Dersim, now in the hands of the Turkish government, has a special significance for both Armenians and the Kurds and Zazas who settled there at different times. In the 4th century, there is a widespread tradition that a group of non-Christian Armenians sought refuge in this mountainous region. Later, during the Pavlikian and Tondrakian movements, Dersim served as a refuge for the followers of these ideas. Its geographical location also influenced the mentality of the local population: The people of Dersim are known for their rebelliousness and bravery. Even after the establishment of Ottoman rule, Dersim’s semi-independent status was always a source of irritation for the Ottoman rulers. It should be noted that Dersim was settled not only by native Armenians, but also by Zazas and Kurds, where Alevism was very widespread, which implied tolerance towards other religions. This religious devotion clearly distinguished the Alevi Zazas from Muslims in other parts of the empire, who were often ruled by religious fanaticism.

The fact that the Armenians of Dersim were neighbors of the neighboring Alevi Zazas also played a certain role during the Armenian Genocide of 1915: various sources state that during the years of deportations and massacres, approximately 30-40 thousand Armenians from different parts of Dersim and other neighboring provinces with a large Armenian population sought refuge among the Alevi Zazas. It should be noted that the local Alevi Zaza tribes also took the step of rescuing Armenians because of their Alevism, which is essentially humanitarian in nature. However, it is not superfluous to add that many cases were recorded at the time when a number of Kurdish and Zaza tribes from Dersim collaborated with the Ottoman authorities and participated in the massacre of Armenians and the looting of their property. Testimonies of treason by the Zaza tribes of Dersim have also been preserved.

Anyway, the issue of Armenians taking refuge in the mountain villages of Dersim became a subject of discussion and negotiation between the Ottoman central authorities and local tribal chiefs when the Turkish authorities demanded that Alevi tribal chiefs surrender to the Armenians. This demand posed a serious problem for Alevis, who faced a difficult dilemma between the decrees of the central authority and the tenets of their faith. And in most cases, the central authorities’ order was rejected, and when the demands became harsher, Alevi tribal chiefs helped some of the Armenian refugees to flee to Eastern Armenia or Russia. But apart from all this, there are many recorded cases where Armenians who sought refuge with Alevis were forced (often superficially) to change their names, religion, and present themselves as Alevi zazas. This also allowed the tribal chiefs to present to the central authorities that the suspects were not Armenians, but Alevi Zaza. In this way, thousands of Armenians became nominally Alevi: some of them were able to maintain their national-religious customs and traditions in secret or openly, while others were assimilated into the Alevi identity. It is important to note that the less fanatical position of the surrounding Alevi population allowed the Dersim Armenians and their descendants to retain certain elements of Armenian identity if they so desired, but the dominant element had a decisive influence on the self-awareness of generations of Armenians. A notable example is the famous Armenian Mirakian clan, some of whom left Dersim and settled in different countries, including Eastern Armenia. However, some of them continue to live in Dersim today under the name “Mirak tribe”. Unfortunately, only a memory of their Armenian roots has been preserved among today’s Mirakian generations.  It is noteworthy that the image of the Mirakians’ ancestors as rebels and warriors remains a source of pride among the Mirakians even today. This forces their descendants to confess their origins.

As a result of the centuries-old Armenian presence in Dersim, as well as the displacement of thousands of Armenians in 1915, Armenian culture, customs and some elements of the Armenian language have been transferred to the Zaza environment. For example, in Zazas language , certain layers of words of Armenian origin are evident, some Zaza holidays and customs have Armenian features, and even today, a number of old Armenian place names are used among the people of Dersim. It should be noted, however, that Turkey’s anti-Armenian propaganda has not been completely ineffective in Dersim either, and there are facts showing that even in Alevi circles, being openly Armenian has not always been encouraged.

The discriminatory and hostile attitude of the Ottoman Empire towards Dersim continued and grew even more in Republican Turkey. The semi-independent existence of Dersim became one of the issues that worried the Kemalist authorities. Already in the 1930s, the Kemalist authorities began to solve the Dersim problem radically. the methods of solution remained the same as those of the Young Turk.

