Tuesday, April 15, 2014

On the Lycian Way--Part 1

This picture--and several others--is by Delal
My plan, folks, is this: A photo essay of Delal's and my Spring Break trip hiking the Lycian Way. For once, there will be a minimum of political agitation and what-not and more pretty pictures. Hopefully some of our discoveries will help other hapless hikers to avoid the mistakes we made. So, the Lycian Way (in Turkish the Likya Yolu) is a series of hiking trails marked with red and white blazes (like the Appalachian Trail back home) that stretches from Fethiye to Antalya. It was mapped out by English woman, Kate Clow, whose book is the authority on the series of trails. We could not locate an English copy in Istanbul and so we were making our way with the Turkish copy--badly translated at some points, so much so that we were led astray. A rock wall and a stone wall, for example, completely different things--one being a sheer rock face like a wall and the other being a wall made by humans of stones--are both translated as taş duvarı. So when you go desperately looking for that stone wall and find only sheer rock faces--well you might be in the right place.
Here we are at the starting gate outside of Ovacık-the actual road is on the right and does not go under the stupid gate at all.
Now some background--the Lycians were one of the ancient people of Anatolia. Herodotus--the first Historian of equally ancient Greece--claimed they migrated from Crete. The Egyptians mentioned them as early as 2000 BC. They were also involved in the Trojan war. They originally occupied the mountains of Southwest Anatolia and the trails of the Lycian way wander through the borders and among the ruins of this long-lost country. In later years they were incorporated first into the Greek Empire and then the Roman Empire. I imagine their descendants are still running around these mountains today. 
At the starting point near the Sultan Motel--the mountains behind in the morning mists are where we're headed
We started at the town of Ovacık, just outside of Fethiye (a 3.50TL bus ride from the Fethiye otogar) at a pension that prides itself on being the starting point of the trail--the Sultan Motel (www.sultanmotel.com). Rooms were clean, breakfast good, and the manager very helpful. In summer, they have a pool with beautiful views of the Mediterranean. Price for a double, including breakfast, was 60TL--about 30 dollars at today's rate (off season).
Before heading off on the trail itself we decided to take a side trip to a place called Kayaköy in Turkish, Levissi in Greek. It is (was) a Greek village rising up the hillside about a 7 kilometer (4 mile) walk from the Sultan. In 1923, the people of Levissi, like the Greeks all over Turkey were forced to go to Greece, taking with them only what they could carry. Turks in Greece were similarly being kicked out in an agreement between the two countries politely called 'The Population Exchange' in English, or Mübadele in Turkish.

A view of Kayaköy/Levissi from the top of the hill overlooking an old well
When I tried to dig up a few facts to put in this blog entry--I ran into the usual problems digging for information about minorities in Turkey. There are so many partisans, biases, and people unintentionally spreading misinformation that it's hard to know what's right. For example, the English Wikipedia claims that the deserted village has 500 houses. Frommers travel company puts the number at 3500. The Turkish version of Wiki says there were only 40 (just from the picture above, it's clear how wildly inaccurate THAT number is.) The Lonely Planet claims 2000-but who knows where the hell that number comes from. In any case, it's huge. Endless streets of abandoned houses, stores and churches.

The only residents of Levissi these days are the sheep
We walked there down a forest road, though you could take a minibus. The ruins started well before the protected area itself. Little clusters of stone cottages dotted the fields, overgrown with daisies and bright red poppies. I was expecting maybe a similar, if somewhat larger cluster of ruins but was completely overwhelmed by what I saw--a ghost city, the stones of the streets worn smoothe by the feet of so many visitors. You can see the ovens of the residents--Ottoman style, and the silhouettes of vanished stair cases. There is a church still standing and small chapels with slowly shattering mosaics. You find wells and cisterns and long walls winding along avenues paved with marble stones--but no people. It's somehow all the more haunting that it is not ancient like every other set of ruins here--the desolation is not even a hundred years old.

Another view from the top of the hill
The original city here was probably called Karmylassos (Carmylessus), a Lycian city, and was written about by Strabo, another Classical historian. There are Lycian tombs dating back to the 4th century BC nearby. A new Greek settlement called Levissi was built here probably in the 1700s. As with the number of houses, I found a lot of contradicting (let's call it creative) dates but after filtering out all the nonsense--most agree that Livissi was built in the 18th century, destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th and subsequently rebuilt. (Many sources don't know about the original 1700s village it seems.)

