otherworldly homes carved from volcanic rock|
|The word most often used to describe Cappadocia is
The result is a surreal
landscape unlike any place on earth, an otherworldliness which impressed no less
than George Lucas, who filmed scenes here for the original Star Wars. You may
recall the homes of the Sand People on Tattoine, the stark desert planet.
Located in central Anatolia about 180 miles (290 kilometers) southeast of the
Turkish capital of Ankara, Kapadokya, anglicized as Cappadocia and Hittite for
the land of beautiful horses, makes an intriguing side trip from the usual tour
of the Mediterranean coast.
There is a rich
diversity of sites here from various historic periods, from the time of the
Hittites (rivals to the ancient Egyptians) to the early Christians to the
13th-century Great Silk Road. But most of what is unique about Cappadocia _ the
homes and churches carved from stone and the vast underground cities _ stems
from its geological history.
The region was once
home to several active volcanoes, including Mount Erciyes, a snowcapped peak of
almost 13,000 feet (3,900 meters) which still looms on the horizon. Volcanic
eruptions as many as 10 million years ago covered the area in ashes, which
hardened into a soft, porous rock
Over time, high wind and water eroded the tuff into free standing cones, domes
and other geological oddities. The most astonishing of these formations are
known as fairy chimneys _ a boulder of basalt balancing precariously atop a
thin, attenuated shaft of tuff. The hard basalt protects the soft platform
underneath from erosion. Or, as Cappadocians explain it, fairies or angels
carried the rocks to the top. Hittites and later the Byzantine Christians
created shelter out of some of these formations by hollowing out the soft rock _
an innovation that was partially due to the lack of trees in this barren land.
Your first glimpse of these peculiar dwellings is likely to come through the
window of a bus. Much like the trains in Europe, Turkey has a vast and easily
navigable bus network. The buses are inexpensive, generally punctual and clean.
After a few days of travel you will inevitably look forward to bus stewards
serving coffee, sodas and light snacks, followed by a splash of lemon hand
With the tourism business slow there are
bargains to be had, and merchants are aggressive in courting your business. The
moment you get off the bus, travel agents will probably approach you. You’ll
inevitably feel like you’re getting charged too much, but a day tour by minivan
is probably the best way to see Cappadocia, since some sites are fairly far
apart. The quality of your guide is sheer potluck. They can range from charming
fonts of history to those whose English is indecipherable. But itineraries are
similar and prices are generally standardized at about $20 (18,800,000 Turkish
lira) per day, including lunch. There’s a slew of sleepy little tourist-driven
towns where you can stay in Cappadocia. Of them, Göreme is particularly
well-located and charming. Old men with weathered faces sip coffee on benches
and watch the action, as carts pulled by donkeys bring fresh produce to the
markets. Women in veils pass bikini-topped tourists. Restaurants, travel
agencies, the occasional Internet cafe and gift shops selling pottery, onyx and
carved alabaster all are clustered around Göreme’s bus station. Rug shops are
ubiquitous throughout Turkey, but many rugs are made in Cappadocia, so stores
here shouldn’t have markups from too many middlemen. Even if you don’t plan to
buy one, sipping complementary apple tea as multilingual salesmen promise you
deals and unroll rug after rug is a mandatory Turkish experience. A particularly
plush shop for this in Göreme is Indigo Gallery. There are plenty of hotels a
short walk from town, including some with rooms cut from a tuff cone. Simple,
but clean rooms with private baths run about $7- 10 (6,580,000-9,400,000 lira).
Upscale, more Westernized accommodations are available at the Ottoman House for
$40 (37,600,000 lira) and up.
While Istanbul was
the political capital of Byzantium, Cappadocia was the spiritual stronghold.
Many tours start at Göreme’s Open-air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site with
some of the most impressive of Cappadocia’s 400 or so early Christian churches.
Paths lead visitors among stone outcroppings that contained entire monasteries
and nunneries, as well as
chapels, complete with naves, apses and columns all carved from tuff.
Frescoes _ dating from the 8th through the 13th centuries _
depict the lives of the saints and the stories of the gospels on the stone
walls. The colorful frescoes are well-preserved in the cave-like chapels, since
temperatures remain between 39-54 degrees yearlong, while some were not exposed
to light for centuries. About two miles (three kilometers) away is Üchisar, a
fortress-like town carved into a prominent peak of about 4,300 feet (1,290
meters). The homes here are stacked atop each other with irregularly shaped
windows and doors, appearing from the distance almost like a beehive. A few
people still live in the hollowed-out homes, some of which are even equipped
with satellite dishes _ about as incongruous a scene as you’ll encounter on
Earth. Our guide, Mehmet Keçeci, explains that the Turkish government undertook
in the 1960s and 1970s to evict families from these dwellings, considering the
lifestyle an embarrassment to a modern state. Later, they learned to appreciate
the charm _ and perhaps the exotic allure to tourists _ and changed their tune.
Some of the homes have been converted into gift shops and others are open for
tourists to explore. You climb a few ladders and get to the fourth floor of one,
have been carved from the walls to
form pigeon perches. Until half a century ago, collecting pigeon droppings for
fertilizer was a common way for Cappadocians to make a living.
A few miles (several kilometers) away, the land flattens, though it
consists of the same tuff stone. More than 30 cities have been discovered in
Cappadocia that were dug directly out of the stony underground, where residents
lived like sophisticated gophers. At Kaymaklı, one of the largest underground
cities, you have to duck down to get through some of the passageways, but lights
and arrows help you through. The Hittites are believed to have dug the first
levels, while Byzantines added the lower levels in the 7th century as a place to
hide during times of war.
In the larger cities, up
to 5,000 people could live for up to six months in these labyrinthine caves.
Tunneling up to 165 feet (50 meters) underground, the cities contain cramped
living quarters, chapels, schools, communal kitchens still blackened by smoke,
wineries, wells and ventilation shafts. The villages were not visible above
ground, but if invaders discovered their location, stones were rolled over to
block the passages.
While Turkey, then the Ottoman
Empire, converted to Islam centuries ago, Christian Cappadocians holed up in
this region until early in the 20th Century, our guide explains. The first
leader of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, initiated enormous
population exchanges with neighboring Greece in the 1920s, as remaining
Christians went to Greece and Muslims came to Turkey. A reminder of Turkey’s
Muslim heritage is found up the
Kaymaklı, at the Aksaray Caravanserai, a way-station on the 13th-century Silk
Road. The Seljuk sultans built these camel stops 10-20 miles (16-32 kilometers)
apart to encourage commerce. The stout, box-shaped building has thick walls and
looks like a small citadel. The archways are intricately carved in Arabic
patterns. And in a land as ancient as Cappadocia, a 13th-century caravanserai
seems like a link back to modern times.