x0x Planet of the cones
- x0x Planet of the cones
In Turkey's Cappadocia, a landscape beyond lunar lies just outside your
By Alan Solomon
Tribune staff reporter
Published February 24, 2002
URGUP, Turkey -- It was mere minutes by minivan from the door of my cave
hotel in Urgup (yes, my hotel room was a cave) to a viewpoint above the
Devrent Valley. I was not prepared for what I saw.
"The first thing I should tell you," said my guide, an amiable young man
named Uzay, "is, you're on another planet."
Below me and beside me in this desert land were landforms of a kind I'd
never seen on my planet--tall cones the color of sand, clusters of them,
some topped with a flat, dark rock but most just conical, like a village
of very large, sometimes lumpy dunce caps.
Volcanoes put them here, but as a plateau, not like this; wind and ice and
water made them what they are.
"Still, the erosion goes on," said my guide, in fluent guidespeak. "Most
of the erosion takes place in the winter . . . "
Some visitors moved in among the cones, along rough trails, to get a
better feel; on the road below, disgorged busloads of tourists gazed up
and snapped photos and gazed up again, trying to make sense of it all.
I was 19 photos into my own roll of 36 exposures when I walked over to
Uzay, who had let me wander on my own.
"Should I be saving film for later?"
"This," replied Uzay, "is nothing."
Then I smiled.
Because this, my introduction to Cappadocia, was not "nothing."
And four days later, after exploring much of it by van, foot and hot-air
balloon--leaving the horses and bikes for the heartier among us--here's
what I know:
Cappadocia, folks, is really something. Bring lots of film.
This place, at 1,500 square miles about the size of Rhode Island, is
natural formations that simultaneously defy and invite description, some
of that description inevitably and unapologetically ribald.
It is cave homes that date to the Old Testament. It is cave churches that
date to early Christianity and entire underground cities that hid those
Christians from Roman and other legions.
There are still full-color frescoes in those churches, from the time
William the Conqueror was conquering in another world far, far away.
It is living history: potters working with the same red clay and in the
same style as Hittites did millennia ago; women baking delicious bread in
crude ovens cut into the sides of canyon walls; weavers re-creating kilims
and carpets that were currency on the old Silk Road that cuts through
Cappadocia; shepherds with flocks and gatherers with berries and, of
course, dealers in postcards and silly trinkets.
Part museum and part today, man and nature in wondrous collusion, all set
in a landscape that's beyond lunar--this is the region of Cappadocia. The
wonder starts with the land. If these cones and spires and other weird
formations had been in Utah instead of in the heart of Turkish Anatolia,
it would've been one of our first national parks. This is amazing stuff,
like the pinnacles at Bryce Canyon--but somehow more curious.
The balloon ride--if you do get here, try not to miss the balloon
ride--literally gave the overview. Kaili Kidner, an expatriate Brit who is
one of two pilot-owners of Kapadokya Balloons, provided the narration and
inspiration (and the steering) as we silently floated a couple of hundred
feet above the village of Goreme.
"That valley," she said, pointing, "is known locally as `Love Valley,' for
The formations were nothing if not graphically, with just a little
imagination, um, obviously . . .
"But there's another valley over there," she said, "and we call that
`Penisville,' in case there's any confusion."
The more vegetably oriented among you might describe these particular
hoodoos as mushroomlike. Other forms in these and in neighboring
groupings, from the proper angle, may look like Snoopy, a camel or
Michelangelo's "Pieta"--or wherever the creative mind leads.
In general, these formations are called "fairy chimneys." They are found
in the Devrent Valley and at Goreme Open Air Museum and Zelve Open Air
Museum and at Uchisar and Pasabagi and in places without names. All were
created of essentially the same stuff and from the same process.
Volcanoes (there is some disagreement about which did what and when, but
that's someone else's problem) spewed spewage called tufa. Some of this
material, for reasons volcanologists understand, is softer than the other.
The result, a couple of million years later: The erosion wasn't uniform.
So today, we have sloped conical, columnar and other standing formations
of relatively soft rock (mainly pumice) sometimes topped by caps of harder
rock (primarily basalt).
