The Cave Churches of Göreme

About two and half million years ago in the center of what is today Turkey, Mount Erciyes erupted. The resulting layers of ash and lava formed a rock soft enough to carve out, a natural resource well exploited by the Christian community of the 4th century. These followers of St Basil of Caesarea (modern day Kayseri) took advantage of this natural resource to dig churches out of the very rocks of Cappadocia, but not just churches. Over time whole extensive communities had carved homes and workshops and refectories and stables from the soft rocks. And when enemies approached and threatened these early Christians, they responded by digging down. And down. Forming whole cities beneath the surface of the earth, 36 in all of varying sizes and depths. Kaymaklı—the subterranean city we visited this time around—is comprised of eight distinct layers with an abundance of rooms connected by nearly 100 tunnels. I love Cappadocia. It is a fantasy realm come true.

The Underground City of Kaymaklı

More of my photos from Cappadocia from 1994:


the bats

I still remember the bats.

I arrived back home one summer
exhausted from the journey,
shuffling through the day,
and when evening fell
and the light waned in the sky,
there was a shuffling overhead.

I went upstairs and sat on the balcony
overlooking the Aegean,
a thin strip of land in the distance
reminding me how close I was
to Greece, lights beginning
to appear across the water.

It was a peaceful moment
one I could not have replicated
without the weariness—
my thoughts were sluggish
my skin enjoying the warmth
of another Turkish summer.

Suddenly there was a flapping sound
just above me, and then another
and another, and I stood and watched
as leathery creatures took flight
from beneath the very eaves
of my otherwise quiet home.

More and more they appeared
dancing and bobbing overhead
weaving wildly amongst themselves
snatching at the intrepid insects
that arose in the dusk—
a feeding frenzy.

The second night I came prepared
to the balcony, camera in hand
ambitious to capture the moment,
but the weary light was unfriendly
and my efforts remained
quite pathetically unrewarded.

On the third night, I decided
to simply sit and watch
and enjoy an experience
that I knew would never come
back in Utah where I spent
the rest of the year.

But they had already grown
weary of rudely intrusive me,
and my patience brought
me nothing more than sight of that
thin strip of land across the water,
and lights that barely twinkled

as I quietly watched.

How I spent most of my time on that balcony.


the besmeared merchant sighs
his dilapidated stall shivering
even from the weight of the dust
that covers his trivial wares

useless all but for one piece
one timelessly treasured vase
facelessly reminiscent, recalling
nana’s gentle hands folding the clay

never would he have chosen
but for the direst of needs to place
her final work beneath the sun
shunned by one patron after another

a screaming child races past
a cloud of dust clinging to his heels
which kick at the angry world
with zealous determination

behind the child, lost in his clowd
an elderly woman growls, teeters
blindly rubbing her stinging eyes
as her hip collides with the stall

down it falls, beautiful in despair
down it falls, crashing to the earth
smashing a heart that had nothing
left to hope for beyond simply this

he does not scream, does not yell
does not tear at what remains
of the bedraggled gray mess strung
limply over his sweaty crown

his jowly countenance drips sorrow
into the dust of his finality
his skin cracks across brittle bones
enthroning a once proud man

as a naïve prince of fools

Yeniliğe Doğru

I find as the years have passed that time teases me to tremble with needs, with desires, with fears, seldom allowing me to treasure a moment of true peace. But through a blessed heart, through the love of another, I have at least discovered how joyous such peace can be. It was in gratitude for this blessed gift of peace that I wished to share these videos and images I captured near Çeşme in Turkey, accompanied by the beautiful and hopeful sounds led by one of the greatest voices in Turkish music, Sezen Aksu.

It occurs to me that a translation might help, although I could never do justice to the verses of the master Mevlana:

Her gün bir yerden göçmek ne iyi
How good it is to move from a place everyday

Bulanmadan donmadan akmak ne hoş
How fine it is to flow unsullied, unfrozen

Her gün bir yere konmak ne güzel
How beautiful it is to come to rest somewhere everyday

Bulanmadan donmadan akmak ne hoş
How fine it is to flow unsullied, unfrozen

Dünle beraber
Along with yesterday

Gitti cancağızım
my love has gone

Şimdi yeni bir şeyler
Now new things

Söylemek lazım
must be said

Ne kadar söz varsa
However many words may be

Düne ait
they belong to yesterday

Şimdi yeni bir şeyler
Now new things

Söylemek lazım
must be said

Playing with the Wind

Not been easy, finding the right place to play my ney since coming back here to Turkey (especially here in Çeşme, such a windy location). Which is funny, since this is the homeland of my ney. In which case, what possessed me to play the ney in something like a Celtic lament? Ah, the mysteries of travelling. It’s not so much that you never know what you’ll find when you get there. Rather, you never quite know what you’ll find in YOU once you get there. That’s one of the things I love most about travelling. How it teaches you about yourself.


“Taaa uzakta bir dağ var,” he knowingly declared
his hand slicing the air above his bald, red head
indicating a bare peak in the distance above the trees.
And then he smiled, a generous keeper of secrets.
“Aradığınız evi tam tepenin eteğinde bulursunuz.”
I was about to ask him if he was sure, but demurred.
The answer was as obvious as his growing discomfort.
“Hayır, hayır,” he exclaimed when I held out a bill.
I grabbed his hand and placed it firmly in his palm.
His head tilted slightly as if to say, “Siz bilirsiniz.”
I stood there watching as he grabbed the dusty bridle,
harshly clicking his tongue at the indifferent beast.
But after a few steps he paused, aware of me again,
sensing that I had yet to move. For some reason.

