Along with the core Alevi values of being kind, generous and fair to other people, and treating the natural world as a sacred creation, there are many unique beliefs and customs found in the Munzur Valley. Some of these are shared with Alevis in other parts of Turkey, while some are native only to Dersim. Due to the forced displacement of Alevi Kurds from Dersim over the last 80 years (see the ‘Dark Days’ section for more on this), as well as the voluntary migration to cities with greater educational and professional opportunities, many traditions in Munzur have begun to gradually fade over the last several generations. Here, we present some of those that remain strongest today.
According to Alevi belief, the world remains a permanent fixture of the cosmos, year in and year out. Each year, however, is ruled by a different “Sultan of the turning time.” Following summer solstice, as the days begin to grow shorter, the Sultan, likewise, grows older. By the end of the year, he is ready to pass on his temporal kingdom to the next Sultan – which is really a renewed, yet distinct, version of himself, growing younger as the days grow longer.
On the last Thursday of December, just after winter solstice, the festival of Gağan is held, ushering out the old year - and the old Sultan - and welcoming in the new.
The centerpiece of the festival is a procession called Khalkek, in which several men dress up in costume and parade around their town or village. One of the performers, representing the outgoing Sultan, wears a white beard and carries a cane, or other accessories of old age. Another performer, representing the world itself, is made up as a beautiful woman. A third performer, representing the incoming Sultan, is dressed as a young man with a blackened face – it is said that his face is dark because his star has only just begun to rise in the world of ‘batın’ (the inner, spiritual world), and its light is not yet able to be cast into the outer world (that will have to wait until March, at which time he will actually claim his throne)
While musicians beat drums and play zurnas (oboe-like wind instruments), these three characters, sometimes joined by others in traditional dress, go from door to door, house to house, shop to shop, collecting food and, nowadays, money
Traditionally, all of the food would be brought to the home of the poorest family in the village, where a feast is prepared, with the family keeping the leftovers. Today, in Ovacik, the food and money is distributed to a number of needy families. And rather than a meal being held at someone’s home, a party is hosted at the Belediye (city hall) at night, for the entire town – the highlight of which is a show by a local cultural performance group, which specializes in comedies in which half of the men in the troupe are dressed in drag – like a rural Kurdish Monty Python routine. People love it, and laugh their way toward the new year.
A couple of hours before the party, right around sunset, prayer rituals are held at sacred places, such as hilltops and springs, all around the valley. Prayers are offered for the new year, and lokma – sacramental food, in this case a buttery kind of cake - is shared among the congregation.
Lokma is carried up a sacred hill, to be shared after a Gağan ceremony.
Lokma is carried up a sacred hill, to be shared after a Gağan ceremony.
Zeynal Dede sings a prayer at a Gağan ceremony.
Zeynal Dede sings a prayer at a Gağan ceremony.
The idea behind the Gağan is to spiritually refresh oneself. According to Zeynal Dede, “So the world was renewed, man was renewed. As the world gets renewed man too gets renewed and rejuvenated. As the world gets old, mankind gets old. That’s how it is. A year had passed, it’s finished and now we’re entering a new year.”
DEATH & REINCARNATION
“The soul is eternal; it does not die. The body is soil; it turns into soil.” According to Zeynal Dede, the soul animates the body. “If the soul wasn’t there,” he says, “this machine wouldn’t work.”
After a person’s funeral, the angel Azrael comes to take their soul, appearing in the form of a loved one. Only then does the dead person realize what’s going on, and begins screaming, “I’m dead!” Fortunately, the earth has made a vow not to let the sounds of the screams get out, “or,” says Zeynal Dede, “everybody would be scared.”
Once Azrael has the soul, he takes it to God. The soul carries with it a book filled with the good and bad deeds performed during its incarnation, written by the two angels that moved alongside that person - one on his or her left side, the other on his or her right – throughout their lifetime. Regardless of any account of virtues and sins, everyone will be reborn but, as in a karmic system, those who were good will enter “a good heart, a mother’s womb, and come back to life as a human being again.” Those who were bad return in “an animal’s body: a horse, a dog, a snake, a pig. The soul goes to an animal that crawls, that is left out and suffering.”