You can see some of the original blue and red paint everywhere
When the Greeks left, they rebuilt a city near Athens called Nea Makri--(New Makri, Makri being the former name of Fethiye). In Nea Makri is apparently a neighborhood called Livissi. This is a moving article about the grandson of two of Livissi's residents coming back to get to know the old lost home. 'My grandmother was about 22 or 23 in 1923,' he writes, 'And my grandfather was one year older. When they learnt what was going to happen to them she walked with her mother and sister down to Makri. She had left her two children but when she returned to collect them she couldn’t find them. She had to walk back to Makri alone.' They spend the next years searching for those children. He says his grandparents told him how kind their Turkish neighbors were and how a friend even left their daughter with a Turkish family, afraid of what might happen to them on their journey to Greece.

Through windows into more windows

One of the remaining churches

The fig trees are ripping the buildings apart

The town is filled with gigantic fig trees. Their roots dig into walls and crack them apart, uplift streets and split apart entire houses. They've taken over everything. Not surprisingly the fig is a relative of the banyan tree I saw tearing apart the ruins of Angkor Wat.

The wall of one of the chapels in Livissi--broken mosaics were still inside


A bit frightening is that the Ministry of Culture has plans to develop Livissi--they want to put up a 300 bed 'accomodation facility' and have sold the rights (remember this is a national treasure--one wonders about the word 'sold') for restoration to the same company that wants to build the accomodation facility. One only need look outside my window at the rampant, unchecked and ugly development to get an idea of what the Ministry of Culture has in mind.

The next day, we started our hike proper. We walked out of the Sultan Motel and up the hill toward the Montana Hotel. There we found the absurdly misplaced gate for the start of the Lycian Way--if we had passed under it we would have ended up in a bunch of bushes. The real road starts from the right and follows a dirt road, past some new villas being constructed and then up a narrow rocky path into the mountains, hugging a ledge that overlooks the Ölüdeniz and the deep turquoise blue of the Mediterrannean Sea. Spring flowers were everywhere, white daisies and bright red poppies and little purple and yellow wildflowers. You wind on and on, up and around the cliffs with breathtaking views of the water below.

Once we'd rounded the cliffs, we ran into a chubby woman tending a heard of baby and adolescent goats. The woman's name was Enzel, and she let me hold one of the littlest ones, just five days old. We asked her if she had any goat's milk ayran for sale--she said not for sale, but if we wanted we could follow the path to her village and stop by her house. She'd be happy to pour us a cup. It had never occurred to her, apparently, to sell goat's milk anything to tourists. We started toward her village--our destination anyway--stopping here and there for pictures, while she, after feeding her animals and doing who-knows-what chores, easily caught up with us, passed us, and told us to meet her on the last house to the right as we left the village. Done.

The road leading into the village of Kozağaç (Walnut Tree)

My wife wanted me to make sure that when I wrote this entry, I urged people to talk to the villagers they meet. Most don't speak English (take the time to learn a little small talk in Turkish--how are you, what's your name--it goes a long way) but they are friendly, curious, and as Delal says--it seems a shame to plunge into the heart of this country and not know anything about the people who live there. The last bit of road to Kozağaç winds past some villas that have never left the construction stage--we found a family of sheep occupying one rather choice house. The pine woods have dramatic views of Mt. Baba however and everywhere we looked we seemed to see turtles and butterflies.

Kozağaç Village
Enzel had three daughters and a son all playing on a hammock when we arrived--swinging it dangerously over a ledge that dropped off the back porch. One of her daughters Buşra, abandoned the game as too 'dangerous' and came to listen to us talk to her mother. 'Don't you want to have fun!?' one of her sisters called as she swung her brother spinning and squealing into the sky. Buşra turned up her nose, 'Having fun is stupid.' The little girl explained how they had built sleds out of giant jugs and used them to slide down a hill covered with pine needles. Her mother Enzel brought us out two cold glasses of goat-milk ayran and she told us about the seasons in Kozağaç--how the little spot in front of her house turned into a pond during the rains and about the tourists who started coming fifteen years ago. There are some houses in the village with signs out--serving food, mostly gözleme, and either tea or soda. People have gotten use to all the foreigners hiking through.

Here is me standing in front of Mt. Baba. People paraglide off its peak and the parachutes passed over us as we walked

We bid Enzel good bye--paying her a bit for the ayran and continued walking around the sheer western face of Mt. Baba. The road passed pretty little fields filled with yellow flowers until it finally hit the village of Kirme--a nondescript little place with a fountain swarming with bees. Here is where we made one of our first mistakes.

