Sunday, 9 March 2008

No-one is coming home to Levissi for Easter this year

The abandoned houses, churches and streets of Levissi remain on the slopes above Kaya Köyü (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The success of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières since it was published in 1993 has been enhanced by the beauty of John Madden’s 2001 movie, with Nicholas Cage as Antonio Corelli, Penelope Cruz as Pelagia, and John Hurt as Dr Iannis, with its evocative cinematography and locations on the Greek island of Kephalonia.

Louis de Bernières received less acclaim for Birds Without Wings (2004), a poignant prequel telling the earlier stories of many of the people in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and how they came to live in Kephalonia. In these novels, de Bernières is kinder to Atatürk than he is to Mussolini, and more understanding of Turkish national aspirations than of Greek nationalism. Yet both books are captivating, and I am disappointed that Birds Without Wings has not yet been made into a movie.

We visited Kephalonia a few times after reading and seeing Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and so it was natural when we were staying near Fethiye in south-west Turkey some time ago to visit the Anatolian village that inspired de Bernières as he wrote Birds Without Wings. The book’s title is provided by one of the characters, Iskander the Potter, who says: “Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows.”

Birds Without Wings is set in Eskibahçe, a small village in south-west Anatolia, and tells the tragic love story of Philothei, a Greek-speaking Christian, and Ibrahim, a Muslim Turk, as the Ottoman Empire crumbles, World War I is waged, and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk rises to power, with the Battle of Gallipoli taking place halfway through the narrative.

The characters are caught up in events outside their control in a story about religious intolerance, over-zealous nationalism, and the wars they create. Some of the other characters and families in Birds Without Wings include Abdulhamid Hodja, the local imam; his wife Ayse; her best friend, Polyxeni; Polyxeni’s husband Charitos, and their children Philothei and Mehmetçik; Philothei’s best friend Drosoula; Ibrahim the Goatherd; Iskander’s son, Karatavuk, whose real name is Abdul; and Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Karatavuk fights for the Ottoman Empire in World War I and against the Greeks in the early 1920s. On returning home, he loses his right arm when his father shoots him. No longer able to follow his father as a potter, and becomes the village scribe.

The wealthy aga or landlord, Rustem Bey, abandons his disgraced wife Tamara to a life of forced prostitution, and later he is deceived into thinking his mistress Leyla is Circassian, although she too is in a Greek Christian. Mehmetçik, whose real name is Nicos, is Philothei’s younger brother and Karatavuk’s best friend. And there is Ali the Broken-Nosed, Ali the Snow-Bringer, the Blasphemer, Daskalos Leonidas the teacher, the Dog, Enver Pasha, Father Kristoforos, Mohammad the Leech-Gatherer, and Stamos the Birdman.

Fiction founded in tragedy

Just as the stories in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin are based on real incidents and tragedies in the history of Kephalonia and Greece, the stories and people in Birds Without Wings find real foundation in the tragic history of Anatolia and the Aegean. The village of Eskibahçe and neighbouring Telmessos are real places with their own real tragedies.

Louis de Bernières found his inspiration for Telmessos and Eskibahçe in the coastal city of Fethiye and the once-thriving, abandoned nearby town of Kaya Köyü. Fethiye is close to resorts like Hisaronou and the picture postcard beach at Oludeniz, with its white sands and blue lagoon. Some tourists also manage to visit Kaya Köyü, the ghost town of 8 km south of Fethiye that provided the haunting inspiration for Eskibahçe and Birds Without Wings.

The Lycian tombs and graves that feature throughout the book are dotted across the countryside and continue to provide the backdrop for the port of Fethiye, for this is an important region for those interested in classical history. For much of its history, Fethiye was known by its Greek name, Telmessos. The city was dedicated to Apollo and surviving monuments point to a once rich and cultured city with Hellenistic, Roman and mediaeval remains. They include Lycian rock-tombs and sarcophagi, a classical theatre built by the Romans to replace an earlier Greek theatre, and a crusader castle once used by the Knights of Rhodes.

During the Hellenistic period, the symbol of the city, the Tomb of Amyntas, was carved into the rocks overlooking the bay, with a façade in the style of an Ionic temple. The nearest Greek island is Rhodes, and for centuries Christians and Muslims lived side-by-side in prosperity and peacefully in Telmessos and the neighbouring towns, villages and islands.

The lives of everyone in Eskibahçe are shattered by war, the collapse of an empire, the rise of Atatürk’s new nation, and the disasters that follow the war between Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s. “Population exchange” is still used as a euphemism to describe how Muslims and Christians were expelled from Greece and Turkey in the early 1920s. Many of those Turks expelled from places such as Thrace in Northern Greece and from Crete were Muslims who spoke Greek as their first language. Many Greeks expelled from Anatolia were Christians who spoke Turkish. These people were intimate friends with their neighbours – they went to school together, worked with one another, cried with and comforted each other, and sometimes they married across the divide. The sole criterion for defining national identity was religion, and terms such as “population exchange” or “ethnic cleansing” hide the horror of the cruelties perpetrated against them.

