Continued from Part 1
The hot-air balloon ride I described in Part 1 was only the start of our second full day in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey. Never mind that we’d had to wake up hours before dawn for the balloon adventure; another, full-day tour lay ahead. Another minibus picked us up at the Kelebek Hotel and whisked us first to the Goreme Panorama, a viewpoint just outside of town that gave us a good look at the town as well as the surrounding terrain.
The region’s distinctive land formations, created by ancient volcanic ash deposits and lava flows, sometimes look like desert, sometimes like ice, but of course they’re neither.
Earlier in the day we’d soared a mile in the air; next up was a visit to the ancient underground city of Derinkuyu, one of dozens of subterranean living complexes in Cappadocia, and one of the best-preserved and most-visited. It’s also the deepest known, going 18 stories down.
First dug out of the soft volcanic rock thousands of years ago as adaptations and extensions of natural caves, these cities are of uncertain origin. They likely date back to the Hittites, who inhabited the region from around 1900–1200 BC, and perhaps even further back.
Narrow passageways and stairwells forced invaders to descend single-file, making the underground cities easier to defend. They also make navigation difficult for the visually-challenged, like yours truly. But I wouldn’t want to have missed this. The Derinkuyu Underground City is like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. These photos don’t convey the geometry and architecture and the sheer scale of the place.
The Phrygians of the eighth and seventh centuries B.C. are also associated with the cave cities, and during the Arab–Byzantine wars (780-1180) Christians extended and deepened them significantly so they could move underground lock stock and barrel during times of trouble aboveground, returning to their surface towns when the danger was past.
The underground cities were self-sufficient, with living quarters, wells, ventilation shafts, upper-level facilities for domestic animals, and chapels. Of course, as we saw in Part 1 at the Göreme Open Air Museum, there’s no need to delve underground for signs of Christianity in this part of this now at least 96%-Muslim country.
Our next stop was the Selime Monastery, once a stop along the Silk Road. Long abandoned by its monks, it’s now peopled for the most part only by tourists, though Eastern Orthodox people from other countries do still make pilgrimages to holy sites like this in Turkey.
Carved, like just about everything in Cappadocia, out of soft volcanic rock, the monastery dates from the eighth and ninth century, with frescoes from a little later.
The Selime Monastery’s large church is an amazing thing. Keep in mind, this wasn’t built, but carved out: negative architecture.
In the following video taken inside the Selime Monastery’s large church, you can hear the Muslim call to prayer in the distance in a surprising confluence of religious cultures and history.
The monastery’s chambers retain many details of the monks’ design. You have to take care walking about, as the floors are very uneven, with plenty of gaps and holes. Because the rock was soft enough to carve these rooms from, it’s also soft enough that over mere years the elements erode and smooth out the forms if they’re not renewed.
That makes walking on the outside slopes a fun challenge (fun if you’re steady on your feet, that is).
The monastery is at one end of the Ihlara Valley, a 14-kilometer canyon along the Melendiz River. The valley is a verdant green world unlike the rest of Cappadocia, and a hike along it was the next phase of our daylong tour.
But first, a stop at the Star Restaurant and Pansion (Pension) in the town of Ihlara for a great fish lunch in the company of travelers from around the world.
Nearby is a traditional linseed oil extraction facility that we didn’t have time to visit on this already action-stuffed day. I did have time to snap a picture of this bust of Ataturk. Images of the founder of the modern state of Turkey abound throughout the country. In the current political climate, they evoked a low-level anxiety in me.
It’s a bit of a relief, then, to return to Byzantine Christianity. Many ancient cave churches line the Ihlara Valley, different from other Cappadocian churches and more reminiscent, says this tourist website, “of the early churches of Syria and the Coptic churches of Egypt.”
But the natural beauty of the Ihlara Valley is what makes this hike such a pleasure.
A tea-house rest stop is a welcome break for hikers, human and avian alike. Cocky geese marched about like they owned the place.
But no one really owns the place.