We also have whole canyons, valleys and gorges (which are which doesn't
seem to matter to mapmakers and sign-painters), explorable on foot or,
some of them, on horseback.
To name three: The Red Valley is a wow, especially when the light is right
(late afternoon is really good). The Ihlara is cut by a stream jumping
with trout. The Pigeon's walls are pocked pigeon holes first created by
4th Century monks to collect guano for fertilizer, an enterprise that
continued long after the monasteries were pretty well abandoned by the
Which introduces the human element.
Carved into the soft-rock walls of those valleys, canyons and even some
broader-based fairy chimneys, along with pigeon holes, are caves.
Thousands of them.
People did this using their hands and whatever tools were around, possibly
as far back as the Old Testament Hittites; only two of today's existing
caves, according to my guide, are fully natural--though it's likely some
of the man-made ones began as natural dents and were enlarged. Eventually,
entire cave-settlements were established (some in use into the 1940s--and
some, significantly upgraded in most cases, converted into hotels you will
love), as well as underground storage facilities and, in some cases,
underground shelters for protection against invaders.
When early Christians (we're talking early Christians here, like 1st
Century), fled from Jerusalem and environs to Asia Minor to escape Roman
persecution, many of them found refuge in those caves and underground
shelters--some of which were expanded.
They also, being Christians, designated some of the caves as churches.
Over subsequent centuries, monastic and other Christians added pillars,
alcoves and domes to these primitive chapels, and decorated them with
Those original frescoes were covered over during 8th Century, lost to the
iconoclasm of Byzantine Emperor Leo III, which banned depiction of
biblical personages and scenes (and got him excommunicated by Rome). The
movement didn't last much longer than Leo; by the 10th Century, the
Cappadocian fresco-painters were back doing their thing--and today, it's
those frescoes, most done in the 10th and 11th Centuries, that survive in
Cappadocia's cave-churches. Some are rather primitive, even for their
time. To compare the best of them, in workmanship and in condition, to the
vivid, striking works that survive in, say, the tombs of ancient Egypt
would be silly. This is mainly folk art, and scarred folk art at
that--victimized by latter-day iconoclasts (primarily Muslims) and
thoughtless graffitists (which, judging from their work and initials,
cross national, ethnic and religious lines).
Imperfect, to be sure. And yet . . .
To walk into what is a cave, carved out and sculpted by skilled hands more
than a thousand years ago, and look up into a dome, again carved out by
hand, and see a still-clear image of Jesus surrounded by disciples is,
certainly in the context of history, visually and emotionally stunning.
Then there are the underground cities. The largest known city, Derinkuyu,
is open for tours but still full of mystery; estimates of how many people
could live there at any given time range from 6,000 to three times that.
Archeologists have found eight levels, and some believe there may be
another 12 below those.
Those of you who had ant farms as kids can imagine the network of
compartments of Derinkuyu and the other buried cities. Dead-end corridors,
narrow passageways and rolling blockades kept the inhabitants (human and
livestock) safe from soldiers and other enemies; sophisticated (for the
time) systems of ventilation, water distribution and storage kept them
breathing, quenched and fed.
"No armies were brave enough to come here," said Uzay. "It was suicide."
(It's still no picnic. Derinkuyu translates as "deep well"; for tourists,
Derinkuyu means "watch your heads." Exploring these mazes requires a
certain amount of bending and stooping, and the seriously claustrophobic
might consider staying in the balloon.)
Early Christians didn't create these cities--guesses suggest the
labyrinths go back in one form or another to the Hittites (19th Century
B.C.)--but during the first centuries after Christ and into the time of
later Arab invasions they certainly used them to escape persecution. Once
again, they built churches.
And it's all here. Plus 14th Century mosques and tombs dating to the
Seljuks, considered the first ethnic Turks to conquer Anatolia; ornate
caravansaries that housed and protected traders who traveled the Silk
Road; so much more to contemplate and absorb.
But what stays with you, more than the churches and frescoes, is the
nature of the place.
One afternoon, Uzay and I hiked a couple of miles of the Ihlara Valley.
