Turkish Mother Earth Müjde Tönbekici

As Müjde Tönbekici follows a dirt path that leads up to the 20 traditional cottages she built with her former husband in the village of Şirince, her every step is mimicked by a band of three incessantly mewing cats. Above the wild wisps of her dark red hair, the tree limbs hang down heavily with the season’s fruit. Tönbekici throws an orange scarf over her shoulder as a cold gust of wind stirs the leaves on the ground. It must have been just like this when the Istanbul native came here for the first time 35 years ago: an isolated village where nature blooms and withers in effervescent repetition.

Tönbekici runs Nişanyan Hotel – a large estate of rustic guesthouses including a renovated inn, a handful of village houses and seven traditionally built cottages – in Şirince, located near the town of Ephesus in Turkey’s central Aegean region. Şirince became prosperous through the production of tobacco and figs in the 19th century, but lost its splendour after the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923 and currently has 570 inhabitants. What remains today are the homes built by the Greeks in the height of their prosperity; some left in ruin, others saved through the process of careful renovation.

‘Everything always begins with a dream,’ says Tönbekici, sitting in the inn parlour, which, like the rest of the estate, overlooks a beautiful view of the village’s rows of historic houses with their red tiled roofs, white façades and dark wood window panes. It was Greek writer Dido Sotiriou’s novel ‘Farewell Anatolia’ and Sabahattin Ali’s short story ‘Çirkince’ that sent the young Tönbekici on a journey in 1981 to find a village she’d only read about. Back then, Tönbekici was studying chemical engineering at Ege University but also taking courses to work as a tour guide, which she hoped would quench her thirst for art history and archaeology. Upon reaching Şirince, she remembers a villager greeting her with a large peach from one of the many blooming trees. ‘In life we’re always presented with signs, and if we read them correctly at the right time and make quick decisions, life opens up to us,’ she says.‘I fell in love with Şirince and knew that I wanted to live here.’

Soon after graduating, and with the money saved from her first few jobs as a tour guide, the young Tönbekici returned in search of a home, which she found at the top of a hill overlooking the village. ‘The home was in terrible condition. In fact, it was being used as a barn and was filled with goats and donkeys, but the view was just too beautiful.’ And so with the help of local craftsmen, years of renovation turned the dilapidated structure into a home. It was after Tönbekici met her husband Sevan Nişanyan – a Turkish-Armenian travel writer and linguist – that the two decided to give up their urban existence to live full-time in the village, both working as freelancers. They soon discovered that there was something rewarding about village life. ‘It’s very easy to live in an apartment, you always have heat and water, but when you live in a village you have to build a pipeline to bring water or build roads,’ says Tönbekici. ‘But the joy you feel when you do it is extremely profound. People in cities don’t feel that depth of gratitude because everything is so easy.’

In 1998, the duo published the first edition of the series ‘The Little Hotel Book,’ which featured 80 down-to-earth hotels all over Turkey, and when the book became a success, a second dream began: a hotel of their own in Şirince. ‘With very little interference we turned a run down structure into a traditional village home again, making sure that a family from the city could feel comfortable,’ says Tönbekici, who chose to renovate according to original construction techniques, using natural materials, making the homes entirely sustainable. After that first project, they renovated two more homes and when the 20,000-square metre area further up the hill became available the couple decided to revive an old village tradition: the bağ evi, or countryside cottage. Seven cottages of local stone, wood and mortar made from mud, now stand among the lavender bushes and olive trees.

The establishment of the hotel had an impact on the village itself, bringing a sense of pride back to the historic Şirince homes. ‘The villagers understood that these homes were the reason why people were coming to visit, that they are precious and need to be protected,’ says Tönbekici. Apart from the property that comprise their hotel, Tönbekici and Nişanyan restored more than 10 village homes, and nowadays Tönbekici also runs her own side project where she helps city dwellers buy and renovate homes in remote Turkish villages.

Every morning at eight Tönbekici takes off for the hills for a one hour run followed by yoga and tai chi in her garden. Apart from doing her usual errands in the nearby town of Selçuk, she also visits the Şirince farmers’ market twice a week to pick out produce that doesn’t already grow in the Nişanyan garden. In the midst of all this, the hotel manager makes sure to visit friends in the village for tea and conversation. Around two in the afternoon, Tönbekici arrives at the hotel and stays there for the rest of the day, greeting and chatting to guests as well as her trusted antique dealers, who drop by frequently with new finds. ‘You have a much healthier lifestyle when you live in the village,’ she says, ‘unlike city life where every day begins with a hectic routine. Here you can really make use of nature and the flow of time. I have time to exercise every morning and then calmly go about my day. That calmness begets inner peace.’

She unlocks the door to one of the cottages, entering a kitchen decorated with traditional patterned floor tiles and colourful wooden chairs. This is where she teaches cooking workshops to guests, sometimes on ancient Roman cooking and traditional Turkish cuisine. ‘A few years ago I began to wonder what people ate in this very place 2,000 years ago and as I began to research I found myself in a deep well of information,’ she says. ‘For example, for a four-person meal I use at least a kilo of honey, because during the ancient period the dishes were mainly sweet.’ With its own vegetable garden, olive trees, 250 peach trees and herb garden, there is plenty of homegrown produce to cook with at the hotel. ‘The aim was to prepare everything according to its tradition with the best ingredients,’ says Tönbekici. Spending most days working alongside her staff at Nişanyan, they’ve become like family. ‘They’ve been with me since the beginning and without them this hotel would never function as it does,’ she says.

As the sun sets in the valley embracing Şirince, the stove in the dining room begins to breathe, its wood burning, while the smell of incense fills the air. Tönbekici’s eyes, outlined in light blue eyeliner, soften. ‘They always tell me I’m so lucky to live in Şirince, but you create your own luck,’ she says, ‘otherwise I could have become just another chemical engineer working some desk job in a paint factory in İzmir or Istanbul.’

Brownbook, January-February, 2017 

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