TURKEY tr-national

Abandoned Kayaköy a symbol of war's painful consequences

FETHİYE, Muğla – Hürriyet News Agency | 10/18/2010 12:00:00 AM | JANE AKATAY

The forced population exchange of 1923 has left deep sorrows and humanitarian tragedies on both sides of the Aegean Sea, as well as ghost villages like Kayaköy, near the southwestern town of Fethiye

Twenty five years ago, official tourist guide, Naci Dinçer intrigued by the stories he heard about Kayaköy, spent some time investigating the personal stories of those involved, which are all too often forgotten by official histories, especially among the tourist guides who take foreign visitors on tours of the town.

Dinçer traveled to Greece and talked with some of the people who left Fethiye and Kayaköy as a result of the “Mübadele,” or population exchanges of 1923. Although young children at the time it was they who witnessed and experienced what happened and never forgot. They passed their stories on to their children and grandchildren. From their stories Dinçer wove an intensely personal tapestry: a weft and warp of peace and war, friendship and loss, community and enmity, often enriched with precious threads of enduring humanity.

In 1995, TRT, the Turkish Radio and Television Corporation, made a documentary “The place where time stopped: Kayaköyü,” made by Mihriban Tanık, in which interviews with some of the elderly migrants from Levissi, who had been little more than children in 1923, shared some of their powerful memories. A further TV program made by Mithat Bereket from NTV called, “Kayaköy and Krifçe – Two Immigrant Towns” also covers the tragic history.

Dinçer believes that recording the oral accounts of ordinary people describing first hand their family’s experiences of what happened during this important part of our history is vital. He is determined that while opportunities remain the subject should be revisited from time to time, primarily as a way to remind those visiting the abandoned town in Kayaköy, why it is and should always be a global symbol of enduring peace.

[HH] An abandoned village but not a dead one

The abandoned village of Levissi lies in the mountains above Fethiye, Muğla. The ruins of the town are on the hillside overlooking the fertile fields of Kaya Valley. Although its heart-breaking history is slowly crumbling, tranquility has been preserved over the years for future generations. Yet somehow, behind the evocative emptiness, there are deep memories of kindness in adversity. The town is virtually deserted and the only sounds are those of cicadas and birds. After the rain, cyclamen appear between the cobbles of the empty lanes, adding touches of color to the stones.

Nowadays the ruined town means different things to different people. For some it is a potentially lucrative business opportunity, while for others it is a symbol of history. For many more it is yet another enduring image of man’s failure to rise beyond greed and self-interest and a poignant reminder that war has enduring consequences. It is certain that many foreign tourists wander through the overgrown alleys with little or no understanding of its significance, apart from what they read in [often inaccurate] guidebooks.

For all who visit the town, once they have learned about the history, it must be impossible to stand there among the ruins without being able to empathize with the people who lived in the valley and had to leave: their pain, suffering and the social upheaval and destruction of a community who had developed a mutual dependency. Without doubt everyone suffered, whether they left or stayed.

[HH] Their home for hundreds of years

Kaya Valley has played host to various settlements from the time the ancient city of Karmylassos was established here. Starting in the 11th century, the inhabitants included many Orthodox Christian Greeks from the islands and from various parts of Anatolia, who settled in the valley. This, meanwhile, slowly resulted in an assimilation of several different cultures.

The mainly Christian population named the settlement Levissi. During the reign of Sultan Abdülmecid, Levissi and the five Muslim districts surrounding it became the largest settlement in the area. Previously, only about 15 Muslim families in total had lived in these districts combined.

They were all involved in agriculture and raising livestock. They shared their produce with their Christian neighbors and in turn benefited from the crafts produced by the skilled artisans of Levissi. Both benefited from the professional services of people such as doctors who could only be found in Levissi. 

Members of both communities created a lifestyle and common culture based on mutual love, respect and friendship. It was a pluralistic community based on the philosophy of those who could not sleep comfortably while their neighbors went hungry. Naci Dinçer visited Nea Levissi and Nea Makri in Greece to interview some of these people.

An old man at that time, a man known as Uncle Nico told him about Levissi. Using only simple words he nonetheless painted a compellingly beautiful picture.

[HH] Surrounded by bougainvillea

“The houses were surrounded by bougainvillea, where neighbors leaned out of the windows decorated with colorful flowers to chat,

Wedding processions took place on the streets,

Children played joyfully,

Master craftsmen sweated it out in their workshops

Youngsters attended schools in preparation for their future,

Elders smoked a water pipe and played backgammon at the coffeehouses,

Stalwart friendships were as strong as rocks, 

And people from different cultures, which were truly humane,

Treating each other with love and respect…” 

[HH] Longstanding communities were divided

The world was affected by the devastation of World War I and Anatolia was no exception. The Ottoman Empire was at an end and the victorious allies took their chance to divide up the lands between them. What followed was the War of Independence in which those who had lived together for hundreds of years suddenly found themselves confronting each other in a war.

