The Holy Light—Mt. Silbüs
If the natural world holds any interest for you. If you’re the type to literally stop breathing when you see the full red moon clear the horizon, or when you drive over a hill to find yourself looking over an empty canyon, or if you kind of get a high from a field of wild flowers, or from the sight of a turquoise blue river snaking far far down a mountainside through a sand colored valley—then there is no better place than Conag’s little spot on the border of Bingöl, Tunceli, and Elazığ provinces.
But what if nature is your arch enemy?
You see, I am working on developing a new stereotype. It may even advance to the level of prejudice one day. In any case, I would like to present it here so that others may share in my bigoted beliefs. Won’t that be nice?
People in Turkey hate and fear the natural world.
Never mind the government’s decision to dam all the rivers and turn over Turkey’s national parks to ‘entrepreneural initiatives’—that’s just good old fashioned greed. I’m talking about the fear of outside air for one. This is why so many people keep their houses shut up tightly even in the summer. Why, when its over 90 degrees outside, your service bus driver and his Turkey born passengers will not open a window.
As a corollary, they fear wind and breezes—those stalwarts of poetry the world over that most cultures describe with pleasant adjectives like ‘cool’, ‘warm’, ‘gentle’, ‘refreshing’, are here agents of Satan blamed for all sorts of illnesses from hernias to the flu.
And swimming in natural fresh water is deadly. It pulls you under and drowns you. When we went swimming at the Özlüce dam I had a very difficult time understanding what all the panic was about. ‘Please don’t swim!’ our host’s mother begged. ‘Please don’t even touch the lake! Fresh water pulls you!’ Tatlı su insani çekecek. Pulls me? Like on a ski rope? That sounds fun! But then I use my trusty language skills and figure out from context that she means ‘sucks you under.’ I suppose that when you compare it to the buoyancy of the salty Mediterranean or Aegean, it might feel like being pulled to someone who didn’t know any better.
Also, in the summer you can’t go outside because of the deadly African ticks. The media floods the airwaves with warnings, and Istanbul friends won’t even go in grassy parks for fear of them. This year bears were added to the mix. There was a bear attack in the East and now everyone’s on the look out for roaming packs of killer bears. Articles appear in the papers. Are we safe? Can we coexist? What must be done? As if the whole nation were on the verge of invasion by armies of grizzlies.
And so when we decide to climb the majestic Mt. Silbüs, we are met with the same dismayed response by almost everyone. ‘Oh, you can’t! It’s too hard, and very dangerous.’
The drive to Mt. Silbüs was a hair raiser, I’ll give them that. After the town of Xolxol, the road turns straight up and changes quickly from pavement to sand with bits of it washed away down the cliffs on either side. At one point, our trusty little Chevy already in first gear, starts to slide backwards down the mountain and it takes a few tries before she is able to clear the hill. The road is barely wide enough to accomodate us. If something happens, there’s no turning around, no getting out of the driver’s side even.
‘In the old days,’ says Delal. ‘You had to park down hill and walk for about twenty minutes, but the road is decent now.’
|Flowers of Silbüs|
By some miracle, we arrive at the base of the mountain. From Conag, Silbüs looks like a smoothe rounded hill, but from here, it’s gigantic—three successive peaks towering ever higher into the turquoise sky. We are nearly above the tree line. Everywhere is desert brush and alpine flowers, splashes of bright pink, white, purple and yellow scattered among the rocks. The patches of purple are so profuse it looks like lavender cloud shadows have frozen as they race cover the rock. The real cloud shadows pass quickly, darkening the tones to dark violet. Along the road, century plants stand like centinels, as tall as men. The sky is pristine. Across a small valley filled with bright green lichens is Taru, Silbüs’s mountain mate, a fortress of red rock and stone jutting up out of the earth, and behind Taru, a rolling stretch of smaller hills and canyons as far as the eye can see. Which is far—almost fifty miles even on a hazy summer day like this.
We breakfast at a picnic table overlooking Taru, and as we dig into our olives and cheese, Şerafettin’s minivan pulls in behind us. A troop from the village has come—more than should safely be jammed into a bus. A goat steps out of the back, destined to become a pot of Shepherd’s Stew by the early afternoon. Silbüs, like the shrine of Nur Dede, is a sacred place where sacrificing an animal and distributing the meat to others can win you merit. It is so sacred that it is the solemnist swear one can make.
Serê Silbûse wî! ‘By the Peak Mt. Silbüs!’
I hinted at the story before, but the full legend goes like this.
In the old days, there was a shepherd boy named Siibüs. He grazed his animals on these slopes and back then, the land was a paradise of fresh springs and green meadows. A girl from a neighboring village fell in love with him. Her name was Star. They met together on the mountain slopes and eventually decided to marry. But there was a very unhappy witch who saw them from her hut and decided that if she herself were miserable, then everyone around her would be miserable as well. She spread rumors about the couple, (in this culture—what people say about you is paramount) and the girl’s family locked her away and forbade her to see Silbüs. Silbüs was devastated. He wandered the slopes in his grief and finally, lost to despair, lay down weeping in some rocks near the mountain peak and died. Star finally managed to elude her family and ran up the mountain to meet her lover only to find his dead body among the stones. She fell down weeping and died herself from sorrow. The witch, unwilling to let them be together even in death, transformed herself into a thicket of briars that grows to this day between their unmarked graves. In the spring, the two lovers’ ghosts struggle to be together, and their fight against the witch’s magic results in great black storms that engulf the peak.
But then, this is just one version. The mountain harbors layers upon layers of different stories.
In the version I first heard, the two mountains of Silbüs and Taru were the two lovers and the valley between them where the witch transformed herself into a bramble.
