x0x A pastoral poem: Tavaca
By Aylin Dincel
An emerald green valley stretching between thick forests of pine and
fir trees, with clusters of houses like dots on the valley floor and
slopes. The villages of at most twenty houses are set in a landscape
whose picture postcard scenes are reminiscent of the Swiss Alps. At
the highest point of the valley is Tavaca, a neighbourhood of the
forest village of Gokcealan near Turkeli in Sinop. Tavaca's
inhabitants are Circassians whose ancestors migrated here from
northern Caucasia. In the winter months only two or three of the
around twenty families remain in the village, but in the hot summer
months it overflows with the inhabitants and their visitors.
Here, as throughout the Black Sea region, houses perch like birds on
hilltops and steep slopes. The typical wooden houses are set on
patches of levelled ground, in gardens surrounded by wooden fences.
They are built over basements known as hayatalti consisting of stables
for the animals and firewood store.
From the entrance above a flight of six steps leads up to a large
balcony with wooden posts known as the hayatonu, which provides a cool
shady place to eat meals in summer. The balcony opens onto a
rectangular hall surrounded by four or six rooms.
The roofs of the houses are tiled with slate, and the wooden facades
are carved in relief with motifs and inscriptions, some religious in
character, such as 'Allah' and 'Bismillah', and others the surname of
the owner and date of construction. The motifs derive from Circassian
culture and consist of weapons such as the long barrelled guns that
are held sacred in Circassian tradition and daggers, which are
ornamented as richly as the owners can afford. Among the tombstones in
the village cemetery are those of their ancestors who first settled
here. These stones are inscribed in old Turkish script and the tops
carved in the forms of turbans and the fur hats known as kalpak.
Everyone in the village is related to everyone else, and the
Families get together to help one another in all the tasks of their
daily lives, and after the evening meal prepared in this way the older
members of the families gather in one of the houses to eat fruit,
drink tea and converse until the late hours, while the young people
enjoy themselves more energetically, dancing and playing games
together. Visitors to the village are immediately embraced into this
tight community with its strong sense of tradition. For those from the
cities, the way in which everyone knows everyone else and helps one
another are particularly endearing features of life here.
Circassians like their environment to be as well cared for as their
own homes, and everyone willingly helps to look after the village
playground and picnic area in the forest. Here there is a swing made
entirely of wood, without metal chains or rope, and wooden picnic
tables. In the summer months people gather here every day, make tea on
the fireplace, and sit for hours enjoying the company and pleasant
As well as drinking tea at every opportunity, the Circassians make a
special infusion of their own from fresh pine cones, and this fragrant
red tea is said to be good for the stomach and digestive complaints.
Traditional Circassian generosity and hospitality are displayed in
lavish and cheerful meals. Dishes tend to be filling, and meat and
milk products such as yoghurt predominate. One speciality is haluj, a
triangular fried pastry filled with cheese or walnuts, which is eaten
instead of bread with yoghurt, clotted cream, butter and honey. When
paying visits to relatives and friends, guests often cook a batch of
haluj to take as a present. Another delicious dish is boiled chicken
served in a sauce called sipsi made of maize flour, walnuts, butter,
coriander and other ingredients cooked slowly over a wood fire in a
special earthenware casserole known as a coven. This is eaten with
'pasta', a kind of soft bread made of maize flour which is also cooked
in a coven.
In a day and age when cultural distinctions are being lost throughout
the world, and ways of life divorced from nature, Tavaca is a
memorable exception of a traditional community that has managed to
preserve its identity.
* Aylin Dincel is a photographer