This article was written by Richard Hibbert
On the wall of one of the currency exchanges in Fethiye is a black and white photograph of the town taken in 1952, before the earthquake five years later. Taken from the hillside above where the marina is now, it shows many inevitable changes. The straightened stretch of harbour was already there, with a handful of small fishing boats moored, not the ranks of gleaming tourist vessels, each with white masts and compulsory crimson Turkish flag, that can now be seen. Behind that stretch of waterfront are the densely packed tiled roofs of what was then little more than a village, not yet redesigned by plate tectonics and the onset of mass tourism.
The new town square now offers its open oblong to the sky in what the photo shows to have been a pleasant suburban area on the very edge of town. There are many windows in the Fethiye of 1952. Their south-facing shutters give the houses a dark-eyed look that strangely reminds me of the abandoned Greek dwellings in Kayaköy. Although this is clearly a thriving little town, only one person can be seen: a figure in the foreground, standing next to what appear to be stacks of timber at the harbourside.
Although it’s tempting to describe the many changes to the buildings and layout of Fethiye since then, it’s what lies in the background of the picture that draws my eye the most. Beyond the repeated rectangles of four-square houses and parallel roofs, offset by the more rounded shapes of trees and what may be the Yeni Hamidiye mosque, the northern edge of the town softens, giving way to a small wooded area. Beyond this, at the mouth of the now canalised river, are the remnants of a great wetland that must have filled this stretch of coastline, still complex at the edges and unstraightened, where now the esplanade runs sharp and true as a knife towards Çalış. Distance blurs the background of the image, but there is an impression of unspoilt countryside, perhaps small farms and orchards, and the foothills behind entirely undeveloped.
In my mind there are still golden jackals, wolves and bears in those hills, and herons, egrets, kingfishers and ibises in the marshes. The fields are full of flowers and bright flocks of finches and buntings. The sea is still teeming with fish and octopus, not yet dynamited and degraded. It’s quiet: vehicle traffic is minimal and the call to prayer is yet to be amplified to resound between the mountains.
I was not able to find the exact spot from which the 1952 photo was taken. Perhaps that doesn’t matter. My perspective is as skewed as time and not-yet-familiar eyes can make it. Those distant hillsides had perhaps long lost their larger predators, and lead shot and diesel already polluted the mouth of the river, its wildfowl and wading birds largely gone. People may have been poor and miserable, sick of living off the land and fearing the next earthquake. The cafés, restaurants, hotels, currency exchanges and supermarkets of Fethiye, the sprawl of buildings that now fills the entire bay, the curbed rivers, the drainage ditches, the backfilled marshland, the user-friendly coastline: all have brought visitors, opportunity, revenue. The process of developing this place began thousands of years ago; it’s not over yet.
Where that solitary figure stood in the foreground of the photo, a numerous team of municipal workers, Fethiye Belediyesi on their blue polo shirts, are now pulling up the ubiquitous dodecagonal paving slabs and laying a cycle path that will run from the Karagözler boatyard to Çalış. They are aiming to get it finished in time for the tourist influx. All over the town there is a slightly frenetic air of construction and preparation. The Roman amphitheatre is being restored. Billboards with photos of children with Down’s Syndrome, next to others showing proposed developments, announce the council’s inclusivity and progressiveness.
Meanwhile men with moustaches dressed in grey and black smoke endlessly, drink çay and play backgammon. People buzz back and forth on scooters, transporting everything from rugs to small trees. Mehmet the barber mutes the pop videos on the television when the ezan begins. The stalls at the Friday market are piled with produce and tended by shawled, bow-legged women and behatted, kindly little men, bringing cheese in goatskin buckets in from their farms in the hills, largely unchanged since 1952.
The shadows of swallows flick over the white awnings of the market. The river slips rapidly between concrete banks, efficiently bearing bluish, clean meltwater from the mountain snows into the bay. The husks of pumpkin seeds, the remains of leisurely snacks, litter the steps of the town as they have done for ever. A smiling teenage girl, her face immaculately made up and her jeans carefully torn, carefully helps her gruff-voiced, shawled grandmother off a dolmuş.
Walking through the suburbs out towards Çalış, where one town blurs into the other, I came upon a scene that went to form one of my many impressions of Fethiye. At one end of the road, backed by mountains still covered in snow, a Volvo digger was filling a huge hole next to a now incongruous patch of reeds. Water was being pumped out of the building plot as the digger scraped and toiled. Further down the road, just behind the seafront esplanade, an old man had struggled down into a steep drainage channel to retrieve scraps of firewood and stack them in a wheelbarrow. I offered to help him out of the ditch, and was prepared to help him load his barrow. He crossly refused. Should I have offered him money instead?
I continued my walk along the slide-rule seafront. Back in the currency exchange, standing by its image of a much-changed but still recognisable Fethiye, I took advantage of the exchange rate and the clerk’s good English to change another £50 for lira.
Richard is a writer and educator based in Devon, UK. He is currently combining teaching with writing projects and studying for an MA in Travel and Nature Writing. Richard writes about nature, places and how people interact with other species and their environment. He has forthcoming pieces due to be published in Bird Watching, Devon Life and Dartmoor magazines. He loved his stay in Fethiye and is keen to visit again soon. Look out for more articles by Richard on Fethiye Times.
To read more articles by Richard visit his blog, Dartwriter