Within the province of Sivas, in central Anatolia, sits the tiny rural village of Esenyaka Koyu. With a population of just 1,858 (Wikipedia 2000), the village is a short 15km drive from the nearby township of Susehri.
When I came to Turkey, I came in search of this country’s heart and soul. I didn’t come for balloon rides, beachfront bars, clubs, swarming tourist traps, or any of the other Western-focused attributes that seem to dominate the minds and aspirations of modern Turkey.
The old soul of this nation which I’d glimpsed from afar was about family, about community, about an incredibly rich and complex heritage of values and beliefs. It was about a kaleidoscope of unique, arts, crafts, foods and musical creations. It was about an endearing fusion of intense self-pride together with disarming openness, humility, warmth and simplicity. After one year of life here in Turkey I was starting to believe that this ‘old soul’ was just the naïve and romantic notion of a yabanci day-dreamer. My movements within modern destinations such as Istanbul, Antalya, Izmir, Bursa, Canakkale and Fethiye had provided little evidence of this spirit. In fact, in many ways living in Turkey was starting to feel disappointingly similar to life in The West. Explorations of preserved Turkish villages of note such as Safranbolu, Sirince and Cumalakizik had provided great beauty, history and architecture of yesteryear, but, perhaps as a result of their fame, little genuine soul.
And so, I recalled distant conversations with a Turkish teacher friend in London, who humoured my fascination of “old Turkey”, with wondrous anecdotes of being raised in a tiny, tiny, central Anatolian village, where time stood still. The name of this village was Esenyaka.
A comfortable 90-minute flight from Istanbul brought me to the central Anatolian city of Sivas, where I was grateful not to be greeted by a rabid pack of legendary Kangal canines, standing as tall and wide as British draughthorses. An overnight stay gave me the opportunity to visit the Senturk Saz Evi and museum where I was treated to an impromptu performance on an original Asik Veysel baglama.
A scenic two-hour (130km) drive from Sivas, through striking mountain scenery (Zara area), is the small town of Susehri (population 14,749 ) where the Ogretmenevi (teacher hotel) provides a cosy, friendly and affordable base for exploration.
And suddenly there I was, leaving the asphalt motorway in the rear-vision mirror and bouncing along the dirt track into Esenyaka Koyu. Woawwwwwwww…… An old Hollywood black-and-white classic sprang to mind….Brigadoon! About a mythical village and its inhabitants, which emerged from the mist every 100 years…a magical land where time stood still.
I slowed my vehicle and pulled to the side of the track, to let a tractor pass, just as I might have done back in my early days of rural Australia. A young father in gum boots drove, as three young kids swung gleefully from the sides of what looked like a classic grey Massey Ferguson – just like my Dad’s.
Just a handful of stores comprised the Esenyaka village centre. Again my thoughts drifted to Hollywood movies and the stereotypical western, complete with tumble-weed, as the lone yabanci walked into town.
Half a dozen sets of Turkish male eyes fixed on me as I approached the one central cay evi. Cay was drunk in silence. Eventually the ice was broken – as I scrambled for Turkish vocabulary to explain my Esenyaka connection. And then everything changed in one instant…the mention of my Esenyaka teacher friends’s family name threw a switch. And suddenly the Esenyaka Koyu door flew open!
Over the next few days, I was warmly embraced as an honoured guest of the Esenyaka Koyu. I found myself invited into the homes of local families, seated at tables loaded with the most delicious local foods – homemade corbas, mountains of garden-fresh fruits and vegetables, specially-made yaprak sarmas, cheeses, jams and delicious sutlac desserts, to name just a few.
We drank copious amounts of freshly-brewed cay and talked and talked. Retelling this story to friends now, I’m constantly asked “but how did you communicate?….you can’t speak Turkish!”. And you know what, I can’t explain it, but somehow we just understood each other – maybe it was the body language, the eyes, the facial expressions, the tones of voice. But as we chattered away excitedly in English and Turkish, somehow it just worked!
The landscape of Esenyaka when I visited in the month of June was quite lush and green, if a little rocky. The village itself is nestled at the base of a mountain they call “Pilavtepe”. Atop Pilavtepe the Turkish bayrak (flag) flutters proudly in the stiff wind. Recalling stories from my teacher friend of local children clambering up this mountain in Spring to collect wildflowers, I decided this was something I really must do!