Following this struggle and Turkey’s victory, there was the official signing of the Lausanne Peace Treaty in 1923: an agreement among Turkey and 11 countries, including Greece. An additional protocol to the treaty was between the Turkish and Greek governments, involving an exchange of population.

It was decided that following the war, the Orthodox Christians in Anatolia and the Muslims in Greece would be mutually exchanged. By this time thousands of Greek Anatolians had already fled but this agreement resulted in the forced migration of more than 1 million people within a single year. On the other side of the tragedy, 500,000 Muslims in Greece and its islands were deported. This exchange did not cover the Greek population in Istanbul and the islands of Gökçeada and Bozcaada, as well as the Muslim Turks in Western Thrace. 

The people involved were not given a choice as to whether or not they wished to leave their native land. In some places communities wanted to stay where they were, claiming that they were happy where they lived. Dinçer discovered that there were reports saying that the Kaymakam (district governor) and the Muslim residents of Makri (Fethiye) and Levissi (Kaya Village) relayed a request to the government in Ankara for their neighbors to be allowed to remain.

[HH] They thought they would return

Those caught up in the exchange of population were minorities in their own countries but ended up as strangers in both. To return to those days for a few moments through the stories of the people who were there will help those who weren’t there to remember what took place at that time.

Dinçer remembers being told by an elder, “The time had come for the villagers of Levissi to migrate. First they cleaned up their houses with great care. They took along as much of their private belongings as they could carry and started walking toward the Harbor of Makri.

“They stopped on top of the hill on the road from Levissi to Makri and started waiting for the decision of the Ankara Government. After a long wait, news was received which dashed all their hopes: The Ankara Government had turned down their request.

“The Commander of the Gendarmerie announced Ankara’s decision to the crowd. When he finished talking, an old woman rose to her feet slowly. She took a deep breath, looked at the blue waters of the gulf with great sorrow and called out to those behind her with a typical Anatolian style of speech, ‘Geçti Bor’un pazarı, sür eşeğini Niğde’ye’ (‘The market of Bor is finished; drive your donkey to Niğde,’ meaning whatever was done has been done, it is time to move on to the next stage).

“Everyone rose and followed the old woman toward the harbor without a sound. At Makri Harbor authorities helped them get on the boats moored at the jetty. The boats were packed with people. When the last passenger was on board, the boats departed,” he said.

[HH] On top of the houses, a forest of fig trees grew  

“The people who lived in Levissi put out their fires, locked their doors and left their houses. They thought they would return. They couldn’t; they were exchanged – bartered in a way,” said Nico Karayorgis.

Born in Fethiye in 1903, Karayorgis’ father was from Fethiye and his mother from Kaya.

“The Balkan War started when I was in the 5th grade. Then came the First World War. Then there was the War of Independence. The tragedy finished with the defeat of the Greeks in 1922. I was in exile in Central Anatolia. The government notified us about the exchange. We were told that the populations were going to be exchanged,” he said.

“They said ‘You will all go to Greece and the Turks there are all going to come here.’ They gave us some time to prepare. It was autumn. We didn’t all leave together. People went to Fethiye and found just any vessel. They just left. The friends they left behind never forgot them.”

İbrahim Karaören from Kayaköy remembered how sad everyone was at that time. “I was about 10 or 12 at the time. After the War of Independence they said their farewells and departed in tears. They were not happy and we were also sorry when they left.”

People left behind not only the white foam on the blue waters of the Mediterranean but also their native land. Some of the passengers went to Rhodes and others to Crete. The rest finally arrived at Piraeus after a long voyage.

The subsequent lives of the families forced to migrate from Fethiye and Kaya Village is another story: The residents of Makri and Levissi, who had shared a happy, friendly and peaceful life in solidarity with their Muslim-Turkish neighbors over centuries in their native land, roamed through Greece and finally settled at a location some 55 km to the north of Athens, which reminded them a little of Makri.

[HH] Neither here nor there

The town of Levissi was offered to the Muslim migrants from rural Thessaloniki but research reveals that for several reasons many chose not to live in Kayaköy. But some did stay and made Kayaköy their home.

“They came here. They went there (to Thessaloniki),” said Sabiha Bayraktar. “In fact we came from Kavala where we used to plant tobacco and corn. We were farmers. We grew tobacco and olive trees. Thank God, my mother recalled a lot. We were born there but were very young when we departed. We were told we came from a wonderful place. We were paler than the people who lived here. They wondered where we came from.”

Münevver Ekiz, a second-generation migrant from Thessaloniki explains what her mother told her. “They took their best belongings and left the bad ones behind. They had to leave their animals when they got on the boat. They arrived here in a week. Everyone else moved on but my mother’s family stayed here in Kaya Village. They had a good life here. They were not treated badly, neither there nor here. But my mother used to yearn for their life there. She said they had lots of wheat there. She used to exaggerate about things there and said that they had more in Thessaloniki.”

