The women of Çomakdağ

With its stone houses boasting colorful wooden trim, its clove-flavored coffees, its festive weddings and its famous Çomakdağ women and their authentic costumes covered in flowers, it is the Aegean’s most beautiful spot.

When you leave behind the sparkling blue of Lake Bafa, stuck in Milas Plain north of Bodrum, the pungent smell of the sun-baked earth will sting your nostrils. The asphalt road climbs continuously into the foothills of the Beşparmak Mountains, where the Çomakdağ villages nestle amidst endless groves of giant olive trees. As we snaked between the steep slopes covered with giant boulders, Caria’s ancient paths had long since prepared a surprise for us.  So did we make our first acquaintance with the women of Çomakdağ, famous for the colorful costumes they wear even for everyday, and for their traditional headgear adorned with wild flowers and a pair of laurel branches. In this land of colors hidden away in the remote recesses of the Aegean region, every corner, every face, every word uttered was transformed into a tale of flower time. The land told the tale, and we listened.

İkiztaş, Ketendere, Kızılağaç... these are the villages of Çomakdağ which have preserved their traditional architecture and unique culture right up to our day. With their houses of cut stone and blue, green and purple-painted trim, their colorfully clad women, and their legendary festive weddings, the scene is the same no matter which Çomakdağ village you go to: The morning sun illumines the gaily colored embroidery of the young girls, women and grannies gazing out the wood-framed windows. Bird and floral figures in particular catch the eye. Red, blue and green motifs that seem to burst from the embroidery like living things. The women of Çomakdağ virtually wear their skill on their persons. The local women’s costumes seem to have been woven thread by thread with astonishing care from head to toe. Used until recently, silk has lost its dominance today when cotton fabrics are preferred. And although houses made of concrete spoil the view here and there among the awesome traditional dwellings with their doorjambs, window-frames and chimneys of cut stone, the atmosphere is still unique in these villages where the Aegean culture peculiar to the region has been preserved for centuries. The wooden doors, window frames, ceiling mouldings, kitchen nooks, cantilevered balconies, eaves and garden fences are a virtual canvas of all the colors in the rainbow limned by a master painter. And the flowers that the women place on their heads, their accessories and their clothes, which exhibit all the hues in nature, are in perfect harmony with the bright colors of the Çomakdağ houses.

A slowdown in new home construction due to rising costs has made it necessary to use interior spaces as efficiently as possible. Gaily embroidered quilts and pillows are stacked in large cupboards in the morning freeing up rooms for use during the day. The themes of the wooden decorations that adorn the stone houses have been chosen with utter abandon. A thousand and one products of the imagination such as flowers, plants, birds, cartwheels, flags, rainbows and mosaics are reflected on walls, ceilings and doors. When you enter a village house in Çomakdağ, you step first from the street into a garden, ‘hayat’ in the local parlance, surrounded by high walls, before ascending a wooden staircase to a wooden porch, open in front, on the upper story. This area, which we could call a veranda, is also the place where the village women gather when their daily chores are finished, and where they prepare food, entertain guests, sew and do their elaborate ‘kanaviçe’ embroidery. A place where women come bearing bundles of floral printed textiles for hope chests and colorful materials for making the pinking known as ‘boncuk oyası’.  In traditional fashion, the village girls still gather around the fountain here to collect water in earthenware jugs. Similarly the elderly sit for hours in the coffeehouse watching the world go by, children fly kites, the men go hunting with shotguns, donkeys carry loads, and everyone gathers mushrooms on the slopes after a rain. Change does not come easily to the old, traditional, accustomed way of doing things here.

Time is frozen here, where the profound silence is broken only by the drone of tractors and the crowing of roosters, at Çomakdağ with its village scenes out of our childhood. Going for long walks here offers blissful respite to weary city dwellers. Everybody calls out ‘Welcome! Please come in,” as you stroll through the stone-paved streets. Which house to visit? Shall we stop at the hospitable and good-natured Tenzile’s with her charming, golden-haired daughters of the beautiful eyes? Or shall we visit Auntie Fatma, who longs to see her son who has migrated to the big city with ambitions of striking it rich? What difference does it make, for every door here is open to us. At whatever door we knock as we climb the village street, that house will be our home for the duration.

Olive growing is of course the most important source of livelihood here, but there is also a sizable number of seasonal workers who head down to Söke Plain in the fall. As in many parts of Anatolia, going up to the cool highlands in summer is also an old tradition. The stone houses at the higher altitudes of Çomakdağ, where ancient ruins can also be seen, protect their owners against the blistering summer sun. Their ice-cold waters, once a source of life to the ancient Carian civilization, are stored in earthenware jugs to keep them cold. And food is still cooked over the hot embers of a wood fire just as it has been for centuries.

As we stop to chat along the way, the subject invariably comes around to Çomakdağ’s legendary weddings, yet another feature of the area. Until quite recently, weddings in the villages of Çomakdağ lasted for four days. Today as well there are still those who carry on this tradition. But Çomakdağ weddings, which proceed step by step with rituals from the first minute right up to the last second, are generally open to tourists and completed in one day now. The bridal couples, who come from all over the world, choose the villages of Çomakdağ in order to experience the privilege of a traditional wedding. And the Çomakdağ villagers have even set up websites both in Turkish and in other languages on the internet to promote their weddings worldwide. Everyone in the village takes part in the festivities at a Çomakdağ wedding, which commences with the planting of a flag at the groom’s house.  The bride’s trousseau is carried to the couple’s new home either in a minibus or on horseback, and the bearers are traditionally served a meal for their labors. As part of the pre-wedding entertainment, the strongest young men stage a wrestling contest on the village square. The brides wear a special headdress tied under the chin with gold coins across the forehead. Around this they wrap a dark red or black ‘yemeni’ which they then cover with a length of silk. With its other nuptual traditions such as the shaving of the groom amidst the singing of folksongs and general merriment, ‘henna’ night when the bride’s hands are decorated with lace-like patterns in natural henna dye, local folk dancing for men and women, the pinning on of jewelry ceremony, the procession to the wedding chamber, and the eating of keşkek, a special mutton dish, by one and all, the Çomakdağ wedding attracts the interest of tourists and city dwellers alike. Finally the festive wedding villages retreat slowly into shades of evening, and stragglers on the street are welcomed into the local homes.

Night falls again on Çomakdağ, guardian of the neighboring villages and sacred mountain of ancient times. And we bid farewell to these colorful villages and their friendly, hospitable people...