“Başka bi’şey … var mı?” he asked uncertainly.
I asked him if he knew her. … Had known her.
“Babası iyi bir adamdı. Eski topraktı bizim Ahmet.”
Indeed, salt of the earth. She had described him so.
I nodded gravely, although I had never met him.
“Bırakmadı kızı. Olaydan sonra. Hiç bırakmadı.
Biri ona yan baksa korurdu hep. Öyleydi.
Biri … küfür etse dayanamazdı, tokat atardı.”
I told him what I had heard. Something of the sort.
Of what her father had endured. For her sake.
“Yıllarca durdu kızın yanında. Çocuğu ölünce
kendisi verdi toprağa, Ahmet’imiz. Tek başına.”
I asked him what had happened to the child’s father.
He snarled. Quite sincerely. “Gitti pis herif. Gitti.”

I stared at this man—this stranger—without blinking.
Just stared at him as the memories of her returned
quickly filling my heart with unbearable agony.
He must have seen the sorrow welling within,
the years of longing and regret indelibly drawn
across my aging features. Slowly he stepped closer.
Raising his arm, he opened his mouth to speak.
I grabbed his hand, brought it trembling to my lips.
He placed his other leathery hand on my head
tussled what was left of my hair and whistled.
When I looked up again, I noticed a tear in his eye.
He looked down nodding at nobody in particular.

“Hiç kimsesi yok,” he explained at last, “hiç.”
I felt it return, the regret clawing at the remains,
at whatever was left of my cold and bitter soul.
This would not have happened, I thought again.
Not if I had been there for her. To protect her.
“Sen git, oğlum,” he said, something of a smile
returning to his weathered face, his moist eyes.
“Sen git yanına. Allah huzur versin. İkinize.”
No, I thought, there would be no peace for me.
But for her… “Huzur içinde yatsın,” he said.
And I thought perhaps, yes, for her. İnşallah.

İSTANBUL City of Kings, City of God

The following is an article I recently authored for the new magazine of our Muslim Students Association at Salt Lake Community College:


City of Kings, City of God

by George Ellington

The Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent rising above the Bosphorus

By the 5th century A.D., the City of Constantine, emperor of the Romans, had become the center of the Christian world. To the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople, the Pope was a lowly bishop subservient to him. The fall of Rome, city of light, in A.D. 476 plunged the western Roman Empire into the Dark Ages, leaving many to wonder if perhaps the Patriarch might not have been correct. After all, Rome had fallen under the sway of supposed barbarians, while the increasingly wealthy and diverse population of Constantinople worshipped in some of the finest churches the world had ever seen. When Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Divine Wisdom, was dedicated by Justinian, Emperor of the Byzantines in Constantinople in A.D. 537, the largest domed cathedral in the world at the time, could there be any doubt left? The City of Constantine was indeed the new Rome, the new city of light, a source of inspiration and culture for peoples east and west, and its glory would survive until the end of time.


Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), Church of the Divine Wisdom, built 532-537

Of course, even the most cursory glance at history should be enough to remind us that empires rise and fall, and that temporal glory is as fleeting as the life of man. The fortunes of the eastern Romans or Byzantines did indeed ascend and decline as the years passed. Years became centuries. Leadership fell to great men and to corrupt fools. The borders of the empire stretched into Europe, Asia, and Africa, tenuous in some areas, firm in others. Invading armies crossed the borders and were turned back, while life in Constantinople went on untouched. Occasionally, enemy forces drew closer, even up to the walls of the great city itself. In A.D. 674 an Arab Muslim army under Yazid tested the strength and endurance of the city’s defenders before eventually withdrawing. Forty years later, the Arabs returned, and once again failed to breach the massive walls of Theodosius that encircled the city. Not that the city was impregnable. The once insulted church of the west took no little pleasure in seeing the Orthodox Christian capital of Constantinople sacked by Catholic Christians from the West in A.D. 1204. Although the Byzantines eventually reclaimed their capital city from the Catholics, many believe that it was now too late. Constantinople never fully recovered.

The walls of Theodosius, built 404-413

Two and a half centuries later, when yet another foreign army set up camp outside the massive walls of Constantinople, fear very quickly spread among the remaining inhabitants of the city. Frantic appeals were made to the West to come to the aid of their fellow Christians. The last Emperor of the Byzantines, another Constantine, even dangled before the Pope the possibility of reuniting the Latin and Greek churches. But to no avail. While some volunteers arrived from Greece and Italy, it was as if the West had already passed a shroud over the East, bidding farewell to the last vestiges of the Roman Empire. Although neglected by their fellow Christians in the West, the 10,000 or so defenders of Constantinople did their utmost to save the city, giving their lives in a truly valiant effort to hold off an invading army of around 100,000. On 29 May 1453, after a siege that lasted some eight weeks, the walls of Constantinople were overrun by the army of the Turkish Ottoman Empire led by Sultan Mehmet, who would come forever after to be known as Fatih—the Conqueror.

One of Mehmet’s first acts was to ride to the great basilica of Hagia Sophia and there have an imam pronounce the Shahada:

ašhadu an lā ilāha illa Allāh, wa ašhadu anna Muhammadan rasūlu Allāh

(“I testify that there is no god but Allah, and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah”)

The Mosque of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, built 1463-70

Out of the neglect and betrayal that had plagued the City of Constantine for centuries, out of the fire and destruction of the Turkish conquest, a new city was born, a city dedicated, not to a man, not to a king, but to Allah. And as the city of İstanbul became the new capital of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks under Mehmet and his successors set about quickly to revitalize the city, to reshape it, transforming it from a Christian capital to a Muslim one. Initially, many Orthodox churches, including Hagia Sophia, were converted into mosques for Muslim worship. But authentic houses of worship were required for a growing population of Muslims. And sultans and nobles were eager to contribute the funds necessary to have mosques and masjids built, along with schools for Quranic study, markets to improve trade, hospitals for the ill, mansions for the rich, shelters for the poor, caravansaries for pilgrims and merchants. Within a century, Constantinople no longer looked anything like its former self. When and why it came to be called İstanbul is still open to debate, but there is no doubt that İstanbul was quickly becoming the richest, most powerful capital city in all of the Muslim world.

