Journey to Livissi, a Greek village on sale in Asia Minor

If you sit still for a minute at around noon in Livissi and put a hand on the wall of one of the stone houses, you can almost hear the sounds of life that once filled this village that suddenly emptied in 1922. Until then, Livissi was populated mainly by Greeks – 3,500 according to some sources and 6,500 according to others – who were forced to abandon hearth and home as part of the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey.

Today Livissi is a ruin of its old self, hidden behind a hill in a dense forest just a few kilometers from the Turkish coastal resort of Fethiye (Makri in Greek), a two-hour boat ride from the Greek island of Rhodes. A handful of Turks remain, mostly at the southern end of the settlement.

After decades in obscurity, Livissi was brought back into the spotlight recently when the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism announced a tender for the development of about one-third of the historical part of the village into a tourist resort. According to media publications, the investor will be granted a 49-year lease and will also be responsible for renovating the rest of the settlement.

Kathimerini traveled to Livissi to record the stories and the voices of those who reacted to the news, both in Greece and Turkey.

Tales of the past

“There was a game we’d play as children. If we found a piece of glass or a shard of porcelain somewhere in the village we would try to imagine who it belonged to,” says Isik Taban, a resident of Livissi who recently published a book of stories based on her life there.

The Greeks of Livissi abandoned the village in 1922, leaving their valuables and other belongings with their Turkish neighbors for safekeeping. Their exodus marked the beginning of the end of village life as the Turkish farmers brought from Thessaloniki in northern Greece (according to locals’ accounts) to resettle the empty Greek homes soon left due to a shortage of arable land.

The Turks of Livissi, or Kayakoy as it was later named, gradually scattered as well, with their population dropping from around 1,000 after the exodus of the Greeks in 1922 to just 300 a few years later.

“The alleys of Kayakoy still bear the imprint of Giorgos and Ibrahim, of Aishe and Eleni. It was not their war but they paid the price. The walls still carry their memories,” says Taban.

Some 500 kilometers away in Nea Makri, east of Athens, 72-year-old Despina Mavrikou grew up with stories about Livissi told by her mother and grandmother.

“My grandmother died in 1952 and my mother in 2006. They never managed to go back to Livissi and it weighed heavily on their hearts. I remember one day my daughter was playing in the yard with a toy airplane and my grandmother said, ‘Oh child, put me on that plane and take me home.’ She wanted me to go to Livissi and bring her back a handful of pebbles from the courtyard of the Church of Taxiarchis,” recalls Mavrikou.

Mavrikou was fortunate to be able to fulfill her grandmother’s wish as the church was closed to the public last year.

“I searched for the house when I arrived at the church. I couldn’t find the landmarks my mother had told me to follow. Then I went through a door and I saw it. All that was left was an L-shaped wall. There was still soot in the fireplace,” says Mavrikou.

The main part of Livissi today consists of a few hundred stone houses huddled together along narrow alleys, with caved-in roofs and collapsed walls. In some cases nothing but a few scattered stones remain to show where homes once stood. Or a staircase that leads nowhere and a fireplace perched atop a piece of walling, still darkened by smoke, 90 years on. Or a sky-blue wall still bearing the traces of the cupboards and shelves that once accommodated a kitchen. Dirt covers the floors and nature – especially wild figs – has taken over, growing through walls, in the middle of living rooms, snaking into every nook.

Yet even among the remnants of time and ruin, the past is still evident. Livissi is probably the only Greek village in Asia Minor that remains as it was, without interventions, a landmark of the history of Hellenism in this part of Turkey. It is this sense of history that has compelled the authorities to turn it into a tourist attraction. Turkish guide books describe it as a ghost town.

“It makes me mad when they refer to it as a ghost town,” says Taban, one of the many people in the area who feel the need to record the stories of the Greeks who once lived here in an effort to reconcile themselves with the past.

“Many Greeks come to visit. Some cry and it makes us very sad,” says Nail Kuyucak, a resident. “They write us letters telling us how difficult their lives have been [since they left].”

Just seven of Livissi’s residences have been renovated and are inhabited. They are a handful of properties that are still privately owned and have not passed to the state.

One of these belongs to Birol Ganioglu, who runs a restaurant on the ground floor and has photographs of Greeks who once lived in Livissi hanging in the entrance, showing them in the village or in Nea Makri, where most of them were resettled during the population exchanges.

“My home belonged to Giorgos Georgiadis, whose nickname was Kel Yorgo, or Bald Giorgo – much like myself,” Ganioglu jests.

“The richer Greeks went overseas, to France and Germany. The poorer ones went to Nea Makri,” Ganioglu explains. “Many come back and tell us their stories. For example, one family of Greeks left a trunk containing their daughter’s dowry with some friends when they left. Many years later those friends located them in Greece and returned it to them,” he says.

Turkish plans

Apart from its history, Livissi is also unique for its atmosphere.

“Kayakoy is a living museum of architecture,” says Hilal Alyanak, chairman of the Fethiye Chamber of Architects.

“The architects of this area have taken an interest in Kayakoy for years and we want it protected,” she tells Kathimerini.

Her opinion is shared by Sema Kumyol Ridpath.

“It took my breath away when I first visited in 1980. I felt the pain of the people who were forced to leave. And then I got involved in what could be done,” she says.

The architectural community in both Turkey and Greece has made several efforts to have Livissi listed for preservation. Kumyol Ridpath was part of the first endeavor in 1999, which was a deal between the chamber and the Turkish Tourism Association for the restoration of the village’s two biggest churches and the street that connects them.

At around the same time a series of meetings between architects were held to discuss the restoration of the village. These included the participation of Nikos Agriantonis, then-president of the Greek branch of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), and Arif Sedek, general secretary of the Turkish Chamber of Architects. The concept behind the restoration was to turn Livissi into a village of “peace and friendship.”

