It says everything about Tunceli that the view from my hotel window was of the local branch of the Turkish Communist Party (TKP), and I had no sooner checked into my room than the sound of ululation in the street outside sent me racing back downstairs to find out what was going on.
Round the corner, a demonstration against domestic violence was being staged by a group of women and their male supporters. The women looked confident and assertive. There was not a headscarf in sight.
Later that afternoon, sitting on the terrace of the swish new Kahve Arası, my thoughts kept flickering back to 2000, when the police had been so determined to prevent me from exploring the town that they had ordered me off the dolmuş from Elazığ. Now, my hotel classified itself as boutique and this cheerful café might as well have been the Tunceli branch of Kahve Dünyası. Everything seemed almost disconcertingly normal.
In journalism, it's the abnormal rather than the normal that generally scoops the headlines. Only occasionally is “normal” a story in itself, but this seemed to be just such an occasion. Not so long ago, the situation in Tunceli had been so far from normal that a lone female tourist had had to be prevented from seeing it. Now, no one blinked an eye as I explored the town.
The truth remains that Tunceli's history has rarely been “normal.” Just seconds from the café, a huge new statue sits with its back determinedly turned on the panoramic mountain view. It depicts Seyit Rıza, the leader of the failed uprising that took place in 1938 when Tunceli was still Dersim and which ended with the deaths of around 13,000 people, including their leaders. It was a tragedy for which Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan issued an unprecedented apology in 2011.
Throughout the 1990s, Tunceli-Dersim was a wretched place where the government struggled to keep a lid on rebellion. Looking at the map, this had always seemed rather puzzling. Wasn't the Kurdish uprising something to do with Turkey's Southeast? But here was Tunceli, more or less slap-bang in the middle of the country, and yet it was as off-limits to outsiders as Hakkari. The answer, of course, lay in local demographics, which revealed the Tuncelilis to be not only Zaza-speaking Kurds but also largely Alevi in belief, a double-whammy in terms of grievances, which no doubt explained the lack of enthusiasm for letting outsiders visit.
As happens so often, an attempt was made to conceal the grim past behind a change of name. So Dersim became Tunceli, and it's only now that the wheel is coming full circle and the town is rapidly making the transition back to the more popular name. As I wandered around seeking in vain for even one building of historic or aesthetic value, I stumbled upon local authority workers busily attaching grainy old photographs of men in shackles to a wall. The Dersim Memorial Wall will ensure that the events of 1938 can never again be airbrushed out of history.
The question remains as to why anyone with only a passing interest in recent history would want to visit what is, frankly, a very ugly town. One good reason is that Tunceli makes the best base for exploring the historic sites on the northern shore of Lake Keban.
At Pertek, the road from Elazığ to Tunceli crosses a lake that was created by the opening of the Keban Dam in 1971. As the car ferry glides across the lake, Pertek Castle rises romantically above the water on a mound to the left. The castle dates back at least to the 16th century, although parts may have been erected in the 14th century when the local Dulkadiroğulları family was in busy building mode in nearby Harput.
The people of Pertek had already moved to higher ground in 1838, but the flooding of the lowland near the castle would have destroyed two 16th-century mosques, the Sungur Bey Cami and the Çelebi Ağa Cami. Instead, every stone was painstakingly numbered so that they could be taken apart and rebuilt in the new town, a harbinger, perhaps, for what can be expected at Hasankeyf. Today, the numbers on the wall survive as a reminder of that great human endeavor.
From Tunceli, dolmuşes track a spectacularly beautiful road through a gorge created by the Munzur River to reach the modern settlement of Ovacık, hastily thrown up on the hidden plain that spreads out amid the mountains beyond it.
From here, you can take a taxi to Munzur Gözeleri, the source of the Munzur River and a site sacred to the Alevis. Come in spring and you will be able to see people making animal sacrifices, but even at the deadest times of year you'll still find candles placed in niches in the rock to mark its importance. A ramshackle tea garden spreads out around the leafy site, a wonderful place to relax and contemplate a troubled past that seems so at odds with the beauty of the surroundings.
To the west of Tunceli, the small town of Çemişgezek is the quintessential place that time forgot clinging to the side of a spectacular gorge overlooking the Tağar River. To judge by the monuments dotted about town, its medieval past must have been considerably livelier than its present, which might best be described as sleepy.
The town's most beautiful monument is the Yelmaniye Cami that sits up on high with a lovely view of the gorge. It was probably built in c. 1400 for a local Kurdish ruler named Yelman, and it seems to have started life as a medrese attached to a mosque that has since been lost. Its most striking feature is a typically lavish Seljuk-style entrance. Sadly, it's kept locked outside prayer times.
Closer to the gorge itself, the Süleymaniye Cami dates back at least to the 16th century and features a tall minaret with a stumpy cap reminiscent of the one on the Ulu Cami in Harput. It's possible that it was built using stone taken from Çemişgezek Castle.
If you follow the path alongside the gorge, you will come to a small picnic garden overlooking caverns on its far side. Although these are signposted as dervish cells, it seems likely that they started life as the retreats of a Cappadocian-style Byzantine monastery. But whatever their history, it appears that the caves were last used as recently as 1938, when survivors of the Dersim Massacre took refuge in them.
One last sight worth seeking out lurks hidden behind a modern tea garden on the main road out of town. Follow the line of a stream and peek over the wall and you should be able to see a kümbet, one of the conical tombs so loved by the Seljuks. This one was built for a man named Uzun Hasan (Tall Hassan), who should not be confused with the more famous Uzun Hasan whose life forms an important part of the history of Hasankeyf.
You can easily get from Tunceli to Çemişgezek by road if you have your own car. If not, be warned that there are no dolmuşes from Tunceli. Instead, you will have to backtrack to Elazığ and take one of the regular dolmuşes that make use of the car ferry crossing off the Keban road. It's a pleasant short cruise followed by a journey through countryside thickly planted with vines.
WHERE TO STAY
Demir Hotel, Tunceli. Tel.: 0 (428) 212 15 51
Grand Sarıoğlu Hotel, Tunceli. Tel.: 0 (428) 212 14 24
HOW TO GET THERE
There are frequent dolmuşes from Elazığ to Tunceli and tickets include the cost of the ferry crossing. You can easily get out at Pertek to have a look round before flagging down an onward dolmuş to Tunceli.
Timetabled dolmuşes to Ovacık leave from near the statue of Seyit Rıza; make sure you check the time of the last return journey. The dolmuş drivers seem happy to continue to Munzur Gözeleri for a taxi fare.
With your own car you can make a very pleasant circuit by taking the ferry route from Elazığ to Tunceli via Pertek, then driving to Çemişgezek and returning to Elazığ by ferry, perhaps after a quick diversion to Keban to see its fine mosque.
Scenery around Ovacık
Sungur Bey Camii, Pertek