The Mosque of Sultan Ahmet, Hagia Sophia, and Topkapı Palace along Seraglio Point

The Byzantine Emperor had lived in a grand style in a magnificent palace. But the Ottoman sultans required a home fit not for just any emperor, but for the “Sultan of Sultans, Khan of Khans, Commander of the Faithful and Successor of the Prophet of the Lord of the Universe.” So began the lengthy title appended to the name of the man who may have been the greatest of Ottoman sultans—Süleyman the Magnificent, the great grandson of Mehmet the Conqueror. In the centuries after Mehmet entered the city in triumph, the Turks constructed several palaces, the grandest of all stretched out along Seraglio Point, known as Topkapı Palace, which underwent its most extensive construction in the time of Süleyman. Amidst lush gardens, a menagerie of animals, ornate fountains, military barracks, kitchens that fed around 4,000 people a day, and the most meticulous bureaucracy the city had ever known, were beautifully adorned apartments for the sultan and his retinue. Yet perhaps more impressive was the harem itself, a maze-like cluster of hundreds of rooms for the sultan’s mother, wives, and concubines, who at times exceeded 100 in number.

The Mosque of Süleyman the Magnificent, built by Sinan 1550-57

Yet the magnificent appearance of the city of İstanbul as it comes to you today—walking the streets, wandering the markets, exploring the historical landmarks—was determined by one man in particular more than any other. His name was Sinan, the greatest of Ottoman architects. Arguably, the greatest builder the Muslim world has ever known. Born in 1489 as a Christian named Joseph, he was conscripted for government service in the elite Ottoman forces—the Janissaries. Along with his military training, he was instructed in architecture. His obvious talents won him the attention of some rather powerful patrons, the most important of which was none other than Sultan Süleyman himself. To Sinan and to those who served him have been attributed 94 mosques, 52 masjids, 57 colleges, 48 bath houses, 35 palaces, 22 mausoleums … and the list goes on and on. He supervised much of the building of Topkapı, oversaw repairs to the Sacred Mosque at Makka, designed stately homes for the wealthy, and served the needs of the common people with aqueducts, kitchens, caravansaries, and hospitals.

The Şehzade Mosque, built by Sinan 1543-48  for Mehmet, son of Süleyman

The most noticeable and memorable of Sinan’s works in the city of İstanbul were the edifices commanded by the royal family he served—the House of Osman. The skyline of İstanbul today is replete with examples of his finest works, all ordered and paid for by sultans, their sons and daughters, their in-laws, yet all dedicated by Sinan to the glory of Allah. The first of Sinan’s royal complexes was built for the wife of Süleyman—Hürrem. Like Sinan, Hürrem was not born into a Muslim family of the empire, but to a Christian family. And like Sinan, she too would rise from obscurity to play a major role in Ottoman history, if only behind the scenes as the sultan’s beloved wife, managing the affairs of the harem while steering her proud husband in directions he might not otherwise have chosen to follow, including having his own son by a different wife put to death in favor of Hürrem’s son, who succeeded Süleyman to the throne as Selim the Sot. Hürrem’s daughter, Mihrimah, and her husband, Rüstem Paşa, Grand Vezir to the sultan, also made good use of Sinan’s skills to contribute to the beauty and piety of the city of İstanbul.

The Rüstem Paşa Mosque, built by Sinan 1561-63

The fortunes of the great city of İstanbul fluctuated much as those of Constantinople had. By 1923, it faced foreign occupation and the dismemberment of the empire. On 29 October of that year, Mustafa Kemal and his courageous companions declared the establishment of the Türkiye Cumhuriyeti—the Republic of Turkey. The capital was moved to Ankara, where it remains today. But for many, the heart of Turkey is still İstanbul, the largest city in the nation, the preeminent center of art, business, and culture. And the most visible reminder of a glorious past when this was indeed the city of kings, the city of God.

Photos from Efes, Türkiye

Just finished scanning some old photos of Efes (Ephesos) from 1994, along with some more recent photos I took this last summer of 2010. Ancient Efes is such a fantastic site to visit. Which does rather tend to make it one of the more crowded sites as well. On a hot summer day, that can matter.

When I went back there this last August, we arrived just before closing time, which allowed for a lot more elbow room while exploring the site. Nice. It also changed quite a bit the lighting and therefore the colors of my photos. Very interesting experience. Fortunately, my home is only about an hour and a half drive away from Efes, so I look forward to another visit in the near future. … Unless of course I become distracted by all the other many sites I have yet to visit. God, I love Turkey!

Just click on the photo to see the album.

Farkındalık Kampanyası – Konu: İŞSİZLİK

I wanted to share this video with everyone, one of several produced and distributed by the Movement to Remove the Barriers in Turkey, a very worthwhile movement hoping to educate the people about the struggles that handicapped individuals face in Turkey. This one, as the English subtitles in the video explain, is about unemployment among the handicapped.

Engelleri Kaldır Hareketi, yeni kampanyası ile ENGELLENEN İŞSİZLERE yönelik toplumda bir uyanış sağlamayı amaçlamaktadır. 1 Mayıs 2010 tarihinde hayat bulacak olan uzun ve zorlu geçecek farkındalık dönemi kapsamındaki nihai hedef, 7 milyon işsiz kesim ile işveren kurum ve kuruluşların bir araya gelmesi ve yoluna birlikte devam edebilmesidir.

“Engelleri Kaldır Hareketi kimsenin değil, sahiplenen herkesindir.”