[HH] A new Levissi in Greece

They named the settlement Nea Makri (New Makri) and the encampment on the hillside Nea Levissi (New Levissi). In their new settlements, they maintained the culture, traditions, customs and even the Turkish language they had brought over from Anatolia. They never totally forgot their neighbors and friends they left behind and fondly reminisced about them.

Years after the exchange, a monument was built in front of the Municipality of Nea Makri in memory of the migrants. It bears an inscription:

“How difficult it was for the migrants to get used to their new land, how they roamed on the streets of the city like ghosts and how they missed the friendly, peaceful days in their old native land.”

Like those leaving Anatolia, Muslims living in Eastern Thrace were forced to leave their homes and native land and migrate toward Anatolia. The fate of these people, experiencing the same pain, sorrow, bewilderment and tragedy was the same as the ones landing at the Harbor of Piraeus. The migrants from various regions in Greece were settled in villages allocated in their new land and started a new life.

[HH] A new window of opportunity

“Looking from one angle, Levissi could be perceived as little more than a group of buildings with deserted houses, churches, schools, fountains, workshops, windmills and chapels, which are derelict,” Dinçer said. “From another angle, the town can be seen a scene of a sophisticated and exuberant place from which its inhabitants were literally torn: a dramatically violent act, the scars of which still remain tangible in the atmosphere of the town and the hearts and souls of the people.”

Several projects have been put forward since 1988, including a proposal by the Fethiye Chamber of Architects for an “International Village of Friendship and Peace,” a display of solidarity between different cultures but in the intervening 22 years nothing has been formally decided.  

On a recent visit to Fethiye, Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay said a project would be prepared for the Kaya Village based both on use and preservation.

“[Kayaköy] has been neglected for many years. The Chamber of Architects has prepared a project for this region; our ministry also has a plan. We must preserve and make use of such a historical treasure as Kayaköy.”

There have also been rumors about converting part of the village into a holiday village but that has failed to materialize too. In the meanwhile the buildings are slowly crumbling and large parts of the mosaic in the churches are disappearing, who knows where.

“For many who visit the empty town a deep sorrow envelops the soul. At the same time, it can preserve a certain hope: the belief that so long as the sorrows of the exchange are remembered, peace along the Aegean shores must be inevitable,” Dinçer said.

[HH] Migration Museum in Çatalca

Plans are being made to open a museum in December 2010 in the Çatalca district of Istanbul as a tribute to these tragic times. Meantime the museum awaits contributions from anybody who has artifacts or family archives from photographs to written documents relating to the “population-exchange” times.

Although up to half of the population of modern Turkey can be described as “migrants,” there has been no “migration museum” as such until now. Now the first immigration-themed museum in Turkey is being established in Çatalca by the joint efforts of Istanbul 2010 ECOC Agency Cultural Heritage and Museums Directorate, Population Exchange of Lausanne Treaty Foundation and Çatalca Municipality.

For those people who we forced to migrate from Greece to Turkey and from Turkey to Greece, along with their first, second and third generation of family lineage, it is crucially important to maintain and expose them to their pre-migration culture and folklore. It is also essential to impart this information to future generations.

[HH] Economic cost of the forced population exchange

The decade spanning 1923-1933 was a period of reconstruction for Greece and Turkey that was especially highlighted by the refugees from the “Mübadele,” or population exchange.

Turkey, a geographically large country, had land and property to spare, despite the ravages of war, following the departure of more than a million Greek Orthodox Christians.

The absorption of a million refugees into a small country like Greece, which at the time had a population of roughly only 4.5 million people, put an enormous strain on the country’s economy.

In Greece the houses left empty by the exchange were not sufficient to house those coming from Turkey. An emergency settlement program was begun under the auspices of the then-recently formed League of Nations.

Eventually more than one thousand new villages were established in northern Greece alone. The economic and social cost of these years was a tough financial burden for Greece, but the skills the influx of refugees brought with them were positive for existing and new industries and businesses, as well as the labor force and the market.

For Turkey, the loss of its Orthodox Christians meant the loss of many of its entrepreneurs, industrialists and financiers. Many of the big towns and cities (except Istanbul) lost the majority of their trading and business community, which impacted negatively on the Turkish economy and everyday life.

Agriculture had suffered badly in Turkey as a result of a decade of war, and exports were at a standstill. Following the exchange there was a lack of artisan skill in Turkey, yet opportunities for Turkish businessmen to take over business in areas like the Aegean coast, with olive oil production, for example, bloomed.

Many of the new arrivals in Turkey came from agricultural backgrounds and therefore became self-sufficient fairly rapidly, rather than burdening the state.

Source: “Crossing the Aegean: An appraisal of the 1923 compulsory population exchange between Greece and Turkey,” by Renée Hirschon (Berghahn Books, 2003)



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