Kaya For Short

In the distance I can hear the hooting of an owl, as the last of the daylight slowly fades away. The scattering of stars become brighter and more plentiful. A tiara of precious stones adorning a black, velvety sky. The heat of the day lingers in the flagstones, but the night air is laced with a chill that makes me reach for socks and a sweater. There is no light pollution or man-made sounds littering the neighbourhood. A silence and a peacefulness foreign to my daily life back in the UAE are saturating the night. The faint tinkle of a goat’s bell drifts towards me. They roam the mountain slope that rises sharply above the stone cottage, and dislodge little stones with their agile feet that trickle down occasionally in little streams of sound. Crickets provide an almost imperceptible coating of white noise that is constant and soothing. The mournful braying of a lone donkey tears through the stillness, and for a while, the incessant barking of the many dogs roaming the countryside, fall quiet. The melancholic voice of the muezzin, calling the faithful to the last prayer of the day, echoes along the length of the valley. Once the last notes of his incantation fade away, it is the whirr of bat wings swooping low over the swimming pool, taking greedy sips of water or catching insects, that fill my ears. 

I am greedily soaking all of this up. Hoping that every single cell in my body will retain a memory of these tranquil nights in the Turkish countryside, where my sister and I are renting a cottage near the deserted village of Kayaköy.

The Greco-Turkish war (1919-1922), a direct result of World War I, left many settlements in Turkey plundered and in ruins. Like in any war atrocities were committed on both the Turkish and Greek sides, and stories of ethnic cleansing abound. After the signing of the “Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations” in Lausanne, Switzerland on 30 January 1923, a compulsory population exchange took place. The first article of the convention reads: “As from 1st May, 1923, there shall take place a compulsory exchange of Turkish nationals of the Greek Orthodox Religion established in Turkish territory, and of Greek nationals of the Moslem religion established in Greek territory.” It was, therefore, an ethnic exchange based not on nationality, but religion.

Those Greek Orthodox Christians of Levissi, who had not already fled the destruction of war, were part of this exchange programme. They had to leave their homes, and belongings they couldn’t carry, and transplant themselves onto foreign soil. Their village still clings to the mountain side, where every house has a sweeping view over the valley they once cultivated. Today their village is called Kayaköy, Turkish for ‘stone houses’. The valley is still cultivated, but unlike the neighbouring valleys, lacks the ubiquitous white plastic tunnels of modern-day farming.

Ghost-like, it serves as a reminder of the consequences of war. Looting has, long ago, stripped the buildings of their windows and doors, while the devastating earthquake of 1957 destroyed much of the village. Compared to the rich, long history of various civilisations in Turkey, it is a modern-day ruin, yet, still infused with the rich, sad stories of mankind’s fumbling existence. It is a place to visit early when tendrils of mist curl over the valley, and the first rays of the sun paint the monochromatic palette of desolation a rich pale gold. It is also a place to linger, pause, and dream.

Fragments of colour still stubbornly cling to walls, as a last act of defiance perhaps, to remind all those who trample past that a vibrant community once existed here. That life in all its richness used to inhabit the stone houses that are crumbling away. That hard work and sweat, laughter and tears, celebrations and rituals once rang out over this valley. That we should tread reverently, because life as we know it, is fleeting.    

Commerce, because of the influx of tourists, flourishes in the lower part of Kayaköy, where people sell handmade goods, and restaurants and pansiyons operate. A handful of old houses at the bottom, although not fully restored, are occupied. Here chickens scratch in the dirt, and cats bask in the sun.

In September the Turkish Government has declared its intention to develop the village to include a hotel and other tourist facilities. It is a step, which perhaps good for the local economy, will change its current character, and if you, like me, are enchanted by abandoned places, where the past survives in the stones and the imagination, you should hurry to visit Kayaköy, before it becomes flooded with too many tourists.