x0x Dovecotes of Cappadocia
By Murat Gulyaz
The fascinating landscape of Cappadocia with its rock hewn churches,
monasteries and underground cities has another feature which few
visitors are aware of. These are the dovecotes carved into the rock
pinnacles and high valley sides.
In ancient Greek mythology the dove represented Aphrodite, goddess of
beauty and love, and figures in the holy books of the major
monotheistic religions. The earliest reference is in the Old Testament,
where Noah releases a dove to seek land, and it returns with an olive
branch showing that life had been restored following the deluge. From
then on the olive branch and the dove became symbols of friendship and
peace. In the New Testament, when Jesus is being baptised, the Holy
Ghost alights on his head in the form of a white dove, which is why in
Christian iconography the dove represents the Holy Ghost. In the Koran,
when Mohammed is fleeing from the Qureysh, he hides in a cave. Spiders
weave webs over the entrance and a dove makes her nest, so his pursuers
do not bother to look inside and he is saved. In consequence, the
generality of Muslims regard pigeons and doves as sacred and do not
hunt or eat them. From the same motive buildings in Islam countries
often incorporate dovecotes.
The earliest examples of nesting houses for birds in Turkey date from
the 16th century and can be seen in mosques, bridges, libraries, and
other public buildings in Istanbul, Edirne, Amasya, Konya, Kayseri,
Nigde and Nevsehir.
Since doves and pigeons need to drink water frequently in order to
digest the grains with which they fill their crops, dovecotes were
usually built near sources of water, and the birds themselves were
regarded as protectors of springs.
In Cappadocia the dovecotes carved into the upper parts of cliffs or
pinnacles almost always face east or south across the valleys. Most of
them date from the late 19th or early 20th century, although there are
a few from the 18th century. From the point of view of the art
historian they are interesting for the rare examples of Turkish folk
painting which usually decorate the faade.
Cappadocian dovecotes attracted the attention of western travellers to
the region from the 18th century onwards, and there are engravings of
them in the travel accounts of Charles Texier and William Hamilton.
They consist of a carved chamber with one row of three or four
apertures, or two rows of three apertures by which the birds enter. The
chamber measures from 5 to 10 square metres with four or five rows of
niches for the birds to perch and nest in, and sometimes wooden perches
fitted across. Where the faades have collapsed this interior
arrangement is clearly visible. Even the smallest dovecotes could
accommodate over one hundred birds. The largest dovecotes in Cappadocia
are to be seen in the Ozengi Valley and at Soganli, where there are
sometimes seven or eight dovecotes one above another.
In some cases the entrances and windows of Byzantine period rock
monasteries or churches were closed up to form dovecotes, the best
examples of this type being the Cavusin (Nicephorus Phocas) and John the
Baptist churches near Cavusin, the Kiliclar (Kusluk) Church of the Virgin
Mary in Goreme, the Durmus Kadir and Yusuf Koc churches in the Karsibucak
Valley, and Halla Monastery in Ortahisar.
Free standing dovecotes made of cut stone are also seen in some places.
Architecturally no different from the local one or two-storey cottages,
such dovecotes are common in the Guvercinlik Valley near the town of
Uchisar and in the Ozengi Valley near Urgup.
Local people did not go to the trouble of building dovecotes merely out
of respect for their sacred character however. The dovecotes provided a
source of fertiliser, almost as rich in nitrogen as guano, consisting
of 20-25% organic substances, 1-2% nitrogen, and 0.50-1.5% phosphoric
acid. Fertiliser was much needed in this region where farming land was
scarce, so as to obtain maximum harvests from fields, vineyards and
orchards. To collect the accumulated droppings access to the dovecotes
was provided by narrow tunnels carved down from the cliff top or doors
reached by ladders from the valley floor.
Dovecote facades were usually painted by local artists using pigments
obtained from trees, flowers, roots, earth containing ferrous oxide,
and a local red earth known as yosa. Walnut shells and leaves provided
four tones of green, buckthorn yellow, raisins dark red, onions pink,
pennyroyal tones of grey, and Tussilago farfara and alder bark brown;
while cows urine lent gloss to the colours.
Local people explain that a mixture of plaster and egg white spread on
the faades makes it harder for animals like martens, foxes and weasels
to get a grip and climb into the dovecotes. But more often tin or zinc
sheets have been nailed beneath them to serve the same purpose. In the
Soganli Valley almost all the dovecotes have been decorated in white
only, since it is believed that the pigeons are attracted to white and
find their way back to roost more easily.
Sunray motifs in red ochre are mostly found in the valleys of Ortahisar
where farming is not intensive.
While the most common designs are kilim motifs or figurative motifs
executed in brown or black on a white ground, we also find many floral
and abstract motifs. They are sometimes placed randomly and sometimes
form a symmetrical pattern.
Figurative motifs are to be seen in the greatest numbers in Kizilcukur
where the Ortahisar and Cavusin valleys meet. Figures dancing the sword
and shield dance are a reminder that this folk dance was once performed
here, although it has been entirely forgotten in Ortahisar today.
Stylised pictures of people riding or hunting on camels or horses are
also significant documents for the historian.
As well as the motifs described above, some of the dovecotes bear
inscriptions in old Turkish, giving the date, formulas like
Masallah-Allah (May God protect), or verses from the Koran used to give
protection from the evil eye, and in some rare cases the name and
occupation of the owner.
The places to see the most dovecotes in Cappadocia are the valleys
around Uchisar, the valleys of Kiliclar and Gulludere in Goreme, the Ozengi
Valley in Urgup, the Balkan river and Kizilcukur Valley at Ortahisar, the
Cat Valley near Nevsehir, and at Gesi and the Soganli Valley in the
province of Kayseri.
* Murat Gulyaz, archaeologist.