Dersim in Malkhas’s "Zartonk"
18/12/20 (Last modified 18/12/20)
Author: Simon Beugekian
For many Armenians who grew up in the mid-to-late 20th century in the Diaspora, Zartonk [Awakening] remains the seminal literary work of the Armenian revolutionary movement. At its core, it is a fictionalized dramatization of the events that the author, Malkhas (Artashes Hovsepian), experienced first-hand as a lifelong member and leader of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF, Dashnak Party). It is a voluminous work, consisting of four distinct volumes, and describing events that took place in several countries over a period of more than two decades (late 1890s-1920s). It does not mention specific political parties, movements, or individuals; rather, Malkhas created fictionalized and amalgamated versions of real-life groups and revolutionaries. However, his novel still provides accounts of some of the most notable, actual events in the history of the Armenian nation – the rise of nationalism and the modern Armenian consciousness; the struggle for liberation; the Genocide; independence; and Sovietization. Malkhas made it clear, in his preface, that Zartonk “is not a historical work in the accepted sense, but rather a historical novel based on historical facts.”
Zartonk was first published in 1933, in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2015, its first English translation was published by Sardarabad Bookstore, in California. The translator was Simon Beugekian (yours truly). The translation and publication process spanned several years and involved an international team from all over the Diaspora, representing various perspectives. Awakening (as the translation is known) was printed in Armenia, by an Armenian printing house. The project was funded by donations and was also sponsored by the Sose and Allen’s Legacy Foundation.
The excerpt presented here consists of the first few chapters of Volume IV of this extensive opus. It picks up the narrative late in the story. By this point, Levon, one of the novel’s central protagonists, has spent two decades serving the cause of the Armenian revolution. He joined the ranks of revolutionaries in the Caucasus (Russian-ruled Eastern Armenia), participated in the assassination of a Russian-appointed official, and then made his way through Persia into the Yerkir (Western/Ottoman Armenia). In the Yerkir, Levon became the leader of a band of fedayees, participating in various battles and engagements. Eventually, after many trials and adventures, including a sojourn in Europe, Levon participates in the Shabin-Karahisar uprising, which broke out during the Armenian Genocide. After the fall of the city, he escapes into the countryside. He and his two companions, Arakel and the child Garabed, eventually find themselves in the Kurdish enclave of Dersim. The excerpt describes their arrival in this mysterious region and some of the events that transpired there.
The choice by Malkhas of Dersim as the refuge of his characters was not accidental. Dersim had long been a thorn in the side of the Ottoman Empire. Due to its isolated geographic position, it had developed almost in isolation from the rest of the Empire. Consequently, its people had retained their unique identity. They were Alevi Kurds who had also been greatly influenced by Armenian culture. When the First World War broke out, and the Ottoman Empire entered the fray as a Central Power, the people of Dersim refused to be conscripted into the army. Unable to force them to acquiesce and fearing a rebellion in the heart of the country, the Turkish authorities initially relented.
Since Dersim was practically outside of government control, it also became a destination for Armenian refugees who had survived the massacres and were fleeing further persecution. Just like the characters in Zartonk, many Armenians were able to find shelter in these mountains, waiting for the war and massacres to end.
The Dersim Kurds were not able to maintain this stance for long. As the situation at the front deteriorated, the Ottoman authorities began pushing aggressively for conscription. The Kurds continued to fear that they would meet the same fate as the Armenians. Eventually, they rose up against the Turks in 1916 (these events are not described in this excerpt). This uprising failed, leading to the mass deportation of Kurdish tribes from their homeland. This would not be the last such event. Another, better-known uprising, known as the Dersim Rebellion, took place in 1937, in response to various policies enacted by the Kemalist Turkish Republic. This rebellion, too, ended in failure in 1938.
Malkhas did not necessary have intimate knowledge of Dersim. Instead, as he indicated in a footnote in the manuscript, he relied on a series of articles written by Levon Luledjian, and published in Hairenik Monthly, for some of the details he provided. Interestingly, a Professor Luledjian also appears as a character in this book, as an Armenian refugee in Dersim and a trusted advisor of its Kurdish chieftains.
Zartonk remains a foundational work of modern Armenian literature. It provides some of the most detailed and nuanced descriptions of the Armenian Revolution and the life of Ottoman Armenians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This excerpt is only one example of the intimate glimpses it offers into Western Armenian history. We hope that it contributes to the readers’ understanding of the vastness and diversity of the Ottoman-Armenian experience.
Disclaimer: The excerpt that appears here is not identical to the text that appeared in the 2015 published translation of Zartonk. The English text of Awakening was edited and abridged for publication.
