Monday, 9 November 2009

The tragic tale of a pleasant hill-top village in Anatolia

Sirinçe is a peaceful village nestling in the mountains above Selçuk and Ephesus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

It was a sunny afternoon late this summer. I was on a small ferry from the Greek island of Samos, as we approached the Turkish port of Kusadasi. And I was watching a Greek Orthodox monk who had boarded with me. He carefully tucked away his black cassock and stove-pipe hat into a black plastic bag that for all the world could have contained his only worldly possessions.

Perhaps he first set out from the Monastery of Saint John on the neighbouring Aegean island of Patmos, or even from one of the monasteries on Mount Athos. And as I watched him passing through Turkish passport control and police surveillance, in plain, everyday clothes, dressed like the business people and tourists he had mingled with, I wondered how many isolated Christians in Western Anatolia were waiting for his pastoral and sacramental ministry in the weekend ahead.

The road from Selçuk to Sirinçe follows the same route the Revd Edmund Chishull climbed over 3000 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

As the weekend approached, I caught a dolmus or minibus to the neighbouring city of Selçuk, which stands on the ruined outskirts of the classical and Biblical city of Ephesus, and then another dolmus that took me 8 km up into the mountains to the east and into the small hilltop village of Sirinçe, which was once one of the prettiest Greek villages in Anatolia.

The cobbled streets of Sirinçe are lined with shops that depend on tourists and visitors (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

There have been Greek communities in this part of Asia Minor since the time of Homer, and they preserved their culture through the centuries as generals and armies marched through and Biblical saints and preachers journeyed across the landscape, including Alexander the Great, Antony and Cleopatra, the Apostle Paul and Saint John the Evangelist, Byzantines and Crusaders, and the Selçuk and Ottoman Turks. In more recent centuries, Greeks and Turks lived side-by-side, often in harmony, until the disasters brought about at the time of World War I.

Early settlement

The inscription over the door into the Church of Saint John the Baptist attests to the ancient roots of the Church in this part of Anatolia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The area around Sirinçe was probably first settled after the collapse of Ephesus, when a small group of people left the city and moved to the mountains. The churches in Sirinçe were part of the Diocese of Heliopolis, which extended from present-day Torbali to Birgi and included Tralles (modern Aydin), Telmessos (Fethiye) and Denizli. The carvings at the entrance to the partly refurbished Church of Saint John the Baptist point to the links with Heliopolis. The monastic ruins in the area are small and relatively unimpressive but date back to the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

But before the village was known as Sirinçe, the name Kirkinçe or Çirkince appears in deeds from the 16th century on, following the arrival in the area of Turks and the settlement of Ayasuluk on the ruined site of Ephesus. During the 15th century, a group of Greek-speaking slaves freed under Ottoman rule also came to settle here.

Old maps name the village variously as Kyrkindje, Kirkindsche, Kirkidje, Kirkica, Kirkinca – which may date from the early monastic settlements. But when the new villagers were asked if their new home was a nice place, their answer was çirkince, “ugly place.” It is said these new Greek-speaking settlers named their village Kirkinçe or Çirkince (ugliness or ugly place) to deter others from following them to this beautiful, peaceful spot.

A priestly visit

The oldest English-language account of this beautiful village is provided by the Revd Edmund Chishull (1671-1733), an antiquarian and Anglican priest, who was best-known for his controversial disputes with the Irish Nonjuring theologian, Henry Dodwell.

Chishull was the Anglican chaplain in Smyrna from 1698 to 1702. During that time, he travelled widely through Anatolia. On 30 April 1699, while they were visiting Ephesus, Chishull and his companions found the only place where they could stay was the nearby village of “Kirkinca” (Sirinçe). They arrived on horseback, having climbed up through the valley from Ephesus. It was a 1½-hour “tiresome but pleasant journey between two hills with a stream running. We were met with trees of various species with their pleasant and inviting dark shade.”

Sirinçe once had a population of mainly Greek-speaking Christians ... today its churches are falling in or have been demolished (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Chishull and his party stayed overnight in tents set up by their guides. The following day, they toured the village and noted that the entire population was Christian. About 200 years after Chishull had left Anatolia, about 4,500 Greek Christians were probably living in Sirinçe in 1919. In addition, there were small numbers of Armenians and Jews, and a large number of Muslim Turks. But by then, everything was changing dramatically for Greek and Turk alike.

Fiction and history

In her novel Farewell Anatolia, first published in 1962 in Greek as Ματωμένα Χώματα (“Bloodied earth”), the Greek writer Dido Sotiriou tells the tale of Sirinçe – a story of paradise lost and of shattered innocence, through the eyes of Manolis Axiotis. His tale of personal fortitude, betrayed hope, and defeat is part of the greater tragedy of two nations: Greece, which was vanquished and humiliated, and Turkey, which was bloody in victory.

It is a first-hand account of the Greek community in Asia Minor at the beginning of the last century, telling how it was bitterly afflicted by events before and after World War I. It tells of the suffering of Greeks conscripted into forced labour brigades by the Ottomans, the collapse of the sultan’s rule, the arrival of the Greek army in Anatolia in 1919, and, finally, the nightmare of the “Asia Minor Catastrophe” of 1922, resulting in the death or expulsion of two million Greeks from Turkey by Ataturk’s forces.