Willows lined the trail along the stream, the Melendiz River, that runs
through it. Wild berries were there for the tasting--which we did. Above
us were pink canyon walls with their abandoned cave homes and yet more
churches--350 churches in that valley alone--some of which we checked out,
most of which we didn't.
At one point, a girl on a donkey rode toward us on the narrow path. Behind
her, goats were being urged along by another girl. The goats didn't say
much, but the girls smiled as they passed. Soon after, the bank widened
into a bright-green space, the rippling offering a promise of fresh trout.
The far side of the canyon was aglow in the morning light.
Here, said Uzay, is where, when he is not guiding, he spends time with his
books and his thoughts and his dreams.
"Here," he said, "it's possible for anyone to find himself. A different
world from the city."
A different world than just about any place you have ever seen.
It is here, in Turkey, in Cappadocia.
E-mail Alan Solomon: alsolly@...
Location: Central Turkey, 170 road-miles southeast of Ankara.
Region size: About 1,500 square miles, slightly larger than Long Island,
Gateway city: Kayseri.
Gateway city's original name: Caesarea.
Number of cave churches (estimated): Maybe 1,000.
Churches with surviving frescoes: About 150
Number of underground cities (estimated): At least 40, and possibly
hundreds. They're still finding them.
Most famous king: Midas.
Most famous tourists: Alexander the Great and Marco Polo.
Most famous local saints: Basil and two key Gregorys. Maybe Paul.
Tails, they lost: The Lydians, who ruled for a while, invented coins
before being routed by the Persians in 547 B.C.
Most famous thoroughfare: The Silk Road.
Q. What's the proper pronunciation?
A. Presuming the Turks have the right to determine correctness in their
own land, it's Kap-uh-DOE-kya.
Q. And what does it mean?
A. Various sources define Cappadocia as "land of well-bred horses," "land
of fine horses," "land of beautiful horses," "land of nice horses" or--if
you believe the Babylonians--"great north region." Which is less heroic
but works geographically, if you're in Babylon.
The Turkish Ministry of Culture likes "land of fine horses."
Q. How do you get here?
A. First, fly into Istanbul. Turkish Airways will get you there non-stop
from O'Hare, or other airlines will do it with a connection. De-lag in
Istanbul, then catch another flight (it's less than an hour) to Kayseri.
From Kayseri, if you haven't made private arrangements, frequent buses
will get you to Urgup or other Cappadocian centers in less than two hours.
Or you can drive the 440 miles from Istanbul, which isn't a terrible
Q. What's the best time to come?
A. April into mid-June, then September into mid-November. Winters can be
snowy, even though it's a desert country, and summers can be torrid,
because it's a desert country.
Q. Do you have to have a guide?
A. Not necessarily, particularly if you're mainly interested in hiking the
terrain, exploring the villages and shopping for carpets, pottery and
wine. But if you're into the history of the caves and the churches within
them, at least one full day with a guide is a good idea.
Q. How much is a guided tour?
A. Anywhere from about $25 a day to $70, depending on the credentials of
the guide, whether lunch and admissions are included, the number of people
on the tour and, sometimes, your bargaining skills.
Q. How do you find one?
A. You can book ahead through an agency before you come, you can wait
until you get here and have your hotel find one, or you can walk around
your base town looking stupid and wait for a tour company to find
you--which they will.
Q. What's the ultimate?
A. A hot-air balloon ride over the best parts. Kapadokya Balloons charges
$230 for a dawn ride that will last more than an hour, plus champagne on
landing. Worth every penny. Other outfits exist at negotiable rates.
Q. Which town should be the base?
A. Urgup, my choice, is kind of quiet, has some of the better hotels
around (including a couple of cave hotels), good shopping for carpets and
kilims, and a decent range of restaurants within either walking distance
or a $2 (with tip) cab ride. Goreme is right next to some dazzling
formations, is particularly popular with backpackers and is maybe a little
livelier at night, if that's your taste. Uchisar has charm and a Club Med
as well as simpler lodgings (including some cave rooms) that are kind of
neat, if you can do without the designer toiletries. Nevsehir is for tour
If you have your own transportation (people do rent cars, bikes and motor
scooters here), you can find acceptable (though sometimes real basic)
lodging in most towns and villages.