Chapter 1 – Dawn
Author: Malkhas (Ardashes Hovsepian)
The Armenian highlands of Anatolia are crisscrossed by mountain ranges that divide the land into separate and distinct areas. In some places, the mountains create small enclaves within them, protected and isolated from the outside, often between 3,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level. One of these mountain-ringed enclaves is Dersim, an area that over the centuries has been isolated from the rest of Anatolia – geographically, ethnically, and demographically.
The historical Dersim consisted of the regions of Chmshgadzak, Khozat, Ovadjik, Kezel Kilise, Pakh, Medzgerd [Mazgirt], and Perri. Historically, it had been inhabited by a mixture of Kurds and Armenians, but over the centuries, Turks began to fill the lowlands and multiply, and some of these areas detached themselves from Dersim – if not legally or physically, at least ethnically. For example, the residents of Perri and the northern areas of the Mehrdjan and Mntsour mountains had a completely different character, a completely different moral temperament, from the Kurds of central Dersim.
At the time of this story, the true Dersim, which still stubbornly clung to its centuries-old traditions and customs, had already shrunk only to Ovadjik, Medzgerd, Khozat, and eastern Chmshgadzak.
Bordered to the north by the lofty Mehrdjan, Mntsour, and Kaledjik mountains and the western Euphrates; and to the south by the Sahman Mountains and the Aradzani River, Dersim had survived a thousand years, steeped in the fog of mystery, in a state of independence, or at least unique semi-independence.
The previous several centuries of Ottoman domination had not changed much. Nominally, Dersim was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, located in the heart of it. But the people of Dersim had in no way lost any of their liberty or independence to the Turks, nor had the Turks been able to force their will at the end of a rifle. In fact, just one-and-a-half century ago, the area's Mirakian Armenian family was issuing its own currency, which was used widely in the surrounding regions.
In the past 150 years especially, the Turks had tried more than once to subjugate the people of Dersim, to rein in their rebellious spirit. But every attempt had ended with the same stalemate, and eventually the authorities had satisfied themselves with nominal authority over the area. The central government had a representative sitting in Khozat, which meant very little. As in centuries past, the real leaders of Dersim were not government-appointed officials, but the heads of the Kurdish tribes, the great seyyids.
Over the centuries, the once-thriving Armenian population of the area, which considered Dersim its own true and native homeland, had assimilated with the Kurds and had lost its national character. But a small population of ethnic Armenians remained until 1914. As a testament to a long history of Armenian habitation, Dersim was littered with the ruins of old Armenian churches, monasteries, cemeteries, and hermitages.
Just like the people of Dersim, who were a mixture of the Korduks (Corduene), Medes, and Armenians, the religion of the area was a strange composite of paganism, Christianity, and Islam. Doubtless, among these three religions, the one that contributed least to the local culture was Islam, the latest arrival.
The people of Dersim were simple and uneducated, and had thus created a simple religion that mirrored their own uncomplicated, unostentatious life. They had given this religion the guise of Islam to remain safe from persecution, but they did not accept the Koran as the definitive holy book, arguing that Abu Bakr, Omar, and Osman had made additions to it. Nor did they pray and perform ablutions five times a day.
They revered Ali above all prophets and deities. They believed that Ali had visited the Earth in different forms over the millennia. They also considered Hassan and Hussein (both buried in Karbala, Iraq) to be the two most important imams. For a Dersim Kurd, there was nothing less worthy of respect than a Turk, who was considered “dirtier than swine.” This enmity was partially due to the eternal struggle between the Shia and Sunni branches of Islam, which continues to this day. The hatred of Turks was so pronounced that during village meetings, it was not rare for the seyyids to promise that any Dersim Kurd who killed at least forty Turks would automatically be granted entry into paradise and a seat beside Hassan and Hussein.
Dersim Kurds had been greatly influenced by Christianity. Aside from daily customs that they practiced, such as the tracing of a cross in the dough they cooked, or the illuminating of ruined Armenian holy sites on Thursday evenings, they considered Jesus Christ to be the son of God and second only to Ali. Even more than Christ, they lived in awe of Saint Sarkis, who lived in the unreachable gorges of the Doujig Baba Mountains. The Kurds called him Khzur, and believed that at night, riding his fire-breathing steed, he waged battle against the dragons and demons that lurked in Dersim’s dark forests and deep gorges. They often found hoofprints, which they kissed worshipfully, believing them to be the hoofmarks of the saint’s steed. Any water collected in these bumps was gathered and taken home. In the darkest moments of battle, they relied on Saint Sarkis’s blessing and called out: “Ya Khzur Mouradadou, ya Korshatsi Sourp!” Every year, in the month of February, around the time of the Feast Day of Saint Sarkis, they fasted for three days. But more importantly than all of this, whenever they took an oath, they did so by invoking the Khzur deyneg, or the saint’s staff. No Dersim Kurd would ever dare break such an oath.
