Text and photos by Myrto Papadopoulos.
“The unchecked, without permit, encampment of wandering nomads Athinganoi-Gypsies, etc. in whatever region is prohibited. The lands for the organized encampments of wandering nomads must be outside the inhabited areas and in good distance from the approved urban plan or the last contiguous houses. Encampment is prohibited near archaeological sites, beaches, landscapes of natural beauty, visible by main highway points or areas which could affect the public health. Springs supplying drinking water, etc.”
Common Ministerial Decree of the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Health No A5/696/25.4-11.5.83, “Sanitary Provision for the Organised Relocation of Wandering Nomads”, Official Gazette B’ 243.
Looking at the map of Greece and the distance I had to cover to reach my destination, which was the small town of Didimoticho, I realised how long and tiring my journey would be. I didn’t know much about this small town. I only knew its geografical position some history to it and the stories I had heard about some ‘Troglodytes’ that lived there.
Didimoticho is a small town located in the eastern part of the Prefecture of Evros. The Evros Prefecture is the northernmost of the prefectures of Greece. It is located in the northeastern part of the region of Thrace, and borders with Bulgaria and Turkey at the Evros River, an historical and natural border between Europe and the east.
The town was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire and in the year 1361 it became the first capital of Europe sporting the first mosque in the Balkans. Today, Didimoticho has roughly nine thousand inhabitants out of which approximately two thousand are Greek Muslim gypsies and another even smaller minority, are the immigrants of Greek origin from the former Soviet Republics.
Didimoticho, today, finds itself right on the expanding edge of Europe. For example, just last year, Bulgaria entered the European Community as a full European member state, while Turkey is a candidate. This geographical crossroad, where different cultural identities meet is the subject of my project.
I would like to approach this subject by exploring, understanding and photographing a very particular microcosm composed of just a few families, those of Muslim background.
The roots of these people are lost and there are different versions regarding their origins. One of these versions says that this specific minority group are the descendants of an Egyptian reserve army of Ibrahim, who passed through the area during the Ottoman Empire. This is based on the fact that the characteristics of these people are not Indo-European. The Greek government has tried to assimilate them into the society by naming them Greek Muslim-Rom, so they can be provided with the actual support they need.
A large number of these Greek Muslims live in racially segregated ghettos which stand in severe contrast to the surrounding area. Most of these inhabitants speak both Greek and Turkish; they feel Turks in Greece and Greeks in Turkey and therefore they cannot relate to a national identity and are led to social isolation. For example, they have all the rights of every Greek citizen but at the same time, the Turkish government provides them with antennas and cable television so they can maintain their Turkish heritage.
For most of them, life is a daily struggle. Many families live in the caves (kalé) just below the ruins of the Byzantine castle hill walls which encircle the town. “Kalé” is an isolated cluster of dwellings dense with colorful rugs, animals and satellite dishes; a micro-world suspended in time and space.
This tiny community spans a wide age range; from very young children to an older depressed widow, all facing in their own way, a major transition. Ate 50 years of age, Atie 7 years old, Rosa 35 years old, Kazim 40 years old, Marina 9 months, Ahmet 14 years old, Memet 45 years old, are all protagonists of this social and cultural evolution.
Being segregated and without any formal education they are unable to voice their grievances and are destined to struggle in order to procure their basic needs. Less than half of the children go to school. Yet, in this unfavorable context, some families have managed to preserve a positive environment; a tiny, self-sufficient island of tight social interconnections.
Today, only five families remain in the caves, compare to the 52 families that lived there until 1993. Most of the families from the Kale hill, have gradually moved to new houses and within the next year this minority group, which represents the last survivors of a larger ancient world, is also waiting to be relocated to new houses on the outskirts of the town. This transition from the caves to suburban sparse modular houses is a social aspect that I have begun to photograph.
As of March 2006 when I started my journey to Didimoticho, my intention has been to get to know these families and the problems which have arisen from their geographical and religious isolation.
My goal is to use photography in order to capture their multifaceted cultural identity and to witness its transformation on the moving border between the western and the eastern world.
Every time I go to Didimoticho to meet my friends, I still feel the stress of the unknown. It took me a good period of time to be able to communicate and to be accepted by these people, especially into a bigger part of their community. I was both a stranger and an intruder, but at the same time a form of balance had to be found. Because of their social isolation, any kind of interaction is difficult. My relationship with these families after much effort has become personal and my camera is just a medium that follows me on this journey.
This magic world and the story of the Kale people will get lost in time. These ‘cave people’ will be ‘modernized’, borders will continue to expand, cultures will keep on blending with each other and new people will be born to continue or to start a different story.