Cappadocia has been described in fairly consistent terms over the ages: mystical, spiritual, unearthly, magical, or just plain spectacular. Its landscape is, indeed, some of the most unusual and starkly beautiful in the world. At first glance, one is awed, then amazed that such original and even delicate beauty was birthed and lashed with nature’s violence, then further carved so intricately by man.
Ten million years ago this central region of Turkey was sprinkled with massive, active volcanoes. Three huge volcanoes in particular rained lava and ash over the landscape. Earthquakes followed, creating rents in the land. Water, once plentiful in this now arid region, coursed through the rifts, creating valleys and river gorges between the rocky cliffs.
This is a harsh land, with frequent earthquakes, whipping winds, and massive winter snows. All these geological events and nature’s plain nasty weather carved the stone formations of Cappadocia. Softer, porous lava rock called tufa was more easily eroded than the upper layers of basalt, which resulted in both bizarre and magical shapes.
Indeed, wandering in some parts of Goreme Open Air Museum, I wondered if giant elves were going to pop out from the “fairy chimneys” above. The mushroom pillars made me feel like Alice on mushrooms.
And there were many formations that had more familiar shapes:
And, of course, there were real dromedaries aplenty, ready to give willing tourists a bumpy ride for a few Turkish lira:
But what fascinated me were not just the phantasmagorical stone configurations, but the history of this particular region, and what people had done with these formations. I’m not going to “pull a Michener” on you and start with the first human inhabitants back in the Bronze Age. I’ll just mention a few well-recognized categories of people who’ve tromped, ruled, or otherwise inhabited the area over the last three plus millennia: Persians, Greeks and their belligerent cousin Alexander, Romans (of course), early Christians, Armenians, and, finally, Turks.
The singular geologic characteristic of this area – soft lava rock – was ingeniously used by early men to provide shelter: multi-level dwellings were carved into the sides of many cliffs and formations. Early Christians around 200-300 A.D. began carving monastic cells in some of the peaks and walls of Goreme, and soon whole monasteries developed. Hundreds of tiny churches are scattered in and near Goreme and Zelve, both famous Christian spiritual centers in their day, and now preserved as “open air museums.” As Christians departed or were forced out, many of the churches were destroyed or their frescoes whitewashed over; some were converted to mosques in the most recent wave of Muslim inhabitants. Thankfully, some of these beautiful 9th-12th c. frescoes have been restored. (Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to photograph any of them.)
Parts of Zelve’s fairy chimney communities were still inhabited into the 1950s, when deterioration of the soft stone and/or a need for indoor plumbing (or improved sanitation in general) forced the last villagers down to modern dwellings.
However, some people dug downward, not upward, and created passageways and habitats for themselves underground. These “underground cities” were written about as early as the 5th c. B.C., but the identity of the people who first dug these underground habitations is a mystery. However, early Christians migrating to the region greatly expanded these networks of tunnels, developing multi-levels underground of cooking, living and sleeping quarters, places of worship, stables for livestock, granaries, storerooms and even wineries — truly creating underground “cities.” Under both Roman rule then later Turkish rule, these early Christians were often persecuted. Having literal “bolt holes” saved many lives for several centuries. We visited the deepest of these underground cities, Derinkuyu, which has eight known levels reaching to a depth of 180 feet (55 meters). As many as 40 of these underground cities have been identified and most have been at least partially excavated. However, even with the most excavated sites, archeologists believe there are most likely more levels than are currently known.
What was intriguing about these underground cities were some of the defensive features. Many of the tunnels would twist or grow narrower or shorter unexpectedly in order to impede the progress of interlopers. The denizens of these underground dwellings could also roll heavy, large stones into a narrowed tunnel, blocking the invaders’ path.
In a few places there were “murder holes:” holes drilled between levels so the defenders could rain down spears, boiling water or oil or other murderous devices on the heads of the invaders. Our guide, Omer, told us that several of these underground cities had tunnels connecting them to each other, literally as an underground “road” system. The longest, he claimed, was 9 kilometers long connecting Derinkuyu to at least one other “city.”
As mentioned several times, the land of central Turkey is very arid. Of course, it was in the midst of summer, but Omer assured us that the winters are equally dry, despite the snow. However, we did find some lush spots. The Ihlara Valley threw a thin ribbon of greenery through its river gorge. I opted to give my back a rest and not walk an additional 3 km after our grueling morning walking hunched over underground in Derinkuyu, but Michael did the hike, and took some great pictures:
Lastly, I’d like to thank our new friends for inviting us to join them on this side trip to Cappadocia: Fern Moskowitz, who organized the trip, and her husband, Irv; and Marcel and Chris LaPointe. Fern and I met on an on-line forum as we were all scheduled for an Oceania voyage, and were planning port excursions. Cappadocia was the first of many excursions we shared together. And thanks, also, to our guide Omer from Rock Valley Travel, who provided the best tour we’d had of the summer. We learned more in two days with Omer than I could possibly remember or any of you would want to know!