According to Zeynal Dede, “The soul comes and goes eternally. Until doomsday it comes and goes. It is said that on doomsday all the dead come back to life. God brings them all back to life and they give an account. I mean not only us, the whole world, all the creatures will come back to life. They will die and will come back to life and will give an account.”
After doomsday, it sounds as though life goes on very much the way it was before doomsday, only every human soul has returned to itself and is no longer in animal form. Those who do right are in heaven on earth; those who do wrong are in hell on earth. And death and judgment continue, but post-doomsday, everyone will know in advance when they are going to die, and when they will have to give an account of their life’s actions.
(Writer’s note: Most of the people in Munzur who talked about reincarnation were from the elder generation, so it’s difficult to gauge how many younger people adhere to this belief. Also, with the Alevi proclivity for metaphorical interpretation, it’s not easy to know whether reincarnation is seen as a literal occurrence, or as a metaphor for the ways in which people live and grow and transform in this lifetime. I don’t want to make the mistake of drawing a conclusion one way or another without more research.)
A FEW IMPORTANT THINGS:
There area handful of things in the world that are of utmost importance to Alevism as practiced in the Munzur Valley. Here's a list of five, with some brief explanations from local people.
"Our ka'aba is the human being."
"If you kill a person, you destroy a temple of God."
"Where you will find God is in the human heart."
"We have no holy book - we follow nature."
"The trees, the animals, the water, even the rocks have souls."
"Nature is holy - nature is holy!"
"Water gives us life. It is a gift ."
"Water purifies the soul."
"Water is so, so holy for us. Our lives depend on it! It is so holy that in ancient times people would not wash their genitals with water."
"The sun is light; the sun is life."
"Each day we wake up when the sun rises and pray for the whole world."
"The sun is Fatima, the moon is Ali."
"Fire is like the sun on earth."
"We always pray in front of fire."
"Burning fat and flour in a fire releases the souls of the dead."
IN THE BEGINNING:
Creation stories are the foundational myths of all religions. How the universe and mankind are said to have come into being reveals something fundamental about the metaphysical characteristics and historical roots of different modes of belief. The Alevi tale of how the world was born is – like the religion itself - a mash-up of elements from several different traditions, including mystical Muslim sects and mainstream Abrahamic faiths – especially Shia Islam. Here’s a version that is told in the Munzur Valley:
According to the Zeynal Dede: “Before everything else existed, man, the earth, the sky… the world was there. The world was there. It existed but it was all water, it was the sea. In the sea there was a green dome. What we call the green dome is the sun that we see now. Therefore we respect the sun. We know the sun as holy light. The sun is the holy light of Ali, of Allah, of Mohammed, of Mother Fatma, of Imam Hasan and Imam Huseyin.”
“All these five are present in that light. It is their light that illuminates us. And life itself was illuminated by this holy light. Ali, Mohammed, Imam Hasan, Imam Huseyin, they all existed with Allah since the time when the world was just water. They had souls since the beginning of time. They had souls but did not have a human form.”
The world, with the permission of God, created an angel called Gabriel. But when Gabriel was addressed by God, he did not answer – so he was burnt to ashes. Seventy more times, angels were created. Each time, they were named Gabriel. And each time they failed to answer the summons of God, and were burnt to ashes.
A seventy-second angel was created and named Gabriel. He flew around and around but couldn’t find anywhere to land. Everything was water. Eventually, he became so tired that he prepared to plunge into the water and drown. Just then, a dome rose from the depths, and Gabriel landed on it. A voice spoke to him from the dome, asking, “Who are you?”
“I am me and you are you,” Gabriel answered. Then he flew off around the world, and into the future, and back to the past, and when he flew near the dome God said to him, “Gabriel, beware, or you will burn to ashes. If you are asked again, you must say, ‘You are the creator, and I am the created.’ If you do this, you will be saved; if not, you’ll be burnt."
Gabriel landed on the dome again, and the voice from inside asked him a second time, “Who are you?” This time, Gabriel answered, “You are the creator, and I am the created.” The voice inside replied, “The master’s grace."
A door in the dome opened, and Gabriel entered to find a young man sitting there. He was perhaps fifteen years old – too young to have a beard. Upon seeing the angel, the young man said, “Would you be Gabriel or should I be Gabriel?” Gabriel said, ‘I have been alive and flying over the sea for three hundred years. It is not yet certain what you are. You are very young. You don’t even have a face.'