A field outside of Kirme
A word of advice--if you don't see the red and white blazes after a few minutes--you're going the wrong way! We passsed a small wooden hut, described in the guidebook, and then saw a red and yellow blaze on a tree leading into the forest. This being notoriously inconsistent Turkey, we figured somebody had run out of white paint and started using yellow, and so we followed the red and yellow marks down a dry stream bed and up a steep mountain slope. The terrain was interesting--the pine trees here dripped sap everywhere. The leaves of all the other plants glistened with drops of it. The tree trunks, the ground, the boulders were all pitch black with pine-sap. It looked like the forest had been burnt. The green of the spring leaves positively glowed against the black. Little purple flowers popped up everywhere and there was a tree with a bright orangeish red trunk.
The green against the black sap covered forest
We climbed a series of boulders and then rested by a gigantic outcropping of rock. I fell asleep, utterly exhausted. When I awoke up, the day was cooler. It was starting to get dark, and we realized we'd been sleeping by a rock filled with Lycian tombs. Enchantment? Rip Van Winkle spells? We kept climbing strangely enough, at least another thirty minutes, until something just finally felt wrong. There were caves and more tombs, none of which was mentioned in the book, and the trail was winding in the opposite direction toward the peak of Mt. Baba!
Purple wildflowers with red tree trunk in the background
We retraced our steps--all the way back down to the last red and white blaze we had seen. Despite what I said about being off the path when you don't see one of the signs, this is one place that's not true--not a mark in sight! After the wooden building you continue on the main road. It will curve right then left. There are no markings here at all either--but a smaller road will veer off to the right through a gate and down a shaded little path along a stone wall. You should go through the gate and follow the wall past little gardens and fields. You will finally see a red and white blaze after walking several minutes on this road. Later we found out that the red and yellow blazes are for a completely separate trail that winds over the mountain peaks.

Our hotel room at George's Pension in Faralya
Our final destination for the night was the village of Faralya which sits on the cliff above the famous Butterfly Valley (despite everyone saying how dangerous this climb was, most hikers we met had done it and said it was their favorite part of their trip). The grocery was closed when we arrived around 6. There are no ATMs here--nor anywhere along this trail so make sure you have cash. We stayed at George's Pension for 60 lira a person. (It's only 50 if you're willing to share a bathroom and shower). This included dinner and breakfast.  An old man sitting at a cafe assured us George's was the cheapest but I'm not sure--Gül Pension up the trail and Melisa Pension might have been cheaper. But George's commands a fantastic view over the Med and Butterfly Valley and was clean, so it did us just fine. This days hike with lots of resting took us 8 hours--but that was with our more than one hour detour and nap down the wrong trail.

The forest up from Faralya

The hike the next day took us only four hours and was easily one of the more beautiful parts of the trail. It stayed mostly in the forest, away from the villas and construction of the day before and wound through pretty fields and pastures and around a cliff overlooking the sea. I saw a snake once sunning on a rock--a gigantic greenish brown fellow, but he ran from me.

No marks here--go left! This is about an hour before Kabak
One odd thing about the forest is that it's literally humming with bees--our first two days were spent walking amidst a constant buzzing. The other constant is the bleating of goats--this animals are everwhere, staring blankly at you as you walk through their grazing land. We reached another fork in the road this day where no red and white blazes told us where to go. In the picture above you can see it. You're supposed to go left.
Another strange thing we saw in the pines were these balls of what looked like spider webs filled with pine pollen. But on closer inspection, the pine pollen were dozens of catepillars and the webs were silk-like nests. These are pine processionary catepillars-cleverly adapted ravagers of pine trees. Their hairs will sting and irritate the skin so don't touch!
Pine Processionary Catepillars (thanks Catherine Yiğit!) or çam kese böcekler. They hurt the pines and their hairs cause severe irritation--DONT TOUCH!

At some point, the trail abruptly leaves the main road and plunges into the woods to your left. There are little cairns of rocks to warn you of the entrance and of course, a red and white blaze at ground level. Be careful, it's easy to miss. From here, you wind down into Kabak, which, out of season has no ATMs or credit card machines so BRING GASH. From the main town you have to hike down to the beach and the pensions there. We stayed in the Natural Life Pension--one of the few open in April. It was 50TL a person for breakfast, dinner, and a room in a cabin with a great view of both mountains and sea. The food was amazing--I think they had a real chef preparing everything. The roast chicken was juicy and tender--normally I don't rave about chicken but the cook had a magic touch.