A small population now lives in the scattered settlements on the plains below what was a bustling market town until its population of Orthodox Greeks was deported forcibly in 1923. The people who once lived in Kaya Köyü were mainly Greek-speakers who knew their town as Levissi, and who were proud that it was built on the earlier Hellenistic town of Karmylassos.

Crumbling churches and homes

Today Levissi is slowly decaying. As we walked through its once-cobbled streets and squares, between the crumbling houses, shops and churches, the air is filled with a marked poignancy. It is hard to imagine that this was once home to 3,500 families – perhaps more than 15,000 people – although official Turkish figures still only put the numbers at 6,000.

Although it is sometimes called a ghost village, this large town once had 3,500 homes, two large churches, 19 smaller churches and chapels, two schools, shops, tavernas, a hospital, a library, two public fountains, two windmills, artisan workshops and factories. As we walked through the melancholy old town, we snatched glimpses of colour remaining on the walls of ruined houses, homes and mansions, and could imagine the decorations still crumbling on the inside walls.

In my mind’s eye, I could see the square in the upper town, close to the once-grand Church of the Archangels, full of men sipping coffee as they fingered their worry beads or that I could hear mothers calling their children in for a meal or do their school homework. I allowed myself to smell the coffee wafting from the coffee shops and the incense rising in the churches and the chapels, to hear the children at play in the streets and alleyways and the priests chanting the liturgy in the churches and chapels.

The once-elegant Church of the Panayia Pyrgiotissa, with an intricate Dodecanese-style pebble floor mosaic in the narthex dated 1888, is an eloquent if sad reminder of a once proud community. Now the streets are empty, the houses are crumbling, and the churches are tumbling down, with the eyes gouged out of the images on the frescoes. In some instances, the churches are being used to store building materials. Inside one building, I could see the impression on the walls of two large Stars of David – even the Jews of Levissi abandoned their synagogue and were forced to leave because they spoke Greek too and were not Muslims.

The frescoes in the churches in Levissi were defaced and their eyes gouged out (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Sad departures

When the people of Levissi left their homes, in the account recreated by Louis de Bernières, Father Kristoforos led them out carrying the town’s most sacred and most cherished icon. Similar tales are recounted by many Greek novelists, most notably Nikos Kazantzakis in The Greek Passion or Christ Recrucified (Ο Χριστός Ξανασταυρώνεται), in which the people expelled from the village of Sarakini by the Ottomans are led to the village of Lycovrisi by their priest, Father Photis.

As they left Levissi in haste, it was impossible for these people to bring the bones of their ancestors with them. Instead, they carried off their skulls, carefully and tenderly wrapped, to bury them once again in villages and town across Greece. The bones they left behind were piled high in the charnel house beside the Church of the Panayia Pyrgiotissa. Nobody visits those bones today, no prayers of remembrance are said here anymore, and the church, once whitewashed in a brief attempt effort to convert it into a mosque, is bare inside but for the remains of the original icon screen, where the icons at the top were too high to be defaced and erased.

The bones in the Charnel House beside the Church of the Panayia Pyrgiotissa are all that remain of the dead of Levissi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The people of Levissi, like people from the neighbouring villages and islands, moved to Rhodes, Crete, the northern Aegean and Nea Levissi in Athens. Turkish-speaking people from Western Thrace in northern Greece were invited to move into their empty homes, but many were too superstitious to live in what they saw as a ghost town. For a few years at least, some houses were protected by caring but distressed former neighbours and one-time friends. But today it is the largest “ghost town” in Asia Minor.

A silent presence

The Turkish government has plans to restore Kaya Köyü as a centre of friendship, peace, science, culture and art. Sometimes, the grandchildren of those who were forced to leave return to see their family homes, and Patriarch Bartholomeos stayed here at the start of the new millennium. But no Epitaphios or bier of Christ will be carried through the streets this Good Friday, and no exiles will return home to celebrate the Resurrection and Easter Day.

On the planes below, a new Turkish village has grown up. The old men in the cafés look like old men in cafés across the neighbouring Greek islands as they sip their coffee and play cards and backgammon. In the evenings, tourists ensure the restaurants below the old town prosper. But as the sun sets and night falls, no incense rises in the churches and chapels, there are no priests to sing the Evening services, no children are called in from the streets, no-one is coming home, and no lights come on in the houses in Levissi.

Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation at the Church of Ireland Theological College. This essay was first published in March 2008 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory).

© Patrick Comerford 2008