The young man said, ‘Gabriel, have you not seen anything during these three hundred years? What have you seen?
‘Every four years, I see Venus.” Gabriel said. “And I have seen a light, and in between the eyebrows of this light was written the prayer of Elif and Mim. I have seen this light.”
The young man said, ‘Turn around and look.’ So Gabriel turned around and saw that on the young man’s forehead was Venus, and the Elif Mim prayer was in between his eyebrows. And Gabriel said, ‘You are God,’ and bowed down to his feet.
God then blew across the world, pushing the waters back and bringing forth the land. He then created fairies, and genies made of fire. A genie named Tavus was their ruler, and he worshiped God deeply and loved Him so mightily that he was bonded to God in his heart. As a result of his devotion, God raised Tavus to the seventh, upper layer of the sky. But once there, Tavus became arrogant and proud, announcing, “The sky is mine! The earth is mine! I own the whole world!”
God, then, decided to punish Tavus by creating humans. Tavus protested, ‘Why would you create man? If you create man, he will shed blood in the world, he will torture his own kind, they will torture each other. They will not know your presence."
“Only man will know my presence,” God replied, “You cannot know my presence. You think about your own desires.”
So God sent Gabriel to fetch some soil, but the soil did not give itself to the angel, so he returned empty-handed. God then sent Michael, and Israfel, but they too returned with nothing. Azrael tried next, and again the soil did not give itself to the angel, but Azrael wouldn’t be deterred. He grabbed different types of soil from the earth – some white, some yellow, some red, and some black – taking it by force. And the earth said, “Azrael, as you take what belongs to me, will you promise to return it?” And Azrael said, “Yes.”
God took the soils, mixed them with the water of heaven, and molded a man in His own image.
When the mold was completed, Ali was named as its prophet. And as a stone that was holding the mold was broken, to free it, a piece of the stone flew off and embedded itseld in the mold. The angels, panicked, tried to remove it, but Ali stopped them. “That is the delusion of man,” he said, and the shard of stone remained where it had landed.
The man was called Adam.
God gave Adam a soul from His own soul, inserting it into Adam’s nose. The soul, however, saw that it was dark in the nose and refused to go in. It retreated. God said, ‘Oh soul, what is the problem?’ The soul said, ‘It’s very dark in there.’ God said, ‘Oh soul, when you enter there, you lighten it up. Give a scent of amber musk there.’ And the soul went in through the nose and traveled through every bit of Adam’s body, which glowed with a holy light.
When Adam spoke his first sentence he said of God, ‘He is the first and the last.’ And Adam was taken into heaven, where he stayed. He was all flat. He had nothing. There was no such thing as desire. There was no need to eat or go to the toilet. He was all flat. There was no sign of gender, there was no sign of sexuality. No lying down, no family matters, there was nothing. He was created as a simple man, all flat. He was put into heaven as a man.
He lived in heaven for a thousand years, when at last Adam said, ‘Oh God, I need a partner,” so while he was sleeping, God sent an angel to remove one of Adam’s ribs, with which a beautiful woman was created.
Adam and Eve stayed in heaven for three hundred years. Because Adam was made of dirt, Tavus would not bow down to him, so he was punished yet again, and he became the devil.
Thus the genies came to be ruled by the devil. Tavus cried, ‘Oh God, give me life. For as long as I live I would take all your people and turn them to my aims.’ God replied, ‘I have nothing to do with those who would follow you. Their place is hell, while those who know me dwell in heaven.’
The first fruits were apples, then dates, and then grapes – which formed from tears that had rolled down Mohammed’s cheeks. Mohammed’s sweat became a rose, which is why the smell of the roses that grow on the mountains is said to be Mohammed’s sweat.
Adam and Eve stayed in heaven together, and the devil wracked his brains trying to think of a way to get to them. One day he went to the gates of heaven, which were guarded by a snake. The devil said to the snake, ‘Open the gate and let me in.’ But the snake replied, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to open the gates for anyone unless I’m ordered to do so. I can’t let you in.’
‘You don’t have to open the gate,’ the devil answered. ‘Just turn your mouth to one side and I will enter into your mouth and then you let me out on the other side.’ The snake agreed, and turned his huge, gaping mouth toward the devil, and the devil got in. Then the snake turned his head toward heaven, and the devil emerged on the other side of the gate.
