Longing for Levissi

Levissi has been abandoned since the political intervention of the 1920s, but now it's time for another political intervention, writes Thomas Andronas

At its height, early in the 20th century, Levissi was home to around 6000 people. Records show that in 1912 the town had about 450 boys and 250 girls enrolled in its schools.

In 1923 it was an unwanted, barbarous political intervention that forced hundreds of families to flee their homes, never to return.

Today all that remains are the barren shells of some 500 houses and a few once ornate, now desolate churches.

Anything made from timber, down to the lintels in the doorways, has been collected for use elsewhere, or burned.

Levissi has been left to decay, its pulse and memory lost to time.

The ghostly remnants of a once bustling village are a stark contrast to how it must have been just a short century ago.

In 1923 a treaty was signed between Greece and the new Turkish state.

The Treaty of Lausanne would legally ratify a process of population exchange forcing Greek-speaking Anatolian Christians to become refugees in their own land, modern-day Turkey.

The Treaty also forced Muslims, many of whom spoke Greek as their first language, to flee their homes in Western Thrace.

In all, about 2 million people were denaturalised from their homelands and ‘exchanged’ between the two countries.

This forced expulsion left many villages across the region abandoned, including Levissi, 8km south of modern-day Fethiye on the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

On any given day 100 years ago a child might have been born in Levissi, or a grandparent might have died.

There might have been a christening or a wedding.

There might have been happy times or sad.

Regardless however, of what happened in their small town a hundred or so years ago, not a single resident of Levissi could have foreseen what would occur over the coming years.

A World War, a Greco-Turkish War and a population exchange, to name but a few of the politically tumultuous events that went on to shape much of the modern world.

For the people of Levissi, as for the people of countless other towns and villages across the region, the world was torn apart, split along religious lines.

In contrast to the overtly political events of the early 20th century, Levissi as it stands today is visibly devoid of politics.

The place is almost sterile, devoid of feeling and life, with no explanation of what happened to its people.

A smattering of crucifixes on the few remaining churches the only evidence of the people that once lived there and how they lived their lives.

“The people left,” says the dreadlocked Turkish man that has claimed ownership of the last remaining house that he says was, “left as it was”.

“They went somewhere near Athens,” he says, but is unable or unwilling to elaborate.

Indeed some of the people of Levissi did end up in Athens, in Nea Levissi, as well other parts of Greece including Rhodes, Boeotia, Evoia and Crete.

But the lack of information about the town offered at the site sparks the imagination.

There are none of the standard tourist information boards, no tour guides touting tours as is standard at other sites across Greece and Turkey.

Tourist guidebooks mention a population exchange, but fail to elaborate.

Any visitor to the site that had no contextual background could easily walk through the ‘ghost town’ without any inclination as to why it was abandoned or what happened to its residents.

Perhaps the relatively small number of tourists through the site each year doesn’t warrant the financial investment of developing the site as a tourist attraction.

Or perhaps there is a lack of political desire to publicize the circumstances surrounding the abandonment of Levissi.

Perhaps the true story is too painful, too fresh, and still alive in the memories of those born in Levissi in the early 1920s.

As recently as 2008 photographs of the grandest of Levissi’s churches, the 18th century Panagia Pyrgiotissa, show the frescoes still intact.

Today the frescoes are non-existent, evidence that the history of Levissi is still being intentionally eroded, or that its erosion is being ignored.

Another, older church is currently being used as a 15th century storage room, its once icon-clad walls completely defaced and erased, further evidence that there is a lack of local desire to preserve the site and publicise the reality of what occurred there.

As a Greek Australian visiting Levissi, it’s easy to feel a level of resentment towards the politicians that dared play political games with the lives of millions of their own people.

It’s also easy to echo the centuries-old resentment of the Turks that still simmers under the surface for many Greeks.

But then you meet the locals, like Inge, the grey-haired old lady trying to eke out a living selling drinks and jewellery to the tourists who now visit the town.

She may well have lost neighbours and friends when the Greeks were forced to leave.

In Levissi, Muslims and Christians lived together, sometimes even intermarried.

It’s believed many of the Muslims left behind in the town protected their Christian friends’ homes for many years, awaiting their return.

But none of this is evident at Levissi today.

Nothing is evident at Levissi today.

In 1923 it was an unwanted, barbarous political intervention that forced hundreds of families to flee their homes, never to return.

Since then, a lack of political intervention has seen their stories almost forgotten.

Now it is time for another political intervention.

This time to honour, respect and preserve the stories and memories of Levissi.

If you have any information about Levissi, or the people that once lived there, please email thomas@neoskosmos.com.au