So much for the influence of Christianity on the Dersim Kurds. Let us now move on to the influence of paganism on their culture.
Despite the dearth of primary sources on the Dersim Kurds, anyone examining the few available documents would come to the conclusion that their spirituality was heavily influenced by beliefs, ceremonies, and rituals they had inherited from their pagan past. They considered the summits of all mountains to be sacred sites, inhabited by those “better than us.” They always saluted the peaks when they saw them. Or, for example, if two Kurds met each other on the summit of Doujig Baba, they would embrace and kiss each other on the shoulders. They considered the sun and the moon to be divine beings. The lonely and solid cedar, mouhalem, and oak trees in the valleys were also considered divine, and the Kurds treated them with reverence, kissing their bark and tying strips of their clothing to the boughs when ill. They believed in reincarnation. For them, death was not an end, it was simply the conclusion of a short journey. They would be back, perhaps as birds or beasts, and would go on reincarnating until the Day of Judgement, when Ali would cast the wicked into hell and raise the virtuous into paradise. They were extremely careful not to extinguish the fires in their hearths except during the three months of the summer, when they led a nomadic life alongside their cattle. In the morning, they prayed standing, facing the rising sun, instead of facing the direction of Mecca, as is the custom among Muslims.
The Dersim Kurds were simple, clever in their own way, hardy, and austere. Their diet consisted simply of gulgul [barley], corn, and barley bread. They never gave a thought to tomorrow, nor did they have any desire to – they lived only for each day. Whenever they had plenty, they were gluttonous; and when they didn’t have enough, they stole or plundered. They considered hospitality the greatest of virtues and duties, and their doors were always open to the guests of God (as they called every guest who happened by). After all, who knew? The traveler could be none other than Ali in disguise, testing his believers.
Topographically, Dersim was a continuous mountain chain. There was only one true valley in the area, the valley of Ovadjik, which was only about twenty kilometers in length and two to three kilometers in width. Consequently, most Dersim Kurds were engaged in husbandry and cattle herding, rather than agriculture.
The villages of Dersim were usually small, some only consisting of seven or eight homes. During the summer months, the people led a quasi-nomadic existence, traveling from pasture to pasture. It was customary for these Kurds to settle down only temporarily wherever they went. Their homes were miserable shacks dug into the earth and with thatched roofs, except for the seyyids, the religious leaders, and the wealthy, who often lived in two-story brick houses.
When the Great War erupted and the Ottoman Empire jumped into the fray, the Kurds of Dersim, or to be more precise, the seyyids and aghas of Dersim, in an act of unprecedented unity, declared themselves neutral. They would not fight for the Turks, nor would they fight against them. They did this despite the fact that Erzindjan, home to the largest Ottoman army base, was only three or four hours from the Mullah Ali mountain pass that led into Dersim. The seyyids and aghas were satisfied with adopting a holding pattern and maintaining a nominal friendship with the Turks, which meant little in practice.
The Turks had realized that Dersim, located right in the heart of the country, could present a real threat to the whole Empire. At the beginning of the war, the authorities tried to bribe, coax, and threaten the chieftains into cooperation, but not one allowed his men to be conscripted into the army, or agreed to provide any kind of material aid to the Turks. The government was forced to drop the issue, fearing that antagonizing the Dersim Kurds would cause trouble on the home front.
This was the general situation in Dersim when Levon, Arakel, and little Garabed, crossing the Ziyaret mountain pass between the Khachachour and Mntsour mountains, were arrested at night by a Kurdish patrol.
Contemporary images showing the natural scenery of Dersim. Photograph by Cihangir Gündoğdu.
For more than an hour, the three Armenians and their Kurdish guards had to negotiate the steep and deep cliff that took them down into the valley of Ovadjik. But one of the Kurds had taken a liking to Garabed and was carrying him. Levon, free of the weight, almost sauntered at the head of the line, alongside one of the armed guards. The road was a barely visible path in the undergrowth. The darkness of the night was thickened even further by the forests looming on both sides of the road. One of the tributaries of the Mntsour River murmured quietly down in the valley.
"Where are you taking us now?" asked Levon. "Will it be much longer?"
"We're going to Adalar, the village of our agha... We're almost there..."
"Who is your agha?"
"Kasim Oghli Mouzour Bey.” The Kurd, who was a simple man, rushed to reassure Levon: "He's a good man... Don't be afraid of him... From Ovadjik to Khozat, there isn’t a better agha than ours. And he's a brave man, he respects courage. He has more than three hundred fighters under his command..."
"Are you one of them?"
"Well, let's just say any Dersim Kurd worth his weight can fight when needed, when the agha calls..."
"Whom are you fighting? Why?" asked Levon.