He found Adam and offered him a grain of wheat that was laced with seven sins, such as greed, desire, adultery, and so on. ‘Eat this, Adam,’ the devil said. ‘If you don’t, you’ll die someday and the birds will come and shit on your corpse. This can make you immortal.’
Adam refused, and would not change his mind, so the devil sought out Eve. After some resistance, she ultimately ate the wheat, then convinced Adam to taste it, too. This is how evil entered mankind.
At once, their bodies became swollen, inflated like balloons. They were no longer all flat.
Adam and Eve were thrown out of heaven. One landed in Selendi, on Turkey’s Aegean Coast. The other landed in Aleppo. For 300 years, they wandered around looking for each other, until finally Adam put his head down, prostrated himself, and cried. Having surrendered, God forgave his sins and reunited him with Eve, and they married in Aleppo. God then explained that every time Eve gave birth, she would deliver twins – one boy and one girl. When they were older, the boy from the first birth was to marry the girl from the second birth, and the girl from the first birth should marry the boy from the second birth, and so on – and that’s how the population of humanity grew
Adam had two sons, Cain and Abel. When it was time, Adam prepared to marry his sons to his daughters, but Cain rebelled. He wanted to marry the sister with whom he shared the womb, not the twin of Abel, because his own twin was more beautiful. Adam, however, refused this request, saying he had to obey God’s orders.
One day, when Abel was herding sheep in the mountains, Cain snuck up behind him and smashed him on the head with a rock, killing him. Instantly, Cain regretted his actions. He lifted Abel’s body onto his back and walked around from place to place, crying. For forty days he wandered with his brother’s corpse, unsure what to do with it. At last, God sent a crow to set things right
Before Cain’s eyes, the crow hit its own baby with its beak, killing it. Then the crow dug a hole, laid the dead fledgling inside, and covered it up with soil. Seeing this, Cain realized he should do the same with his brother. At that moment, the shovel and pickaxe were created, so Cain took them and dug a pit, lowered Abel into it, and covered him with dirt.
Once, Adam and Eve fell into an argument. Eve said, ‘If I didn’t exist you wouldn’t have had a child.’ And Adam retorted, ‘If I didn’t exist, no child would have been delivered from you. If I didn’t give what I had to you, you wouldn’t have had a child. Whatever miracle is there, I have it. You are my jar.’
Adam and Eve then make a bet. They put their own yeasts into separate jars, and they let them sit. After forty days, Eve looked at her jar and saw that it was filled with snakes. Then she looked at Adam’s jar. Inside, it was white, like milk, and it held a living being that shined like holy light – but one side of him was disabled. Adam and Eve named him Sitare-i Selam, and from him – who comes directly from Adam alone – all Alevis are descended
After some time, and several generations, had passed, most of humankind had turned to evil ways. God decided to send a massive flood to cleanse the earth of his foul creation, but before He did so, He spoke to Noah, one of the few faithful souls, telling him to build a boat.
Noah, however, was not a carpenter, so he hired three master builders for the job, telling each one that, as payment, he would offer his daughter’s hand in marriage. The problem was, Noah only had one daughter, and when the boat was finished and it was time to pay, he didn’t know what to do. God instructed Noah to take one female dog and one female donkey and lock them in a room with his daughter overnight. In the morning, God said, Noah would be able to pay his debt. And Noah did as he was told.
The next day, when Noah opened the door behind which his daughter, the dog, and the donkey had spent the night, he couldn’t believe his eyes. In the room stood his daughter – and his daughter, and his daughter! There were three of her, all so perfect that Noah couldn’t tell which of them was the original. Noah gave a daughter to each of the boat builders, who left and went their own ways with their new wives.
Meanwhile, the local tribespeople mocked Noah, thinking he was crazy, and used his ark as a toilet. Before long, the entire ship was filled with shit. Noah pleaded with God for help, and God said, “Be patient. They will get what’s coming to them.” He sent a plague of mange down upon all the people who had disrespected Noah, as well as all the dogs in the area. The dogs went onto the ark, ate some of the shit, and were healed. Seeing this, the people boarded the boat and started eating their own shit, licking the wood so clean there was not a gram of it left when they were done
After this, Noah went to look for his daughter. When he reached the first boat builder, Noah asked him, “How is life with my daughter?” “Your daughter is very nice,” the boat builder said, “but once she opens her mouth, it’s ‘blah, blah, blah.’ She never stops talking!” “Hmmm,” Noah said to himself, “this one must have gotten the female dog.”
