Pinar Dinc

Historically, Dersim was a region within the Ottoman borders. However, when one talks about Dersim today, that person mainly talks about the city of Tunceli, surrounded by Erzincan to the north and west, Elazığ to the south, and Bingöl to the east (Map 1).

Map 1: Location of the historical Dersim region within modern Turkish cities

Nonetheless, when one talks about Dersim today, we are mainly thinking of the city of Tunceli (Maps 1&2). In this article, Dersim is used interchangeably to refer to either the larger geographical space or the modern city of Tunceli.

Map 2: Districts of the modern city of Tunceli

Map 2: Districts of the modern city of Tunceli

Authentically, Dersim is a region where Turkish, Kurdish, and Dersimce speaking Alevis live (See Map 3). Due to this heterogeneous character and autonomous space, Dersim had been regarded as a zone of conflict by central authorities, may it be the Ottoman Empire or the modern Turkish Republic. On the other hand, Dersim was considered a ‘magnet’ for the Alevis (beginning from the 16th century) as well as the Armenians (especially in the 19th century), who had problematic relationships with central authorities. From those early years until 1935, Dersim survived, more or less, as a partly autonomous, closed region.

With the introduction of the Law of Tunceli in 1935, parts of the larger Dersim region were separated and joined to neighboring cities. The remainder of the larger Dersim area was reorganised as a new city, now called Tunceli. With this, Tunceli lost its reputation as a safe and distant space for the ‘others’ and with its centuries long ‘autonomy’. Throughout 1936, the central Turkish state made efforts to build roads, bridges, schools, post stations, and military barracks and police stations under the banners of ‘modernization’ and ‘civilization’. With military operations in 1937 and ethnic cleansing in 1938, Dersim lost almost one third of its population, another third of the population were subject to forced deportation. With state archives closed, the official number of deaths and deportation in and aftermath of Dersim 1837–38 are still uncertain. Dersim was a ‘forbidden zone’ until the 1947 amnesty.

Arguably, Dersim’s geography had a key role for such a long period of autonomy. It is a mountainous region with numerous bodies of water, valleys, and grottos. This had several consequences; first, Dersim was a distant land where heterodox groups could live rather in autonomy. Second, it meant that Dersim was not an agriculture-friendly area and could not have a self-contained economy. Third, and related to the previous reason, Dersim’s economy was ‘plunder-economy’ and Dersimis were known as ‘bandits,’ which later became a prejudice against Dersimis for the modernising Turkish state. Fourth, despite several attacks to ‘solve’ the Dersim ‘problem’, due to its geography, Dersim remained unconquered by military forces that were not familiar with the region. Finally, Dersim’s geography allowed many Dersimis to escape and hide in the grottos during the 1938 ethnic cleansing and later from the 1970s onwards for guerilla activity of the leftist and Kurdish organisations.

Today, Dersim is the leading city in Turkey in education-related rankings, including literacy and education levels as well as in statistics regarding social life (Table 1). Despite being known as ‘a city of enlightened people facing towards the West’, Dersim is a city with the highest rates of emigration not only to other parts of Turkey but also to many cities in Europe. For a very long time, Dersim has been one of the two cities with the biggest emigration ratios, and more recent data shows that it is the least populated city in Turkey. Dersim’s overall population sits at around 86,000 with a density of 11/km2.

Subject Tunceli/Dersim Rank
Least Adolescence Birth Rate (2014) 1
Gender Equality Index (2014) 2
Education Index (2016) 1

Table 1:  Some of the educational and gender equality indexes and Dersim’s ranks within 81 cities in Turkey

Dersim usually becomes more crowded during summers, when thousands of Dersimis from other regions of Turkey as well as Europe return to spend their vacations. The diaspora community is also known to support the local economy. According to estimations by the FDG, there are approximately 200,000 Dersimis living in various parts of Europe, especially in Germany. Meanwhile, around 250,000 Dersimis are believed to be living in different parts of Turkey, and 85,159 live in Istanbul as reported by the 2013 population statistics. As could be shown, the number of Dersimis living elsewhere significantly exceeds Dersim’s population.

Nevertheless, Dersim still cannot be pointed out as a peaceful province. In the 1970s, Dersimis largely supported Marxist movements, and not only ideologically. Dersim has been a key area for guerilla activity. Due to various religious, ethnic, and political conflicts with central authorities, especially with the arrival of the PKK to the region in the 1990s, Dersim had become a war zone. As the peace process with the Kurds halte in  the summer of 2015, Dersim is once again a region where military forces want to keep control and guerillas of various groups fight back. Consequently, Dersim’s social life and demography is severely affected. Dersim’s trauma and political turmoil is as lively as ever and it does not seem likely to come to an end in the near future.

PinarKenanogluPinar Dinc is a PhD candidate at the Department of Government, LSE, under Dr Bill Kissane’s supervision. Her research focuses on the competition over collective memory and identity in contentious politics, by looking at the case of Dersim. This research aims to explain the causes and outcomes of this competition by outlining the mechanisms of the interplay of macro, meso, and micro dynamics.

The title of this piece comes from a news article published in Tan Newspaper on 15 June 1937. This article simply claims that Dersim, as a backward region, is aimed to be modernised by the state, and that it would become a skiing centre in Turkey.

Dersim Region: The Switzerland of Turkey?