The Kurd did not immediately answer. He took a few more steps, stopped, sighed, then replied, as if he’d just had a revelation:
"Eh... What can I say...? I don’t know much. The agha knows. He tells us to be ready to fight, so we get our rifles and wait for his orders. The agha says we’re supposed to fight this or that ashiret, we go fight it… Is it really for us to ask the reasons? The agha knows best. When he says we’re supposed to fight, we fight…”
"But you're killing and getting killed. Don't you want to know why?"
"No man can escape his fate. Whatever the Revered Ali has written for you will come to pass. If you are to die tomorrow, it doesn’t matter whether you go into battle or stay at home. You will die tomorrow.”
"So, we're going to go see your agha now?"
"The agha was called to Khozat two days ago for consultations with the government. The seyyid went with him, too. But Ana is in the village, and we're taking you to her. Whatever Ana says, goes..."
"She is the khanoum of our seyyid," explained the Kurd.
They continued walking. The sun rose slowly. The terrain gradually flattened, and the eastern tip of the valley came into view. After walking a little longer, the beautiful valley of Ovadjik, in all its glory, finally appeared before them.
The Mntsour River, which originated from the numerous tributaries and rivulets that flowed from the Kurd Baba and Mntsour Mountains, ran from west to east, splitting the valley into two halves. Eventually, squeezed by the Doujig Baba Mountain, it became a raging river, rushing headlong, and eventually flowing into the Perri River.
Just as the sun appeared above the summit of the nearby Doujig Baba Mountain, the two Kurds stopped in their tracks, stood beside each other, crossed their arms on their chest, and prayed silently for a moment. Then, as was their custom, they embraced and kissed each other on the shoulders.
The group, now passing the village of Sheikh Mntsour, continued walking. The valley of Ovadjik was ringed by impregnable mountains. It was basically an elongated canyon. Here, the Kurds were mostly settled farmers, not shepherds or herdsmen. As a result, the towns that dotted the valley were larger and more prosperous than the usual Kurdish villages in Dersim.
After another hour's walk, they crossed a wooden bridge (which was just a large log connecting the two banks of the river) and entered the village of the agha - Adalar. It consisted of about forty homes, and in its center rose the two-story brick house of Mouzour Bey. Right next to it was the more modest, but still relatively comfortable one-story domicile of Seyyid Hassan, surrounded by vast gardens. The Kurds led their captives right to this house. The door was open, as most doors were in Dersim. One of the Kurds went inside, while the other kept watch over the Armenians, who were lined up right outside. The khatoun was lounging on a sofa above the hearth, while two women were baking bread on a saj nearby.
[Ed.: Here, the original manuscript includes a conversation between Ana and the Armenians. The conversation is omitted from this excerpt].
Contemporary images showing the natural scenery of Dersim. Photograph by Cihangir Gündoğdu.
"Ana..." began one of the Kurds respectfully. "We await your orders. Do we let them go free?"
"O Ali! O Hassan! O Hussein!" yelled Ana, angrily slapping her own knees. "Let them go free? Why? Have they been captured? Since when is Seyyid Hassan's door closed to Armenians who seek his help? Go! Go to your work! Leave them alone, they can stay here as long as they want!"
Just as the wives of village priests enjoyed a certain amount of authority in Armenian communities, and were the first to be honored during celebrations, so did the wives of seyyids in Dersim. Ana, which means mother, was not only respected, but in the absence of her husband, she possessed the power to make decisions in his stead. Her orders were irrevocable, and her word was law.
Levon and his friends stayed in Seyyid Hassan's house for three days. They were treated in the same way as the rest of the men in the household, namely the seyyid’s two sons and servants. On the second day, Levon came across two young Armenian men, who by some miracle had escaped the terrible massacres in Kemakh and had taken shelter in Dersim. Through them, he also met an Armenian mother with her two children, as well as two more Armenian women and a young girl who had escaped the massacres in that same village with the help of a Kurdish acquaintance from Dersim.
From them, Levon discovered that there were a few other Armenians in the villages of the valley of Ovadjik. But he also learned that about two thousand Armenians, aside from those who were native to the area, living in Dersim's mountain villages, all enjoying the protection of the local chieftains.
Levon and Arakel moved to the house of a wealthy Kurd, who was in the process of constructing a large barn. The child, Garabed, stayed behind at the seyyid's, by Ana’s special request.
[Ed. – After staying with this Kurd for a few days, at the end of September, Levon and Arakel decide to leave for the Halvor Monastery].
The next morning, before sunrise, the two friends left Adalar, armed only with two sturdy oak walking sticks. They had only a few loaves of barley bread in their knapsacks. They did not worry about finding their way. If they followed the Mntsour River, it would take them right to the monastery.
In Dersim, there were no proper roads, only rough paths that disappeared in the thick forests, climbed the rocky peaks of mountains, or vanished altogether. Even the locals often lost their bearings and had to use the summits of the mountains as landmarks to orient themselves.
