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In the Aegean region it was traditional for local village men of an adventurous disposition to join armed bands which, in Robin Hood style fought on behalf of good against evil. Known as efe, these men were held in legendary esteem. During Turkey's War of Independence (1919-1922) the efes fought heroically on the side of the nationalist forces led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The costumes of the efes were as colourful as their exploits, one characteristic feature being the needle lace known as oya worked by their wives in a myriad floral designs in coloured silk.

On a visit to Aydın, I met Zafer Esi, who showed me some lovely oya lace and explained to my astonishment that the fearsome efes of past centuries used it to ornament their headdresses. Zafer Esi's interest in oya lace began when he purchased some antique lace which a local village woman had kept in her trousseau chest. His fascination with this beautiful needlework led him on a door to door search through the villages of the region in pursuit of new examples for his collection. In the course of his search he discovered not only items of clothing worn by efes, but heard interesting accounts of their lives from their relatives. After 25 years he now has a magnificent collection of 1500 items, consisting of various articles of clothing and household linen decorated with oya lace. The original object of the varied coloured lace was apparently to provide camouflage for the men in the mountains. Whether this was as effective as the camouflage designs of modern soldiers or not, it was certainly far more aesthetic. In time the lace became a way for their wives to show off their skills as needlewomen, and so the oya lace made for efes is always the most intricately worked. The lace is stiffened with wire or horsehair so that it stands up, and its designs consist most commonly of sun, daisy and tulip motifs. Another form of apparel edged with oya lace are the plain coloured cloths known as grep worn by women as head scarfs. The patterns of the lace are designed not only for their visual appeal, but also as an expression of the womn's emotions. If she is happy she works spring flowers, and if unhappy chili pepper flowers.The kefiye is another type of cloth made of very fine silk in bright polychrome stripes or checks. Again kefiyes are edged in colourful oya lace and worn by women either wound around a low fez cap to form their headdress, or around their necks. A larger cloth known as ulada is worn by women on their heads on special occasions such as weddings or religious feast days.

One of the uladas in Zafer Esi's collection is particularly precious to him, and he keeps it carefully wrapped and touches it as little as possible. This ulada has its own story. When Esi was touring the countryside one day buying new pieces for his collection, he arrived in the village of Danişmend, and knocked on the door of a house which turned out to have been that of a celebrated efe, İsmail Efe of Danişmend. His daughter opened the chest containing İsmail Efe's clothing to show Esi, and he asked if she would sell him a lovely ulada that had belonged to her father. She was offended by the offer to buy it, explaining that for her its value was not material but sentimental. During the War of Independence,Mustafa Kemal Atatürk asked İsmail Efe to blowup a bridge over the Menderes River.

It was nearing the end of the war, and the retreating Greek army's only chance of help was from the Italian forces, who would have to take the route across the bridge to reach them. The 200 soldiers defending the bridge were defeated by İsmail Efe and his men in a fierce battle, and the bridge was blown up. İsmail Efe then set out for his village, where his wife had been waiting anxiously. When she saw him arrive back safe and sound, she was so happy that she removed the ulada from her head and wrapped it around the head of the horse he was riding.

Having concluded her story, İsmail Efe's daughter declared, 'That is the story of the ulada which you are asking to buy. The property of an efe cannot be sold, but if you want it so much and will take good care of it, let it be yours.' Zafer Esi indeed takes good care of this gift. Every so often he unwraps it carefully and airs it so that the fabric does not rot. This and the other items in his remarkable collection are a precious legacy of the region where he lives, whose traditional handcrafts and costumes are rapidly disappearing in the modern age.

Skylife 2/2001  
* Saner Şen is a photographer
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