Alevilik: An Introduction to the Alevis of Turkey and Beyond

Arriving at a universally acceptable definition or description of Alevilik, even among the academic community who approach this issue with less bias than the average lay person, has proven virtually impossible due to the ethnic, linguistic, regional, and doctrinal differences between divergent communities living inside and outside of Turkey, all of whom identify themselves more or less as Alevis.  One of the more remarked upon aspects of Alevilik, which itself gives rise to this confusion of identity (or may be seen as an attempt to explain the apparent disparities in Alevilik), is its syncretic nature.  Alevilik has been variously defined as a synthesis of “Sunni and Shi‘i beliefs and Muslim and Christian practices” (Aringberg-Laanatza 152), or as a fusion of Central Asian paganism, Persian Shi‘ism, and Anatolian mysticism.  Çamuroĝlu defines Alevilik as a “syncretistic belief structure, which shows strong traces of gnosticism” (1998, 79), and remarks that large numbers of Alevis may be found outside of Turkey today.  In April 2000 a team from Gazi University’s Turkish Culture and Hacı Bektaş Veli Research Center produced a documentary film on diverse Alevi communities from no less than 13 different countries outside of Turkey: Iran, Türkmenistan, Özbekistan, Kazakistan, Azerbaycan, Bulgaria, Greece, Rumania, Hungary, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo (Aydın).

Another form of distinction remarked upon by scholars concerns which form or focus of Alevilik that Alevis choose to pursue today.  So, for instance, Çamuroĝlu (1998) has identified three major trends in her work among Alevis: 1) political Alevis, who are intent on seeing Alevilik as a secular political ideology, 2) traditionalist Alevis, who demand a return to the true (heterodox, syncretic) Alevilik, and 3) Islamist Alevis, who seek to redefine Alevilik in orthodox Islamic terms, pointing out that Ali, after all, followed the five pillars of Islam.  Bilici, in contrast, has identified four branches of Alevilik in Turkey today: 1) the largely nonreligious materialist or modernist branch, who are associated with the Alevi Kurds, the Kurdistan Alevi Union in Germany, the Kurdish Zülfikâr journal, leftist Alevis, the Kervan (formerly a Communist journal), and followers of the sixteenth century poet and martyr Pir Sultan Abdal; 2) the mystical branch, which emphasizes the importance of the individual’s relationship to God; 3) the heterodox or Caferi branch, who see themselves as a distinctly religious Muslim community, but one which deserves the same political considerations which Sunni Muslims in Turkey receive,[1] and 4) the Shi‘i-inclined branch, who argue that Alevilik is the way of ‘Ali, the true path of Islam before it became corrupted by association with Bektaşilik.  This association, these Shi‘i-inclined Alevis argue, was forced on the Alevis of Anatolia by the Ottoman state, which sought to use Bektaşilik as a means of controlling and converting the Alevi population.

Whether Alevis are closer to Sunnism or Shi‘ism is not only a theoretical problem, but one that divides Alevis today.  In many practical ways, Alevis seem quite distinct from both Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims.  There is much less stress in Alevi culture in general on obeying external practices associated with orthodox Sunni and Shi‘i Islam, such as the fast during Ramadan, the Hajj or ‘pilgrimage’ from Makkah, salat or ‘Muslim prayer,’ and paying the zakat or ‘regular charitable tax.’  In other ways they seem to favor Shi‘i traditions, or at least a modified version of them, while opposing a number of customs followed by Sunni Muslims.  They avoid prayer in mosques, for example, without outright forbidding it, because of the association of mosques with the assassination of ‘Ali, who was murdered in a mosque.  Some, although by no means most, Alevis perform a fast, but only for ten days, to commemorate the ten days of suffering Hüseyin endured at the hands of his captors after he and his followers were attacked by Yazid’s men at Kerbala.  This is a tradition they share with other Shi‘i Muslims.  Alevis oppose mezhepler or ‘Islamic schools of jurisprudence’ as well, seeing them as associated with “strife and persecution” (Naess 178).[2]  However, as I will demonstrate later, there has been a trend among some Alevis to seek an association with orthodoxy through closer ties to Sunni Islam, and some have even begun engaging in Sunni practices while still calling themselves Alevis.

The rediscovery of Alevi religious culture has not occurred in a vacuum, but during a period of Turkish history which has seen renewed interest on the part of a number of ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups for their own culture, language, and professed homelands, including the Kurds, Laz, and Çerkes.  The existence of different ethnic and linguistic groups and diverse religious elements among Alevis has been at the heart of this difficulty in defining true Alevilik.  Linguistically, one might identify at least four, possibly five, different groups: Turkish, Zaza, Kurmancı, Azerbayjani, and Arabic, the largest of these being Turkish and the second a combination of Kurdish Zaza and Kurmancı speakers.  Because of the innate importance that language often possesses in establishing identity, it may prove to be a stumbling block to any form of Alevi cohesion, although other divisive ethnic and political issues already firmly separate these five groups.

Such ethnic differences among Alevis have added considerably to the confusion over defining Alevilik.  One such distinction resides in the split between Turkish Alevis and Arab Alawites, a distinction which has not always been observed even by researchers.  Until quite recently, for example, the Index Islamicus has included articles and publications on both Alevis and Alawites under a single heading – Alawite, despite the fact that in most cases the Turkish Alevis and Arab Alawites reject the notion of there being any bond between them.  Even though both may be seen as offshoots of a centuries old tradition of venerating ‘Ali and the House of the Prophet, they are today generally incongruous with one another.  However, the incorporation of the Hatay province into Turkey in 1939 left the Turkish Republic with a sizable minority Arab population, many of whom were and have remained Alawite, but with no where near the numbers of the Turkish-Kurdish Alevi population.[3]  Nonetheless, I have included Arabic above as a fifth Alevi language based on as yet unverified (yet logical) reports that the Alevi religious revival in Turkey, or at least the many years of contact between the two groups, has begun to attract Arab Alawites in the Hatay region to increasingly participate in Turkish Alevi practices, such as attendance at cem ceremonies.

The Kurdish-Turkish ethnic distinction has in recent decades become one of the most obvious and increasingly sensitive divisions among Alevis, who seem less and less able to overcome the ethno-political nature of the division in favor of a religio-cultural unity.  Although existing studies of urban Alevi migrants in Anatolia have shed little light on the evolution of Alevis in relation to this dichotomy, the extreme prominence of the Kurdish issue in Turkish politics today will certainly make it an unavoidable issue in urban Alevi studies in the years to come, which is why I include it here in our summary of Alevi ethnic diversity. 