When he found the second boat builder, Noah again asked about his daughter. “She’s quite nice,” said the boat builder, “but she can be incredibly stubborn.” “Ahhh,” Noah said to himself, “he must have gotten the donkey.”
The third boat builder, when asked the same question, said, “Blessings to her family and her bloodline, she is perfect in every way. There is none equal to her in this creation.” Noah realized he had found his daughter, and asked her and her husband to join him on the boat.
When the rains began falling, Noah took every kind of creature on board, two by two, and the great ark sailed in the direction of Karbala. As it passed over what would be the battlefield there many years later, the boat was shaken by a big wave. Everyone on board wanted to know what had happened, and Noah answered, “This is ker (strength) this is bela (trouble). Those of the family of Ahl al-Bayt (descendants of Mohammed) who will come after us will die here.”
When the waters receded and the earth dried out, Noah’s ship landed atop Mount Judi
Mt. Judi is also the resting place for the ark according to some Islamic and Armenian Christian traditions.
Because of his role, Noah is considered to be a second Adam. He had seven children, and each spoke a different language and was given his or her own place on earth. The Alevis, it is said, are descended from Noah’s son Shem.
HUNTING & FISHING
“Animals in nature have the right live, just like we do,” explained Hidir Saylı, a man from Ovacik who is knowledgeable about Alevi ways and beliefs. As a result, he continued, hunting and fishing are looked down upon and are considered unethical by many in Munzur. Still, increasing numbers of people like to fish, and some choose to hunt. Decades ago, he said, fishing was permitted only one day a year. Today, fishing is forbidden on just one day each week.
As for hunting, it’s not unusual to hear tales of divine retribution swiftly delivered to those who kill wild animals. In one of these stories, a Turkish soldier went to a lake that was famous as a habitat for cranes – a bird sacred to Alevis, as it represents the voice of Ali. The soldier shot one for pleasure – then was run over by a train just a few days later. There are also stories of a foreigner who came to hunt ibex in the mountains. He was successful, but before he could make it out of the highlands with his prize, he fell off the trail and plunged to his death.
Writer's note: During our field visit to Munzur in December 2014/January 2015, one local man, who was known as an experienced mountaineer, was hiking in some high hills, lost his footing, plummeted off a cliff, and died – the rumor in town was that he had been hunting…
Even snakes are considered holy, and should not be killed, as they carry reincarnated human souls within them. Additionally, there was once a snake/goddess sect associated with the Alevis of Dersim. Play the video below to hear about one woman's encounter with a snake when she was a small girl, which is a great example of another tradition in the Munzur Valley: the telling of stories that sound impossible, but are presented as wholly true by people who claim to have been eyewitnesses to the events.
A typical meal in the Munzur Valley - nearly everything is homegrown or homemade. The peppers come from straight from the family's garden, sauteed in butter from the family's cow; the cheese comes from the family's sheep and goats; the honey comes from the family's beehives. The bread is baked on a pan over a fire. Even many people who live in town keep a small plot for vegetables, and a few animals for fresh dairy products.
In Munzur, when people experience hard times, they pray to a spirit-figure called Hızır, who has the power to grant wishes and make miracles. Similar to Elijah the prophet, Hızır often appears as an old beggar who travels from village to village asking for food and shelter. No one can recognize him until he chooses to reveal himself, so he is able to test the generosity and good will of the people he meets, making sure they are worthy of the reward he may bestow upon them.
Hızır is eternal, and will wander the earth forever. He’s strongly associated with the cycles of the seasons, especially with spring, for it is he who brings winter to an end and makes the world green again. He circles the globe once a day, sometimes walking, sometimes riding a grey horse, and he prays in five different places at once.
In Dersim, the month of Hızır starts on January 14 and ends in the second week of February. During this period, people fast for three days - on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday - but not everyone fasts on the same three days. One region in Dersim will fast during the first week of the month, then another region fasts the following week, and so on. The fasting days wander as Hızır wanders, they say.