The initiative began to take shape a few years later.

“With the cooperation of Costas Katsiyiannis from ICOMOS we put together a file for the restoration of the two churches to be carried out with European funding from cross-border programs (together with certain projects on Rhodes),” says Kumyol Ridpath.

The architects on both sides of the Aegean have worked together for years and hold an annual assembly that will take place this year in Fethiye at the end of October and also includes a tour of Livissi.

Rhodes architect Anastasia Papaioannou has visited the area several times through this collaboration.

“At the entrance to the village is a spring built in 1912 by Georgios Theodorou, a local benefactor, to meet Livissi’s water shortage problem,” she says. “In fact, the plaque placed by the municipality thanking him for his donation remains to this day.”

Papaioannou had offered to conduct a study for the spring’s restoration with funding for the project to be provided by Greek architects. Though her proposal was warmly received at first, nothing came of it.

What has progressed in the past few weeks, however, is the Turkish government’s plans to develop Livissi into a tourist resort, complete with hotel, shops and attractions.

According to Turkish reports, three investors came forward on August 8. Two made it through the evaluation process and are expected to submit their bids on October 23.

The plan is to create accommodation of 300 beds in Levissi’s abandoned buildings, which will be leased to the investor for 49 years. The investment is estimated at 300 million Turkish liras, or around 10.4 million euros.

“Some part of Kayakoy must be brought to life but we do not want mass tourism as you see in Fethiye,” argues Kumyol Ridpath. “When you visit Kayakoy you want to see it as it was a century ago, you don’t want to see swimming pools. I don’t want to be 100 percent negative but I know the extremes private initiative can reach so limits need to be set.”

“We were terrified by the news,” says Seckin Basoglou, a lawyer and resident of Fethiye. “We are afraid that this initiative will destroy the memory of the place.”

Back in Greece, Despina Damianou, the head of the association for residents of Nea Makri who hail from Livissi and Makri, agrees.

“First of all it is a gift that it has held on as it has so far,” she says.

For Mavrikou, the birthplace of her grandmother and mother it is a holy place. “Our life began there.”

Five hundred kilometers away from the land of her forebears, Mavrikou has her memories stored in a small box. She opens it with pious care and shows me its precious contents: pebbles from the Taxiarchis churchyard. She put some on her grandmother’s grave as she’d promised.

“I’ve kept a few for my own,” she says.

Indelible imprint: The story of a second-generation refugee

“My grandmother wouldn’t talk about such things; it made her cry,” says Despina Mavrikou. She is 72 years old and lives in Nea Makri, where her mother and grandmother settled after leaving Livissi. Mavrikou’s mother was 7 at the time.

“She used to say, ‘They chased us from our homeland without us being at fault,’” says Mavrikou, who managed to visit Livissi just once, in 2009.

To her grandmother and mother, Livissi was a dreamland.

“It had many neighborhoods and many churches. It also had Turks and all the neighbors got on well together,” she says.

The problems began for the Greeks a few years before the Asia Minor Catastrophe yet even then the bond between the Greek and Turkish villagers remained strong.

“My grandmother was a widow. She had four daughters and a son. At one point she was sent into exile with my mother [an infant at the time]. The other two daughters – the third was married – were left with a Turk [neighbor], they called him something like ‘Atsiz Aga.’ She was scared to take them anywhere else. He promised to care for them as though they were his own. He dressed them up like Turkish girls and they stayed there. A family friend wondered how his two daughters had suddenly become four, but [Aga] warned him not to ever speak of what he saw. My grandmother came back six months later and took them back,” relates Mavrikou.

In 1922 the Greeks of Livissi, as in most other parts of Turkey, were told they had to go.

“My grandmother put an altar bread stamp, the key to the house and a change of clothes into a bundle and hung it around her neck. She had a Turkish partner who had worked the fields with her for 20 years and told her to milk the goat,” says Mavrikou.

Ordered not to take any valuables with them, the Greeks left these and other belongings with their Turkish neighbors.

Mavrikou’s grandmother left her gold jewelry with the same Turkish neighbor who took care of her daughters. Years later she retrieved it from relatives on the southeastern Aegean island of Symi which the Turkish man had managed to track down.

“He had taken nothing,” says Mavrikou.

The departure

The exodus from Livissi happened fast.

“My grandmother walked to Makri [Fethiye], 8 kilometers away, and left the next day on a boat. She was among the first to leave,” says Mavrikou.

Her grandmother was traveling with a first cousin.

“They got in line. A woman was searching the women for gold and a man the men,” says Mavrikou, recounting how her mother and aunt saw that their earrings, the last of their valuables, would also be taken away.

“They took them off and linked them together. They threw them into the sea and watched them sink, all the way down,” she says.

The ship set sail for Piraeus.

“The ticket cost 1 lira per person… They arrived at Piraeus… A man from the refugee committee was interested in my aunt and told my grandmother, ‘If you give me your daughter [as a wife] I will take you to a place where you will live well because it’s near the sea.’ My grandmother said, ‘All she has are the clothes on her back.’ And he said, ‘I don’t have much more either.’ And so they came to Nea Makri… They didn’t all come at once. At first it was 93 families… They were lucky because they settled quickly. They were intially given a tent and a goat for milk,” says Mavrikou.

The return

Mavrikou’s much-desired trip to Levissi came about in 2009, three years after her mother’s death.

“I was flying; I wasn’t walking. My back stopped hurting, my feet, I felt full of life, walking ahead fast with my grandson Antonis in tow. I found the spring. We washed and drank; we were crazy with joy. I had heard so much about the place I knew where to go, how to get around,” she says.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.