Our cabin at the Natural Life Pension

Kabak is a secluded cove accessible only by the long hike from the top of the cliffs. The water is turquoise blue and was maybe 16 degrees (about 62) when we were there--very swimmable. Behind the cove are stunning, precipitous cliffs of red, maroon and orange rock. The Natural Life had swings and hammocks and lots of sneaky cats. The people running it were unobtrusively helpful--they let us use their internet and gave us some nice tips along the next stage of the trail.

The cove on Kabak's beach

The mountain and sky behind our cabin

The trail normally runs up the beach and then winds straight up the cliff, but the guys at Natural Life recommended a short cut that leads up to a waterfall. We zigzagged up a dry stream bed. We heard the waterfall but never found it--and kept winding back and forth up the 800 meter cliffs. The views were breathtaking. At one point the path passes into a gorge and then continues up and even steeper cliff face.

The entrance to a gorge-Delikkaya

View along the path to Alınca Village

Be warned. This trail is hard--it goes up and up and up and then up some more. We climbed straight up for nearly four hours. The views are utterly out of this world, but once you arrive in Alınca it's time for a break. We stopped at Bayram's house for two plates of menemen, salad, rice and ayran (the woman charged us 25TL). There was a farmer at the entrance to the village who invited us in for tea--we probably should have gone with him instead in terms of price. There are several pensions in Alınca. The Dervish Pension is run by friends of the Natural Life guys. You might want to have them call ahead or at least give you the number because people were out when we arrived, but the Dervish has a fantastic wooden deck that overlooks the dizzing view down to the sea.

We decided to hike to the village of Gey, another four hours away. The owner of Bayram's told us to take the main asphalt road instead of the trail as the main trail might be too dangerous if it rained. The road would connect back up with the Lycian way a mile or so down. On the way out of Alınca I saw a phenomenon I had only ever read about in dry science text books. The moist hot air from the sea was rising hard up the cliff face until it met the cold air in the mountains where it instantly turned into rain clouds. We stood and watched rain clouds form out of thin air for about ten minutes.

The formation of rain clouds outside of Alınca
We had to walk a while before we caught up with the Lycian Way again--we stopped at house and asked a man sitting on the porch if we were on the right path. He didn't answer us right away, but came walking out, introduced himself as Yusuf and asked our names. 'Ah yes,' he said, 'This is the season for the Lycian Way.' The pleasantries seemed important. Then he explained that if we cut across the fields to the ruins of the Ottoman sarnıç, we'd see a sign connecting us to the trail. Which is what we did--crossing fields filled with tall grass and daisies until we hit the main path again, winding up and up and up. My legs were starting to shake from exhaustion and we had at least 3 km to go.

The old Ottoman cistern

On this last, exhausting leg of our journey, we passed through a field of rock and shrubs where a flock of goats were slowly grazing their way down a steep rock wall. The shepherd boy, fifteen, crouched in a makeshift plastic tent from the wind. Badly needing a rest, we stopped and chatted with him. The boy had reddish hair and pale, freckled cheeks and carried a smart phone. He was lonely--all of his friends and anyone near his age had moved or gone to the military service. He was the only young person left. He couldn't wait for tourist season to start--he was going to leave home and go to Antalya to work in one of the big tourist hotels. Life with these goats was hell. Delal told him how we had been talking about the utter freedom of a shepherd--a kind of freedom you could never know in the city. Alone in the mountains, amongst the quiet and the vast open spaces, away from the 9-5 jobs and bills and crowds. 'That sounds wonderful to me!' the shepherd said. Delal was not just idly fantasizing--she's done her share of shepherding in Conag in the summers as a girl. But still what would it be like to be a fifteen year old boy, all alone in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere. You would feel like life was what happened everywhere else. Here there was only the ever unchanging cliffs and goats. Strangely his family didn't sell the meat or milk of the goats. 'They only make enough milk for the young,' he said. 'We sell them for bayram, for sacrifices.' 'You raise them all year just to sell at Bayram?' The boy shrugged, 'And we use them for ourselves.'

