When people in the Munzur region are stricken by a serious illness, such as cancer or kidney failure, they or their family members are likely to head to a peak called Sultan Baba, which rises over the Munzur River as it courses between Ovacik and Tunceli. The top of the mountain is said to be the burial site of a military leader (perhaps Khwarizmshah Jalaluddin) from lands to the east, who managed to escape the onslaught of the Mongol hordes and find refuge in Dersim. Though the story behind Sultan Baba is less clear and less elaborate than the stories of other ziyarets, it remains one of the most sacred sites in the region, where sacrificing sheep has been known to cure even the most intractable maladies.
The ziayarets of Munzur - mountaintops, caves, rivers, rocks, and trees – these are where the Alevis of the valley worship most of the time. But one very important type of ceremony – which revolves around sacred music and ritual dance, and is called a cem – is usually performed indoors.
There's no religious rationale for this choice - it simply happens that most cems are held in winter, when people have more free time, since they are not busy in the fields or up in the mountains with their flocks. In decades past, cems were held in the homes of villagers; today, they are typically held in a cem evi, literally a ‘cem house,’ which is like a community center. Generally of modern cement construction, many cem evis around Munzur have an institutional feel, which the images of Ali and Husayn and other holy men hanging on the walls do little to dispel. The cem itself is performed in a large room, where worshippers sit on a rug-covered floor, facing the pir or pirs who lead the ritual with sermon and song.
Cems have several different components, not all of which are performed at every cem – meaning a ceremony can last from 30 minutes to several hours, depending on how complete it is, and on whether participation is limited to those families who follow a particular pir, or whether the cem is open to all.
Let us explain: Dersim is home to approximately 100 different tribes, about a dozen of which form a priestly caste into which all pirs are born. Known as the ocak, these priestly tribes trace their ancestries back to the family of Ali or other saints. Individuals in the ocak tribes are called seyits. The majority of tribes, which make up the lay community and don’t claim decent from Ali, are called talips (disciples). Every talip family has long-running spiritual ties to a particular ocak family, which typically carries on from generation to generation. Hence, each pir serves a number of talip families in a number of different villages – and his father and grandfather and great-grandfather would have served the very same families in earlier years.
Because one’s connection to one’s teacher is based on age-old family relationships, and this multi-generational relationship is a key part of Kurdish Alevi practice, they generally do not accept converts. Unlike Sufism, which is a mystical religious order that can only be joined by choice – even by children of Sufis – the only way to truly be Alevi is to be born into the faith. Writer's note: Though this seems to be the rule, there is one conspicuous exception: the local Armenian Christians who adopted Alevism. Our understanding is that Armenians married into Alevi families and were thus accepted without the need for an overt conversion, but this may not be true for all Armenians-turned-Alevi. We're simply not sure.
Since every Alevi must have a pir, each ocak family is the disciple of another ocak family; however, rather than creating a vertical hierarchy of priestly tribes, the hierarchy among the ocak is circular: put simply, the seyits from ocak tribe A would the talips of ocak tribe B, the seyits of ocak tribe B would be the talips of ocak tribe C, and the seyits of ocak tribe C would be the talips of ocak tribe A
The pirs – who are also called dedes (meaning 'grandfather') – lead ceremonies and guide their talips along the Alevi path. They also mediate disputes and issue judgments when one person has wronged another. In such cases, the decision of the pir is usually accepted, but if a talip strongly disagrees with his or her pir’s opinion, he or she may appeal to the pir’s pir, who may either uphold or overturn the original ruling.
Pirs are always men, but women from the family of a pir are also highly esteemed. “There are no women dedes because they can’t travel around as easily as the men, and the dedes often need to be away, meeting with talips in distant villages,” says one pir with talips in Guney Konak. “The women always had very important duties of their own, including raising children, and they were respected for that.” Women are sometimes involved in settling disputes, he said, but seem perfectly happy to let the men lead prayer ceremonies, including cems.
While the majority of cems these days are open to the general public, participation in the most religiously significant cems is confined to a pir and the talips he serves within one particular tribe. Known as a gurgu cem, this ceremony can only begin when everything is “in the correct way.” The pir questions the congregation, and any conflicts between talips must be resolved before the ritual can proceed. Anything about which a talip feels guilty should also be confessed. Anyone who refuses to put things right, who stays in a state of discord with his or her community, will be excluded from the cem and, depending on the severity of the unresolved issue, may remain something of an outcast until they work things out with the guidance of the pir. The intention behind this practice is not to wield power, instill fear, or dispense punishment, but to create an atmosphere for forgiveness and understanding, clearing the air and bringing the community back into balance with itself.
Once the “people’s court” is over, a few sheep may be brought into the middle of the room. The pir prays over them, and when the sheep stop moving around and stand peacefully, they are then led outside and sacrificed. During the gurgu cem ceremony, young people are initiated into a formal relationship with the pir, while others renew vows to follow the Alevi path.
Among the many variations of cems, a few elements are usually included in all. Typically, men and women sit together on the rug-covered floor, as equals. A sentry guards the door, preventing people from entering or leaving during the ritual. Today, this role is largely ceremonial, but long ago, when Alevis worshipped in secret for fear of being discovered by the authorities, they posted a man as a lookout and a guard, to help protect the worshippers.
As the ceremony begins, a rug is spread for the pir to sit on, or to sit behind, as a sign of respect. Water is sprinkled lightly over members of the congregation, to purify them. Candles are lit, symbolizing the sacred power of fire and the sun. The ground is swept, as a way of clearing out any “bad things” from the room, including negative thoughts.
Once the ritual space is ready, the pir plays his baglama and sings about the tragedy of the Battle of Karbala, when Husayn – the son of Ali, grandson of Mohammed, and third Shia imam – was beheaded by his enemies. The rendering of the song is a true art, as the pir’s goal is to evoke a genuine and intense emotional response within the congregation. The effect is quite striking: men and women may weep as though remembering an event that they personally witnessed, rather than something that happened over 1330 years ago, in 680 AD.