On the way back to Göreme we stopped at an overlook to take in Pigeon Valley, where Cappadocia’s dominant volcanic, humped terrain reasserted itself, here pocked with man-made pigeon roosts.
Our last full day in Cappadocia began with what the Kelebek Hotel had told us was an “organic breakfast” at the farm. We didn’t know what that meant, but it didn’t cost extra and sounded interesting. It turned out to be a morning-long excursion guided by Ali, the owner of the hotel, to his family farm outside of town where we got a from-the-ground-up, real-family culture and history lesson and feasted on farm produce. This “extra” turned out to be one of the most fascinating things we did in the region. And it was only because we happened to be staying at the Kelebek.
We gathered in the morning with some other hotel guests and piled into a wonderful wooden cart, custom-made for the width of the dirt road that led out of town, and pulled by a small tractor-like buggy.
The townscape soon gave way to natural terrain.
In the distance: the town of Uçhisar with its natural “castle.” “Riddled with tunnels,” says Lonely Planet, “it was used for centuries by villagers as a place of refuge when enemy armies overtook the surrounding plains.”
That’s human history for you: enemy armies always overtaking the surrounding plains. Or shooting down the straying planes – as I write this, the news came in of Turkey shooting a Russian jet out of the sky for violating Turkish airspace after a bombing run in Syria. Whatever wonders and beauties you are contemplating, war and violence are never far.
We climbed out of the cart in what looked like the middle of nowhere, but Ali directed us to a staircase to somewhere, carved out of the soft rock leading down into the valley. He recounted his stairway maintenance duties as a young man, explaining that the steps had to be “refreshed” every two years to counter the effects of erosion. With the rock so soft and erosion so quick, we could begin to imagine how Cappadocia’s fairy chimneys came to be.
After a trundle down the stairs and short hike, we arrived at the farm – and the breakfast spread, set out in a blessedly shady plaza amid farm buildings.
Along with all the other delicious fresh food, we got our first taste of Turkish candying, including candied walnuts. Picked early, the “walnut” is actually the entire fruit, with what we think of as a walnut inside. Cooked several times over and candied, it’s an amazing treat, completely foreign to our experience.
After the breakfast excursion, with all our touring complete and left with a free afternoon back in Göreme, we decided to seek out two churches described in our guidebook. One of them escaped us – the “trail” seemed to lead directly through some humble hillside houses.
But decayed old signs did lead us to the 11th-century Yusuf Koç Church.
This was one of those out-of-the-way little excursions where the hunt was as interesting as the goal.
This is what happens when outdoor volcanic-rock staircases aren’t refreshed every two years (or ever):
Persistence pays. The frescoes here are better preserved than those in some much better-known old Cappadocian churches. Turkey from the Inside gives a detailed description of the church.
That website also says the church is kept locked, and you might have to seek out a nearby couple to let you in. But we found it open, and unvisited except for one other tourist – and a local dog who really wanted to make friends.
The day ended with a visit to the Kelebek Hotel’s clean, modern, not-very-traditional, but pleasant hamman (Turkish bath) where after a brief sauna we received soapy scrubbings and massages while lying on slippery slabs of marble. We had dinner at the nearby Seten Anatolian Cuisine restaurant, a pretty special place where we had a delicious meal. It’s one of Göreme’s most elegant restaurants, but the low prices reminded us once more that we weren’t in New York City anymore.
We were sad to leave the Kelebek Cave Hotel. We’d roomed in a cave. The staff had made us feel very welcome. We’d spent a morning with the owner, had a Turkish bath, and had a good dinner and several breakfasts in the hotel restaurant. We’d even found time to sit on the big terrace for a leisurely break while being served coffee and apple tea.
The next morning we waited in the hotel’s garden for our airport pickup, savoring the peace and quiet and the greenery, knowing our next destination was Istanbul with its teeming millions.
To be continued
All photos © Jon Sobel and Elisa Peimer, Critical Lens Media[amazon template=iframe image&asin=3839156610][amazon template=iframe image&asin=1409358003][amazon template=iframe image&asin=0375706852]