It was past noon time when they reached the village of Pir Sultan. Here, the Mntsour River bent sharply to the south.
[Ed. – They stay in this village for two days, after which they resume their journey to the Halvor Monastery].
On the advice of the Kurds, they followed the river downstream until they came across the Shad Oghlou Bridge. Then they joined the road that would take them straight through Halvor. On that first day, they made it all the way to the village of Telig and got lost twice in the woods. Early next morning, they resumed their journey with the crowing of the rooster, and finally walked into the Saint Garabed Monastery of Halvor in the early afternoon.
Chapter 2 – The Saint Garabed Monastery of Halvor (or Alevor)
The historic Saint Garabed Monastery was located on a small plateau, about half an hour’s distance from the intersection of the Mntsour and Iktsor rivers. It was the only one of Dersim’s many Christian monasteries and holy sites that was still in a state of good repair. It was a celebrated pilgrimage site for the area’s Armenians and Kurds.
The monastery was a medium-sized structure, built of stone, with thick walls and a flat roof. It was not one of those majestic Armenian monasteries that inspire awe with their stature, unique architectural style, and walls of polished stones.
The interior, reflecting the exterior, was austerely decorated. Below the altar were four candelabras, two oil lamps, a lectern made of ebony, one or two books, and old rugs covering the floor. Nothing else. The windows, thin and very narrow, allowed only faint shafts of light to penetrate. This resulted in a permanent state of semidarkness inside – the same twilight that one finds in virtually every Armenian monastery.
Halvor, the village in which the monastery was located, was an Armenian village that had existed for centuries. But over time, it had been reduced to a small hamlet of eight to twelve homes. The villagers considered themselves to be descendants of the Mirakian dynasty, and by association the stewards of the monastery. They were half-Kurds whose Armenian could barely be understood.
They lived and dressed like the other Dersim Kurds. The abbot of the Monastery, an illiterate man who had inherited the title, had learned the church ceremonies, the Bible, and the psalms by heart from his father. He only opened the monastery to the public three or four times a year to hold services. The abbotship of the Monastery was considered a hereditary title, just like the title of seyyid among the Kurds, and the middle son of the current abbot, a youth of twenty-one who already had two children, was slated to replace his father when the time came.
That morning, the elderly abbot, whose outside appearance was exactly that of a Kurdish seyyid, was sitting on a boulder outside the monastery grounds, spinning wool with a spindle. If a local had not pointed him out to Levon, the latter would never have guessed that this man was not a Kurd. He wore white trousers and shirt, and a wool aba that reached his knees. His variegated belt was wrapped several times around his waist, and he wore a koloz on his head, with silk cloth wrapped around it. He was barefoot, and his grizzled beard covered more than half of his bare chest. The only difference between his appearance and that of a seyyid’s was that he was spinning wool with a spindle, while a seyyid would have been carrying a saz.
The monastery and the abbot’s shack were located on flat ground, under the shadow of a copse of huge walnut trees. The ground was littered with fallen walnuts, and many were blackened and already rotting. How could these penniless people waste so much food? thought Levon. Arakel picked up a couple of the walnuts and was about to crack them in his palm, but the abbot stopped him:
"No, no, son... Don't crack those walnuts! These trees are sacred. It is a sin to touch..."
The meal consisted of crumbled barley bread in milk curd. Afterwards, the two friends were given two mats on which they lay down to rest. Arakel immediately fell asleep, but Levon lay awake for a long time, reflecting on all that he had seen and heard that day. Undoubtedly, Dersim was a unique place. It was a world in and of itself, cut off from the rest of creation, where the Kurdish and Armenian people had lived side-by-side for centuries, exchanging customs, beliefs, and habits. Levon thought about how the local Armenian clerical families reflected the structure of the families of Kurdish seyyids. According to the abbot, the stewardship of the monastery and the abbotship had been entrusted to his family, but he had no idea who had done the entrusting.
As soon as darkness fell, the abbot's extended family, as well as many of the male neighbors, came to see the Armenian fugitives. They had no lamps, so the only light came from the fire in the hearth. As soon as the dinner table was set, the men, without waiting for an invitation, started eating, as if each was in his own home.
[Ed.: Levon and Arakel remain for some time in the Halvor Monastery as the abbot’s guests. Every day, they participate in the usual work of the village. Levon also begins teaching the abbot’s son, Sarkis, Armenian].
Within two or three weeks, Sarkis was already reading simple words, surprising himself, his father, and the traveling Kurds who often spent the night in the abbot’s shack. Levon’s fame began to spread much wider when once, during a conversation with a visiting seyyid, he gave a detailed account of Hassan and Hussein's deaths. Within a few days, the news had spread to all corners of Dersim. Seyyids who happened to be passing by would drop in to visit the abbot, just to see and hear this great man for whom the world held no secrets; who knew the story of the Revered Ali’s sons better than they did; and who spoke of the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as if speaking of yesterday. He understood the language of the Holy Books, which no local seyyid or priest could.
It was in the last week of October, when, around noon, four of Seyyid Rizza's rahbets [servants] appeared at the monastery. They were escorting Seyyid Rizza's youngest son, Seyyid Allo, a tall, energetic, and likeable fourteen-year-old.
Seyyid Rizza was the great chieftain of the Upper Abasan area. He had six hundred armed men under his command, and he was known and respected throughout Dersim. His men had no equals on the field of battle in the entire province. He was the son and heir of Seyyid Ibrahim, who was known for his love for Armenians. Numerous Armenians lived in his villages as refugees.
Seyyid Allo and his servants kissed the walls of the monastery, then came inside. They all embraced the abbot, exchanged kisses on the shoulders as was the local custom, and then took their seats on the mats around the hearth.
"Our lord, Seyyid Rizza, sends his greetings to the abbot of Halvor," began the oldest of the servants. "Our lord had planned to visit this monastery, which is eternally under the protection of Imam Hussein, and kiss its ground himself. But a week ago, he fell from his horse and injured his leg. He hopes that your holiness will forgive his absence. The seyyid has heard that there is a man here, a man who has unlocked the secrets of the world and has traveled to many foreign lands. They say he can read the holy books, and he knows our language, too. Seyyid Rizza sends his son, Seyyid Allo, as a servant to this man, so that he can impart some of his wisdom to him, for which Seyyid Rizza would be indebted.”
This was more of an order than a request. Halvor Monastery and the village were considered Seyyid Rizza’s fiefdom. The abbot immediately agreed to keep Seyyid Allo in his house and watch over him as his own son. Seyyid Allo had not come emptyhanded. The servants now carried in bags of wheat flour and barley, two pouches of cheese, a pouch of oil, and a large wooden jar of honey. For Levon, Seyyid Allo had brought an ornamented aba; wool trousers and a wool shirt; a long, white koloz with two silk scarves; a waistbelt; shoes sewn in Kharpert; and a curved dagger with a silver hilt. These were the gifts of a truly generous chief of a Kurdish ashiret.
When Levon returned home from the woods in the evening, he was finally informed of the decision others had made in his stead. After the obligatory ceremony of embracing the servants and kissing them on the shoulders, he gracefully accepted the privilege of teaching the great Seyyid's son, but asked Seyyid Rizza to refrain from sending additional gifts.
Chapter 3 – The Divine Revelation
[Ed.: Dersim’s Ottoman Governor, Shefket Bey, has invited the Kurdish chieftains of the province to a conference on December 15, in Khozat. Clearly, the Ottoman authorities intend to present the Kurds with an ultimatum. To prepare for this conference, the chieftains decide to hold an internal consultation. As the site of this consultation, they choose the estate of Zeyno Zade Moustafa Agha, in the village of Yergan (present-day Ergen/Geçimli). The meeting is also attended by Seyyid Allo and Levon].
Right outside the village of Yergan, in the middle of a large orchard, rose Mustafa Agha's two-story mansion, truly unparalleled in Dersim. The first floor, which included the huge kitchen and the servants' quarters, was filled with a crowd of lackeys and bodyguards who had escorted their aghas and seyyids. In the kitchen, dozens of women, many of whom Armenian refugees, with their sleeves rolled up, cooked food in huge pots or baked bread on the saj under the watchful gaze of Mustafa Agha’s khanoum and her brides.
Half an hour later, there was a stir among the servants and guards who were waiting in the hallway. Everyone pushed and shoved to make way for a newcomer.
Seyyid Hussein, one of the most powerful chieftains of the Karasan tribe, entered with slow, heavy steps. His arrival was greatly anticipated. Every single man immediately jumped to his feet. Even Mustafa Agha, the host, leapt up with surprisingly youthful vigor and approached the elderly newcomer. He kissed Seyyid Hussein's hand, then the two embraced and kissed each other on the shoulders. The rest of the Kurds surrounded Seyyid Hussein and kissed the hems of his robes, while the Seyyid reciprocated with kisses on the shoulders. Seyyid Hussein had the appearance of a noble, imposing elder. He was tall and stood straight despite his advanced age. He was a gaunt octogenarian, reminiscent of the ancient biblical patriarchs. Most impressive was his striking face, with his long hair that reached his shoulders and his long, white beard that reached his chest. It was as if a silver aura glowed around his head, from which his wise eyes peered out with a unique vitality.
