Chris Heller, Smithsonian Magazine
Cappadocia…ran through the historic Silk Road trading route. Century after century, the area was raided and invaded by a who’s who of European empire builders. The Hittites, the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantines, and the Ottomans all laid claim to the land at one time or another.
Located in Central Anatolia southeast of Ankara, Cappadocia or Kappadokya encompasses parts of the Nevşehir, Kayseri, Kırşehir, Aksaray, and Niğde Provinces. It became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1984. The region’s name is said to hail from two possible sources: the Scythian/Khatti peoples saw the land as sacred and called it Khepatukha, meaning “the country of the people of the chief god Hepat;” on the other hand, the name could also come from the old Persian word Katpatuka, meaning “the land of beautiful horses,” as Cappadocia was once renowned for raising prized horses for Persian sultans.
An Uncomfortable Bus Ride
Our introduction to the area was a bit rough. Meagan and I spent an agonizing 10+ hours on an overnight bus from Istanbul that left us feeling pretty tired and a little cranky. I would not recommend coming here by an overnight bus – if you have a choice, pay the extra money to fly! I feel it’d be worth it for your bodily health and sanity. The seats on our bus were awkward and hard, the supposed “snacks and drinks provided” were nearly nonexistent, and the bus stopped every hour or so for breaks or to pick up more passengers.
Frustratingly, we weren’t treated very well by the staff either (they laughed when we couldn’t speak much Turkish), but the largest annoyance was that every time the bus stopped, all the bright lights would turn on. There were little televisions, but all the channels, movies and music were in Turkish – even the “international” offerings. Although, it was funny to see Turkish come out of the mouths of Sylvester Stallone and Jacky Chan.
We arrived into the charming little town of Göreme and were promptly picked up by our tour company. Sadly, we didn’t have time to go to the hotel to shower and change before diving straight into our day tour. However, our first glimpses of the landscape more than made up for all the discomfort we’d experienced getting here!
Over two million years ago, three volcanoes (Ercyes, Melendiz, and Hasan) covered the landscape in a deep layer of tuft, a soft porous rock formed from the volcanic ash ejected from the vent of a volcano during its eruption, and basalt. Subsequent erosion from rain, wind, rivers and floods formed the many cliffs, canyons, hills and these surreal rock structures that compromise Cappadocia’s topography today.
These “fairy chimneys” (also known as hoodoo, tent rocks, or earth pyramids) that dot the landscape vary in form and size from the more phallic “mushrooms” to the conic and pinnacle-shaped. They were formed as the soft tuft wore away leaving rock spires topped by a cap of protective harder basalt that erodes more slowly and protects the rock beneath it.
Our first stop into the Fairy Chimneys of Devrent Valley was a good introduction into the geological history of Cappadocia. We had a fun time walking around and admiring all the different rock formations in this “imagination valley.”
Some of them had fanciful names like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” and “Little Napoleon” Most areas seemed to have some type of ancient human dwelling or church carved into some of the larger portions.
Our tourguide also explained that many of the fairy chimneys were hollowed out and used as graves during the Roman period. The Romans generally laid their dead to rest at high altitudes, believing that it would be easier for the departed souls to travel upwards to heaven.
During our trip here, we came across many hollowed fairy chimneys and rock crevices along hiking paths in which members of Roman society, including children, were laid to rest.
A note on the volcanic ash of the region – during my research, I came across stories of respiratory health issues locals in the area had in the 1970s.
Apparently the tuft contained a mineral known as zeolites, and in a particular one called erionite, that was carcinogenic and asbestos-like. Inhalation of the mineral led to a mesothelioma outbreak in which cancer developed in those affected.
Mesothelioma was thus attributed to over 50% of the deaths in the area. Doctors found that the erionite triggered those who already have a genetically predisposition to cancers caused by mineral fibers, leading many of the villagers to be relocated. Visiting the area is stated to be safe, however! Those with this genetic predisposition need to be exposed longer term to actually develop any health issues. Short stays are no problem.
We visited this small village of Avanos along the Red River or the Kizilrmak to visit a family-run pottery business and view an art demonstration. The town was once the city of Vanessa during the Roman times and sits above many underground complexes.
Avanos is famed for its centuries-old tradition of making pottery from the red clay taken from the riverbed that runs through the village. It also boasts the only McDonald’s in Cappadocia!
Goreme Open Air Museum
Cappadocia was a religious refuge during the early years of Christianity, its valleys housing a monastic community of Christians who fled from Roman persecution. From the 4th to 7th century AD, the refugees carved an extensive network of cave dwellings into the tuft and basalt.
This outdoor museum once contained a fully functioning community of monks and nuns with eleven refectories, rooms used for communal meals, that each contained stone-carved tables and benches. Each refractory was additionally affiliated with its own church.
It was nice coming here during the winter, as we didn’t have to wait long for our turn to view the interior frescoes of each church. My favorite out of all the beautiful artwork were the paintings in the Tokali Church that contained vibrant hues of blue from the use of lapis in their pigments.
What really upset me on our visit here was that there were many noticeable areas where vandals had desecrated the ancient artwork. Eyes had been scratched out of some of the faces of various frescoes along with initials carved in. Why are people so awful?! Consequently, each room had to have a guard in attendance to make sure tourists don’t touch the paintings or use photography as flash can be damaging.
The last location on our itinerary for the day was the aptly named “Panoramic View.” It gave us a nice overlook of Devrent Valley, which at the time looked rather apocalyptic with the oncoming rain clouds.
Sleeping in a Cave Hotel!
We ended our first day in a surprisingly luxurious cave hotel -surprising, I say, because we had chosen the cheapest option offered and were not expecting the room to be so spacious for just two people!
The room felt like such an oasis after our long sleepless night and day trekking about. It was a nice respite from the comparatively cramped lodging we’d had (not to mention the noise pollution) in Istanbul.
Next post I’ll share about our trip to the Uchisar Roman Rock Fortress and going down, down underground to the Kaymakli Ancient Underground City!