Other important times of fasting include the first twelve days of the month of Muharram, which are devoted to remembering the Battle of Karbala. Some people fast during Gağan as well.
THE LEGEND OF THE PEPUK BIRD:
Once upon a time, a young man and a young woman went into the mountains together. They were brother and sister, and they’d gone to collect kengal – a delicious wild thistle. When they returned home, after a long day of hiking and harvesting, they realized that all of the kengal, which the sister had carried in a large sack on her back, had disappeared. The brother was enraged, certain that his sister had managed to secretly eat all the kengal without him noticing. The sister adamantly denied his accusations and, when she realized that her brother couldn’t be convinced of her innocence, she dared him to cut her open with a knife and see for himself.
The brother, in his anger, agreed.
He killed his sister, then sliced her belly open, and found no trace of kengal in her stomach. Only then did he notice the hole in the bottom of the sack that his sister had carried, though which all of the kengal had fallen out. He was so upset, so distraught over what he had done, that he transformed into a pepuk bird (a cuckoo), To this day, he still cries out his sadness.
When women in Dersim sing traditional songs of grief, they say that they are singing like the pepuk bird.
Writer's note: In some versions of this story, the roles are reversed, and it’s the sister who kills the brother – but that’s not how we first heard it. (For that version, see the book: A Fire in my Heart: Kurdish Tales retold by Diane Edgecomb).
Traditional homes in the Munzur Valley have flat roofs made of packed earth. In order to keep them from leaking, or even collapsing, after a winter storm, the snow must be shoveled off, then a large, heavy stone called a loğ is rolled back and forth across the roof. This compresses the dirt and helps it maintain its integrity.
THE OTHER LEGEND OF MUNZUR
While the popular account of how the Munzur River was created was re-told in the beginning of this project, there is another, little-known tale that describes it very differently.
In this version, Munzur the shepherd was tending the sheep of a rich agha, when hungry wolves approached and asked him for a sheep. Munzur told the wolves to wait where they were and, leaving them with the herd, he went to the agha, seeking permission to give the wolves a sheep. The agha couldn’t believe Munzur’s stupidity in trusting the wolves with the flock, and was certain that all the sheep would be killed. He told Munzur to go back quickly and give the wolves the very fattest of his sheep. But the wolves told Munzur that they only wanted two lambs, which became sacrifices for Abraham and all of humankind.
As word of these events spread through the villages, people went out to the fields to find Munzur and worship him as a saint. Munzur, as in the popular story, was very shy and turned to run into the mountains, spilling milk from his pail as he did so. Where the milk landed, water began flowing from the ground, and the river named after the shepherd was born.
In the upper Munzur Valley, it’s safe to say that everyone knows Emre Kaç. He is one of very few men who still wear traditional dress – a headcloth, baggy şalwar pants, and perhaps an embroidered vest – along with which he’s sometimes been known to sport a white long sleeved t-shirt emblazoned with a stylized skull and the words “The Legend Lives Voodoo Parlor, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.” But Emre is best known for helping to preserve the Munzur Valley’s traditional dances, which few people perform anymore.
Drawn to dancing since he was a child, Emre learned from his elders. Today, he teaches a group of students who are a generation younger than he is, all of whom happen to be men. Together, they perform at weddings and at cultural events, such as the Gağan festival, and the Munzur Valley Festival that’s held each summer.
The most elaborate of these dances tell stories, and have been performed “since ancient times,” Emre said. For one popular dance, Emre dresses up as a shepherdess who is avidly pursued by an admirer. The shepherdess refuses his advances, which only increases the enthusiasm of his advances. Just when it seems hopeless, the suitor saves the shepherdess’s flock from a sheep thief – finally winning her heart:
An eager suitor approaches the shy shepherdess.
An eager suitor approaches the shy shepherdess.
The shepherdess flees from her suitor.
The shepherdess flees from her suitor.
At last, the shepherdess allows herself to be caught!
At last, the shepherdess allows herself to be caught!
Emre is also one of the few people around who know some of the old stories that used to be told in the Munzur Valley. Play the video below to see him tell a long (but still abridged) one:
Play the next video to watch Emre's group lead a traditional wedding procession in Ovacik:
And play the next video to see Emre and his dance group in action at a wedding in Ovacik: