Believers in a traditional Hellenophobia–Turkophobia would have stared at the sight of the Mytilene Greeks spreading farewell meals for their departing neighbours, and later accompanying them to the quay, where Christians and Mohammedans, who for a lifetime had been plowing adjacently and even sharing occasional backgammon games at village cafes, embraced and parted with tears. Then, seated on their heaped up baggage, with their flocks around them – the women weeping, the children hugging their pets, the gray-bearded babas all dignity, as is their wont – the Mytilene Muslims set forth for unknown Turkey.

National Geographic, November 1922

White beach blue sea white village blue sky. One half of a Greek flag. A single orange life jacket, washed up on the tideline.

Sometimes, across the sea, Turkey’s mountainous hinterland is hazy, especially in the days before a storm. The haze is sand blown in from Egypt, or so the baker says, and when the rains come the cars end up filthy and streaked. She says it never used to be like this. On other days the land is vivid, the houses of the towns along the coastline as distinct and bleached as the stones beneath the silent water. A single fishing boat, far out, a single man bowed to his net.

The Greek-made map of Lesbos, tacked up on the wall of our apartment, gives this history of the island, the text set in the blank space of the island’s largest gulf:

In 1355 Lesbos was presented as a dowry to the Genoese prince Francesco I Gattilusio and in the ensuing years acquired considerable economic and military power. This heyday lasted until 1462, when Sultan Mohamed II captured the island from the Genoese masters. Lesbos was plunged into centuries of darkness under Ottoman domination, until it was liberated by the Greek navy in 1912.

At the narrowest point of the strait, Turkey is six kilometres away. The Greek mainland is more than one hundred. Every Thursday morning and every Saturday morning, Greeks haul empty suitcases onto the ferries that make the crossing from Mytilene to Ayvalık, and in the evenings they return, their bags stuffed with cheap electronics and cotton sheets. The shopkeepers cross too, and the Roma, who pick up terracotta pots to sell from out the backs of their cars. The Turkish lira is weak these days. The crossing is forty-five minutes, or an hour and a half on the cheap boat. Coming back at dusk, the fading peaks of Lesbos echo those of the Turkish mainland, set adrift from its mirror twin. On the island of Cunda, as the boat quits Ayvalık’s harbour for the sea, the tower of the abandoned church of Taxiarchis, now a museum, still catches the late sun. As we dock the swifts are screaming, dipping to the water in the last of the light.

It is spring; it has come again. The swifts arrived last week. The direct flights start from Gatwick, packed with birdwatchers seeking the annual passage of the hawk and tern and stork. The migrant boats begin to cross, and they are given little choice as to whether they do so on a calm day or in a storm. Frontex and the Turkish coastguard step up their nighttime patrols of coastal waters. Volunteers arrive from the wealthier European countries for their weeks of work with one of the more than 150 NGOs that now populate the island. And one day, the butterflies appear.

I see them first on the airport road as I am walking out of the supermarket. They are making their way along the street, a little higher than the cars, a thin but constant stream of them. Orange flashes in the afternoon light. I am with my daughter, and she points up at them from her pushchair, and we stop and watch them for some minutes as they continue overhead, from south to north.

As we walk home they are everywhere, flooding the island like a wind. I find one smashed in the grille of a parked car and extract it. It is a painted lady; I know them from English gardens far from here. In the apartment, I look them up. The maps of their migrations have thick arrows like diagrams of war, commencing in the sub-Sahara and converging on Europe, crossing the Mediterranean where the waters are narrowest, some through Greece, others through Spain. None of them, apparently, take the Italian route. It is too far over open sea, and I suppose, in some sense, they have a choice.

Little is known about insect migrations. Animals and birds can be fitted with trackers that record their movements, but insects are too delicate. And it is not a single creature that makes the 8,047-kilometre journey from Chad or Niger or Benin to Europe and then back again each year. Instead it is the species that migrates, over a succession of generations. Each Vanessa cardui ’s life lasts between ten and twenty-four days, and during that time the adult female must travel, mate and deposit eggs. The next stage of the journey will be continued by her offspring. They catch the high-altitude winds. It is one of the longest insect migrations in the world.

I go out on the balcony. I cannot see them any more. Just the crumpled, folded body of the one that I am holding in my hand.

