An Ottoman Atlantis

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“The islanders of Ada Kaleh have been moved to another islet downstream and their old home has vanished under the still surface as though it had never been. Let us hope that the power generated by the dam has spread well-being on either bank and lit up Rumanian and Yugoslav towns brighter than ever before because, in everything but economics, the damage is irreparable. Perhaps, with time and fading memories, people will forget the extent of their loss.” Patrick Leigh Fermor, Between the Woods and the Water

Ada Kaleh

by Freddie Mason and Alice-Andrea Ewing

Published in July, Freddie Mason's poem Ada Kaleh explores the loss of a collective experience and memory through the destruction of place. Whilst not strictly based on the historic events of the submersion of the island of Ada Kaleh itself, the poem takes the island - along with its mysterious and tragic history - as a symbol for the things lost as we try to recall the past, a place which is inevitably fractured by the fault lines of memory. Accompanied by the striking illustrations of Alice-Andrea Ewing, Ada Kaleh confronts our addiction to the impossibilities of accurate remembrance, in tones comical, erotic and, even, momentarily triumphant.


Ada Kaleh, an Ottoman island in the Danube on the border between Serbia and Romania, disappeared beneath that river in 1971. During the construction of the Iron Gates I Hydroelectric Power Station, the tiny island of Ada Kaleh was submerged to make way for the station's dam, with many inhabitants choosing to emigrate to Turkey rather than be relocated on Simian Island. Plans for a "New Ada Kaleh" were never completed. 

With its lush microclimate, its mainly Turkish population and its narrow, crooked streets, the free port of Ada Kaleh was a slice of the Muslim Orient marooned deep in Christian Europe. The locals survived from fishing and growing tobacco, but thrived on the tourist trade and on smuggling.

The island, dominated by the picturesque ruins of the fort, was practically the only place in Romania where you could get unfiltered Turkish coffee, from copper kettles that were boiled in sand. The main drag, called Ezarzia, was packed with coffee houses and shops specializing in textiles and jewelry. They also offered perfumes, Turkish delight, fruit jams, and tobacco products, all from locally grown crops. At the height of the tourist season, the streets of this "Little Turkey" were crowded, the air heavy with the smell of tea, coffee and Ada Kaleh brand cigarettes.

Ada Kaleh was a multicultural place. Its 600 to 1,000 inhabitants included Romanians, Hungarians, and Germans, but the majority of Turks were in fact a mix of Arabs, Albanians, Turks, and Kurds. The island's peculiar status attracted some peculiar people. The Hungarian "raw-foodist" Béla Bicsérdy, whose philosophy mixing Zoroastrianism with veganism was immensely popular in 1920s Transylvania, briefly set up a utopian colony on Ada Kaleh. When people started dying from the extreme fasting promoted by the lifestyle guru, his cult collapsed. Discredited, Bicsérdy died in 1951 in Billings, Montana.

The island's peculiar place in the world inspired Mor Jokai, one of Hungary's most famous 19th-century authors, to write Az Arany Ember ("The Golden Man") in 1872. A thinly disguised Ada Kaleh is called "No Man's Island" in the book, as it manages to obtain a charter from two rivaling empires, guaranteeing its existence “outside all borders.” Jokai paints the island as a utopian paradise beyond time and place, where peace and beauty rule supreme, far from war and nationalism.

But nationalism did strike Ada Kaleh. In 1913, Hungary — which at that time still extended to the northern shore of the Danube — unilaterally annexed the island. It would prove to be the country's last enlargement before World War I, and as such, constitute Hungary's territorial high-water mark. For after the war, the Treaty of Trianon (1920) would dismember it, and grant both the northern shore and the island itself to Romania.

After the Second World War, Ada Kaleh found itself on the border between two different types of communism. Fearing its citizens would flee across to the less repressive Yugoslav side of the river, Romania restricted access to the island. Visitors had to hand over their passports, and were forbidden to spend the night on Ada Kaleh. Locals could not cross to or from the island after 8 pm.

Gheorghe Gheorghiu Dej, Romania's communist leader, had a small factory built on the island to compensate the loss of employment. But he also signed the island's death warrant: Dej negotiated the agreement with Yugoslavia to build the Iron Gates Hydroelectric Dam, which would drown the island. Some structures, including parts of the mosque, the bazaar and the graveyard, were moved to Simian, but plans to move the community in its entirety to that nearby island came to nothing.

In 1965, some islanders joined the Turkish minority in Romania's Dobruja region. They took the Sultan's carpet along with them to the mosque of Constanța, on Romania's Black Sea coast. Although Turkey's flag no longer flew over the island, it had not forgotten about its last Balkan colony. In 1967, then-Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel visited Ada Kaleh, inviting its inhabitants to move to Turkey, which most of them did.

By 1968, the island was depopulated. Before the island disappeared under the waves in 1971, the remaining buildings, including the island's distinctive minaret, were dynamited so as not to obstruct future shipping. And there it rests now, 130 feet below the surface of the Danube: Ada Kaleh, an Ottoman Atlantis, surviving only in legend, destroyed in exchange for a few thousand megawatts of electricity.

 


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