Wander Through This Turkish Ghost Town With a Tragic Past
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because ruins aren’t always ancient history.
The dirt road marks a dividing line between the living and dead villages. In the valley, there’s modern Kayaköy: a sleepy village in southwestern Turkey with green fields full of chickens and dogs, its residents making a living off farming and tourism. Across the road, the green fades to gray: the ruins that give Kayaköy (“rock village”) its name.
Village, though, is not really the right word. This was a town. Across the steep hillside, the houses are cheek by jowl, brought even closer by the shrubs and flowers growing through the gaping windows in the stone frames. Most are still standing, despite abandonment by their owners and a long-ago earthquake that left many of them to crumble.
Kayaköy is a testament to the crucible that forged modern Turkey. The hilltop village, once known as Levissi, was home to Greek Orthodox Christians, while Muslims from Anatolia settled the valley below. That all changed during the population exchange of 1923. Christian and Muslim minorities were transferred between Greece and Turkey. The Muslim arrivals moved to the valley, or left Kayaköy entirely.
Wandering around the houses, you can still spot traces of blue paint around many of the windows.
Naci Dincer, a tour guide who’s made a study of the ghost town, compares the split communities to “two parts of one body in the past [who] are still missing each other.” Dincer’s own history inspired his search; his father was one of those Muslims transferred from northern Greece to Turkey. Starting in 1988, he began researching the village’s story and tracking down the village’s former Greek residents, who now mainly reside near Athens.
Wandering around the houses, you can still spot traces of blue paint around many of the windows, bringing to mind a ghostly, desaturated version of the brightly painted houses of Santorini. Inside them, you can admire the former residents’ views of the whole agricultural area of Kayaköy, laid out on the bottom of the valley. Climbing over the stony path through the village brings you to a panoramic path that strung the hillside village together. But it’s eerie to hear the call to prayer emanating up from the mosques: an echo of the living just at the bottom of the valley.
For many, it’s a view worthy of Instagram. I ran into two teens snapping selfies among the ruins, and while peering through the locked gates of one of Kayaköy’s three churches, I came across a couple who were clearly unhappy I’d stumbled on their romantic photo shoot. The hashtag #Kayaköy has more than 24,000 posts, mainly from Turkish tourists who’ve made a romantic setting out of the history.
“Turkish tourists enjoy visiting Kayaköy,” Dincer says, noting they’re drawn to the town’s tragic story and the charming view of the village. Although local visitors do know the history of the town, there are few official signs on the site — other than labels of the buildings and their dates. Dincer says that the impulse to visit comes out of a desire to reconnect despite the past. “Greek-Turkish friendship is supported by many people here in Turkey. That’s why locals and tourists like to visit.”
Go There: Kayaköy
- How to get there: The closest airport is Dalaman. There are guided tours that leave from the resort city of Fethiye, but to go on your own schedule, take a local dolmuş bus and stay the night in one of Kayaköy’s several pensions. Or hike from Fethiye along an unofficial (but well-marked) section of the Lycian Way, by adding half a day’s hike before the official start of the trail in Ovacik.
- Price: 8 lira ($2.28). There is a ticket booth, but it’s often unmanned.