Dinner at Bayram's in Gey Village
The last leg of our journey took us finally into Gey--a village sitting on the last of a series of seven capes along the Mediterranean coast. In the Kate Clow guide book, it says the village is mostly Alevi, but the young woman who man's Bayram's pension laughs that off. 'Kate made a mistake;' she says. 'She met one crazy old man who told her he is Alevi, so now everyone here is always asking me if I am Alevi!' She rolls her eyes. 'Me and most everyone here were nomads (yörük). And the name of the village is not Gey, it's Yediburun, the Seven Capes. Apparently when she first came here, Kate asked this old man the name of the village. He said 'Ge?' which in our accent basically means 'HUH?' She thought Ge was the name and, knowing standard Turkish, tacked on a 'y' which she just knew just had to be there for it to make sense. But it's all a mistake! Now everyone knows us as 'Gey!'
'Gey' village has a shop to replenish supplies and in addition to Bayram's Pension, several places to camp. Bayram's is a regular little hostel--with several rooms off a main hall complete with bar and kitchen. There are no heaters--just be warned--so the nights in April can get very cold. But there are plenty of blankets and hot common showers. It was 50TL a person per night--including a fantastic dinner of fresh everything and breakfast.
At around 5:00 am, when the ezan sounded from the little mosque just up the road, all the dogs started howling and at least one rooster took up the call as well. One after the other joining the muezzin's call.
Our hostess told us how odd it had been when trekkers first started appearing. Villagers did not know what to make of the foreigners and their backpacks and tents. They figured they were treasure hunters from Europe.
'But now we're used to them!' she says. 'They've helped bring the economy of this village back to life!' 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Conag at Election Time With A Side Trip to Harput

A flowering almond (?) tree in Harput



Restored House in Harput--The Şefik Gül Kültür Evi

                A lifetime of Social Studies lessons with my old history teacher Mrs. Gibble could not teach me as much as just one week of living in Turkey. I’d intended this rather naively to be a simple travelogue of my recent travels to Harput, an ancient city outside Elazığ, and then on to Delal’s village of Conag for the elections, but one cannot avoid some sort of tragedy or atrocity or the memory thereof once you go East. So I apologize ahead of time—for all the heavy stuff to follow.

It’s been a whirlwind week—last Wednesday, Delal’s phone started getting a storm of messages at around 3:30 in the morning. 37 people in the KCK trial her father, Kemal Seven, is enmired in were released! We were quick to learn that her father was not one of them, but rather one of the 34 the court deemed likely to ‘run way’ if they were let out. There was no explanation for why it happened. Apparently the lucky ones were simply approached by the guards, told they would be let out that day “and very soon at that, so get your stuff packed.” They were kicked out (don’t let the door hit you as you go out) into the pouring rain with no reporters, no supporters, and more importantly, no car waiting for them to carry them from the prison’s remote location in Silivri’s farmland to home or at least to Istanbul—over an hour’s drive away—or anywhere not dark and wet and cold. After some phone calls begged from the guard at the gate, they arranged a ride and showed up on their families’ doorstep just as they had been taken away—in the middle of the night and unannounced. And why? Who knows? This is Erdoğan and Fethullah’s (increasingly  more Erdoğan’s) Turkey and like Cartman or that nasty little toddler in the Tylenol commercial, they can do whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want.  And they’ll cover their asses with news blackouts, misinformation, finger pointing (they’re too dangerous to let go) like they have for centuries.

                Local elections were also this week—when all of Turkey would be selecting its mayors, governors, city council members and village headmen (muhtar). It was considered a vote of confidence on the increasingly authoritarian AKP government and saw a record campaign effort, a record turn out, and a record level of tension. This was after Gezi, after the mob attacks on the Kurdish affiliated HDP party, after the corruption scandals and mass arrests and mass releases of convicted murderers. So Delal and I went to the village, where she is registered, so that she could vote. Because of work, I couldn’t leave on the same day as her, so I flew out on Friday and spent a day wandering around the old city of Harput before catching a bus to Conag.

The famed Urartu fortress of Harput
The lampposts of Harput--in front of an abandoned house
Harput was a nice breather—it’s a centuries, if not millenia-old town on top of a hill just outside the newer concrete city of Elazığ. It commands a sweeping view of the lake ofthe  Keban Dam and the snow-peaked mountains to the East and North—where Dersim lies. The town is like a nostalgiac illusion from a photograph taken centuries ago, with traditional stone houses, a thousand year old mosque, tombs of Muslim saints, flowering almond and apple trees and huge sycamores centuries old. The Great Mosque is a graceful little building from a different age, with a leaning minaret and a courtyard open to the sky—totally unlike any mosque I have ever seen, with no minbar and a design not focused on the kible. It’s surrounded by pink-flowering almond trees and on the East side has a gigantic sycamore erupting through the cement—it’s trunk split in two and bent, like two elbows, as if the tree itself were performing the namaz.

