Turkey's Gorgeous Ghost Town

Once, the Turkish town of Kayaoy boasted a bustling Greek Orthodox population of traders and harvesters. Today it is crumbling and desolate. What happened there?


A few miles inland from the southwestern coast of Turkey, a town called Kayakoy remains in ruins, a stones throw from Rhodes and long ferry ride across the Aegean from Athens. Ninety years ago, in a sweeping ethnic and religious cleansing, its long-time Greek inhabitants were uprooted and moved out of Turkey. They left behind a picturesque Anatolian village of once-grand churches, squares, and water fountains, all piled onto the hillside of the Taurus Mountains.

Once, its Greek Orthodox residents worked as small traders and harvesters of fruits, wines, and jams, all while lived side-by-side with their Muslim Turkish neighbors. But today, the 350 stone abodes are crumbling and desolate. The roofless houses make for a pockmarked cityscape, but still boast their original stone hearths, storage cellars, latrines, and cisterns to collect rain water. Where did everyone go?

In the early 1920s, after years of bloodshed brought by World War I, came the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, which included, along the western front, the Greco-Turkish War. By 1922, warfare had fizzled out but violence targeting foreign populations in Turkey and Greece was on the rise. To halt the animosity against Greek residents of Turkey and Greece’s Turkish inhabitants, the countries agreed to a large-scale citizens swap. They signed onto a peace and population exchange agreement, called the Treaty of Lausanne, which called for more than one million Greek Christians in Turkey and some 500,000 Turkish Muslims in Greece to be swapped back to their countries of ethnic origin.

Though Greece at first turned down the idea of a compulsory, rather than voluntary, exchange—a representative at the proceedings said “such an exchange was repugnant to them”—they eventually agreed after it was “forced upon them by a stern necessity.”

And so in 1923, the 2,000 residents of Kayakoy, which Greeks had called Levissi when they settled there between the 11th and 14th centuries, were forced out of their homes and back into Greece, despite not living there for generations.

They were ordered to make their way to the port of Fethiye, and then sent by sea to an unfamiliar Greek land. Some went to nearby Rhodes or Crete, while others made the long journey across the sea to the port of Piraeus and then migrated and settled near Athens. They named their new community Nea Levissi, or New Levissi, as their original town was alternately known. It’s estimated one thousands new towns were created in Greece, where the incoming population greatly outnumbered those departing.

Turkish tour guide and researcher, Naci Dinçer, collects first-hand reports of the exodus. Apparently, the population of Kayakoy had petitioned the government in Ankara for the right to remain. On their way out of town, they were delivered the news that their request had been denied.

“When he finished talking, an old woman rose to her feet slowly. She took a deep breath, looked at the blue waters of the gulf with great sorrow and called out to those behind her with a typical Anatolian style of speech...‘The market of Bor is finished; drive your donkey to Niğde,’ [meaning whatever was done has been done, it is time to move on to the next stage],” Dinçer relayed a local paper. “Everyone rose and followed the old woman toward the harbor without a sound.”

Meanwhile, Turks who had been living for centuries in Greece were shipped across in the other direction, arriving in Turkey to populate the towns left empty by departing ethnic Greeks. But they didn’t last for long in Kayakoy, where the rocky land was unsuitable to the agriculture they were accustomed to. They moved out, leaving few original inhabitants, and after a 1957 earthquake, the village was completely devoid of inhabitants. Years of looting for treasure and building materials, left Kayakoy in a sad state of disrepair.

In 1988, a Turkish and Greek association set about restoring Kayakoy and making it a symbol of the repaired relationship between the two countries. The town was listed as a UNESCO World Friendship and Peace Village. Today, a small fee will get you into the center—considered a museum—where you can wander through its ghostly churches and surrounding streets. Nearby, a few guesthouses and restaurants serving up traditional Turkish meals of mangal, a barbecued meat selection, and tandir, slow-roasted lamb.

The town apparently gets around 60,000 visitors, though the Turkish Travel Agencies Union recently announced that they expect the number to double this year. That’s thanks to The Water Diviner, an upcoming movie featuring Russell Crowe being filmed in the ruins.

It won’t be the first time Kayakoy has captured public imagination. The picturesque village is also thought to be inspiration for the setting of British author Louis de Bernières’ 2004 novel Birds Without Wings.

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“I went to south-west Turkey and there’s a ghost town there. It used to be a mixed community, as described in the book more or less, and they obviously had a wonderful way of life, quite sophisticated. An earthquake finally destroyed the town in the Fifties, but it really started to die when the Christian population was deported. It was walking around that very special place that gave me the idea,” he told the Guardian when it was published.

In his book, de Bernières describes the atrocities the population exchange wrought on the diverse town’s population. He writes: “The triple contagions of nationalism, utopianism and religious absolutism effervesce together into an acid that corrodes the moral metal of a race, and it shamelessly and even proudly performs deeds that it would deem vile if they were done by any other.”