With the company of another local, I made the climb to the salute the bayrak at the very top of Pilavtepe. A rough dirt path, which you really cannot find without guidance from a local, winds its way up the rocky mountainside. Vegetation is sparse, but there were clumps of familiar wildflowers and what looked like small pine bushes scattered along the way. There is a magnificent view from the top of Pilavtepe, across the village of Esenyaka. The view extends across the main motorway (from Susehri) to an expansive body of water (reservoir) on the other side which provides village water.
As we returned from Pilavtepe we passed a small concrete building with flaking white paint. Cavities marked where glass windows once opened and inside its floors were piled with straw and farm tools. This, I was told, was once the thriving village school, where perhaps my Esenyaka friend once learned to read, write and play. Suddenly I felt incredibly sad. I glanced around at the surrounding nature, peace and tranquillity of the place and contemplated what a lovely learning environment this must have been for children, as opposed to some of the concrete monstrosities I’d witnessed in larger cities both in Turkey and in Western countries. Is it naïve to think that somehow these beautiful village schools could be preserved and enhanced as places of learning for kids? Hasn’t technology facilitated that option now – high-quality remote learning? Is the trend of abandoning village life in preference for “modern” city life just an unstoppable force which we have to accept, even here in Turkey? This must be happening all across Turkey, as younger generations distance themselves from their village origins, chasing their idealised concepts of Western-style “progress, wealth and freedom”. I recalled the story of the Sirince Mathematics Village, which I’ve yet to see, and wished there was a way to reverse some of the uglier trends of modern living on a much broader scale.
In the grounds of the Esenyaka village cami sits the local kutuphane (library), small but looking well-maintained from the outside. I hope it’s alive and well!
The charming rough-hewn stone and wood cottages of Esenyaka Koyu reminded me very much of the tiny villages I passed through in rural northern Spain as I walked the Camino de Santiago. There, as well, I was enamoured with the rustic beauty and tranquillity of serene village life away from the stressors of modern city living. I cannot explain why I find the sights and sounds of these villages – fields of crops, livestock grazing, the hen with its chicks, the grey Fergie tractor, the raw mountainside – so rejuvenating. Perhaps, again, my Australian upbringing.
I didn’t take enough notice of the types of fruits, vegetables and flowers being grown in the gardens of Esenyaka. Yes, everyone has their own surrounding land here in the village, unlike the concrete, high-rise cities of Turkey! I do recall the grapevines and fruiting mulberry trees.
I also recall seeing native hibiscus flowers, similar to those in Australia – in the garden of two lovely ladies from Rize – they sat me down and fortified me with delicious home-made ayran prior to my Pilavtepe climb. In one garden I was shown a large metal tub in which pekmez was being made – two days of fermentation in the sun. Hopefully, the Australian native plant seeds I contributed from my own homeland are now happily settled in the soils of Esenyaka.
For almost two years now, I’ve struggled with the solitude of yabanci life here in Turkey. Turks, in the most, have been polite, but very distant. For just a couple of days, in the tiny Anatolian village of Esenyaka, I found the heart, soul, warmth and hospitality of old Turkey. Language, the usual excuse for social distance, was not a barrier here in Esenyaka. I’d received the kindness of strangers who, for example, insisted on me spending the night in their home instead of the local Ogretmenevi. In that short time they’d shared their meals, stories, gardens, homes, friends and families with me. When I left, I left with gifts of homemade sarma, pekmez and the Turkish house-slippers I’d used.
My short time in Esenyaka Koyu has been the highlight of my time in Turkey. Not because of any natural wonders, historical sites, or breath-taking tourist attractions. But simply because, for the first time here in this foreign land, I didn’t feel alone. For a few days, I was not “yabanci” – but a trusted and welcome friend. For the first and only time here, I actually felt “at home”. Thank you Esenyaka .
The dilemma of being a foreigner here is this – unless you have a personal connection to families here, it’s incredibly hard to be accepted and find the friendship and support needed. As I discovered in Esenyaka, when you have a connection, Turkish hospitality can be wonderful. I wish that I can meet more Turkish people and families like this in the future!