Bozcaada known in the Antic world as Leucophrye and in Greek mythology as Tenedos is a small Aegean island with a different climate from its surrounding area, with its clean sea and a life style of its own.
We learn from mythology that Tenes, the grandson of Poseidon, was thrown in a wooden crate into the sea and was washed upon the shores of Leucophrye. Tenes climbed the slopes of the island and settled on the island where he produced grapes from the wild vine. For 3000 years viticulture and production of wine have been the symbols of Tenedos.
Tenedos’ population changed constantly throughout the history due to many invasions, migrations and wars. Since the 1500’s when Tenedos fell under the regime of the Ottoman Empire, Turks and Greeks created a rich common culture. However, due to the forced migration of the Greek population since the 1960’s viticulture and wine production has been disintegrated. During the last decade many efforts were undertaken to revive this old native culture.
Thanks to the fact that the whole island is a natural protected area, extreme and wanton development projects have been prevented to a certain extent up until now; however, the pristine bays and forests of the island are now under the imminent threat of enormous development projects.
It will require the coordinated efforts of all the people who really love nature to carry Bozcaada, its culture, clean environment, local grape varieties, fish, birds, rabbits, hedgehogs, cats and dogs and its peaceful way of living into the future.
Bozcaada: From Ghosts Towards Hope?
Extending from the Sea of Crete to the Dardanelles, the Aegean Sea is home to many islands. While some are the size of a country on their own (Crete, Euboea); others are ‘quite large’ (Chios, Lesbos, Rhodes). Apart from these, there are many medium and small sized islands. All these had a landscape that seemed frozen in time, at least until the 1960s. The harbor full of boats; men watching the harbor while drinking coffee, raki or wine in a coffeehouse or tavern overlooking it; the shuttered, white-washed houses on the narrow cobblestone streets, painted blue or sour cherry; women who wear black headscarves or have white hair in a bun; olive trees and the sea. The life in front of this decor was shaped under the influence of a unique island culture, different from Anatolia and Rumelia. Maybe it was not as lively as in the cities of the mainland; but it still had many special times, from Christian feasts to bayrams, from fairs to weddings, where the joy and enthusiasm of life was celebrated together. Societies limited by differences of religion or language (two or three centuries ago, this boundary was more flexible and permeable than what we are used to seeing now) were aware that living on a piece of land surrounded by the sea, away from the mainland, made them dependent on each other. Therefore, the life in front of the mentioned decor was also communal. One of the islands where this partnership continued for a long time was Bozcaada or Tenedos Island in Greek.
This element of continuity is at the forefront of the features that still make Bozcaada so unique. Because the historical Muslim communities of the Greek-dominated islands started to disappear from the beginning of the 20th century, and the remaining left their homeland with the Exchange. There has never been a communal life in Imbros, which is under the sovereignty of Turkey; the Island was exclusively occupied by the Greeks, except for the officials appointed by the government. In Bozcaada, although Muslims were always in the minority, they had a distinct presence and lived together with the Greeks for five centuries. This period made the people of the two communities to resemble each other; it was enough to create a distinct collective life, which found its reflections in what they ate and drank, dress, or respond to humanitarian conditions. So much so that most of the elements of this communal life were found strange by the Anatolian natives on the opposite coast; there have been times when the Anatolians, who were hesitant to give their daughters to the islanders as brides, clearly see the islanders as ‘foreigners’, who they say that they were not ‘birds of a feather’.
The continuity of the world revolving around this common life was interrupted by the 1920s. The island Greeks, after 1927, when Greek education ended, remembered the period as difficult times, and it was thought to last until 1951, when the Democrat Party ensured the reopening of Greek-language schools. However, the main big crack in the common life of the island, contrary to popular belief, did not occur in the early Republican period, but in the mid-1960s. After 1964, when the tension between the Greek and Turkish communities in Cyprus turned into a spiral of violence shaped by mutual slaughter, the Greeks of Bozcaada started to leave the island. The military operation Turkey carried out against Cyprus in 1974 accelerated this move. It can be said that the Greek community of Bozcaada disappeared after 1974; of course, so is the common life they have knitted with the Turks for centuries.
But there is something strange about this situation. A visitor who wanders the streets of Bozcaada for the first time today will probably be surprised by the abundance and wealth of restaurants, taverns, dessert shops, ice cream shops and pensions, and will probably eventually ask the following question: “Well, all these shops are named in Greek. Where are the people who have these names?” This is a reasonable question. Those people are not on the island today; They are in Australia, Greece, France. But their names, stories and ghosts still roam the island. This creates a strange sense of placelessness and storylessness. It’s as if Bozcaada, like the town in Lars von Trier’s “Dogville” movie, is just decoration, and this decoration, made from the past of the Greek islanders, is cleaned, and put into storage in October, and is kept there until the next summer season opens.
This situation is a great danger for Bozcaada, which has had a rich cultural life and a common life experience – because these only occur on their own and develop gradually over a long period of time, with the positive contribution of certain conditions. How easy it is to break, destroy, eliminate or, worse, turn this difficult maturing experience into hostility; it is just as easy to split it away from its identity and history and turn it into an instrument of touristic invasion. Since there is no way to turn back time, what should be done?
Bozcaada, which surprises her visitors as get off the ferry from Geyikli with the feeling that they came to “another country”, is a unique and very special region, nor resembling the rest of Turkey, still telling its own story in one way or another. Although the identity that created this originality has been severely damaged by tourism, it still preserves many of the features that make it so different from the mainland. Apart from the rich cultural heritage created by this identity and common life, the salvation for Bozcaada, surrounded by ‘wine-coloured seas’, with its nature and abundance of wild creatures, vineyards with its own grape varieties and viticulture, lies in protecting all these remaining elements from unqualified touristic attacks. In this way, the memory of the island and its inhabitants will be preserved without changing their shape in a strange way due to commercial concerns, and the common life of five centuries will continue, albeit in stories and dreams. Telling their stories means keeping every single person who has passed through the island alive, since one cannot live without dreaming. Maybe one day these dreams will come true, who knows?
Translation: Burak Özçetin
1 – For a quite poetic narration of this landscape, see Yannis Ritsos, Rumluk, Yaşlı Kadınlar ve Deniz, trans. Özdemir İnce, Herkül Millas (İstanbul: Kırmızı Yayınları, 2010), p. 55.
2- Except for islands that Greece took from Italy, like Rhodes or Kos.
3 – Although it is commonly known as the ‘Cyprus Peace Operation’, the name determined by the Turkish Armed Forces is ‘Atilla Operation’
4 – Moreover, the story goes back more than five centuries ago, and there is generally little emphasis on the legacy of that period, except for expert archaeologists.