x0x Cappadocia: More like science fiction than fairyland
- x0x Cappadocia: More like science fiction than fairyland
ANKARA- In the heart of the central Anatolian plain lies a triangle of
land, roughly between the salt lake, Tuz Golu, and the towns of Nigde
and Kayseri, which has retained the name of what was once an extensive
kingdom, Cappadocia. Beyond Kayseri stands the mighty Erciyes Dag, the
third highest mountain in Turkey at nearly four thousand metres high.
Massive eruptions of this volcano, and of others in the region,
probably about ten million years ago, have given the area a unique and
extraordinary geological complexion.
Torrents of lava covered the surrounding land with a deposit of
volcanic matter that was sometimes as much as 150 meters thick. Some
of this became rock hard with time, but other layers, consisting of
volcanic ashes, clay and the like, remained soft. Erosion by rain,
wind, streams and rivers found or formed fissures in the top layer and
began to eat away at the levels beneath. In this way was created an
extravagant landscape of weird and wonderful shapes which has no
parallel in the world. The so-called 'fairy chimneys' are the most
striking results of this work of ages, in which a solid cap has
protected a slender column of softer stuff from the action of the
Writers have struggled to find words to describe what they have seen
here. "A lunar landscape", they say, yet it is weirder than that. "A
land from a fairy-tale or a dream", yet it is not fairies that one
might expect to see creeping out at night from the numberless chambers
and grottos, but something goblinesque from the pages of Tolkien or
Moorcock, for these strange pillars of rock, often topped by peculiar
mushrooms of stone, are closer to the work of Roger Dean than to any
of the illustrators of fairy-tales.
Nature's own concrete
Inhabitants of the area long ago learnt that the tufa provided a
perfect medium for the excavation and sculpting of dwellings,
storehouses and places of refuge. For the soft tufa hardens on
exposure to air. It acts, in fact, like a sort of natural concrete,
without the bother of mixing or building. Hollow it or shape it as you
wish and without any great effort. Leave it and it hardens.
Thus it has given amateur architects and home builders and farmers and
church founders down the ages limitless opportunities for experiment,
and the place has become honeycombed with cells, chapels and even
entire underground cities.
Geography and geology conspired to produce this wonderland. For it
happened that the ancient kingdom of Cappadocia was forever sandwiched
between hostile powers and lay on the great east-west highway through
Anatolia, so that it was continually invaded and fought over and
threatened. The usual list of conquerors possessed it at one time or
another -- Assyrians, Hittites, Phrygians, Persians, the Greeks of
Alexander, the Romans, the Byzantine Emperors, the Seljuks and the
So dwellers here have often needed to make themselves scarce. They
have needed not only homes, but refuges, and the most fantastic of
these, perhaps of all the manmade features of the region, are the
There are said to be two hundred underground cities in Cappadocia.
Most are small and unsafe, dark and forgotten, but four of them are
open to visitors and provided with electric light to varying depths.
Of these, the most important are those as KAYMAKLI and DERINKUYU. The
former, 19 km. from Nevsehir on the Nigde road, consists of nearly a
hundred tunnels, perhaps 30 kilometers of them. The city is on eight
levels, four of which can now be visited. There are living quarters,
storehouses, kitchens and churches. Vertical shafts provided fresh air
even to the lowest levels.
It is known that Christian communities used these places to hide from
their Muslim enemies, but the evidence points to much earlier uses
too. Greek communities used them as early as four centuries before
Christ, and some archaeologists suggest that the Hittites knew them,
and may even have been the original excavators. Underground passages
are found in other Hittite settlements.
Some of these underground cities covered many square kilometers.
DERINKUYU, the largest of them all, could have housed an incredible
10,000 inhabitants. Access from the ground is by narrow passages
closed from below by ingenious pivoted doors resembling mill-wheels.
There are 52 separate air shafts, and the bottom level of all, 85
metres below the surface of the ground, acted as a water reservoir.
In the even of an enemy attack, it would have been possible for the
entire town, which was built immediately above the underground city,
to disappear without trace and to survive without surfacing for an
almost indefinite length of time. What the historian would give for a
record of some of these episodes. Squadrons of horsemen bent on
plunder and slaughter wandering with puzzled expressions around the
deserted township trying to work out what had happened to everybody.
And directly below their feet, sitting in anxious silence, heads
turned anxiously upwards, an entire population -- men, women,
children, their animals, their blankets, their stores, their lamps and
candles and their prayers.
Christian knights and monastic artists
It was a land of prayer, and for the most remarkable millennium of its
history these prayers were addressed to a Christian God. In the fourth
century Bishop Basil of Caesarea (now Kayseri) began encouraging monks
to leave the sinful cities and to head for the purity and simplicity
of the wilds. It was at this time that Cappadocia first became a
center of monastic Christianity and it was to remain so for more than
a thousand years until the Ottoman conquest of the fifteenth century.
Although the place must have attracted all manner of folk, including
austere individuals seeking an ascetic solitude, it is not comparable
to other monastic centers of the orthodox world. Here the rule seems
to have been farming people complete with their families -- for the
white sand that does for soil in this strange land is by no means as
infertile as it looks. Where the water is plentiful, the trees grow to
a goodly height, and the grapes of the region are famous.
And with the farmers, came soldiers. For this was frontier territory
and people had to be able to defend themselves. Thus developed what
must have been a caste of warrior Christians, a central Anatolian
version, perhaps, of the Knights of Malta or Rhodes, and on the
brightly decorated walls of the three thousand rock churches of
Cappadocia, the soldier is almost a common a figure as the saint.
The frescoes in the churches display an immense variety, from the
simple almost primitive bunches of grapes in the Uzumlu Kilise in
Zelve, to the macabre portraits of naked women suckling snakes in the
so-called Monster Church in the Ihlara valley, to the rich religious
detail of the crucifixion in the Karanlik Kilise in Goreme. In the
last of these, the "dark church", before the collapse of part of the
roof, the sole source of light within the church had been one tiny
opening, and it is for this reason that the colours of the frescoes
have retained their freshness over the long centuries.
The laws of the Prophet, of course, forbade the representation of the
human figure and face. Pious Muslims, therefore, have at various times
felt it their duty to disfigure the faces, and especially the eyes, of
some of the Christian portraits. Many of the faces in the more
accessible locations in the churches will be seen to have been
mutilated in this way.
Yet there were certainly periods when Christian and Muslim lived side
by side peacefully and happily, and for this also the frescoes provide
evidence. The Church of St. George in the Ilhara valley was reendowed
by a Greek nobleman who served the Seljuk Sultan and who wore a
turban. At one place on the walls, the names of the Sultan and the
Christian Byzantine Emperor are etched next to each other.
Even after the Ottomans occupied the area and the majority of
Christians left the area, some of them remained, and there was still a
considerable number of orthodox Greeks here when the Turkish republic
was founded in 1923. At this point only did the long Christian
settlement come to an end, with the remnants of a fifteen hundred year
old tradition forced to move to Greece as part of the population
In the towns, of course, it is the mosques and the minarets that
dominate, as they have done for five hundred years. But in the valleys
of Goreme, of Soganli, of Ihlara, the atmosphere is still profoundly
Christian in some indefinable yet still perceptible way. In any other
part of central Anatolia, this would come as a shock. But here, with
the white sand for earth, with the weird goblin towers and the
sculpted chasms, nothing is surprising.
Turkish Daily News
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