In frank language, Axiotis paints a tragic fresco of how Greek culture was wiped out in Asia Minor. It is a stinging indictment of Great Power politics, oil-lust and corruption.

The character of Manolis Axiotis is based on the author’s father, a prosperous industrialist. Encouraged by the Greek advance towards Ankara in 1919, he had moved the Pappas family to Smyrna from Sirinçe in the hills above Ephesus, where they had lived for generations. Three years later, in 1922, the teenage Dido, with countless thousands of others, was forced to flee in terror as Ataturk’s troops seized Smyrna. More than 30,000 Christians – Greeks and Armenians – were burned to death or slaughtered in the massacre that lasted for days.

The Pappas family escaped to Athens, but at least a dozen of their relations perished in Smyrna and the family lost everything. Dido’s father was reduced to working in the docks at Piraeus.

The frescoes on the walls of Saint John’s Church in Sirinçe have faded and peeled, and some have been damaged and desecrated (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In the subsequent “exchange” of people, more than a million Ottoman Greeks were forced to move to Greece, while 380,000 Muslims were forced to leave Greece for Turkey. The exchanges were marked by chaos: people from the same villages boarded separate boats; some people who once owned no property were given land because they had made false declarations; others arrived having lost all.

A tragic career

The apse of Saint John’s Church is bare, with only a stone stump where the altar once stood (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Dido Sotiriou’s memories and her family’s experiences provided the raw material for Farewell Anatolia four decades later. “War is Circe for all of us,” reflects one of the characters. “It turns men into swine.”

Similar experiences in Kaya Köyü or Levessi, a village near Fethiye, provided the setting for Louis de Bernieres in Birds Without Wings (2004), his prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1993).

Farewell Anatolia has been described as the War and Peace of Greece, the recording angel of the “catastrophe” of 1922. But far from being an ultra-nationalist tale, it is a very frank, down-to-earth story told by a villager who speaks openly about the good and the bad among Greek and Turk. Farewell Anatolia has been a best-seller in Greece since it was first published in 1962, and it has since been translated into ten languages, including English, French, Russian, Hungarian and Turkish.

In Farewell Anatolia, Dido Sotiriou provides a doorway into the lost lives of the villagers of Sirinçe(Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

The book articulates many dearly-held Greek sentiments about the past, enhancing its popularity in Greece. But it also urges reconciliation with Turkey and its objective tone gained Dido Sotiriou a wide following in the land of her birth. The Turkish translation in 1970 was welcomed as a major contribution to reconciliation between the two neighbours

Dido Sotiriou’s life was marked more by tragedy than literary success. Her parents died shortly after their enforced exile, and she was raised in Athens by an aunt. She studied literature at the Sorbonne, and began writing as the French correspondent of several Greek newspapers and magazines, becoming one of the first Greek women to break into journalism. By 1945, she was the editor of the newspaper of the Greek left, Rizospastis.

The 1950 show trial of her sister’s lover, Nikos Beloyiannis, was memorialised in Picasso’s sketch of him, The Man with the Carnation. When he was executed early on a Sunday morning in 1952, there was widespread outcry, and two Greek ministers were shamed into resigning. At the same time, Elli Pappas was jailed for 16 years, and her sister Dido raised their new-born son. Before these events, Dido had no literary ambitions, but now, she said, “I had a duty to society, to tell the truth.”

A pleasant place

After the Papas family had left Kirkinçe, the village clung onto its self-deprecatory name until a visit in 1926 by the Governor of Izmir, Kazim Pasa. When he saw the beautiful setting, he declared that from then on the village would be “Sirinçe,” namely lovely place or pleasantness.

Ninety years ago, there were 1,800 houses in Sirinçe; today only 200 or so are lived in, mostly on the southern and western slopes of the village, many dating from the 19th century. So many of the farmhouses, monasteries and churches have disappeared, even the memories and stories of the villagers cannot pinpoint where they all stood.

The village mosque is the only public place of worship in Sirinçe (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

In the lower part of the village, shops and coffee houses line the street that runs down to a plane tree. At the eastern end of the village there was a laundry, with the village graveyard beyond it. The former schoolhouse is now a restaurant and the only place of public worship is the village mosque, for the 600 people who live in Sirinçe are all Turkish speakers and Muslims.

Saint John’s Church is now used for exhibitions and concerts but has not been fully restored (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Sirinçe once had many churches, but only two remain: the Church of Saint John the Baptist has been partly restored by the Turkish Ministry of Culture for concerts and exhibitions; its once peaceful courtyard, with a fountain, is cluttered with vendors’ stalls. The second church is crumbling, its roof is falling in, and it is impossible to gain admission.

Tasty sun-dried peppers … most of the people in Sirinçe work in the surrounding orchards, olive groves and fields (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Sirinçe’s heritage, architecture and beautiful location mean tourism plays a major role in the local economy. Souvenir shops, an open market, a dozen restaurants and a few guest houses are scattered along the pretty cobbled streets. But Sirinçe is a working village too – most of the people work in the surrounding orchards, olive groves and fields. The tourist season is now over and winter peace has returned to Sirinçe once again. But the old families and their descendants may never return.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in November 2009 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel and Ossory)