The villagers of Levissi were forced to abandon their homes in 1923 ... the ruins stand as witness to a sad time in the history of Europe (Patrick Comerford)
The Turkish newspaper Karsigazete, a leading English-language newspaper in Turkey, Hürriyet Daily News, and other Turkish media outlets carried reports last week that the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry is to hold an auction next month [23 October 2014] to rent the deserted Greek ghost town of Kayaköy, one of the most intriguing cultural heritage sites on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, for 49 years in return for its restoration.
The reports say the auction will partially open the archaeological site at Kayaköy to building and that there are plans to build an hotel and other tourist facilities that will spread across one-third of the village.
The total cost of the project is expected to reach 30 million Turkish Liras (about €10.4 million), and two companies have already offered a bid for the auction.
Kayaköy is about 8 km south of the popular coastal town Fethiye. Local officials have praised the move, claiming that restoring 5,000-year-old village through renting it would turn the ghost town into an “international brand.”
The Turkish reports say “Kayaköy was abandoned after its Greek inhabitants returned to Greece in the population exchange between the two countries in 1923.”
But the truth is very different: the Greek population of Kayaköy did not “abandon” their town – they were forced to leave in a violent act of “ethnic cleansing” in 1923, after the burning of Smyrna (Izmir). Nor did they “return to Greece” – the town and the surrounding area had been Greek-speaking not merely for centuries, but for thousands of years, and since antiquity this place was the home to successive, multiple generations of Greek people who knew their home village in the Kaya valley as Levissi, and before that as Karmylassos.
I first visited Levissi in 2006, and have returned a number of times during holidays in Ovacık, Hisarönü and Fethiye. On that first visit, its haunting impact made it difficult to write about, and it was another two years before I wrote about the tragic sequence of events that turned Levissi into a “ghost town.”
Kayaköy or Levissi was known to the Lycians, to the Greeks, and to the classical historian Strabo as Karmylassos (Καρμυλησσός). At the beginning of the last century, the people in this Anatolian mountain village were Christians but many were bilingual, speaking both Turkish and Greek. This was their home, and the home of their ancestors. No-one considered the modern Greek state as homeland, and although Rhodes is the nearest Greek island, at the time it too stood outside the modern Greek state, occupied by Italy from 1912 on.
The villagers of Levissi were forced to abandon their homes, their churches, their schools, their workshops, their shops and their factories in 1923, when the agreed “exchange of populations” between Turkey and Greece led to every Greek Orthodox villager being forced to leave for Greece – along with the few remaining Armenians, Jews and any other minorities who were neither Muslim nor Turkish-speaking.
About 500 houses from the original village are still standing – some turning to rubble, others still displaying hints of former elegance and grandeur, many with doors, floors, cisterns, fireplaces and chimneys still intact, some with peeling plaster, often with fig trees and weeds growing through the buildings.
The occasional restoration points to the lost grandeur of these houses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
It is possible to pick your way through the former streets and alleys, or to imagine yourself sitting in one of the squares, sitting in the summer sunshine, sipping coffee, watching the children play and listening to the Sunday bells of the churches.
Here and there, I have come across a house that has been restored to its former grandeur. But when the tourists slip away, this a lonely place, without the life and sounds it should rightly have echoing through its silent streets and squares.
Kayaköy or Levissi was once a substantial town – as there are 500-1,000 houses still standing today, there must have been more 80 years ago, so this was a small town with a population of at least 3,000-4,000 people if not more; some estimates even put the population at 6,000.
The sad truth is that – despite the war between Greece and Turkey between 1919 and 1922 – the people of Levissi had always been good neighbours to one another, with some exceptional cases of intermarriage. Their lives inspired Louis de Bernières in 2003 when he wrote Birds Without Wings, his prequel to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, where the village of Levissi is thinly disguised as Eskibahçe.
The interior of the Church of Taxiarches ... its frescoes, icons and other religious works have been vandalised and stripped out (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Church of Taxiarches (Ταξιάρχες, the Archangels Michael and Gabriel) or the “high church” stands on top of a hill in the middle of the town. It is a five-bay church with barrel-vaulted ceilings, an apse and a narthex with a saddle-back roof.
But the frescoes and icons have been stripped from the walls, the iconostasis has been removed, and the former pebble floor, made of black and white pebbles in mosaic pattern, has been lifted away.
Outside, in the spacious courtyard, it is easy to imagine the great ceremonies and liturgies that must have been celebrated here over the centuries.
Throughout the town, there are at least 14 other smaller churches. Some are tiny; some are collapsing under the weight of neglect of almost a century; in one, where the frescoes survive but are fading, the eyes have been gouged out of the saints, as if those who remained could not bear to have their protectors look down in judgment on them.
The interior of the Basilica of the Panayia Pirgiotissa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Down at the end of the town stands the more recent Basilica of the Panayia Pirgiotissa (Παναγια Πυργιώτισσα), built as recently as 1888 – the date is still visible in the floor mosaic at the north-west door, and in the Greek inscription above. The floor of the church and the narthex at the west end are mosaics laid out in typical Dodecanese patterns of grey and white pebble-work.
Inside, the church still has its marble-framed iconostasis – without its main icons at a lower level. But some of the icons survive at the top of the screen, including images of Christ and the 12 Disciples, the Transfiguration, the Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the Easter appearance to Thomas and the Disciples, the Ascension and Pentecost.
But the frescoes have been scraped off the dome, the apse and the walls. If anything has survived or been preserved it is because it was white-washed over so that the church was used as a mosque until the 1960s.
One Sunday morning, we prayed inside this hallowed place. For a few brief moments, this was a church again as we celebrated the Sunday Eucharist with bread and wine we brought with us from a local restaurant.
The remains of the dead in the charnal house beside the Basilica of the Panayia Pirgiotissa (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Outside the church, tucked away in one corner of the churchyard is the bell-tower, and in the other the charnel house, piled high with the skeletal remains of villagers. When they were forced to leave, the Christian villagers took the skulls of their parents and ancestors, leaving the rest of their bones behind.
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.
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.
Below Levissi, the modern Turkish village of Kayaköy looks like any other tranquil Aegean village – with its sleepy cafés where old men sit outside in the shade playing backgammon and sipping coffee.
Today, the town has become a cultural centre, home to festivals and many international events each summer. The current project reported in the Turkish media last week has been on the government agenda for several years, but a first auction organised last year was without success.
Turkish critics of the project claim that the town, like many other Mediterranean resort towns, could lose its authenticity and originality at the hands of investors seeking to maximise profits.
Legal experts point out that the town does not have a construction plan designed to protect its cultural assets. Despite complaints from local Turkish people, the village is quickly falling victims to cheap tour operators who are turning the place into a quadbikes’ arena.
The children and the grandchildren of the original population, expelled without compensation, point out that they are still the legal owners of the houses, shops and buildings in Levissi.
During the first auction, activists launched a Facebook page called “Save Kayaköy” in the hope that restoration work should be planned and carried out in co-ordination with Greece, and that they should respect and enhance the environment and the area's history.
But the same government that destroyed Taksim Square in Istanbul despite persistent protests by ordinary people is going to go ahead with the destruction of Levissi unless there the international community expresses its outrage. And in wiping out the memory of Levissi, it is trying to wipe out the memory and evidence of an appalling act of “ethnic cleansing” that shame all Europeans.