Iam just back from a visit to the stunning area of Cappadocia in central Turkey, and I can’t get the images out of my mind. Snow-covered mountains, wide rolling plains, extraordinary geological formations (otherwise known as fairy chimneys), ancient painted cave churches - such a contrast to the hustle and bustle that is Istanbul. We were a merry group of six who had come to visit - diverse in age range and personalities and included a Russian princess, a business entrepreneur, a photographer blogger and a couple of writers from Malaysia and Hungary.
So why visit Turkey, particularly at this time, when tourists are cancelling their holidays in droves? Perhaps that is exactly the best time to visit - especially to an area such as Cappadocia - which couldn’t seem more remote and afar from the troubles of the big cities. It is an area bursting with history but also a calm haven with such stunning landscape that it should be on everyone’s bucket list to visit.
Cappadocia lies in central Turkey and covers an area of about 250 miles (east-west) and 160 miles (north-south). The major towns are Ürgüp, Kayseri, Göreme, Nevşehir, Selime, Güzelyurt, Uçhisar and Avanos. The area is dominated by two large snow-covered mountains and our journey was to see the magnificent valleys and weathered stone monuments known as the ‘fairy chimneys’. The landscape that you see today was formed many millennia ago by volcanos and then the rocks were weathered, leaving the ‘fairy chimney’ effect that is famous today.
Man’s presence in the area is known from 10,000 BC with discoveries made at Asikhhöyük, near the Ihlara valley, and kitchen utensils, clay vessels and other discoveries found at the site of Zankhüyük, 20 km north of Avanos which date to the Bronze Age (3,000 - 1200 BC). The Hittites also occupied the area. At the beginning of the 6th century BC, the area was invaded by the Medes, followed by the Persians, Macedonians and in 47 BC, Julius Caesar settled his army in the area around Mazak, changed the name of the town to Caesarea (today it is known as Kayseri) and Cappadocia became the 17th province of Rome. In 312 AD Emperor Constantine divided the empire into East and West and adopted Christianity as the main religion. In 324 he defeated his rival in the east and in 330 he established the city of Constantinopolis. It was during this period that Cappadocia’s own saints began to emerge: Basileios the Great of Caesarea (Kayseri), Gregory of Nazianzus (Nenzi) and Gregory of Nyssa (Nevşheir).
During the reign of the Emperor Valens (364 - 378), Cappadocia was split into two regions, with capitals at Caesarea and Tyana. Between the 6th and 9th centuries, the area grew in prominence and was associated with a bishopric. Following Roman rule, the area was occupied by the Sassanians, Arabs and the Seljuk Turks who swept
in from the plains of Central Asia. The Ottomans seized Constantinopolis in 1453 which marked the end of a thousand years of rule by the Byzantine empire. One of the towns in Cappadocia, Old Nyssa, was the birthplace of the famous Ottoman vizier Damat Ibrahim Pasha and during his service, the town of Muskara became Nevşehir , which means ‘new town’ in Turkish, and is now one of the main towns in the area. Ottoman rule ended after the second world war, and on 29 October 1923 the Republic of Turkey was born. Following the treaty of Lausanne in 1924, there was massive emigration from the area and many Greeks were sent back to their home country.
Our flight from Istanbul had been uneventful (except for the ten minute bus ride from terminal to plane which caused much amusement and comments such as ‘ are we driving to Cappadocia?’ from fellow passengers), and coming into land at Kayseri, the coloured blocks of flats looked like stacks of Lego bricks. Moving swiftly through the airport, we had about an hour’s drive to our ‘cave’ hotel which gave us time to take in some of the surrounding landscape, one of the joys of visiting Cappadocia. After quickly leaving the city behind, the landscape turned into the more traditional farm dwellings before the vast rolling plains appeared, their greenery in contrast to the snow-capped mountains ahead of us.
There are two main mountains in this area - known as Erciyes and Hasandagi. The former is one of the highest mountains of Anatolia and was an active volcano for many millennia. Its peak is always covered in snow and it was called Harkassos or ‘the white mountain’ by the Hittites who included it as one of their many gods. During the Roman period the mountain was known as ‘Argieus’ and appeared on all minted coins of the region. The double peaked Hasandag mountain is described as one of the most beautiful mountains of Anatolia and indeed lives up to its name.
On our journey we also had our first glimpse of the famous ‘fairy chimneys’ - the main star of the geographical landscape of Cappadocia. As mentioned previously, these shapes were caused by erosion over thousands of years and the remaining shapes are unique to this landscape. They often look as though they are wearing a hat, but those with a vivid imagination can see camels, birds or even a whirling dervish!
Driving through the village of Ürgüp, we came to a traditional village which housed our special ‘cave’ hotel. When I first visited the region 30 years ago, there was very little accommodation and we had also stayed in one of the caves then. It was the middle of winter and the snow was thick on
the ground and it had been freezing in our little cave. All that was required for bedtime had been to take off our shoes, and to climb under the quilt fully clothed. Now Cappadocia is filled with many choices of accommodation and many of them make use of the caves.
Our hotel, the Gamirasu Cave Hotel, is one such hotel - a wonderful labyrinth, full of stairs leading to little terraces or hidden rooms. The hotel started with just nine rooms and it has grown over the years with the owner, Ibrahim Bastutan, taking his time with the restoration of each room, and it shows. The beautiful jasmine blossom was out when we visited, guaranteeing an even more enchanting feel to the hotel, and if you can puff your way up about four staircases to the very top level, there is a terrace where you can sit sipping a glass of wine or a cold beer and watch the sun set over the village.
Our Russian Princess had the requisite suite, larger than most people’s homes, complete with sitting room and mosaic hammam bath. Others in the party had more moderate offerings - but all individual in style with plaques with information about the date and history of their rooms. So how did it feel to sleep in a two thousand-year-old cave? Well, if you love a bit of history as I do, you spend most of your time wondering who was there before you…were they a persecuted Christian hiding from the Arabs? Or perhaps just a local farmer using the caves for storage?
A lifetime experience
Our next day started early, at a very impolite 4 am. We were being picked up at 4.30 am for a balloon ride over the wonderful fairy chimneys and a birds-eye view of the landscape of Cappadocia. On arrival at the office of Universal Balloons, we were offered a welcome breakfast and at about 5.50am we were driven out to our balloon site. It was still dark, but you could see the night-time was about to disappear as the flashes of gold filled our red balloon. All assembled and landing briefing given, our take off was so gentle you hardly realised that you were suddenly off the ground and heading high above the chimneys. Ballooning is one of those activities that if you don’t think about how high you are (we went up to 600m high) and don’t peer over the edge if you’re not keen on heights, then it is one of the most amazing experiences. It was noisier than I had anticipated because of the blasts of gas going into the balloon, but the sense of peace and calm as you gently float over the land below is to be highly recommended. The sun rose slowly over the mountains and then suddenly it seemed as though the air was filled with colour - there must have been at least 40 balloons all around us. The landscape of Cappadocia opened up below us with villages, valleys and those extraordinary rock formations.
Much admiration was extended to our pilot for not only his smooth landing but also for the manoeuvring of the balloon onto the trailer. You can see the buses and trailers waiting for all the balloons to land and then they arrive immediately on the scene to help and welcome you back to earth. The men worked quickly together to set up a table with drinks and cake (plus scattered flowers to make it look special), and after a glass of (fake) kir royal we were presented with medals to commemorate our flight.
It was then back to the hotel for our second breakfast which we devoured with glee as we were all very excited after our early morning excursion. We ate on the terrace in the warm morning sunshine and everybody agreed that the balloon ride had been a major tick off their bucket lists. A ‘once in a lifetime experience’ was the main consensus of opinion.
We ate on the terrace in the warm morning sunshine and everybody agreed that the balloon ride had been a major tick off their bucket lists. A ‘once in a lifetime experience’ was the main consensus of opinion.
