of the Alevi community in Dersim was significantly “reduced”, at least in 1915, and after that it was not talked about at all. Both Alevis and Armenians who were Alevis before the 20th century were interested in the “Armenian volume” of these Dersim Alevis being forgotten as soon as possible, no matter how insignificant.

However, if at the beginning of the 20th century, both Armenians and Alevi-Kizilbash in Dersim wanted to forget the Armenian presence in the Alevi-Kizilbash community as much as possible, the 1915 Genocide, the 1938 massacres of Dersim Alevis and Armenians, and the persecutions that followed led to the addition of new Armenians to the Dersim Alevis, creating new problems in their search for identity.

As is well known, until 1938, there were still Armenian settlements in the mountainous regions of Dersim and the famous Halvori Surp Karapet Monastery, which was equally sacred to Alevis and Christians in Dersim, continued to function. In 1938, the massacres of the people of Dersim actually began with the explosion of this monastery. The year 1938 was of particular importance for the Armenian Christian population that still existed in Dersim, as it put an immediate end to any manifestation of Armenian identity. The Armenians there were completely Alevized, speaking Armenian was forbidden, and although the local population was fully aware of the existence of Alevi Armenian villages, any manifestation of Armenian life ceased not only in Dersim in general, but also in the Armenian settlements of Dersim. There are many stories about how any manifestation of Armenianness finally disappeared. Here is a brief account of one of the many stories told in Dersim:From the story of Ibrahim, a forty-year-old man living in Tunceli, 2011: “We are from Vardenik, that is, my father is from the village of Vardenik, but I was born in Vardenik. In 1994, Vardenik was destroyed by the soldiers and then it was forbidden to live there. Now I live in Tunceli. Vardenik was a big village. They were all Armenians, Alevi Armenians. We are from Haidaran, but I don’t know when and how we became Haidaran because before, when our parents were Armenians, their surname was Mirakyan. Maybe after 1938, maybe after 1915. In 1915 they did not enter our village. But in 1938 they massacred them too. Everyone here knows that the Haydaras and Demalars are old Armenians. The 1938 massacres were not like those of 1915. In 1938, spies prepared reports and made lists of suspicious people and villages. They massacred according to those lists…In 1938, while the people of Dersim were massacred, Dersim Armenians were also massacred in a special way. At that time, Vardenik was completely evacuated and everyone, even two-year-old children, were taken to Kocakoç and exterminated. They destroyed them in such a way that they couldn’t even find their bodies. My grandfather and grandmother were also killed there. Only my father survived in a mountain village, he was eight years old. In 1945-47, a few children like my father grew up a bit and returned to Vardenik, about 30 people. The massacres were over. After they went to the village, it became alevi-arevi. All the Armenians who survived in 1938 became Alevis. My father became Alevi after he returned to Vardenik, it was after the 40s. But in the 1980s the Turkish state forced the village to evacuate again. In 1993, those who had not yet left were forcibly removed from the village. After that, until today, it is forbidden to go to Vardenik.

I don’t even know if my parents spoke Armenian. Maybe they did, but they didn’t speak it. They never spoke it in our presence. In general, it was dangerous to speak Armenian. None of my peers speak Armenian. My parents, especially my grandparents, were Armenian Christians, they were Armenians. Armenians became Alevis after 1938. My father named me Abraham because he was actually Abraham, Armenians call him Abraham. My father also gave me a special name that Armenians also have. Here in the Turkish state no other name can be given. They banned it in the 1930s, everyone had to carry the Muslim, Turkish name. Now there are no Armenians here, we are all Alevis. But everyone knows who is of Armenian origin. Everyone knows that the Vardenik people are of Armenian origin. What difference does it make now, Alevis or Armenians, the state doesn’t like either of them?

What is the “Armenian population” in the current population of Dersim? No one can answer this question.

On the one hand, during the 20th century Armenians had to hide their past Armenian identity, on the other hand they embraced Alevism and then Armenian-Alevi marriages became more frequent and widespread. If until 1993-1994 the forced displacement of mountainous settlements preserved some Armenian intermarriage in the settlements of Alevi Armenians, in the last two decades it was almost impossible, even if desired. Mixed marriages and efforts to forget being Armenian have completely erased all visible or interpretable features of “Armenianness”, including the “Alevi Armenian”. In today’s Dersim, being “Armenian” is only a memory of Armenian origin. It is noteworthy that among those Armenians who Alevized in the twentieth century, those who Alevized earlier did not refer to their genealogical past and did not experience any emotional conflict with the “Zaza-Kizilbash-Alevi” identity. Some cultural habits can testify to their possible Armenian past, for example: “The Kizilbash in Dersim have a custom that when a child falls ill, they take it to Armenian churches, make the child drink from the soil of the church and sacrifice it…”.

These phenomena exist in every Alevi environment in Dersim. Today, probably more than ever before, the debate among Dersim Alevis over the choice of a term for identity is turning into a heated and passionate clash of emotions, creating a vulnerable existential situation. Each term has its own argument: historical, genealogical, political, emotional, traditional, cultural, religious…

To be continued…

Ashkhen Virabyan, journalist-analyst Westernarmeniatv