Forests of the Afterlife
On the highlands of ancient Lycia and Caria, in the vicinity of modern-day Bodrum and Antalya, groves of age-old red pines (Pinus brutia) shelter mystifying cemeteries.
Most of them only go back to a century or two, recent by Anatolian standards.
To the visitor, the cemeteries present an otherworldly spectacle with enchanting, if naïve patterns of plants, flowers, blue jets of flame, and other figures painted and carved on the tombstones. Deeper secrets lurk in other corners; in secretive carvings of the dead; staring faces and penetrating eyes, or humanoid silhouettes that defy the Muslim taboo on figurative art.
As an independent researcher with an in interest in photo-documentation of folk art in Turkey, I compiled a portfolio of many such tombstones and folk-art details in my 2021 book, Forests of the Afterlife: Folk Art and Symbolism in Forest Cemeteries of Turkey's Bodrum-Milas Peninsula.
This is by no means the first such study, but I believe it is one of the first to be written in the English language. Many other valuable studies of Turkish cemeteries and their folk art exist.
But more often than not, Turkish books focusing on these tombstones are written with motives to link such heterodox details and to "Tengrist" Old Turkic traditions. Sculptured forms of human beings are likened to Central Asian balbal statues. Painted trees on tombstones are linked to the symbol of the Tree of Life in pre-Islamic Tengrist religion. These arguments are then used to bolster the essentially Turkish origin of Anatolian folk traditions.
This may very well be so. But more often than not, other connections are overlooked. The uncanny forms of human beings depicted in rural Turkish folk art are more similar to Hellenistic tomb steles than they are to balbals. Cypress trees, depicted so frequently and with such loving care on tombstones across Western Anatolia; may indeed harken back to the Tengrist Tree of Life – but they were also sacred to Artemis, whose cults flourished in this region for centuries before the arrival of Islam, or Turkish people.
The situation remains unresolved. But trying to solve it through firebrand revisionism; that is to say, through recently popular hypotheses suggesting that there is nothing “Turkish” about the people of Turkey; that present-day Anatolia is populated entirely by unaware converts descended from Greeks, Armenians, Kurds and others; also smacks of irredentist fallacy.
The actual answer must instead involve a blend of both hypotheses. It is clear to see that across Turkey, Turkish folk belief under Islam preserved and nurtured many traditions dating back to Antiquity. Beyond this brief conclusion, any further works focusing on this under-studied area of folk art must concentrate documentation and preservation rather than arguments on the origins or the beliefs of the people who produced them.
The most important fact about these “forests of the afterlife” is that they are endangered. From the 2010s onwards, the districts of Bodrum and Milas - where many such tree-tombstones were photographed - have undergone rapid development as wealthy Turkish urbanites began to settle here. With them come money; roads, car dealerships, hotels, restaurants, marinas and strip malls; and the inevitable, dehumanising wave of gentrification and standardisation.
Cemeteries are also changing. Old tombstones with their intricate symbols are being rejected in favour of graceless, marble-clad concrete tubs. The photographs in this book were taken between 2015 and 2020. In a few more decades, most such tombstones will be replaced by modern graves. In a century, few will remain.
I hope this brief selection from my work was interesting and inspiring for the Working Classicists community. There may be similar details in classical art or historic traditions which I may not have been aware of. This article might also inspire similar efforts in other parts of Turkey and the nearby region. Infinite secrets still lurk in the Anatolian plateau, waiting for discerning eyes.