Lesbos, finding the roots
Wilco Van Herpen
‘The castle is the only building on the whole island that was built by the Ottomans. It must have been in the year 1757 that they built it and the reason was pirates.’The trip on Lesbos to the remote village of Sigri is, considering this is just an island, quite long. Slowly the landscape changes, from the lush green forest, it slowly changes into a bare, dry landscape. It is as if I am driving through Central Anatolia; dried grass bleached by the summer sun. Signs of the Petrified Forest are placed aside the road.
Lesbos is the place where, 20 million years ago, a volcano exploded and threw out its lava. All the trees in this area were burned, but it happened so fast that the trees, after the volcano eruption ended, remained like tombstones in a graveyard. As so many tombstones, some of them were still standing straight, some of them toppled over and all of it was covered with ashes. Over time, the trees transformed into stones and created an almost spooky landscape. Nowadays, this place is a nature reserve and you can find all about the how, when and why in the museum of Sigri. If you want to visit the Petrified Forest, I advise you to go late in the afternoon. During early noon, it is too hot to enjoy the walk.
Of course I wanted to see the Petrified Forest, but the reason why I came to Sigri was the history of my wife’s relatives. Her grandfather came from Sigri and last year Gonca visited this place, but was not able to get much information. This time, there would be a man in the village who might be able to help Gonca, so we went. During the weeks ahead of our holiday, Gonca did quite a bit of research and learned something that shocked her, as it did to her father.
It turned out that the family actually came from the region of Konya Karaman, the people were called Karamanlılar and were Turkmens. It was during the reign of Fatih Sultan Mehmet that this group was constantly clashing with other people that also lived in this region. They had a very strong identity and did not want to assimilate with any other tribe or group of people. This caused quite some problems and therefore the Sultan decided this group had to be sent to another place so he could control the area of Karaman more easily. In 1462 the sultan had conquered an island just in front of the coast: Lesbos. This would be the perfect place to send those people; out of sight and no people they could harm there.
Soon, 2,000 people were deported to Lesbos and the sultan felt relieved. It is interesting how people always try to find a place that resembles their place of origin. Lesbos, being such a nice and green island would be a possible place for me to live, but if I could choose I would choose the green area of the country where there is a lot of water. The Karamanlılar, on the other hand, found the driest place on the island, a place called Sigri. This is where they felt at home and this is where they stayed until 1923, when they had to return to Turkey as a part of the Treaty of Lausanne.
Gonca was quite excited about the meeting with one of the village’s elder men and thanks to our guide Fatoş Lazari of Mitilene Tours, she would be able to receive some precious information from him. Over time, of course, the village had changed. The old man pointed out a couple of places that used to be important. The mosque, now converted into a church, the police office, an inn and, last but not least, the house where Gonca’s grandfather had lived. One part of the building was a normal house, but the other side had a darker past; this used to be the village’s prison. I went into the old house and inside, it was as if time had stood still. It was all still there; the bed, some lamps, furniture and even some decorations. While we were in the house, the old man suddenly started shouting, “Come out of the house, come out please. The villagers will get cross with me,” so all of a sudden, we awoke and were rudely called back to reality. Gonca went with the man to his office, but this part was, I am sorry to say, a bit boring so I took my daughter and walked around in the village.
After a short walk, we ended up at a castle of which the main gate was closed due to the building’s dangerous situation. Being an adventurer and discoverer, I promised myself I would get into this castle and yes, at the back side of the castle I found a small hole in the wall just big enough to work my way in. This old castle is a very special castle; it is the only building on the whole island that was built by the Ottomans. It must have been in the year 1757 that they built it and the reason was pirates.
During that time, the seas were controlled by pirates and for that reason they needed a safe haven to protect the people and the wealth of the country.
Walking around with my daughter, I noticed she was not too overwhelmed by this beautiful castle. After all, it was just a lot of stones put together: What does that mean for a five-and-a-half year-old girl? To explain a bit about the history to her, I decided to tell her a story about how the pirates used to attack the castle, how the soldiers would defend it and how the pirates, all of a sudden, would attack the castle from a different point from the sea. Şira was fascinated by the story and wanted to know all about it and what happened to the pirates.
My tour in the castle was finished and so was Gonca’s chat with the man. She learned the house we were in less than an hour ago was indeed her grandfather’s house and she even found older documents belonging to her grandfather’s parents. For Gonca, it was great to learn all of this information, to find some important traces of her roots and for me it was another piece of history about the Ottoman time that opened up in front of my eyes. I did not know there was this rebellious group of people who used to live in the area of Karaman and were deported to Lesbos Island and I bet many Turks also do not know about this part of their history.