Seyyid Hussein sat cross-legged on the edge of the hearth, on a thick cushion. With a gesture of his hand, he invited the others to also sit. The consultations began. But this wasn't the typical meeting, where people argue their points, expound their views, and try to convince their interlocutors with evidence. Not many of the attendees spoke. It was as if they were there to meditate, chew things over, and listen.
A young local, who had graduated from a Turkish school, read the last letter that had been received from Khozat, from Governor Shefket Bey. It was a stern missive. The Turks demanded the conscription of every Dersim Kurd of military age into the army, the complete disarmament of the Dersim region, the arrest of certain aghas and their transfer to Khozat, and finally, the arrest of all Armenians in the province, both natives and refugees.
A long and heavy silence followed. An outside observer, ignorant of the Dersim Kurds’ character, may have thought that this silence was caused by fear, that the letter had cowed these men. But in fact, most of them scoffed at the threats of the governor. They had great fighters in their ranks. What worried them was unity among themselves. All eyes turned to Seyyid Hussein. What would he say?
After a long silence, he finally began:
"We, the Kurds of Dersim, have never served as soldiers for the Turks, may they be damned to hell. We have lived free in our mountains, just like our forefathers did. We have had our internal disagreements, and we have them now, but we have never, ever handed over one of our aghas to the Turkish swine. But now, things have changed... The entire world is at war... The Turks have huge armies, they’re fighting the Russians... The world has changed…"
He fell silent. He spoke slowly. The others could barely hear him. It was as if these words weren’t his own at all, but those of an ethereal being speaking through him. The other chieftains waited with bated breath for him to continue.
"In the name of Ali, in the name of Hassan and Hussein…” Seyyid Hussein resumed with a melodious voice. “Aghas, don't forget that the Turks are dirtier than swine, they are a tribe of liars and backstabbers... Don't forget that they are the sons of Osman and Omar! May they all burn in the eternal fires of hell, and may they not have a drop of water! They want to take our weapons away, so they can occupy our lands with ease... They want Dersim, and they want the death of all who live in Dersim. I tell you, my dear aghas, if we don't stand together against this threat, we're all lost... If we are divided, the Turk will kill us off one by one... What do you say?"
A heavy silence fell once again, but not because none had an answer, but because none wanted to break protocol. Each waited for a more senior chieftain to speak first.
"Our seyyid speaks the words of the Revered Ali," finally intoned Mustafa Agha heavily. "All of Dersim must act like one man. I am ready to swear my allegiance to our unity. What do you say, aghas?"
Seyyid Hussein slowly walked over to the large window, from which could be seen the ruins of the old Yergan Monastery and the still-standing wall of the Saint Haroutyun Church. The others followed him. Seyyid Hussein, holding his staff as if leaning it against the walls of the church, began with an inspired voice:
"O Revered Ali... We, your children, in your name, and in the names of Hassan and Hussein, pledge that we will not be divided. That together, we will rise together against the Turkish swine. Our Dersim, which you gave us, our pilgrimage sites, our monasteries, our sacred mountains… We will defend them all with our own lives. All of us will become martyrs like the great imams Hassan and Hussein before we allow the blasphemous Turk to enter our land. O Revered Ali, be the witness of our oath, punish he who breaks it, extinguish his hearth, and let no more smoke rise from his chimney!”
When he had finished, all the aghas embraced each other and exchanged kisses on the shoulders, as was the custom in Dersim.
By dawn the next morning, Mustafa Agha's house was abuzz with unusual activity. The chieftains had returned from all around the village, along with their lackeys and bodyguards, hundreds of whom were now having breakfast in the courtyard. They sat on an uncovered patch of snow, looking as comfortable as if they were sitting on thick cushions.
It was a clear, but very cold day. As soon as dawn broke, Seyyid Hussein led the procession of aghas towards the ruins of the old Yergan Monastery, in the south-west of the village. They were followed not just by their servants and lackeys, but also by the entire Armenian and Kurdish population of the village.
The Saint Haroutyun Church of the old monastery must have been an impressive structure in its heyday. It probably had a width of about forty-five feet, a length of a little more than ninety feet, and a height of about sixty-eight feet, to which was added the central dome. Within a couple of stone’s throws from it were the ruins of another church. Nearby were numerous monks’ cells hewn into the rock, khachkars, and graves. According to an uncial inscription that was still legible on the church wall, it had been built in the year 995 AD. This meant that it had a history of 940 glorious years.
These ruins, like the ruins of many other monasteries, churches, graveyards, and khachkars that were scattered across Khozat, Kizil Kilise, and Medzgerd, attested to the fact that at least the southern portion of Dersim was once thickly populated by Armenians.