The underground cities
Fortified with full stomachs, we set off on our next adventure which was a visit to one of the underground cities in the area. There are currently 36 such cities in Cappadocia, and there are nine open to visitors. The two main ones that can be visited are in Kaymakli and Derinkuyu. We visited the latter which lies 29 km south of Nevşehir and is said to be 40 metres deep and have 18-20 levels - although only the first eight are accessible to visitors. On arrival, we were told that no bags were allowed to be taken down into the city, and we were screened before entering. Our guide told us that these were very recent developments, and tight security was encountered at all tourist sites.
The underground cities were very important to the development of Christianity as they provided the early Christians with a place to hide, shelter and worship and were in use until the end of the 7th century. It is not known exactly how many people lived in them, although it is generally thought that in the larger cities of Kaymakli and Serinkuyu there might have been a population of about 4000. One of the most important issues when building them was ventilation, and so shafts of 70 - 80 metres deep were sunk. It is said that small cities were founded above and at times of peril, everyone disappeared below ground. We saw on the way down that the narrow corridors could be blocked by enormous round stones that could be rolled into place at times of danger. Once in place, they could only be opened from the inside.
The passageways are narrow and often steep, the steps worn away from the many footsteps over the years. Unfortunately, one member of our group was claustrophobic and had to leave early and two more also gave up before the final levels were reached. But those who persisted were rewarded with the discovery of chapels, kitchens, living rooms and what appeared to be a baptism pool, complete with water spout and steps leading into the pool. It was next door to a large rectangular room which was refrectory-like, with further rooms leading off. The ‘city’ is a complete labyrinth and I guess it might be easy to get a little lost if you weren’t concentrating. I had visions of wondering around in the depths for days - would any of the party realise I wasn’t there before it was too late?
We headed back to our bus, complete with new Turkish headwear and fridge magnets and our next stop was the beautiful Ilhara Valley - although our guide insisted it was much more than a valley - it was in fact a canyon! Names aside, this is another gem that Cappadocia has to offer. The whole canyon is 17 km long and stretches from the Ilhara village to the village of Selime in the north and is 150 metres deep. It is not only a place of natural beauty, formed on the outskirts of the Hasandag mountain, but of historical importance too - it is the site of a number of rock-cut chapels. The early Christians built a number of monasteries in this valley and also the valley of Belisara as they were almost hidden and geographically hard to reach and the churches here date from the 6th to the 13th centuries. They were said to be a refuge for many fleeing monks from Egypt, Palestine and Syria and even during the era of the Arab invasions, the well-hidden churches in the valley continued to function. Of the original 105 churches that existed, only 15 are still standing today.
We joined the canyon at Buradasiniz, and walked along the river for about 4 km. About four hundred steps take you to the valley floor, and on the way is the first church, that of Daniel Pantanassa. It has a single dome and a cruciform floor plan and is dated from the 9th-11th centuries. Of its three apses, only one still remains. The decoration immediately jumps out at you as it is so bright - with its reds, oranges and yellows. The Ascension of Jesus to heaven fills the dome with other popular stories of The Annunciation, Fight into Egypt, Three Wise Kings etc - although the depiction of Daniel in the Lion’s den is an unusual motif. One thing to look out for: the guide books point out that the three wise kings here are portrayed differently to other churches, as they are more reminiscent of Mevlevi dervishes.
There are a number of churches along this route, and one not to miss is the Sumbulu Kilise (Narcissus Church) with its rare frescos. The cruciform-shaped church was carved into a huge rock mass and has two levels - the church is on the second level. The 11-12th century frescos are different as they show characters not encountered
in other Cappadocian churches. Depicted on the dome is the Pantocrator Christ with saints (and Saint Gregory and Theodorus portrayed within medallions) and they also have Mary among the Angels and three Jewish youths thrown into the burning furnace.
Further along the valley floor you will see signs for the Kirdamalti Kilis or Church of Saint George. The climb to this church is steep (it is the highest church in the valley), but it is worth it to see one of the few Byzantine-era inscriptions that remain intact in the Ihlara Valley. From the second half of the 10th century, the Byzantine Empire had recognised the Islamic mystic saints of Khorsan and this was an importance step to show tolerance between the two religions. In the inscription above the niche on the north wall of the church, the Seljuk Sultan Mesud II and the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II are highly praised. The church was constructed between 1283 and 1295 and it is one of the few churches where the date of construction is known for certain, and it has a very rare scene depicted, that of the Murder of Zechariah. The benefactor of the church, Tama, is also depicted with a model of the church in her hand.
