Saturday, 29 August 2009

Kuşadasi: a city without a memory?

‘Warehouse: Greek Shop’ ... attracting shoppers from neighbouring Samos or one of the lingering signs in the Bazaar in Kuşadasi of the Greeks of Neopolis? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I have been in Turkey about half a dozen times in recent years, and this week – for the third time – I am staying in Kuşadası, a resort town on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Kuşadası is about 100 km (60 miles) south of İzmir, and its economy is almost totally dependent on tourism. This is the biggest and best-known holiday resort on Turkey’s Aegean coast. It boasts one of the world’s deepest water ports and it is frequently visited by some of the biggest luxury cruise liners. It also boasts a large luxury yacht marina, and the seafront is lined with chic cafés and bars.

Kuşadası’s residential population of 50,000 rises to over half a million during the summer months when the large resort fills with tourists. They come from Turkey itself as well as northern Europe and the Balkans, especially Romania. Their numbers are added to by hotel staff, bar staff, building workers, dolmus and taxi drivers, restaurant workers, and the staff in holiday villages, aquaparks, rock bars, beach clubs and hotels. The Kismet Hotel (http://www.kismet.com.tr/), with its elegant, landscaped gardens high above the yacht marina, was once part-owned by the late Hümeyra Özbaş (1917-2000), a Turkish princess who was the granddaughter of the last Ottoman Sultan, Vahdeddin (Mehmet VI).

Sunset over the Aegean at the Palmin Sunset Plaza Hotel in Kuşadasi

Estate agents in Kuşadası and along the seafront at Ladies’ Beach are still bravely trying to sell holiday apartments and villas. For those much younger than I am, throbbing Bar Street is the place to go at night. I am staying in the very pleasant Palmin Sunset Plaza Hotel (http://www.palminsunsetplaza.com/hotel.php), a few miles outside Kuşadası. The local dolmus service means it is within easy reach of the city’s charming old quarter, with its narrow cobbled streets and alleyways, beautiful mosques and fountains, old town walls and towers, small cafés and restaurants – some of which even have secret gardens.

Kuşadası stands on a bay in the Aegean with the peninsula of Guvercin Ada sticking out into the sea at one end, and the mountain of Kaz Dagi behind. Above the port, a brash statue of Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, peers down on the city.

The brash honky-tonk presentation of Bar Street and the pervasive modern Turkish political climate give the appearances of a city without a past, a memory or a history. Apart from two 17th century mosques, the few remains of a tower and an old city wall, and the beguiling caravanserai, there is no indication that this is a city with a memory. There are no plaques marking the sites of former churches, basilicas, libraries or schools, or the homes of eminent past residents.

The narrow side streets and steep stepped alleyways look like the streets and alleyways of other Aegean towns – including those on the neighbouring Greek island of Samos. But their former names and their previous residents have been wiped out of Kuşadası’s collective memory.

Yet this is a town with a classical history worth remembering and recalling.

The area has been a centre of art and culture since the earliest times and has been settled by many civilisations since being founded by the Leleges people around 3000 BC.

Pygale, about 3 km north of Kusadasi on the road out to Ephesus, is said by Xenophon, to have once been the refuge of Agamemnon. Strabo in his Geography says that Agamemnon established Pygale and settled large numbers of his soldiers there. Strabo also says there was a temple to the moon goddess Munkyia in Pygale, and that during the Trojan Wars in the 13th or 12th century BC Pygale was a place for curing soldiers and repairing ships.

Later settlers included the Aeolians in the 11th century BC and the Ionians in the 9th century. Originally seamen and traders, the Ionians built a number of settlements on this part of the Anatolian coast, including Neopolis, close to the present site of Kuşadası. This was an outpost of Ephesus, and Neopolis was a minor port for vessels trading along the Aegean coast. However, Neopolis was overshadowed by Ephesus until the harbour of Ephesus silted up.

Panionium, 25 km south of Kuşadası on the Davutlar-Güzelçamlı road, was the central meeting place of the Ionian League or Panionic League in the 7th century BC. However, the ruins are in poor condition and their authenticity is disputed.

From the 7th century BC on, the coast was ruled by the Lydians from their capital in Sardis, and then from 546 BC by the Persians. In 334 BC it came under the rule of Alexander the Great, and was a minor centre of Hellenistic culture. His soldiers are said to have used Pygale as an entertainment and treatment centre. The Romans took possession of the coast in the 2nd century BC.

In Byzantine times, Kuşadası was known as Ephesus Neopolis and then as Ania. As Byzantine, Venetian and Genoese traders worked the coast, the port became known as Scala Nuova or “new port,” an Italian variant of the Greek Neopolis. The island was garrisoned, and the town centre moved from the hillside to the coast.