An old sycamore that I thought looked like an elephant (the right one)

A flowering almond in front of an old Harput house
The praying sycamore at the Ulu Camii (Great Mosque)
Across the square from the mosque, commanding a view of Elazığ on the plains below are the dramatic ruins of what was once an Urartu Fortress, dating back some 3000 years ago. You can still wander around its battlements and if you are willing to climb over a gate—as some teenagers and I did, you can plunge down a flight of stairs cut into the rock and explore the pitch black dungeons below.  

The leaning minaret of the Ulu Camii (Great Mosque)
 Harput also is the site of the Syriac Church of Ancient Mary (Kadim Meryem Kilisesi) which sits on a cliff just below the fortress. The church is a rock-walled cube completely sealed off from the world with only a few irregularly shaped windows placed high in the North wall. I climbed all over it and even skirted the walls that overlook a rocky ravine, but I could find no entrance. Upon reading some of Pat Yale’s articles, I found out it had been sealed up for a while now. According to the church’s Facebook site, it dates back to 179 AD—and is thus one of the oldest Christian churches in the world. In fact, a quick, unacademic seach on the internet turned up none older. The Santa Maria in Trestevere located in Rome is, according to Ask.com, the oldest, but it was built in 220 AD. The Duro-Europos Church in Syria is the oldest according to several websites and dates back only to 235 AD.  So if the claim of local Assyrians is true—this is easily the most ancient church in the world, and still in use on special occasions if their Facebook pictures can be believed.

The mosaic of dolphins at the church--no explanation



But I knew none of this when I was scaling the walls looking for a way in. There was a church. It was in the tour books. There had to be a way in. Two Kurdish guys joined me in my quest and, as we scrambled over rocks together (maybe there’s a door on the wall of this sheer drop) I heard them mumbling about what a shame it was that there was nothing here to explain anything—not even a historical marker. “History is always hidden here in the East,” one of them said. And it was at that point that I looked down into the ravine and and noticed the ruins of another building at the bottom. Wondering if I had somehow misunderstood and this new building was the church I was hunting for, I started down the goat paths to explore. I have a picture from the bottom of the ravine showing a collapsed wall and a vast slope of stone and bramble. When I Googled a picture of ancient Harput I turned up a photograph that showed this same slope, only crowded with buildings. The church and the ruins I had hiked to were all that was left of the old Christian Quarter of Harput—called Kharpert by the Armenians.
The view up the now empty hill toward the church and fortress

I got a shiver when I saw the picture. It reminded me that Harput had been at the center of the Armenian (and Syriac) Genocide every bit as much as Auschwitz had been part of the Jewish one. Many of the pictures of the famous photographer of the Genocide, Armin Wegner, are from Harput. I won’t reprint them here—it takes a strong constitution to look at them, but here and here is a link. On the very stones I had scrambled over starving Armenian children had laid down to die.

Subsequent research made me rather unsure about the church—after history was so thoroughly obliterated in 1915 (and then again so many times it’s hard to count, 1938 and then from the 80s onward there was another memory black out as the government waged its war against the PKK) the real story of the church could easily have gotten lost in the chaos. I found this picture on a sight of old Harput photographs showing the church of Church of Surp Asdvadzadzin (the Holy Mother of God)in the Assyrian district of Kharpert (Harput). But another website detailing the travels of some descendants of Armenian survivors of the Harput massacres say this name belonged to a huge monastery and that it has been reduced to rubble, but that the churches of St. Paul and St. Peter were still standing but used for storage by the municipality. Or this young Armenian woman who visited Harput--one of the comments says the church was Armenian and bought by the Assyrians.

As usual—there is no straightforward reliable historical account as no one is really interested in letting all those skeletons out of the closet. And so, as in Conag itself, there is all this unexplained past, deliberately erased and forcibly expunged from memory.

Edwin Bliss wrote a book called Turkey and the Armenian Atrocities that describe the sack Harput. A mob of Kurdish bandits appear from the North and East to attack the city—which the Ottoman government claims, of course, to have absolutely no control over. They are spontaneously enraged locals who are taking the law into their own hands due to rumors of Armenian insurrection. One eye witness says the approaching Kurds seemed to be ‘bent on destroying every last building.’ (Is that why this hill along the ravine has been completely denuded?) The eye-witness goes on to say

