In case, like most of humanity these days, you live with a constant fear of impending doom anyway, you might have already forgotten about that time the apocalypse was certain as predicted by the ancient Mayans. Opposed to now, when it’s predicted by climate scientists, but that’s a topic for another article altogether. So back in December 2012, when the world as we knew it was coming to an abrupt end in a myriad of possible ways (my favourite was the supermassive black hole sucking us in), three locations were identified as having the kind of positive vibrations that would save your sorry ass from the wrath of Quetzalcoatl: the French village of Bugarach, the pyramid-like Rtanj mountain in Serbia and tiny Șirince ensconced in lush hills above Ephesus.
The road meandering gently from Selçuk took us ever higher through rich olive groves and orchards fragrant with the scents of ripening peaches and mandarins, the occasional whitewashed Mediterranean house (quite possibly a boutique hotel) peering out from the thicket. After a good dose of meandering, though, we felt that Șirince is perhaps more of a state of mind, a legendary fata morgana of the hills rather than an actual settlement. I was hoping, if the place was real, to be greeted with a perceptible onslaught of positive energy, like Nyan cat’s rainbow trail, instead we were eventually met by the ubiquitous Turkish parking flow manager, who squeezed us into a fortuitous gap and informed us that access to the village is exclusively pedestrian. This information was later disproved by a local bravely fighting physics and gravitation with a battered vehicle the sides of which bore deep traces of historical stone- if a steep, narrow cobbled road exists in Turkey, someone, possibly in a Toyota Land Cruiser, will immediately try to summit it.
Until the early 90s, Șirince was fundamentally a ghost village, its inhabitans having been displaced during the Turkish-Greek population exchange of 1923. According to local tales, it was founded upon the abandonment of Ephesus in the 15th Century and named, by the freed Greek slaves who moved in, Çirkince, meaning ugly in Turkish, to deter others from joining them. The current name of Șirince, which contrastingly means pleasant, was gifted to the village by local authorities in 1926. My absolutely rudimentary knowledge of Turkish does however contain the information that the Smurfs are called Șirinler, therefore I immediately made a mental image of the village being overran with Smurfs, possibly wearing baggy trousers and/or the 2016-17 Turkey away shirt.
And there is indeed something fairy tale like about the place, an intriguing combination of charm and artifice. Its recent revival was driven by Turkish Armenian linguist Sevan Nişanyan, author of the Turkish Etymological Dictionary, but also of some more incendiary works, which have aroused the ire of the Turkish government and sent Nişanyan into exile on the neighbouring Greek island of Samos. In the 90s he was however still happily living in his Șirince with his then wife, and their efforts were instrumental in declaring the village a national heritage site, which led to many houses being restored or rebuilt with local techniques and materials. The main streets are thus lined with neat, lovingly maintained buildings. Many sell souvenirs, but they are overwhelmingly hand crafted and locally produced. On the steps of one of the abandoned churches two portly ladies in colourful dress were sitting, deep in conversation, sipping black tea and knitting small dolls. Other stalls were packed with fresh fruit and spices, the scent of mint and thyme following you around corners just like the local cats, polite and endearing, but firm in their demands for nourishment. Yet others sold deep blue porcelain figurines or softly woven scarves and towels.
The already mentioned churches are passionately advertised by locals, every corner seems to hide one, nevertheless their empty skeletons, often with figures of saints missing their faces hint at a lost past, and at a possibility of peaceful cohabitation which was missed in the bloody upheavals of the early 20th Century. Their crumbling, heartbreaking beauty is in melancholy contrast with the bustling streets: right outside what was once the Saint Dimitris church lies the Çamaltı Kumda Kahve, where you can buy what is arguably the village’s best coffee, prepared patiently in hot sand, which gives it a silky, smooth taste. For the adventurous, they also prepare fig seed and mastic flavoured coffees. Fruit wine is another local specialty, approached with the kind of frenzy Hungarians have for making pálinka, summed up as: any old fruit- exists, people of Șirince- let’s make wine of it. The streets are dotted with wine stores, and they will gladly treat you to many small tasters, which, if handled without care, might just end up in one big headache. Our absolutely random choice was the Şirince Papazın Mahzeni Şarap Evi, but we were in luck, their selection was excellent, and they volunteered to ship our extensive purchases straight to the parking lot. To avoid the above mentioned headache, we quickly headed to Mercan restaurant for the Turkish institution of serpme kahvaltı, which is basically an incredibly large number of assorted foodstuffs on tiny plates. We actually arrived much later than the generally accepted timing of a decent breakfast, but life in Șirince is subject to no hurry.
There is a certain calm and aloofness that pervades the village, you look at its neatly arranged stacks of houses, lush greenery and sleeping cats and concede that it is, well, nice, cute almost, to use an oft abused term. You forgive even its shy attempts to be a tourist trap, you know all too well that it was rebuilt on purpose, but it feels real, as if it embraced its ghosts and learned to live with them. Maybe it’s a good idea to welcome the apocalypse in Șirince after all, chances are that in between a thick coffee and a honeyed wine no one would notice its arrival.