Deep in the rugged heart of eastern Anatolia, the Munzur River flows from the base of a skyscraping limestone massif, wending its way into the world across a grassy valley cradled between dog-toothed peaks and forested hills. The water is impossibly clear and numbingly cold and, to most of those who visit its source, sacred. “It’s easy to feel close to God here,” I was told by one follower of the mystical Alevi religion, who, like hundreds of other women, men and children, had come to the springs — called Munzur Gozeleri — on a scorching July afternoon.
They had come to pray and light candles in the nooks of boulders, and to immerse themselves in the bracing waters. They had come to sacrifice sheep and goats on a hill above the river, blessing new marriages, honoring dead relatives, hoping to help heal sick children. And they had come to eat: Each family that brought an animal to slaughter took its freshly butchered meat down to the riverside, where it was roasted or stewed over an open fire, served under shade trees with flatbreads, cheeses, olives and tea, and shared with friends and strangers alike. The scene was informal and festive, like a community picnic, striking an easy balance between the spiritual and the recreational.
I had gone to the river’s source in July 2014, to meet with a local Alevi leader, called a dede, to learn about the religion: a gnostic amalgam of Islam, Zoroastrianism, shamanism and other influences, which emphasizes inner spiritual growth over outward displays of faith, and regards nature as holy. The vast majority of people in the region of Dersim, through which the Munzur River flows, are adherents of Alevism, and are also ethnic Kurds (though many Alevis in other parts of Turkey are ethnic Turks).
Hasan Hayri Sanli, known as the Hayri Dede, whom I met at the springs, has written five books about Alevism, and was happy to talk with a rare foreign visitor. He was nearly bald; his mustache was a thick brush of white and silver bristles; his hearing aid worked intermittently. His voice was rich and emotive, so I grasped the feeling behind his words even before they were translated for me by a young woman from the nearby town of Ovacik, who was studying to be an English teacher.
Among the many things the dede said during our wide-ranging conversation, one leapt out: “We don’t believe there’s a paradise waiting for us after we die. For us, heaven and hell are here on earth.”
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