In 1937-1938, genocide was organized in Dersim by the state using the same methods as in the Armenian Genocide. According to various sources, around 70-90 thousand people were massacred during the Dersim genocide, and the entire population was deported to different parts of Turkey.

The Dersim Genocide of 1937-1938 requires serious research, but we would like to touch upon one detail. It is now clear that one of the main and important targets of the Turkish authorities during the Dersim genocide were the Armenians who had sought refuge there in 1915. The many facts that have come to light, the testimonies of eyewitnesses and survivors prove that for the Armenians of Dersim, the genocide of 1937-1938 was a continuation of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. It is worth noting that the Turkish authorities also stated that the army participating in the Dersim genocide had once provided refuge to Armenians as a justification for the massacre of the Zazas. There is currently a research being conducted in the Turkish state collecting oral stories about the Dersim Genocide, and since it is very difficult to find objective data about these events in Turkish official documents, the confessions of witnesses-survivors and all those who participated in them have bibliological value. and since it is very difficult to find objective data about these events in Turkish official documents, the confessions of witnesses-survivors and all those who participated in them have bibliological value.  As a matter of fact, a soldier from the Turkish army who participated in that massacre confessed that before his commanders gave the order to massacre the Zazas: “They are the ones who gave asylum to the Armenians, so we need to destroy them.”

What is interesting and remarkable is that today, among the Armenians of Dersim and their descendants, there is an emphasis on identity and sometimes a process of identity return. Here are some interesting facts about the current situation of the Armenians of Dersim.

Bagrat Estukyan, a native of Constantinople and an employee of the newspaper “Agos”, who attended the Munzur festival, said: “I felt a kinship with the people of the city. I knew from what I had read that there were quite a few Armenians among their ancestors, but I never thought that the percentage would be so high… Another surprising fact is that no one tries to hide their identity. People have reconciled themselves with the Alevi religion, with Kurdish political movements, and with self-identification in the totality of Armenian identity. For us Armenians of Constantinople, this incomprehensible fusion is a natural phenomenon that has found a place among the people of Dersim. …Armenian groups can be found all over Anatolia. And in Dersim you can meet Armenians. Not hidden, not disguised, not nationalistic, just unique and special”.

Another remarkable fact Bagrat Estukyan recounts testifies to the unique preservation and manifestation of traces of Christianity among Dersim Armenians:

“One man took out a chained cross from under his shirt, showed it to me and said: “Don’t misunderstand me, I am an atheist and Alevism is my culture, but this cross is a symbol that I am the grandson of my grandmother Shoghakat and the child of the Hambardzumian family”.

In August 2010, a group of Armenians from Dersim took the initiative to create a non-governmental organization that aims to bring the process of rediscovering their identity to a qualitatively different level. The NGO should conduct research on the culture, history, faith and language of Dersim Armenians. The leader of the initiative group is Selahattin Gültekin, an Armenian from Dersim who changed his name to Miran Gültekin. According to Miran, one of the goals of the association is for the Armenians of Dersim and their descendants to return to their roots, to live without hiding their true identity, to bear Armenian names rather than Turkish or Kurdish, to preserve Dersim’s Armenian churches, monuments and cemeteries, and to restore the old Armenian names of many villages.

Miran Gültekin said, “Dersim Armenians should protect their identity and culture. They should return to their roots, send their children to churches. We should have an organization for all this and I call on all Armenians, especially those from Dersim, to support this organization.” 

Finally, we would like to remind you that a similar non-governmental organization has been formed by the Armenians of Sasoun living in occupied Western Armenia and they are trying to protect Armenian churches and places of worship in Sasoun. Of course, under the conditions of Turkish state policy, these organizations cannot have a wide scope of activity, but the attempts to organize different groups of citizens of Western Armenia are remarkable and at the same time interesting. 

It shows different and interesting developments in the rediscovery of national identity.

 Ashkhen Virabyan

journalist-analyst Westernarmeniatv