As the bright sun of early winter beamed down on her, Songül was vigorously sweeping the spotless area in front of her gate with a twig broom. As soon as she saw me passing she hailed me and invited me in for a glass of fresh ayran.
And so it was that barely a week after I’d been saying the last rites over the old traditional Cappadocian lifestyle, I found myself right back where I’d started out all those years ago -- perched on a bench seat in the painfully authentic parlor of someone’s cave home.
I’d come to Cemil with an art historian friend intending to take a quick look at the ruins of a large 19th-century church that sits in picturesque style on a small terrace cut into the side of a gorge. It’s out of sight of the main road that speeds tour groups south from Mustafapaşa to the rock-cut churches of Soğanlı and so gets very few visitors who would, in any case, struggle to make much sense of the church’s roofless shell and enigmatic frescoes (a sleeping Jesus stretched out along the back of a lion had both of us completely stumped).
We, however, lapped it all up, noting how colorful the interior would once have been with its faux marble columns and pondering the cruelty of fate as indicated by the date inscribed beneath the lion. In 1914 the Greek Orthodox residents of the village had clearly felt secure enough to embark on repainting their church, yet only 10 years later under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne that ended the Turkish War of Independence they would have been forced to leave their homes and head for a Greece most would never have seen.
The church was clearly visible from the terrace of Songül’s house, but for her it was nothing special, just part of the largely ruinous backdrop to her life. She was much keener to show off her house: the guestroom off the kitchen with beds made up for two people, the spacious sitting room, the master bedroom. I eyed up the soot-blackened fırın (oven) that must have been used to make bread since time immemorial, while one of many cats eyed me back from a lofty ledge.
Songül was a cheery soul despite living a life that seemed a tad bleak. Her beloved son had moved to Germany, where he had started his family a long way away from his mother. Her parents and parents-in-law were dead. While we were admiring her kitchen a neighbor called across from a house on the other side of the small central valley, but according to Songül very few people still live in Cemil. “They’ve gone to Ankara and İstanbul,” she said. “Or to Germany.”
And therein lies a problem. Many of Cemil’s old stone houses with their elegantly carved doors and windows stand empty. First they lost their residents to the 1923 population exchange, and now they’re losing them again to the lure of the cities. Recent statistics suggest that around 75 percent of Turks now live in towns. What they don’t reveal, however, is that of those left behind in the villages the majority are elderly. Cemil may not be a ghost town quite yet, but within the space of a generation it probably will be.
Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.