A Divided World
How an abandoned town in Turkey made me feel
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The floor is covered in weeds, there are holes for windows, and a blue sky for a ceiling. The remnants of a chimney shooting into the sky make a clear statement: people used to live here.
Wildflowers grow in the cracks of the cobblestone streets, the smell of the not-visible but not-far-away ocean permeates the air. The silence is only broken by the occasional bird call. You can almost hear the children playing on the streets, the families gathered around the chimney after dinner, the churches packed with devotees on Sunday mornings. All completely deserted now, a ghost town.
We visited many places throughout our three weeks in Turkey, but nothing is more imprinted in my mind than the abandoned town of Kayaköy. I think about the place often, with a mix of sorrow and longing, as if I myself had lived there.
Nested up in a mountain the town is visible from afar. The only standing remains are the old walls of around 500 houses and two churches. Even from miles aways it’s spooky. Wandering through its eerie alleys you can feel what it used to be: a thriving town of 10,000 people. Both Anatolian Muslims and Greek Orthodox Christians lived here peacefully, side by side, for hundreds of years.
That is, until 1923 when its Greek Christian population was forced to leave due to the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. The exchange was part of the agreement signed between the two nations following the end of the Greco-Turkish War, which aimed to ensure the homogeneity of the two countries' populations. This forced migration of ethnic Greeks from Turkey and ethnic Turks from Greece displaced more than 1.5 million people.
These neighboring countries have had a long complicated history. Wars have been fought, atrocities have been committed, hate has been sewed. Depending on who you ask you will get widely different versions of who committed which crimes, who is right and who is wrong, who is an invader and who is deserving. To be clear, none of this is unique to Turkey and Greece. We have found this “us versus them” rhetoric almost everywhere we have been, and this has been one of the most sobering lessons of our travels.
Many see the population exchange, and deserted Kayaköy, as a triumph to diplomacy and negotiations between countries. After all - at least at the very end - many people left voluntarily. After all - at least in theory - the goal was to end ethnic conflict. But to me, this community torn apart in the name of sameness, is no success.
In 1906, nearly 20 percent of the population of present-day Turkey was non-Muslim, but by 1927 - after this exchange had occurred - only 2.6 percent was. We can confidently say the exchange achieved its goal of ethnic-national homogeneity. But at what cost? Separation leads to dehumanization, reducing 'the other' to a blurry face without humanity or emotions. Unknown people are just that much easier to hate.
Population exchanges are now considered a violation of international law, but the mentality persists. The thought that the world would be a better place if we all just “stick to our own” is prevalent. The idea that if we live with, work with, marry people that are like us, that think like us, that believe like us, then life will be better. We can keep hating on the other from afar.
In Texas, where I lived for many years, people often change their minds about undocumented immigrants once they know someone who is one. They just happen to have lunch with a coworker, or their daughter introduces them to their new boyfriend, or they befriend the waiter at their favorite restaurant. They like these people, and then they learn they are undocumented and go from intolerance to understanding real fast.
Maybe what we should all seek is less homogeneity, not only in the scale of countries, which is complex and I don’t want to oversimplify. But in simpler day to day interactions and relations - I challenge you to seek what is different, what expands you, what challenges you, what gives you new perspectives.
Overlooking this abandoned town in the East of Turkey, there is not much more to see besides abandoned ruins. Indeed, a place without color or soul. To me, a stark reminder of a divided world.