It is still dark outside, around 5:00 AM, when the Muzzein climbs the solitary white minaret of the mosque in the town below us and begins his amplified call to morning prayer. His voice scales up, ascending a ladder of indecipherable syllables. A moment's contemplative silence and then he chants the next line. This continues for several minutes. The donkey up the hill erupts into his choking bray, adding a counterpoint to the concert. A couple of dogs howl.
Morning in Sirince.
Unable to return to sleep, we throw open our shutters to watch dawn's light steal down the valley. Without warning our house sails through a swarm of bats. The dart-quick mammals spin and pirouette, scant inches from the propped open window. Suddenly there is a scratching of claws and a furry body scrabbles across the sill in pursuit of an insect. Will one come into the bedroom? Apparently not. A few more drag their claws along the sill, but none cross the threshold into human-held territory.
How great is that?
The girls sleep late and we loll in slothful self-indulgence in our bed. There is nowhere we need to be today, no pressing sights to see or planes to catch. We haven't felt so relaxed since Seefeld, when we had two weeks to do very little. From our lofty perch we watch the town come to life.
Modern Sirince dates from the end of the First World War. For centuries the town had been a Greek village, but after Ataturk drove the Greek occupying army out of Anatolia in the War of Independence (1924), Turkey and Greece exchanged their minority populations. 1.4 million Greeks were forced to leave their ancestral patrimony while 410,000 Turks were expelled from Greece. A town that once held 3,000 Greeks was abandoned and slowly rebuilt as Sirince. The two Greek Orthodox churches in town, St Demetrios and St John the Baptist, were defaced, stripped of Christian ornament, eyes dug out of the murals, and left to crumble back into the soil.
Signs of the town's ancient Christian past are everywhere. A town fountain, just off the main square, bears a dedication stone inscribed with a crucifix and the date 1884. We are told that the foundations of monastic cells can be found all around the hills in this area. The town has deep roots, but they are largely Greek and Christian.
After a quiet morning, it is time to make our first foray into the town. We wind down through a stone and whitewash alley to the market where the taxi driver had dropped us yesterday. A long covered bazaar branches off the main street, housing the same sorts of shops we had encountered in Istanbul. Two shops sell “real fake watches.” I inquire if there is anywhere to buy “fake fake watches,” but the watch salesman I speak with doesn't know of a place nearby. On the other hand, he assures me, his shop does sell the best “real fake” watches and I should feel free to drop in and browse at my leisure. Tempting.
There are also a number of wine shops in town that sell one of Sirince's famous local products. The nearby hills are hidden by vineywards (as well as olive trees and peach orchards), and the town produces vast amounts of wine. When I ask Charlotte how this fits in with Islamic views against the consumption of alcohol, she attributes this to the Greek roots of the village. Wine has been made here for centuries and very little of it is destined for export. Nearly every household has its own row of vines tucked away somewhere and most of the locals make homemade wine for private consumption. I suppose we are on the wild west coast where liberal values prevail. Mary and I secure three types of wine for sampling: a bottle of red Sirince wine and two local fruit wines, peach and blackberry.
We have lunch near the bazaar in a vine-covered outdoor restaurant that serves Gozlemeler, the crepe-like dish we had enjoyed on our penultimate day in Istanbul. Great food at low prices; surely the cheapest lunch we've had this entire trip.
After lunch we continue our circuit around the village. I am particularly interested in having a look at the condition of the two churches. St Demetrios, the first church we encounter, is in very bad shape. The wooden beams of the roof have rotted, leading to a collapse of a large portion of the roof. The doors, hanging off their hinges, have been chained. Timber scaffolding inside the building supports what is left of the roof and a sign states that the site is being restored by the Ministry of Heritage. I doubt that any restoration work has been carried out for several years and the church looks as if it is only one earthquake away from total collapse.
We follow a path around the base of the hill to St John the Baptist church. Unfortunately we are barred from entry by another chained door. St John's has been restored by the government, but it is no longer a place of worship; occasionally it is used for exhibitions or secular functions. To gain admission, you must walk through a restaurant ― a secret entrance. Inside, two church cats ― church wardens? ― are on hand to act as tour guides. Their job is simplified by the fact that little remains.
Back when it was a working church, the interior of the building was plastered and overlaid with frescoes. Most of the plaster is now gone revealing the harsh contours of the underlying brick and timber structure. The dome has been partially rebuilt but there is a great gaping hole at the apex, covered with sheets of plastic siding. Pigeon feces stain the marble tiles of the floor and graffiti has been scratched into every available stone surface.
The remains of three frescoes, images of saints, can still be seen in niches at the front of the church. Their faces have been scratched off and only a portion of their heads remains. Islam forbids images depicting the human figure, so much of this art was destroyed after the Greek Christians departed.
This church has fallen on hard times and I find it difficult not to feel depressed at its condition. I suppose the fact that it remains a church is encouraging; it hasn't been converted into a stable or a public bathroom. Omer and I had a long discussion about religious freedom in Turkey this morning. He said that there certainly are churches in Turkey today, and indeed, where there is a demand, new churches are opening. In Muslim Sirince there is no demand for it; the fact that the government has restored this building and kept it as a church is certainly an extraordinary gesture, since it is no part of the Muslim heritage.
When evening arrives, we try another local restaurant. In the middle of our meal, the proprietors turn their music up quite loud ― much louder than is pleasant for the remade English pop standards blasting out of their speakers. Despite the decibel level, I can still hear something loud coming from the house next door. The frequencies of the two audio streams disrupt one another, and I cannot identify the content of the second source of noise.
The situation clarifies when we leave the restaurant. A young man is sprawled in front of a television set on a balcony that overlooks the restaurant. He has dialed the volume on his television up to its maximum rating; the noise is still filling our ears a block away as we walk away. The television's owner must have been wearing ear plugs to tolerate it. My guess is that he is locked into a feud with the restaurant; they want to have a quiet outdoor eating area with soft music playing and he is attempting to disturb that plan.