“The next morning after the attack, the Turkish military commander advised and urged leaving the college building, saying: ‘I can’t protect you here.’ Mr. Barnum (an American doctor) replied: ‘ The time has come for plain talk. I saw you standing on the hill there yesterday when our houses were plundered and burned, and you did nothing to prevent it.’ He also speaks of the ‘redifs’ who were Turkish soldiers disguised as Kurds. In other words, official members of the military pretending to be enraged members of a mob.
Elazığ (once called Mezire) on the planes below

The view of the Keban Dam Lake from the Fortress
There is a great continuity in all this—how is the mentality actually changed since the destruction of Harput in 1915? How many Kurdish villagers have I met or read about who tell about Turkish soldiers visiting them during the day and then returning to sack the village at night, but this time dressed as PKK guerillas? Or how about the undercover cops we’ve seen dressed as protesters who either lead or set off violence?
When I think of the Kurds now in prison—being released bit by bit but nevertheless being tried for made-up crimes by a government that in the press pretends to be defending them (like the soldier in Harput pretending to defend Dr. Barnum or the Government in Istanbul denouncing the very atrocities it was instigating with secret telegrams). It outwardly pushes for a peace process by word but not by deed, and this after decades upon decades of secret assassinations, mass graves ,burned villages and forced exile all under the justification of cleaning up ‘baby-killers and terrorists bent on splitting an independent homeland from the Turkish motherland’. I think of the Armenians in the early 20th century who were accused of terrorism for petitioning the government for the right to testify against a Muslim in court. In Kiğı, for instance, ağas could use all sorts of duplicity to steal land (both Kurdish and Armenian) and the Armenian could not sue--if they tried, they were labeled 'instigators of insurrection.' The eye witness I cited above spends the first few paragraphs of his account begging the reader to understand that the Armenians of Harput were not rebellious, were not terrorists, were not revolting against the goverment, because those same excuses were being used to burn their villages and drive them into exile and justify mass execution.
Or consider the ‘spontaneous’ mob attacks on all the buildings these past few weeks of the Kurdish affiliated HDP Party (or the ‘spontaneous mobs’ that drove out the Greeks in 1955) and all the rumors that the government orchestrated the whole thing—I think again of those soldiers who had orchestrated the Armenian massacres and pretended to be helpless against them. And all of these atrocities are covered up at the government’s command using the official news media (which I think now everyone understands is completely untrustworthy) the official government reports (ditto) and finger pointing. They were actually attacking us, you see? Poor us. The Dersimlis are savages. The Greeks are trying to overthrow the government. The Kurds are trying to split the motherland. The Armenians were trying to destroy the Empire. And anyone, like me, who doesn’t agree or at least wants to look at it more complexly and honestly is a foreigner who simply can’t understand the truth, or is lying, or is a propagandist for the enemy or trying to divide Turkey.

So on to Conag.

I woke up early to catch the first dolmuş from Elazığ to Karakoçan and from there, to Conag. On a whim, as I rode out I scribbled down the names of the roadside villages to look up later. My whim turns out to be prescient. In another passage from Bliss’s book, he quotes the same eye-witness:

We were surrounded for a week or ten days by a cordon of burning villages on the plain. Gradually the cordon of fire and fiendish savages drew nearer the city. The attack in the city was planned for Sunday.’

As I traveled by minibus toward Karakoçan on the Elazığ, Bingöl road I passed by several villages on the roadside that had all once been Armenian. Were these then that ‘cordon of burning villages’? Along the edge of the lake you pass Yukarıbağ with its little rest stop and market, once the village of Şeyhhacı with a population of over 600 Armenians and 258 Turks.  After the bridge over the dam lake you pass Muratbağ, once Gülişger.  There’s also Elmapınarı (once Verin Ağntsig), Güntaşı (once Köğvenk) and İçme, of which Bliss writes ‘Survivors are considered Moslems. Males are assembled in church, led out, and made to choose Islam or death. Protestant pastor killed. ‘ A picture of the church and congregation of the now long dead and gone İçme Armenians can be found here. These villages all little clusters of concrete houses and nondescript fields against the background of the lake. These were the villages whose fiery destruction lit the planes and splled the doom for the Armenians in Harput.
Election flags for the BDP against the snowy Mt. Taru (Mt. Silbus is lost in the mist)

I had never been to Conag outside of the summer and so I was thrilled to see these mountains in the Spring. In Karakoçan, I was picked up by the village driver, Şerafettin Abi, and as we pulled out of Karakoçan and started winding up into the mountains along the Peri River, I caught a vision of the famed Mount Silbus covered in snow.  The rocky canyons and ravines which in the summer were all earthy browns were now covered in green lichens and moss. Most of the trees, however, still had no leaves and so the usual splash of green from the poplars and pines and mulberries was absent—it was all wet earth colors, clay reds and deep maroons and orange-browns.