Kurdish Alevis, who even today are sometimes distinguished from other Alevis by the out-dated term Kızılbaş, are predominantly Kurmancı and Zaza speakers.[4]  Despite the nationalist political conflict which besets them, these Kurdish Alevis persist in their usage of Turkish for Alevi ritual purposes, in particular for gülbanklar (“invocations”) and nefesler (“religious songs”).  This use of Turkish has continued even though some Kurdish Alevis argue that Turkish Alevis adopted Alevilik from the Kurds, who had previously learned it from the Persians, making the issue of a ritual language ambiguous at best.[5]  Turkish Alevis have been noted for playing a significant role in defense of the Kemalist struggle during the War of Independence, even against Kurds who happened to be fellow Alevis.[6]  Supporting the new state against Kurdish insurgents took priority over defending co-religionists.  Since then the Kurdish identity of the approximately one-third of Turkey’s total Alevi population has become a source of confusion and division among the Kurdish Alevis, who increasingly find themselves torn between identifying themselves as Kurds or as Alevis.[7]  Sizable Kurdish Alevi communities reside in the eastern and central regions of Dersim (renamed Tunceli), Erzincan, Kıĝı, Bingöl, Muş, Sivas, Malatya, Maraş, Antep, Adana, and as far north as Kars.  Prominent Alevi tribes within these regions are the Dersimi, fieyhhasanan, Hormek, Lolan, and Koçgiri Kurds, although many Alevi Kurds outside of Dersim seem to trace descent back to the Dersimi Kurds.

While the Kurdish Alevis of these regions share much in common with the Turkish Alevis of central and western Anatolia, they have been noted to practice or express belief in a number of distinct forms of religious worship not commonly associated with the Turkish Alevis.  Among these, recorded by ethnographers and travelers from the beginning of the twentieth century, is the belief in metempsychosis, according to which human souls may be reborn as animals, whether they be mammals, reptiles, or insects.[8]  As with the Ahl-i Haqq of Syria, belief in various degrees of divine incarnation has also been expressed among the Dersimi Alevis, the most obvious example of which is the manifestation of God in ‘Ali.[9]  Finally, similar to the ancient traditions of the Central Asian Turks, the Kurdish Alevis of eastern Anatolia have displayed a reverence for nature through worship of such celestial bodies as the sun, moon, and planets, and of natural phenomena and elements, such as rain, thunder, water, rocks, and trees (van Bruinessen 1997).  In all of this there is evidence of a highly syncretic religious culture, a characteristic of Alevilik which the Kurds share with the other ethnic groups among the Alevis.

A cornerstone of Alevi religious culture is the Shi‘i veneration for the Ahl al-Beyt or ‘House of the Prophet,’ and in particular for ‘Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet and the First of the Twelve İmams.[10]  Like other Shi‘is, Alevis reject the first three orthodox caliphs, condemning them for having wrested the succession, the leadership of the Muslim community, from the Prophet’s own hand-picked successor – ‘Ali.  They argue that the Prophet made this designation clear when he said, “‘I am the city of knowledge (ilmin şehri), Ali is the gate of knowledge (ilmin kapısı).  And how can you come to the city without finding the gate’” (Naess 177).  As the Alevis in Naess’ study argued, the Sunnis tried to circumvent the framework of authority and knowledge built by the Prophet.  In essence, as one villager put it, “‘The Sunnis are like people who run along the walls, in vain seeking the gate’” (177).

The second key figure in Alevi ritual and belief is Hacı Bektaş Veli.  Historians argue that Hacı Bektaş arrived in Anatolia around 1230 “coming from Khorassan.”[11]  Hacı Bektaş apparently remained in Anatolia in the town of Soluca Kara Öyük or Karayol, which today bears his name – Hacıbektaş – until 1270, when he died at the age of 63.[12] Depending for such early information on hagiographic descriptions, we cannot be absolutely certain of the details of Bektaş’s life.  However, it seems he was not a theologian or orthodox Muslim in his behavior, but a Sufi from the Turkmen tribes,[13] and it is very likely that his Muslim worship was influenced by the Central Asian customs and traditions from which he came.  “He was a mystic, born among the people and who remained near to the people.  Though he was a Muslim, he did not give up the ancient practices and customs of Central Asia” (Melikoff 2). 

According to the Vilayet-name or biography of Hacı Bektaş, he apparently favored open worship to praying in a mosque, which resembles the Alevi aversion to mosques.  The same source also describes how he brought his abdallar or ‘followers’ up the mountain Hırkadaĝı, where they performed the sema, a ritual dance still practiced by Alevis.  The continued importance that Alevis attach to Bektaşilik may be seen in their associations with Hacı Bektaş foundations and with the town of Hacıbektaş itself.  To travel there in order to visit his tomb is to go on a hajj or ‘pilgrimage.’  The efendiler living in the town, who are said to be descended directly from Hacı Bektaş himself, are approached (albeit rarely), as a sort of court of last appeal in cases of disputes.  All of these connections to Hacı Bektaş seem to provide Alevis, in Shankland’s assessment, with their most cohesive framework.  Hacı Bektaş is for Alevis a leader, a spiritual guide, and a revered saint, making him “at once a spiritual focus, and also an orienting figure through which Alevis build up a link and define their place in the wider world of Islam as a whole” (1998, 19).[14]