Insect migrations also remain unknown because we do not notice them. The birdwatchers flying in from Gatwick with their spotting scopes are not here for the butterflies. Much of what is known about their passage through Europe comes from studies in 2009, when, according to one paper, the ‘numbers of V. cardui migrating across Europe were so high that they raised awareness among the general public, with the result that a large number of people contributed to online surveys and made it possible to investigate with unprecedented detail the migration system in this part of the range’. Yet they remain mysterious. Only in 2014 did an expedition to the Sahel reveal where the painted ladies spend their winters. No one on Lesbos remembers them in numbers like this. They are, perhaps, alighting here and breeding, before their final push to northern Europe.

I am sitting on the veranda of a well-to-do cafe that could be in Vienna or Lisbon – high ceilings, petits fours, the waiters in black aprons and white shirts – and just over five and a half kilometres away is the largest refugee camp in Europe. Because my partner is working at the camp full-time I have been looking after our daughter. It is possible to be on Lesbos and have little idea the camp is here. There are signs, if you know to look for them. In the graffiti – no borders, fuck frontiers, blue stamp for all. The occasional rough sleeper who has not yet registered or been picked up by the police. The struggling or shuttered restaurants in the fishing villages, finding business increasingly slow since Lesbos hit the news and the tourists deserted the island for other, less complicated holidays. Each morning I go down to the beach and swim out into a sea where thousands have drowned. Picking through the flotsam – a shoe, a lens from a pair of glasses, a cigarette lighter – and wondering whether these are objects lost carelessly overboard, or all that remains now of someone’s tragedy. In the playground, the Greek parents that I speak to want to know about the camps. Are people still arriving? Are they still being transferred to the mainland? They were just about to have a clear-out, perhaps they could donate some clothes?

Beyond the cafe, fish shops line the cobbled street. The farmers are arriving in their pickups from the hills inland, the flatbeds stacked with crates of oranges and camomile and cherries, and setting up in the shade. It is early, and already it is clear that it will be hot, again. Further down, in the former Turkish part of town, beyond the banks and the perfumers and the United Colours of Benetton, is Yeni Mosque. Pigeons clatter through the shade to alight on rusting girders that keep the crumbling arches spread. Suggestions of sacred texts in relief in the broken stonework. Cats lounging in squares of sunlight, and the courtyard full of mallow. And on the road towards the airport, following the coast: crumbling Ottoman mansions overlooking Turkey and the ocean, long since abandoned, now graffitied, squatted by anarchists, squatted by migrants, squatted by dogs. They are like something out of Márquez, their faded plasterwork and splintered shutters still shading rooms that were packed into trunks and shipped away a hundred years ago. The wisteria gone wild. Their gardens choked with waist-high grasses, the citrus trees unpicked, the orange fruit startlingly bright. Some of the Ottoman Muslims got rich here, a good living to be made trading olive oil and soap across this narrow stretch of water, when this stretch of water was just that, a trade route, and not one of the most dangerous stretches of water in the world.

I have invited Masoud Ghorbanpour to the cafe this morning for a coffee. Normally he would be in the camp’s two-hour breakfast queue just now. Masoud crossed that water one year and seven months ago. He came here from Iran. He fled Tehran on the night of his daughter’s birthday, and paid €11,250, cash, for safe passage to Germany. The smuggler was all assurances. Masoud never made it to Germany. A series of missteps, his money gone, he was shuttled through various houses and camps until he came, in the winter, to Turkey’s west coast. He made the crossing. He was alone. Eight months later, his wife and his daughter, now seven, joined him. When he tells me that, his eyes soften for a moment. His name and theirs are tattooed one after the other, like the single jagged line of a hospital heart monitor, on the outside of his forearm.

‘This sea, this ocean, it’s horrible,’ he says. ‘But we’re trying, this whole journey, for a better life, for the children. For the next generation. What can we do? Without any money, without any support from the government in the first country? The borders are, in my mentality, bullshit. Why? It’s just one sea. In some places just six kilometres. Everything is changing in six kilometres.’

It wasn’t always this way. For centuries Lesbos was part of the Ottoman Empire. There was a mix of faiths on the island, Muslim and Christian, as there was throughout much of the Empire, working and farming alongside one another under the Sultan’s rule, mostly with tolerance and respect. Mytilene itself was seen as a model of how the religions could live together. And across the water, Greeks had been on the Anatolian coast for the past 3,000 years. Towns like Ayvalık and Smyrna, later renamed Izmir, were almost entirely Greek.


Orhan Pamuk | On Europe
Jacqueline Rose | On Europe