                Dede’s house was cold and we kept it heated with a wood stove. On the morning of the election we woke up to a blizzard. The winds howled down off of the mountains so loud that it sounded like a train barrelling down on us, and snow had piled up on the balcony outside. The valley below was invisible in the white winds. Dede and I sat around the stove during breakfast as he ran through all the local snow stories he knew.
Dede's house in the snow

                On March 15th back in the 40s (and this one I’d heard), two teachers from Trakya were busily getting the newly built village school ready for classes when an avanlanche swept down off the mountain and carried away part of the building. ‘We found one of the teachers down by the fountain below the village,’ Dede explained. ‘The other we’d given up for dead, but we went up to the school anyway and started digging in the snow. When the avalanche hit he had been writing on a paper pressed to the wall ‘March 15th, Snow Storm Hits’. And that’s exactly how we found him, nearly frozen to death with that paper still against the wall and his hand frozen to the pen! But alive!’

The hill above the spring and the wind screaming down the slope
                Or the story of the ‘Caravan Breaker’ (Kevrankıran in Dede’s words, though it probably should be Kervankıran) which is what he says the old ones called the Milky Way. ‘You see,’ he explained, ‘In the winter, the caravans would start off at the light of the morning star (Venus) because they knew that dawn was coming, but one night, they woke up to a great light in the sky, and thinking it the sign of morning, they set out. But morning was still far off and the caravan was caught in a terrible snow storm and utterly destroyed. The light in the sky was the Milky Way. They had mistaken it for the morning star.’

The snow off the balcony
                And he ended with the story of Aunt Suzan who came back to the village for her mother’s (and Dede’s wife’s) funeral. The day before she was going to leave, a blizzard hit, and she and her entire family were stuck for two weeks in Conag. ‘There were twenty of us!’ Dede says, ‘All closed up behind the snows in this house! But those were back in the days when the house was alive. My wife had dried food everywhere—kavurma and dried vegetables and honey and dried fruits.’

The view down toward the village center

A dog by the road winding up the mountain
                He ended with this story, I think, because he was thinking the same thing might be about to happen. I watched worriedly as the snow piled up outside.

                I spent the afternoon in Yayladere (Xolxol) the town up above Conag. The voting precincts were located here. Delal was an election monitor in the Yayladere high school (boasting 20 students) which housed 7 ballot boxes. We learned alot about Yayladere. First of all, there were a little over 500 registered voters, and half of those were soldiers and police, none of whom were from the town. As a result, the military has control not only of security but of the politics. And their influence extends far. Some of the BDP election workers we talked to said many of the people said they wanted to vote for the Kurdish party (the BDP) but were afraid to. There's a 3 decade long military presence here, complete with harassment and assimilation policies, and that isn't going to go away overnight. And despite government assurances, the pressure seems to be increasing out. Security cameras (called Mobese) have been set up on the road to the village since last year—God knows why, we waved at them every time we rode by—and several new military bases (karakols) have been built in the area despite government denials.

                We saw all sorts of trickery and deception that day. There were bribes of course. One of the ballot box chairmans told everyone who came in to vote for the AKP before he was told to stop (by Delal). One woman took it upon herself to guide in all the elderly, and was caught going into the ballot box with a man from our village, pushing his hand toward the CHP box despite his repeated requests for the BDP (The CHP was the overwhelming choice of the soldiers out here). Later into the evening, after polls had closed and counting was underway in larger cities, the electricity suddenly went off in both the village and in town, and it didn’t come back on till the next day. There were power outages at ballot-counting time in 22 different provinces of Turkey that night (all blamed by the Minister of Energy on a cat in Ankara). From Bingöl we got reports of stolen ballot boxes and in the days since the election, piles of burnt ballots have been found all over the country. In Istanbul, in Bakırköy, an empty apartment was listed as having 40 registered voters. A man in Zonguldak found out that there 2 imaginary roommates living with him who had somehow voted that day. I am sure the AKP would have made a killing without all the election fixing, but there were some close races in which it probably made a difference.

                So there is the update on my life which seems to be a Social Studies lesson eternally out in the field. And as both Twitter and You Tube are banned (wait, I just found out Twitter is back up!), as more and more meddling is revealed in the recent elections, as the sneaky military influence increases back in Conag—I wonder how many more lessons I have to learn.