One of the most important elements of Bektaşilik found among Alevis today is the Alevi tradition of the Dört Kapılar or ‘Four Gates.’  Like Bektaşis, Alevis believe there are Four Gates of spiritual development through which one must pass before one can achieve direct experience of God: şeriat, tarikat, marifet, and hakikatŞeriat refers to the Law of God, and is achieved simply by submitting oneself to the will of God through right belief and behavior.  While establishing a legal system based on the Shari‘a has become an end goal for some Muslim communities today, living according to God’s Law is only a first step for Alevis.  Most Alevis, having submitted themselves to the will of God, are said to have arrived at the stage of tarikatTarikat, which is associated with ritual practices which culminate in the cem ceremonies, may be interpreted as the organization of individuals into ritualistic societies based on the recognition that there is more to right living than the simple adherence to rules of proper belief and behavior.  Marifet, an Ottoman term of Arabic origin, suggests the acquisition of a special skill or spiritual knowledge through intense discipline and guided training and study, which is beyond the capacity of most followers.  The Alevi leaders or dedeler are ideally at the final stage, that of hakikat or truth, the real world, when the physical properties of this world no longer block one’s path to God.  At this stage it may be said that the individual has achieved spiritual unity with God, something which most Alevis never achieve in life.  For most it is enough to follow the directions of the dedeler, which focus essentially on right practice and ritual.  This focus on correct practice over dogma has been linked to the Alevi injunction, referred to by Shankland (1998) as edep: “Eline, diline, beline sahip ol!” (“Master your hands, your tongue, and your loins.”  In other words, at its simplest level, “Do not steal, lie, or have sexual relations outside of your marriage.”)

The leadership of the dedeler, which has been challenged in the urban setting, is integral to traditional Alevi religious culture.  As one of the keys to Alevi society, “they are at once its focus, its teachers, temporal judges and links to their religious heritage” (Shankland, 1998, 19).  The dedeler are recognized by the community as rehberler or ‘guides’ who define their duty as being “the way, the light, the inspiration of the community” (Shankland, 1998, 19).  Their primary duty, apart from functioning as sources of spiritual and traditional knowledge, seems to be to mediate disputes between Alevis of the same lineage or between lineages.  They may also help in marriage negotiations or be asked to comment on matters of importance to a whole community.  Dedeler have been traditionally able to justify their leadership of the community by claiming descent from the Prophet through one of the Twelve İmams, and many ocaklar or ‘dede lineages’ claim descent as well from dervishes who attended the Hacı Bektaş tekke or ‘dervish lodge’ in Hacıbektaş.  They are called in to assist the village community by talip or ‘follower lineages,’ who are obliged to respect and heed the dede lineages.  Some villagers say that the dede-talip links were assigned by Hacı Bektaş himself, thereby giving them greater validity and emphasizing the enduring role which dedeler are expected to play in the leadership of the community.

How the dedeler convey their teachings to the community has also become an issue in the urban setting.  In traditional Alevi culture, religious culture has been transmitted orally from dede to talip or from master to disciple.  Written texts are not absent in Alevi tradition.  In fact, they have existed in Alevi culture since the 16th century in the form of the Buyruk or ‘Decree.’  The first and most honored of these is the Buyruk of the Sixth İmam Cafer Sadik, which is supposedly a list of questions posed by a Byzantine emperor along with answers supplied by the İmam.  Its significance among Alevis is attested by their characterization of the text as the “Aleviliĝin anayasası” or ‘Constitution of Alevism.’[15]  Despite the importance of such texts, however, they have not superseded the oral nature of transmitting esoteric knowledge, which has remained firmly in the hands of the dedeler, who guide the community in interpreting the Buyruk.  This tradition naturally places greater authority in the hands of the dedeler, without whom the religious traditions of Alevis presumably might not survive.  The dede takes on the character of the walid dini or ‘religious father,’ whose tie to the disciple is stronger even than that of the disciple’s own father.  He is in essence the father of the community, and so it may be argued that the oral transmission of culture is invariably linked to the ongoing authority of the dedeler at least, if not to the overall survival of Alevi cultural traditions.

Most Alevi rituals have come to be associated with the cemevleri or ‘community gathering centers.’  The cem ceremonies performed in these gatherings are necessary forms of community cohesion, binding each member of the group to one another and to the whole.  The cem töreni or ‘cem ceremony’ is attended by men and women together, which is distinct from the separate worship of men and women in Sunni and Shi‘i cultures.  There are different forms of the cem ceremony, but the basic ceremony of gathering, the Abdal Musa cem, includes rituals symbolizing the martyrdom of Hussein at Kerbala, interpretations by the dede of key Alevi themes, even music, something that one would never find within an orthodox Sunni congregation.  The following is an example of the kind of music produced by Alevi musicians, who rely heavily on the baĝlama.

The Alevis interviewed by Shankland (1998) contrasted their worship with Sunni worship by pointing out that no one can attend their cem ceremony who is not at peace.  All who are present must first make peace with one another, if any quarrels exist, before they can begin the ceremony.  Otherwise, those who are unable to make peace must leave the cemevi.  Alevis say that this necessity for peace among the community, as well as the injunction against strangers attending the ceremony, is why they do not pray in a mosque: “(T)he greatest problem about praying in a mosque is that it is possible to be next to a murderer without realising it” (Shankland, 1998, 20). 

Alevi worship and belief, they argue, is also distinct from Sunni belief in that Sunni belief in God is based on fear, while Alevi belief is based on love.  They relate creation in the following terms: God created the world and He gave creatures life, but then He saw that there was nothing truly in His creation which reflected the Creator.  Therefore, He gave all humans a part of Himself, which became man’s ruh or ‘soul.’  “Now, we pray together in the cem, we do so face-to-face, and through the collective worship, see into one anothers’ hearts and so become part of God” (Shankland, 1998, 20). 

Musahiplik is another traditional aspect of Alevilik which binds people together, and which has been challenged in the urban setting.  Musahiplik is a form of ritual kinship or brotherhood which links two men together, obliging them to unending support of one another in a variety of forms, including economic and moral support.[16]  This support is unending in that, once the tie between two men has been recognized by a dede, it is assumed to survive even into the next world, where the two men will recommend one another to God on the Day of Judgment.  However, this form of commitment and support is not open to all Alevis, but only to those especially initiated for it by the dede, who must first recognize the couples’ preparedness in terms of their spiritual growth.  As such, musahiplik should not be considered a necessary element for all Alevis, but it certainly must be acknowledged as an integral aspect of Alevi religious culture, as it is present in all known rural Alevi communities which are organized around an ocak or ‘Holy Family.’  One can be Alevi without it, but to achieve it is to attain a higher stage in the striving for spiritual perfection and thus to be honored by the community for this achievement.[17] 

How Alevis trace the history of musahiplik brings us closer to their Shi‘i origins.  As the basis for this brotherhood, Alevis offer a tradition attributed to the Prophet during his final days.  It is said that the Prophet, returning from his last pilgrimage to Makkah, instructed his followers each to choose a special companion, a musahip, whose support would never wane.  To take the lead in this process, Muhammad chose ‘Ali as his own musahip by opening his cloak and pulling his son-in-law to his breast.  In this way he indicated how he and ‘Ali were one, and he proclaimed to those present, “‘Ali and I, we both derive from the same light.  He is my brother in this world and in the hereafter.  His blood is my blood, his flesh is my flesh, his soul is my soul, his body is my body’” (Kehl-Bodrogi 123).

The cem ceremony and musahiplik may be interpreted as traditions of inclusion or social binding which strengthen the ties of the community.  However, there is another form of the cem ceremony, known as the görgü cem, which functions as a judicial institution, an institution that has proven extremely difficult to carry on in the urban setting where judicial matters are clearly in the hands of the state.  As with the inclusive Abdal Musa cem ceremony examined above, the görgü cem is prohibited to outsiders.  During the görgü, accused offenders are required to give an account of themselves before a görgü heyeti or ‘görgü committee,’ which includes the dede.  The members of this committee must come to an agreement regarding how to sanction the offender, the “sentence” being carried out immediately.  The intention is to bring peace and cohesion back to the community, but serious violations may incur more serious penalties, from verbal abuse and, in some reports, spitting on the offender, to the most extreme punishment – düşkünlük or ‘excommunication.’  For such an introverted, group-oriented community, permanent excommunication is tantamount to ostracism, and, not surprisingly, has been reported to have occurred rarely, if at all, in most traditional Alevi communities.  A more frequent sanction may be geçici düşkünlük or ‘momentary excommunication,’ which may be applied in cases of theft, for instance.[18]

Social traditions among rural Alevis, such as marriage, divorce, and funeral rites, are generally quite distinct from representative urban practices.  Marriage is considered a highly sacred bond which “should persist under all circumstances” (Bozkurt, 1998, 89).  Other than in extremely exceptional cases, separation or divorce are simply not acceptable resolutions to marital problems.  Nor is it acceptable that an outsider should pass judgment or practice authority on what is essentially an internal Alevi matter.  This goes for funerary services as well as for sanctions.  Dealing with death is an Alevi communal concern, and funerary rites are carried out by the community and the dede, with songs and the recitation of the funerary prayer, known as the Hatayi, performed in Turkish.  The ritual dance or sema may also be performed. 

Researchers working among Alevis often emphasize the respect and tolerance which Alevis display towards non-Alevis.  Shankland, for example, argues that among Alevis, “outsiders are able to be accommodated within the villages,” and that “individual believers can take up different individual positions within the Alevi faith” (1998, 22).  While this is true, it is important to note that many of the characteristics of Alevi religious tradition promote a sense of inclusivity among the members of the community while enforcing exclusivity of non-members (i.e.,  non-Alevis).[19]  Musahiplik, for instance, is not only reserved solely for Alevis, but is further limited to Alevis deemed deserving by the religious leaders.  In addition, the hereditary aspect of dede leadership has made it traditionally impossible for either non-Alevis or even Alevis of talip lineages to rise to positions of leadership.  Moreover, marriage, while theoretically open to mixed Alevi and non-Alevi couples, has traditionally been an endogamous practice.  As for the cem ceremonies, Shankland himself has noted how long it took for him to receive reluctant permission to attend a cem ceremony, despite the fact that he had lived among Alevis on and off for over a year.  It is not at all surprising that such a long history of isolation and persecution would promote exclusivity among a religious minority, but, as I will show, modernization and urbanization have challenged even this long-standing practice.

This exclusivity may be interpreted as one aspect of a larger cohesion that binds Alevis – or at least Alevis of the same village – together, even when great distances set them apart.  In a study of an Anatolian Alevi village hidden under the name of Dereköy (presumably in the vicinity of İzmir), Naess found that Alevi emigrants from the village retained a strong connection with their village, even though their migrations carried them as far away as Norway (150 migrants) and Germany (50 migrants).  Those who remained behind, reckoned at 514 by the 1985 census, nonetheless counted themselves at more like 1200, continuing to include those who had migrated either to the local town, to İzmir, or to Europe.  In other words, these rural Alevis identified themselves in terms of the larger group of current village inhabitants along with the permanent and temporary Alevi migrants who had left the village.  After all, these emigrants remained in contact with the village, sent remittances back to it, visited it, and even returned to the village to find Alevi spouses. 

[1] According to these Alevis, the gates of ijtihad are still open and “every aspect of the life of the individual or community should be based on judgments made on the basis of a combination of faith, reason, and life, and that action should be taken in accordance with decisions based on free will.  Thus, in this theology, contrary to Shari‘a, all human problems are related to the actual world, and relevant judgments arise from life itself” (Bilici 54).

[2] The Alevis hold that the schools were organized by Harun ar-Rashid, who first ordered the most knowledgeable men of his time to codify Islamic law into separate schools.  When these men refused, Alevis say, declaring instead their continued allegiance to ‘Ali, Harun ar-Rashid had them executed.

[3] On the other hand, the incorporation of Hatay into Turkey led to the emigration of some 50,000 Arabs, including 10,000 Alawites, from Hatay into Syria.  (See Aringberg-Laanatza for more details on the similarities and differences between Alevis and Alawites.)

[4] Estimates concerning how many Alevis are Kurds run anywhere from 10-30% in the literature.  This is not the place to explore the issue of ethnicity among Turks and Kurds, but a commonly accepted explanation among scholars for the large numbers of Kurdish Alevis in Anatolia today is not that they are all descended from early Kurdish settlers, but that most of them are descended from Kurdicized Turcoman tribes, Kızılbaş supporters of the Safavids who had adopted Kurdish languages, in this case mainly Zaza, through contact with Kurdish Alevis in Anatolia.  Van Bruinessen disagrees with this view, proposing instead that today’s Kurdish Alevis in Turkey are descended from Kurmancı or Zaza speaking Anatolian Kurds who adopted Alevi practices along with their earlier syncretic beliefs.  (See van Bruinessen, 1997 for further discussion on this point.)

[5] I could unfortunately find no figures regarding these divisions among the Kurdish Alevis.

[6] Kurdish resistance to the Kemalist struggle, most notably represented by the Sheikh Sa’id rebellion, was opposed not only by Turkish but also by Kurdish Alevis, particularly the Hormek and Lolan Kurds around Bingöl, Muş, and Varto.  (See van Bruinessen, 1997 and Olson.)

[7] This is not to suggest that the Alevi-Kurdish distinction is the only one which divides Turkey’s Kurdish population.  Regional, linguistic, religious, and tribal divisions also play a significant role.

[8] See Andranig, Tersim.  Tiflis: 1900.

[9] A less distinguished divine presence within the seyyidler or ‘descendants of the House of the Prophet’ has also been noted.

[10] After İmam ‘Ali, the Alevis venerate or honor an intriguingly heterodox collection of individuals, including the sixth İmam Cafer Sadiq, Hacı Bektaş Veli, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, and most recently Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Naess 179).

[11] This is a phrase generally understood to mean “migrating from Central Asia.” He possibly did so in the company of Kharezmians, escaping the Mongols in the 13th century.

[12] The order which bears his name today was possibly founded by Kadıncık Ana, a woman of the Oĝuz Çepni town, who is variously described as his adoptive daughter or his spiritual wife.

[13] Melikoff suggests that the relationship between the Ottomans and the Bektaşis was strengthened by the fact that they came from the same social backgrounds.  In fact, Elvan Çelebi, in his hagiographic text on Baba İlyas, states that Hacı Bektaş was closely connected with Edebali, who became the father-in-law of Osman Gazi, founder of the Ottoman state.  Further, a number of Bektaşi dervishes were apparently companions of Osman’s son, Orhan Gazi, including Abdal Musa, follower of Hacı Bektaş and founder of the Bektaşi Order of Dervishes, who contributed to Ottoman expansion by actually assisting the Ottoman armies in their conquests.  The dervishes had thereby become gazis, Muslim warriors, who founded orders and colonies in conquered lands, orders which became centers of Muslim teaching.

[14] See Birge, still considered by many to be the definitive work on Bektaşilik in English, as well as Eröz and Türkdoĝan for more on Alevi-Bektaşi customs and beliefs.

[15] For more on the scripturalization of Alevi religious traditions see Olsson.

[16] A man is responsible for “the moral and social integrity” of his musahip (Kehl-Bodrogi 123).

[17] The absence of musahiplik among the non-Alevi Bektaşi marks it as a critical distinction between the two otherwise quite similar cultures.

[18] For examples of such görgü conflict resolution see Shankland, 1993.

[19] Bozkurt goes so far as to argue that, within Alevi belief, “Strict control forms the essence of this belief, which aims at keeping the community going without appealing to the state security forces and without state support.  All their ceremonies and sanctions are aimed at achieving this end” (1998, 85).


Aringberg-Laanatza, Marianne. “Alevis in Turkey – Alawites in Syria: Similarities and Differences.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 151-165.

Bilici, Faruk. “The Function of Alevi-Bektashi Theology in Modern Turkey.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 51-62.

Birge, John Kingsley. The Bektashi Order of Dervishes. Hartford: Hartford Seminary Press, 1937.

Bozkurt, Fuat. “State-Community Relations in the Restructuring of Alevilik,” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 85-96.

Çamuroğlu, Reha. “Alevi Revivalism in Turkey.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 79-84.

Kehl-Bodrogi, Krisztina. “On the Significance of musahiplik among the Alevis of Turkey: The Case of the Tahtacı.” Syncretistic Religious Communities in the Near East. Ed. Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi, New York: Brill, 1997, pp. 119-138.

Mélikoff, Irène. “Bektashi / Kızılbaş: Historical Bipartition and Its Consequences.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 1-7.

Naess, Ragnar. “Being an Alevi Muslim in South-western Anatolia and in Norway: The Impact of Migration on a Heterodox Turkish Community.” The New Islamic Presence in Western Europe. Ed. Tomas Gerholm and Yngve Georg Lithman. New York: Mansell Publishing Limited, 1988, pp. 174-195.

Olsson, Tord. “Epiloque: Scripturalization of Ali-oriented Religions,” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 199-206.

Shankland, David. “Alevi and Sunni in Rural Anatolia: Diverse Paths of Change.” Culture and Economy: Changes in Turkish Villages. Ed. Paul Stirling. Cambridgeshire: The Eothen Press, 1993, pp. 46-64.

Shankland, David. “Anthropology and Ethnicity: The Place of Ethnography in the New Alevi Movement.” Alevi Identity: Cultural, Religious and Social Perspectives. Ed. Tord Olsson. İstanbul: Swedish Research Institute, 1998, pp. 15-22.

van Bruinessen, Martin. “Kurds, Turks and the Alevi Revival in Turkey.” Online. Internet. 16 Feb. 1999. Available http: ~godlas/alevivanb.html.