Q. What's the price range?
A. With private bath and reasonable comfort, expect to pay $30 up to about
$150 a night for two. My hotel, the 10-room and in all ways wonderful
Esbelli Evi, a cave hotel in Urgup, charges $90 for doubles, including
breakfast, free Internet use, free drinks and free use of a washing
machine. Larger (23 rooms) and more posh but still a cave hotel, the
nearby Yunak Evleri has prices ranging from doubles at $110 to suites at
Backpackers, as always, can find shelter for around $10.
Q. What's a cave hotel?
A. Just what it sounds like--a hotel with rooms in (or partially in) caves
reminiscent of the ones people inhabited all over the region. Upgraded for
you, of course.
Q. English spoken?
A. Wherever you need it.
Q. How's the food?
A. Lots of kebabs (lamb, chicken, some beef), salads, olives, yogurt,
tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, potatoes and wondrous things done with
eggplant. Also fresh fish (usually grilled whole), things cooked in
earthenware casseroles and jugs, desserts dripping with honey and the
occasional surprise. Like lamb brains.
Q. Something to drink?
A. Primarily tea (regular and apple), colas, Turkish coffee (thick and
grainy, especially if you don't wait until it settles), juices, local
wines (not bad), beer (Efes pilsner worked for me), a yogurt drink called
ayran (it didn't work for me) and the local hooch, raki, an anise-tasting
fluid mixed with water that wasn't nearly as bad as the guidebooks warned,
if I remember it right.
Q. Best way to work it all off?
A. Hike and climb.
Q. Which means the essential things to bring are?
A. good, sturdy pair of hiking shoes that will grip sandstone. The kind
you would bring to Bryce Canyon or Arches National Park in Utah.
Q. Is this a Christian pilgrimage-type place?
A. It's more of a secular "history of Christianity" place. There is
evidence of early Christianity all over, and you don't have to be
Christian to appreciate that.
Scholars also suspect Cappadocia (and not Crete, as was once assumed) may
be the biblical "Caphtor," home of Goliath and the Philistines (the giant
and army, not the rock group).
A. Not great. Folks with problems getting around will be able to enjoy the
amazing land formations and some of the carvings from a distance, but the
underground cities and most of the cave churches require some dexterity to
appreciate. (Cave hotels generally have lots of steps as well.)
Anyone in reasonable health can do it--many tour groups appeared to have
members in their 70s--but any aids beyond a walking stick just won't
Q. How many days will do it?
A. Three, minimum. A week, if hiking is a main reason why you're here.
A lifetime, if you want to know Cappadocia in all its moods and know all
its secrets--and even that won't be enough.
For more information on Cappadocia and the rest of Turkey, contact the
Turkish Government Tourist Office in New York at 212-687-2195;
It's worth it, but chances are U.S. tourists won't come all this way just
to experience Cappadocia. Fortunately, there's more.
An incredible amount of history crammed into one city. Aya Sofia continues
to awe as it did in the 6th Century, when it was a church; the Blue
Mosque, nearly as awesome, is steps away; and so is Topkapi Palace, home
of the sultans. That's just for starters.
One of Alexander the Great's generals got it going, but what's there today
reflects the glory of Rome--much of it as it was (well, sort of) when
Antony and Cleopatra, and later the apostles Paul and John, walked its
marble streets. You can too.
If you're drawn to mineral spas, you may share the Romans' attraction to
the thermal waters here and the cotton-colored natural terraces that add
to the draw. Plus more ruins, at Hierapolis and Aphrodisias.
Off the usual tourist track, and that's too bad: Mevlana Museum, set in
the former 13th Century mosque that's also his tomb, stands here as a
tribute to a free-thinker and the whirling dervishes he inspired.
Those with a sense of adventure and a love of the trek will find what
they're looking for, and more, around Dogubayazit, near the Iranian border
and Mt. Ararat, by tradition resting place of Noah's Ark. More good stuff
The Turkish Mediterranean
The hub, and the development, is centered on Antalya, but the slickness
hasn't reached all the little coves and villages along the sea. This is
history and beaches, and a slower pace than coastal delights of Spain and