From 1086, the area began to come under Turkish control and these Aegean ports became the final destinations of caravan routes to the Orient. However, this arrangement was upset by the Crusades, and the coast then came under Byzantine control once again. The remains of a castle at Guvercin Ada or “Pigeon Island,” the peninsula at the end of the bay, date from these days. There is a another Venetian or Byzantine castle at Kadıkalesi, 10 km north, along the Kuşadası-Davutlar road

The Turks took control of the area once again in 1280. Kuşadası was brought into the Ottoman Empire by Mehmet I in 1413. The Ottomans built the city walls and the caravanserai that still stand today. The Kaleiçi Camii mosque was built in 1618 for the Grand Vizier, Öküz Kara Mehmet Pasha, and two years later in 1618 the Öküz Mehmet Pasha caravanserai was built near the docks for travellers and seamen.

The minaret of a mosque in Kuşadasi ... but where are the old churches, schools and tavernas? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In 1834 the castle and garrison on the island were rebuilt and expanded, becoming the focus of the town. From 1919 to 1921, the town was occupied by Italian troops, and was then held by Greece until it was captured by the Turks on 7 September 1922.

After the disastrous events of 1922-1923, the local Greek-speaking population was deported and the town was renamed Kuşadası. The name comes from the Turkish words kuş (bird) and ada (island) as the peninsula is said to look like the shape of a bird’s head when seen from the sea.

The name change was just one small part of the process that ensued in the following years, wiping out the memory of the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities that had lived in Neopolis and Scala Nuova for many generations and many centuries. The census returns from 1919 show that over 50 per cent of the people in the towns, villages and rural areas of this part of Turkey were Greek-speaking Christians at the time.

The Czech writer, Milan Kundera, in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, offers a series of reflections on the importance of memory as the root from which emerges the self-understanding by individuals and groups of their identities. In one of the essays in that book, Kundera analyses the writings of Franz Kafka and comments:

“Prague in his novels is a city without memory. It has even forgotten its name. Nobody there remembers anything, nobody recalls anything … No song is capable of uniting the city’s present with its past by recalling the moments of its birth.

“Time in Kafka’s novel is the time of humanity that has lost its continuity with humanity, of a humanity that no longer knows anything nor remembers anything, that lives in nameless cities with nameless streets or streets different from the ones they had yesterday, because a name means continuity with the past and people without a past are people without a name.”

In this essay, Kundera explores the theme in relation to the way in which an attempt had been made by the state authorities to change the awareness of the identity of the Czech people since the end of World War II. An attempt has been made to erase the nation’s memory, and through this the identity of the people has been eroded. As Kundera notes when he quotes his friend Milan Hubi approvingly: “The first step in liquidating a people is to erase its memory.”

The culture, traditions, songs, religious commitment, political ideas embodied above all in the literature and the poetry of the community are important vehicles communicating and challenging the identity of the society.

From the 1920s on, memories and names have been erased in Kuşadası and the surrounding hinterland.

Kuşadası was a fruit-growing rural district until the 1970s, when the first holiday apartments were built here. It first grew into a small resort town with holiday flats built as housing co-operatives for families from Ankara, İzmir, Denzil and other Turkish cities, and then – from the mid-1980s – Kuşadası grew into the centre of mass tourism that it is today.

Some of the old houses near the seafront that have been converted to bars and cafes are the last remnants of old Kuşadası. The city walls once had three gates, but only one remains today. The old street names have been forgotten. The Greek people who had been here for thousands of years and who were the majority of people in the city until the beginning of the last century were forced to leave in 1923 and they never returned.

On Friday [28 August 2009], I visited the mountain village of Sirince, east of Selcuk, a once-thriving Greek village that provides the setting for Dido Sotiriou’s novel, Farewell Anatolia. With its crumbling churches and houses, it is a disturbing reminder of the violent ethnic cleansing in this region in the 1920s. I plan to write more about this visit over the next few weeks. But as I travelled back through Selcuk and Ephesus to Kuşadası in the cooling evening, I wondered how many similar villages were erased from local memories and histories because there was no Dido Sotiriou to revive the stories of grandparents forced to leave unwillingly.

There was another reminder of those disturbing and murderous events and the loss of memory and story, diversity and pluralismn, as I returned from Samos this week. A Greek monk on board the small ferry removed his cassock and hat so that he could disembark at Kuşadası in casual clothes. Perhaps there is still a small Greek Christian remnant in this area that relies on the ministry of visiting priests.

Antiques ... every now and then I am surprised to find Greek used on a shop sign or in the bazaar (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Occasionally I have been spoken to Greek in hushed tones by a taxi driver who thinks I am a Greek priest or by a shop owner who tells me his mother or grandmother spoke Greek. Every now and then I am surprised to find Greek used on a shop sign or in the bazaar. But after less than three generations, the Greeks of Neopolis and Ania have been forgotten, their history has been erased, there is no-one to keep their memory alive, and tourists must never be told their story. And there is no novel by Dido Sotiriou or Louis de Bernières to bring them back to life again.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute