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Dersim Alevism, a cross-bred identity

  Other point of view

Dersim Alevism, a cross-bred identity

Erwan Kerivel


Erwan Kerivel

French researcher- writer on Alevism

Armenian ethnologist Hranoush Kharatyan represents an interesting study on sense of identity of Alevi communities in Dersim during Ottoman and Republic Era in his articles about the search for identity in Dersim called “Identities of Dersim” and “The Alevized Armenians in Dersim".  But just examining Armenian and Western resources shall not provide all factors and elements that are required for understanding he Alevi belief. With ethnical roots based on Old Persian beliefs, tribal and religious double structuring come to the forefront as important factors. It shall be better to highlight communities mixing each other and creating a crossing-bred structure rather than seeking for a single ethnic origin. 

Identity debate that continues today has a risk of being a disruptive factor for an oppressed community basing the philosophy of “Being one, being huge, being alive” « Bir olalim, iri olalim, diri olalim ».

There are four opposing views in this discussion. While radical Turkish nationalists such as Halaçoğlu try to prove that Dersim Alevis are “Turkmens who became Kurdish”, Armenian Patriarchate officers state that they are “Armenian communities that tergiversated”. Kurdish nationalists accept the Dersimians within the Kurdish nation who fought for their freedom and autonomy. As Kharatyan stated in his article, “Zazanist” movement sees Dersim Alevi es as an ethnic and national feature.

Actually, none of these thesis are substantial for me. When we look at the history of Dersim, where is a hybrid-cross-bred territory for centuries, we saw that the Alevi population today is an unique synthesis of different ethnic roots: Armenian, Persian Deylem, Kurdish and Turkmen. Thus, I prefer to define those communities as “Alevis from Dersim” not as “Kurdish Alevi” or “Zazaish Alevi” in my book named “Children of the Sun, Alevis  and Armenians from Dersim” that was published by Sigest Publishing Co. 

In Ottoman Era, Alevis, who were named as “Redhead” or defined by libelous words such as “Candle Snuffers”, “heretic”, “misbeliever”, were always be in a lower social status than Christians since they had no “implicit” status and they were not protected by the "nation system". But, after the end of 19th century, Ottoman empire involved Alevis in “Muslim” population. It also made this in order to make a propaganda targeting to underestimate the majority of Christian population within Ottoman Empire and to gain Alevis in the “Holy War against Christians”. An incredible study of Markus Dressler called “Writing Religion, the making of Turkish Alevi  Islam” presents an important research for understanding this phenomenon better.

Names given to this community generally refer to a Persian origin and supposedly it depends on Alevis’ feature of being non-Muslim. Matti Moosa states that Armenians call Alevis as “Garmir Gelukh” and this word is literally same as the Red Head but on the other hand, it involves Persians too (1). Similarly, terms that were used by Ottoman Empire have the same meaning : “Essentially “profane” (misbeliever) is directly about  Zoroastrian, Mazdachists and Manikeens. The first “zendeca” movements in Islamic history means Persian-origin groups who continue their old Persian belief systems under an Islamic appearance.” (2). 

After the Red Head movement commonly spread into the Anatolia in 16th century during Shah Ismail era, a new word was started to be used: “Tat”. Another group, of which origins could not be determined, at least some of them were among Alevis are Tat. This word has a clear negative meaning in Ottoman documents. In this high period, this naming was used as “stranger” but in the meaning of “Persian” at the same time. 

In conclusion, so many Alevis, especially those from Dersim believe that they came from Khorasan which is a territory in the border of Persian country with Middle Asia. This legendary first homeland is not the homeland of Gilan and Deyleman of which a part is the native populations of Anatolia and the other part is in Western Iran or Dersim Alevis coming from Kirmanshah. So-called Khorasan is not a geographic but also a literal land. As Arabic authors mentioned; “Country of Rising Sun” expresses Persian territory who abide their beliefs before Islam. Other than this metaphoric definition; Khorasan is the place where Safavid Shahs of Iran, who used Dersim Red Heads against Sunni Uzbeks who threatened Persian Country to occupy in 17th century and located them forcibly. According to historian Mehmet Bayrak; nearly 60.000 Red Heads were exiled to North-Eastern Iran in this way, some of them were located but others came back nearly after 30 years (4).

Consequently, contrary to what Kharatyan said; Alevis from Dersim had a Red Head collective identity which had strict and strong ties with cultural, religious and historical field of Iran, before the end of 19th century. Then, nearly all of Western and Armenian ethnologists, historians and geographers define these communities as “Kurdish". German geographer Kiepert defines them as “Independent Kurds of Dujik” in a map that he drew in 1855. Erzurum Consul of Russia Alexandre Jaba, mentioned about “Dujik Kurdish Tribes” in 1850.  Jaba wrote that Turkish people called them “Dujik” or “Ekrad(Kurdish)” but “Actually, Kurdish people called them Red Head”. (5) Ottoman Archives of that era mentioned about “Ekrad (Kurds)” or “Yoruk Ekrad Community” (Kurdish Nomad Tribes).

But, in a period when Kurdish national matter has not been occurred and when tribes and clanship constituted the basic structure; such “Kurdish” denominations must be bound to nomad and villager activities rather than an ethnical meaning. In this issue, Garnik Astaryan states the meaning of the word “Kurd-Kurdish” as following for centuries: In 6th and 7th century Persian texts; those who were mentioned as « kurtan ou martohm-i kurtan" communities that are nomad, living in tents and ranching, in 8th and 12th century Arabic-Persian texts, “kurdan” or “akrad” were used in the meaning of nomad, bandit or animal breeders. (6)

Statistics of Armenian Patriarchate about 6 southern provinces that were issued in the end of 19th century and published in 1913 in Paris make a strict distinction between “Located Kurds”, “Nomad Kurds”, “Red Head” and “Zaza”. (7) According to the facts of Patriarchate; people from Dersim are in the category of “Red Head”, “Zaza” category is used for sunni Zaza from Solhan and Bingöl.  

The concept of identity in Alevis in Dersim must be understood in terms of tribal and religious structuring. As Kharatyan mentioned in his article, “Dersimians knew each other from family (or tribe) names which were called tribes”. Being involved to a tribe or family had a primary importance since it has a value of autonomy. Wasn’t it said that everybody is their own Agha in Dersim? That was the reason of territory or resources fights occurred usually between tribes. But the identity should not demeaned to the belonging of tribe, there was a religious belonging which was more important than that. Alevi tribes from Dersim determined and decided to which Pir or "Dede" they shall show their loyalty and promising in accordance with spiritual wisdom and miracles of those people. Those "Dede" posterity called Ocak and the promise that tribes gave to their religious authority is as important as the belonging to a tribe.  An identity confusion is not not a rare thing between the name of tribe and the name of Ocak to which tribe promised among Dersimians. Even, sometimes, there was a double belonging around the same name: such as Kureysan tribe and Kureysan Ocak. When you look at social layers of tribe, it could be seen that the religious side is important. Members of a tribe that comes from Dede breed are called as Ras and those who do not come from such a breed are called Ram. If mother comes from a Dede breed but father does not, the definition was made as "Tikmê" which is a middle category. If the father was Ras but mother was Ram, then children were Ras. 

If we focus on the identity bound and loyal to the religion which I named as promising to Ocak, linguistic concepts that were defined by Armenian writers of 19th century are not valid anymore. Three biggest Ocak of Dersim Alevis speak three different languages: Kureysans speak Zazaki, Bamasuran speaks Kurmanci and Sarı Saltuk speak Turkish. As Researcher Ali Kaya mentioned; this condition explains why tribes are sometimes bilingual. According to the list that was given by Ali Kaya, only 80 of 126 tribes speak only Zazaki, 23 of them speak only Kurmanci, 22 of them speak both Zazaki and Kurmanci and 1 of them speaks only Turkish (8). Those abbreviations that show Dersimian Alevis as speaking only Zazaki and coming from Zaza etnical root are completely reductionist and partly wrong. It is as narrow-minded as defining being Armenian with only speaking Armenian language and belonging to Apostolic church.

Because, what the invention of Armenians from Dersim, who have been living in Alevi belief for centuries and who talks sometimes Armenian, but mostly in a language mixed of Zazaki and Armenian shows us is that the richness of cultural mixture and hybridism. Alevis from Dersim could feel themselves to be belonged to Armenian, Zaza, Kurdish or Turkish identity while they are protecting their beliefs in humanity. Because, “they look at 72 nations from one view”. What Alevis from Dersim choose by returning to Christianity and baptism in which Armenian names are given, seem a different way. This is a way which everyone has a right to choose but in a long term, it shall deprive Alevis from Dersim of a part that constitutes themselves. 


1) Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites, the Ghulat Sects, Syracuse University Press, New York, 1988

2) Ceren Selmanpakoglu, The formation of Alevi  Syncretism, Université Bilkent, 2006

3) Luminita Munteanu, Les Alevî ou la traverse du desert. Réflexions sur une centralité manquée, Annals of Sergiu Al-George Institute 6-8 (1997-1999), 2004

4) Mehmet Bayrak, Dersim-Horasan Hatti nere düser? Kiziltepe Times, 07/12/2012

5) Alexandre Jaba, Recueil de notices et récits Kourdes, Académie Impériale des Sciences de St Petersbourg, 1860

6) Garnik Asatryan, Prolegomena to the study of the Kurds, Iran and the Caucasus 13 (2009)

7) La Question arménienne à la lumière des documents, Augustin Challamel, Paris, 1913

8) Ali Kaya, Baslangicindan günümüze Dersim tarihi, Demos Yayinlari, 2010




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