Once Armenians or separate ethnic group?

Once Armenians or separate ethnic group?

Zazas, unusual neighbors

During the recent years, Armenian media outlets have frequently referred to the distinctive features of the people called Zazas living in present-day Turkish town of Dersim (formerly the territory of Western Armenia) and the local Armenian communities, who survived the Genocide.

PanARMENIAN.Net - According to one of the main theories, the Zazas of Dersim either have Armenian roots or show deep traces of Armenian everyday life. Other sources say that Dersim had always been a mix of various ethnic groups, with the current majority practicing Alevism and speaking the Zaza language. PAN will tell in short who the Zazas are and how they are linked to Armenians.

Who are the Zazas?

Zaza people themselves often describe themselves quite the opposite to what their neighbors – Kurds and especially Turks – tell about them: there isn’t even a common name for this ethnicity. Both in the past and present, this difference and ambiguous expert conclusions are generally conditioned by the fact that there was no common principle for determining the national identity of this group, with the ethnic origin (ethnogenesis), language or religion being put forth.

Presently, Zazas reside in Dersim, as well as in Bingol (Chapaghjur), Elazig (Kharberd), Mush, Bitlis, Diyarbakir and some other areas. According to different estimates, there are some 3 million Zazas, of whom more than 300 thousand moved to Europe as political refugees.

The historico-geographical region of Dersim included Armenian settlements stretching from the Aratsan River basin in the south till the Euphrates River basin in the north (coincides with the northern part of Mets Hayk’s (Greater Armenia) Tsopk province and Bardzr Hayk’s (Upper Armenia) southern province of Muzur.

Mndzur River in Dersim

It should be noted that the Zazas and other Alevi names given to these people are not equivalent: not all Zazas practice Alevism (there are even Sunni Zazas), and, moreover, not all Alevis and ethnic Zazas. According to different sources, only a part of Turkey’s Alevi community, who make about 15%-20% of the country’s population, are Zazas; the rest are Turks, Kurds, or people of Armenian origin.

Alevism doesn’t have a precise definition either. Majority of experts believe it’s a branch of Shi’a Islam, which is however differs greatly from the Shi’ism. Meanwhile, some Alevis assure that Alevism is a religion (or religious trend) that principally differs from both Shi’a and Sunni perception of Islam, taking into account the peculiarity of their cultural, social and everyday life. It’s also important not to confuse Alevis for the Syrian minority of Alawites.

The Alevi Zazas living in Dersim call themselves Krmanji (which is different from the northern Kurds called Kurmanji); however, they describe the Sunni Zazas by the very name of Zaza. Meanwhle, in the Zaza language Krmanji is often viewed as a synonym for Alevi. The Zazas living south of Dersim, or the so-called central and southern Zazas, refer to themselves as Dmli (or Dimili). It’s widely believed that they are the offspring of Dailamites, the people inhabiting the mountainous regions of northern Iran on the southern shore of the Caspian Sea.

The areas populated by Zazas in present day Turkey

It should be noted that after the Arab conquest of Iran, Dailamites continued to practice Zoroastrianism for a long time and also preserved sun worship traditions. In the 7th-8th centuries, Nestorianism was advanced, while in the 9th century majority of the Dailamites converted to Shi’a Islam to spite Arabs. These fluctuations, in part, caused the adoption and development of Alevi cultural and religious peculiarities of the Zazas in the future.

The self-designation of Dmli was mentioned in the medieval period in Armenian records as Dmlik or Demlik, a term used by the Armenian neighbors of Zazas even nowadays. As to the name Zaza, it was initially a disdainful nickname slapped by neighboring nations and literally meaning ‘stutterers’, which is conditioned by Zazas’ peculiar articulation, specifically consonants pronounced as: z, s, sh, ts, dz, dzh and others.

Most of the experts describe the Zaza language as a separate one belonging to the Indo-Iranian language family. By the way, German linguist of Armenian origin Friedrich Carl Andreas (1846-1930) and Armenian expert of Iranian studies Garnik Asatryan greatly contributed to the Zaza language research. Kurdish scientists view the Zaza language as a Kurdish dialect. In general, Kurds perceive Zazas as a part of their own community, which is often politically motivated and used as a playing card both by Kurdish nationalists and the Turkish state. It’s noteworthy that not all Zazas speak the Zaza language. Some of them speak Kurdish or Turkish.

In fact, the issues related to the ethnic, religious, linguistic, social and cultural features of the Zazas are much more complicated. During the 20th century and so far, the people called Zaza are in the process of development and establishment of their own identity, amid numerous tricks of the Turkish government. This process acquired political ascent in 1937-38, during the Dersim revolt, when thousands of people were killed in a massacre ordered by Kemal Ataturk.

The revolt was a response to the policy of suppression of Turkey’s national minorities and promotion of “pure Turkish generation”. As a matter of fact, the slaughter that followed was a successful repetition of the Armenian Genocide, although on a small scale. According to witnesses and a number of researchers, the Turkish government also aimed to do away both with the Alevi Zazas and the Armenians saved by them during the Genocide.

Armenian-Zaza links

The history of Armenian-Alevi relations in Dersim and around it is very interesting but not well studied. Before the 18th century, Dersim was densely populated by Armenians. However, different Turkish tribes inspired by the Ottoman leadership started appropriating the lands belonging to the Armenian community and the church. In the 19th century, many Armenians either left Dersim’; the others adopted either Sunni Islam or Alevism to merge with the remaining Zazas. Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Zaza community included a large number of people of Armenian origin or those whose life was highly influenced by Armenian traditions and everyday habits. It’s known that certain Armenian churches in Dersim served as a place of worship for Alevi Zazas as well.

The ruins of Surb Harutyun church in Yergan village of Khozat district of Dersim

During the Armenian Genocide more than 20 thousand Armenians are believed to be given shelter by Zazas, this being probably the most significant aspect of the Armenian-Zaza (Alevi) relations. Willing or unwilling, these people were absorbed into the Alevi society. Some of them managed to preserve their identity and formed the Union of Dersim Armenians in 2010.

Read also:Forgotten brothers of Armenians

Samson Hovhannisyan / PanARMENIAN.Net
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