These ruins were sacred sites of great importance for the Kurds, who considered them to be their own. They would visit them as pilgrims on certain days, and each Thursday night, they would illuminate them. Whenever they took an oath, they did so at one of these sites or by looking towards them. The seyyids preferred convening religious meetings at these sites. All of this shows that these Kurds were really descendants of the Armenians who had once lived in Dersim, and that the traditions, customs, and beliefs of their distant ancestors remained alive within them.
The ruins of the Yergan Monastery (including the Saint Haroutyun Church) were among the most impressive of all Armenian ruins scattered across Dersim, or perhaps all of Dzopk [Sophene]. At the time of this story, only one of the church’s walls remained standing, alongside the adjacent, magnificent shrines. The dome of the structure, the three other walls, and the narthex had been destroyed centuries ago, and now lay in a miserable heap of ruins. But whatever still stood was a magnificent specimen of Armenian architecture, which, even in its forlorn state, inspired great pride in the hearts of Armenians with its elongated windows and delicate carvings of stalks of grain.
In all of Dersim, there was not a man who had not seen or heard of this beautiful wall. Naturally, the Turks knew of it, too.
Seyyid Hussein headed out of Mustafa Agha's house, followed by the crowds, and walked until he reached the wall of the church. The other chieftains kneeled on the snow-covered ground in a semicircle around him, about five or six feet behind. Behind them sat the throngs of lackeys, servants, and the Kurdish and Armenian villagers of Yergan. (…) When the aghas all took their places, a deep silence descended, and the crowds stood still, awaiting in religious anticipation. Up ahead, clad in all-white, wearing his tall koloz, and with his long and white hair and beard, Seyyid Hussein looked like a pagan monk approaching the sacrificial altar, ready to commune with the gods. When he finally raised his hand and leaned his walking stick against the wall, all held their breath. All eyes were fixed intently upon him.
"O, Revered Ali," he began, praying melodiously. "You, eternal ruler of the universe. O mahsoum imams, Hassan and Hussein. O immortal martyrs of the faith… May the Turk who spilled your sacred blood be cursed a thousand times upon a thousand! You, sons of God, you, the imams who are the foundation of our faith, o hunker Hadji bek Dashveli; o Aghouvekhir Aghouchan; o Mouradadou Khzur [Saint Sarkis], saint of Korsh; o Pirmen Dervish Djemal…”
This was the customary style of prayer among the Dersim Kurds. It was more of an invoking of the spirits of Ali, Hassan and Hussein, the other great imams, great seyyid, saints, pirs, and dervishes.
Then Seyyid Hussein turned around, the saz squeezed tight against his chest, preparing to relay the message of God while with song and music. The crowd was completely silent.
“O great God Ali, o imams Hassan and Hussein, sons of God. These are your words. O people of Dersim! Your wisdom is meager like the autumn grass in the mountains, short like the life of a snowflake flower. It is small as a grain of corn, because you were born of mortal women.
“Mehrdjan, Mntsour, Koura Baba, the holy peaks of our lands, upon which the Revered Ali and the saints walk, which are first to greet the rays of the sun every day – they are here and will be here forever. Thousands of years have passed, and thousands more shall pass, but they shall not move an inch. The faith of the people of Dersim must be solid like these mountains. Our ancestral laws, customs, and creed will live eternally, like our mountains!
“O Revered Ali, o Revered Ali, o Revered Ali…”
Seyyid Hussein played the saz, sang, and wept. The people listened in rapture, beating their knees, sobbing, and occasionally calling out the name of a saint. But Seyyid Hussein’s voice rose above the din:
“Hey! Hey! People of Dersim! I speak to you!”
[Ed. – Seyyid Hussein continues his soliloquy for some time. He tells the story of how Imam Hussein, fleeing Omar and Osman, was given refuge by an Armenian priest. Osman’s followers surrounded the priest’s house and desmanded that he hand over Hussein. The priest had seven strong, strapping sons. He sent his first son out, claiming that he was Hussein. Osman’s believers did not believe the lie and killed the son. He then sent out his second son, who was also slaughtered. And so, he sacrificed six of his sons, one by one. Finally, he sent out his last son, who bore a strong resemblance to Hussein. In this way, he was able to save Hussein at the cost of all seven of his sons’ lives].
Suddenly, the crowds fell silent again. The lamentations ceased, and all faces turned to Seyyid Hussein, who had raised his prophetic head. He now bore an absolutely serene, peaceful expression. He spoke with a calm nobility:
“The Revered Ali said, 'Deliver my message to my people with your own tongue. Tell them that God commands that in all lands, on all seas, and under all skies, my people should act towards the Armenians who seek their hospitality and protection as once the Armenian priest acted towards the great Imam Hussein. He who does otherwise will be cursed, and so will seven generations of his family! He will wander this Earth like Cain and will find no rest. His hearth will always be cold, and grass will grow where his fire once burned. Speak to my people, for I am the Lord God of Heaven and Earth!’”