It recently gained fame as it was the location for some of the final scenes in Russell Crowe’s move The Water Diviner, and prior to that it was the inspiration for the town of Eskibahçe in Louis De Berniere’s book Birds Without Wings. So, when you enter the sleepy village of Kayaköy, you could be forgiven for wondering if you have come to the right place.
Here, there is little traffic, save for the odd tractor rumbling down the road. There are few tourists, and a just a small number of tiny cafes dotting the roadside, many serving traditional Turkish pancakes. But as you look left, you see them – deserted, crumbling stone buildings layered up the side of a steep hillside – silently looking down at you, almost as if they are standing guard, and urging you to come and learn the secret of their lost past. Cross the road, and make your way up the hill, start exploring the abandoned churches and houses, and everything else is forgotten as you absorb the haunting sadness of these buildings and the story they have to tell.
For centuries, Greek Orthodox Christians and Anatolian Muslims lived here together in harmony, working side by side. At that time the name of the village was a Greek one – Levissi. Its population is believed to have sat somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000. The Anatolian Muslims of the village were predominantly farmers, whilst their Greek Christian neighbours were craftsmen. Their children went to school together, Christian and Muslim men played backgammon in coffee houses together, and the town’s women exchanged food and socialised together. They were involved in each others weddings and religious celebrations.
Following the Greco-Turkish War of 1919 – 1922, an agreement was made between Greece and Turkey regarding an exchange of populations. The decision was made that all Orthodox Christians in Turkey would be returned to Greece, and all Muslims in Greece would be sent to Turkey. Many Greek Christians had already fled Turkey because of the war, but the agreement meant that more than 1 million people would be forced from their homes in just one year.
When word came that Levissi’s Christian residents were to leave, and be returned to Greece, the Muslim residents appealed to the government in Ankara for a reversal of this decision. Legend has it that everyone in the village was so certain that their appeal would be successful, nobody truly believed that they would be leaving. On the day they were to leave, the Christian residents cleaned their homes, and took their possessions and began to walk towards the harbour of Makri (modern day Fethiye), accompanied by their Muslim neighbours. They paused at the top of the hill, waiting to hear word regarding the final decision about their appeal to stay. Finally, a Commander from the Gendarmerie came to give the crowd the news they had been waiting for: the government in Ankara had turned down their appeal. Tears were shed, hasty farewells were said, and the Greek Orthodox Christians continued down the hill to the harbour, silently and alone.
It is believed that the Muslims who remained in Levissi guarded the homes of their Christian friends, believing that one day they would return.
When those who had been deported from Kayakoy and neighbouring Fethiye arrived in Greece, they searched for a place they could call home, with the majority of them eventually settling in near Athens because of the area’s physical similarity to their lost homes. They named their new settlements Nea Makri (New Makri) and Nea Levissi (New Levissi).
The Muslim Greeks who had been deported from the Greek town of Thessaloniki were offered Kayaköy as their new home, however they were not impressed, and the majority of them refused to live there. In 1957, an earthquake destroyed most of the buildings in Kayaköy forcing those who remained to completely abandon it.
Today, the buildings on the valley flat have been restored, and some new buildings erected, however the buildings on the hillside have been untouched. Around 500 houses and several churches remain. Entering Kayaköy’s Lower Church brings a feeling of sadness, because although the church has been destroyed by the elements and by looters, its frescoes and high ceilings give a glimpse into its former glory. It is easy to imagine Kayaköy’s inhabitants gathered here to celebrate and worship.
Standing at the top of the hill, looking down over the crumbling buildings and across the fertile fields of the Kaya Valley, it’s impossible not to empathise with the trauma and sadness that must have been felt by those who were forced to leave, and those that stayed behind in a community torn apart.
The Turkish Government has declared the town as a museum, which grants it protection, and fittingly, UNESCO has named Kayaköy as a World Friendship and Peace Village.