It was also apparently a mountain sacred to the Armenians who once lived at its feet. The name Silbüs is probably a Turkification of Surp Luys (Holy Light). Some say the boy and girl in question were Kurdish and Armenian and that Silbüs means light in Armenian (a la Lucifer) while Taru meant ‘dark’ in Kurdish. So it was a myth for day and night, and for the folly of fighting between two peoples or religion. In other stories, the two mountains are brothers. Silbüs goes off to stop an invasion but his brother Taru doesn’t join him. Silbüs curses his brother, who becomes a mountain of rough and sharp stone with no smoothe meadows.
The Alevi Kurds come here now when they want a blessing. They sacrifice an animal at the summit or else go behind the spring that gushes ice cold water to find a boulder blackened with soot. There they light a candle and pray—for themselves or a loved one, especially for women who can’t conceive, people wanting to meet a mate, or people separated from their lovers. This is the mountain of the Kurdish Romeo and Juliet after all. Some say its the mountain of St. Hizir, a kind of trickster saint beloved by the Alevis and Muslims alike—he’s the saint of misfits. He helps the poor and down-trodden and gallops to the aid of anyone truly in need on a magnificent white horse.
We get in line to light our candles, but the wind keeps snuffing them out. I finally manage to get three burning behind a small crack in the stone and say a quick prayer for my family back in the states.
There’s a lot of action going on. The villagers are setting up the barbecue grills, the goat is being led down to an outcropping below the picnic table, and we (Delal,Zelal, and I) decide to make our climb.
It takes only two hours from start to finish, and though there are points where the slope is steep and the air is thin (burning the back of the throad), it’s a relatively easy climb, but just absolutely awe-inspiring. Christ, I am running out of words to describe nature here. The last of the three peaks is up a field of red stones that people have piled into cairns. The sight of these standing stones is eerie. They are scattered with bright purple and lemon yellow flowers that Zelal picks—she says that when they are dried they give off a perfume that lasts for years. Dede still has a bunch in his house picked decades ago. Delal is far ahead of us snapping pictures, her purple scarf flying out from her neck and snapping in the wind. It looks dramatic against the deep blue. Kites (the bird) soar in the air above us, riding the fierce air currents that whip up over the blade of the ridge.
When we reach the peak we find boulders covered by hundreds of lady bugs—some orange and some yellow. A stone wall surrounds another black rock filled with tiny multi-colored candles. We light the ones we’ve brought and look out at the expanse of canyon and mountain, rivers and lakes—it stretches far toward the edge of sky where it desolves in a whitish mist of sunlight and distance. The wind is howling over the rocks, jumping past us and plunging into the void with a pained whistle. We can make out the Peri River and the castle of Xolxol far below. We can see the province of Dersim and the old Armenian village of Herdif amid a green wood. Towers of thunderheads sail in from the north. Two hawks fly in circles next to a mountain peak far below ours and the sight of them, the realization of how high we are gives me vertigo.
‘I think I will always be the daughter of mountains,’ Delal says. ‘The sea just doesn’t call me like this.’
|Words don't even touch it|
|Some Conagians at the celebration--I just like this picture|
|More of them celebrating Conagians--one the famous Memli Dede|
When we climb down, we find the villagers ready to eat. There’s a group of women singing a Kurdish folk song, and some are dancing the halay. Watermelons float in a pool just below the spring and I am reminded of how we used to chill our watermelons in the spring water back in Florida. What follows is hours of feasting and dancing. The goat is served in huge black skillets with flat loaves of lavash bread and salad.
Before the Armenians were driven out, they would have joined in these festivities. Armenians and Kurds, according to all the stories I’ve been told, celebrated each other’s holidays here. At the spring where the water melons chill, Armenian priests used to conduct baptisms for children born on the holiday of Vartavar--the biggest celebration of the year. It dates back to pagan times perhaps, and is thus loads of fun. People throw water on each other, old and young alike, much like the Thai festival of Songkhran. They also sacrificed animals, ate lots of food, played music, and danced themselves silly right where we are doing the same things (minus the water throwing).
I try to imagine how the mountain would have looked then.
Dark. The mountain is black, the sky a spray of icy stars.
The Armenians would have prepared for days, buying new clothes, cleaning everything in sight, baking loaves and loaves of lavash. Animals would be ready for sacrifice on the mountain (and all feuds ended, to sacrifice while angry at someone was a sin)
The first hint of sunlight would gleam pink-orange over the village of Xolxol and her castle down below, the mountain ridges lined with a pale light, and the Armenian women—perhaps with Kurdish neighbors—would labor up the slope in barefeet with loads of food, their men behind them. They would reach the fountain where we now feasted—the whole sky perhaps a deep orange at this point and have breakfast. The first to reach the water had the right to throw some on the others. I can imagine squeals and shrieks as the icy water made contact. Then they set out for the summit—files of them trudging ever upward, a priest in front leading the way. Once at the top, religion and race and creed were forgotten. All worshipped together, touching their heads to the rocks and kissing the stones like people are doing even now at the black rocks above the spring.
There are caves all over the mountain slopes. They supposedly sport piles of snow all year round. In fact, as we get down to the trailhead, everyone asks, ‘Did you eat the snow?’ When we say there wasn’t any, they look at us as if we are lying. Hundreds of people can fit in these caves (though we don’t see them, many people talk about caverns being up there, somewhere among all those crags). In one of these caves, an Armenian priest would feed sacred salt to an animal—only once made holy could it be cut.
They’re all gone now, these Armenians. Or maybe not. There’s a lot of mixing here, and a lot of hidden blood. Still, this whole mountain seems haunted with ghosts and memory.After climbing it, it never quite looks the same. It is visible from every point important to a Conagian. It is a center, a compass, the great axel around which the world turns.