Armenian Identity:  Dersim (Part 1)

  • by Western Armenia, March 10, 2023 in Society

Western Armenia TV addresses the problems of the Alevi/Arevis Armenians of Dersim, who were forced to hide their origins throughout the 20th century. The slow and steady process of Aleviization that began in the 19th century accelerated in the 20th century with the Genocide pogroms of 1915 and the Dersim pogroms of 1938, after which the difference between Armenians and Alevis/Arevis almost disappeared. However, to be “Armenian” in Dersim means exclusively a memory of Armenian origin.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, according to the testimonies of various authors, the Armenians of Dersim represented about one third of the population. Within Dersim, they were called “Armani” and themselves “Armenians”.

 In modern times, the outward characteristics of Armenian identity were Christianity, the Armenian language, Armenian names, certain folkloric rituals, and certain differences in clothing and food. Armenians were traditionally more literate, in many villages there were still churches with parochial schools attached to them, they were linked to the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople and the presbyteries of Yerznka and Kharberd. In other words, the Armenians had national institutions in one way or another, and despite the scattered nature of life in Dersim, their national life was generally organized: education, vacations, pilgrimages, internal social hierarchy. They were, however, essentially the lowest social stratum of the Dersim and did not really participate in the internal struggles for Dersim resources.

Usually, the property of Armenians was easy to embezzle, because in Dersim, stealing was considered part of the livelihood, it was not condemned and Armenians were not included in the lifestyle of stealing. Most Armenians also tried not to get involved in the resistance to the Ottoman Empire’s periodic attempts to subjugate Dersim. Only those Armenians who were actively involved in Dersim’s self-defense operations against Ottoman attacks were invited to the discussions of the tribal chiefs (leaders), and they were few in number. The most famous was the Mirakian family, which Dersim understood as an Ashiret (a Tribe).

In the 19th century, during this period, for various reasons, some Armenians emigrated from Dersim, some moved to Alevis/Arevis, and their numbers gradually decreased. There were also Sunni Kurdish Armenians. Conversion did not usually involve individuals, but whole settlements, mainly villages. Aleviating and Sunnitizing Armenians were quickly incorporated into the respective social strata within Dersim, within one or the other ashiret. However, before the nineteenth century, conversions were more massive and, depending on the material, former Armenians sometimes formed separate ashirets and, according to the internal rules of Dersim, took their place among the other ashirets by force of arms. The mass conversion of Armenians began at least in the 17th and 19th centuries. reached a point where not only was it difficult to distinguish between Armenians and Alevis/Arevis, but the socio-cultural life of Alevis/Arevis was largely similar to that of Armenians.

A large part of the population called Alevi/Arevi remembered their Armenian origins perfectly, and they still had unbroken ties with their remaining Armenian relatives. Sometimes one part of the same lineage was considered Alevi, the other part Armenian. “My grandfather used to tell that his great-grandfather’s uncle was sometimes the abbot of St. Karapet’s Monastery in Havlor”, “… our ancestors were also Armenians, even my cousins… although they speak Alevi, they keep their original nationality”, Ter Ovan “The Kurdish inhabitants of the village have never denied themselves (Armenians). The observations and records of Armenians writing about Dersim prove that the story of their Alevization by Armenians in the past was firmly rooted in the memories of at least some of the Alevis/Arevis of Dersim. For example, Andranik writes that “most, if not all, of the people of Dersim believe that their ancestors are Armenians.

The slow and long-term process of Alevization of Armenians led to the fact that in Dersim, Armenians and Alevis/Arevis had much in common. Alevi Armenians continued many pre-Christian and even Christian rites, and many Christian and pure Armenian elements were synthesized in Dersim “Alevism”. In the Alevi oral traditions, the genealogical and socio-religious past of the Armenians and Alevis of Dersim is summarized. Most of the actors in the “masalas” – stories – of the Dersim Alevi – are the local “Armenian keshish” and the newcomer “baba”.

S. Gevorg (“Hazret Ilias”, “Khedir Elia”), S. Sargis (“Hazreti Khedir”), “Ana Fatima” who inherited the functions of the Goddess Anahit and the ancient shrines of Anahit, even Mesrop Mashtots (“Masrup”), etc. who have various roles in the historical past of the Dersim people. 

According to popular etymology, the word Dersim itself dates back to the 17th century. It is derived from the name of Ter Simon (Tersimon, Dersimon), an early Armenian priest. The Armenian monastery of St. Karapet of Halvor, “which is the only living monastery of Dersim”, was of great importance for “the Armenians of Tersim and Ghizlbash… He, Saint Karapet of Havlor, is for everything, and everything is for him. All of them, Armenians and Kurds, will worship him equally and once or twice a year they will vow to Mestag with offerings and sacrifices from all sides of the Dersim.” Taking into account the connection of the kzlbash with existing Christian monuments and churches, Andranik writes: “The faith of the people of Dersim is stronger than that of the Armenians,” “The Kurds have more faith than the Armenians.”

Without addressing the hypothesis that the origin of the Alevis/Arevis of Dersim is Armenian in general, let us only confirm that both Alevis and Christian Armenians considered a significant part of the Alevis-Kzlbash of Dersim to be of Armenian origin.

Even if these levels of Aleviization of Armenians were the result of subjective perception, they should surely have alarmed the authorities with anti-Armenian agendas regarding a possible Armenian-Alevian political union. During the Armenian pogroms perpetrated by the Sunni-Kurdish armed squads “Hamidieh” in the 1890s, a number of Alevi-Kzlbash tribes of Dersim, considered as “Kurds”, took an anti-Sunni stance and did not take part in the massacres of Armenians.

To be continued…

Journalist-analyst of Western Armenia TV, Ashkhen Virabyan