The four kilometre walk along the valley was easy and took a leisurely hour and a half. The valley is filled with acacia, willow, pistachio, nettle-berry, poplar, almond and walnut trees. You could see that many were about to burst into blossom which would be such a stunning sight. Along the way is a little camp where you can stop for tea and at the end of this section are a couple of restaurants where you can enjoy a meal overlooking the water. We were greeted on our way to lunch by one of the many stray dogs that exist in Turkey, who whimpered as we walked past. Always a soft touch for a dog in peril, I saved half my lunch to feed to him. Sadly, after lunch I couldn’t find him and I was upset that this poor creature was now starving. But we (I was accompanied by the Princess and the Blogger) were most delighted to eventually see that he was playing happily in the orchard with a little black doggy friend and looked as though he didn’t have a care in the world. Perhaps his whimpering had been an act for the gullible tourist.
Our final visit of the day was to the Cathedral at Selime, one of the largest churches in the region. It is made up of tens of rooms which are interconnected by tunnels. The main church is a basilica plan with three naves and is the only church of this type of plan in the area. It was built in the 8th-9th centuries with the frescos dating from the late 10th-early 11th centuries. The Cathedral served as a significant centre for religious activities in the Byzantium period and it was also the site of the first
non-secret mass to be conducted in Cappadocia. The Cathedral was also used as a military base and was a stronghold against the Moguls in the Seljik period. Visitors beware however - it is quite a scramble to get to the church although going down wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Sensible shoes are definitely the order of the day here if you don’t want to take your life in your hands.
Fairy chimneys and castles
The next day was a visit to two valleys: Imagination (or Devrent) Valley, so called because the weathering of the rock formations means you can see shapes such as camels or whirling dervishes and Pigeon Valley which leads into the heart of Cappadocia, the town of Göreme. We also visited Zelve or Pasabag, which is the centre of the 'Fairy Chimneys' and was home to an important settlement from the 4th - 13th centuries while a current settlement existed there until 1952. It is generally thought that the mushroom or pyramid shaped fairy chimneys here are the most beautiful in the region. There are three churches here and one, Balikli Kilise, was dedicated to the Syrian saint, Saint Simeon, who spent most of his life perched on top of a pillar. Also depicted in the church is the story of Daniel among the lions and a youth thrown into a furnace.
Our next stop was to see Uchisar Castle or fortress, which lies on Cappadocia’s highest hill. Its position provided a significant advantage in defence against the Arab invaders, as from the top you have a magnificent panorama of the region all the way to Mount Erciyes, 80 km away. It was during these visits that two at the back of the bus (who will remain nameless) started to rebel and made the memorable comment of ‘ What? More stones? We want to go shopping!’
And then we were finally on our way to Göreme - the heart of Cappadocia. It lies at 1100 metres above sea level and although the origin of the name is unclear, it is thought to have originated as a corruption of the name Korama, given by the early Christians who lived here when fleeing the Arab invaders. The Valley of Göreme is a perfectly hidden place for those fleeing persecution and was the birthplace of the martyr Saint Hieron. Here you can find the earliest examples of the Byzantine churches and it is believed that Armenian architects helped to design some of the churches.
Göreme Open Air Museum
The highlight of the day (even to the ‘ what,
more stones?’ members of the group) was the visit to the Göreme Open Air Museum. There are 200 churches in Göreme Valley, and about
30 are included in the Open Air Museum. There are thought to be so many churches in the area because Saint Paul decided to use the area to educate his missionaries.
There is a lot to see here and I would recommend that you spend at least a couple of hours so you can explore everything. The churches come in different sizes and layouts, and you can tell the difference between the early and later ones by their decoration. The earlier decoration is painted straight onto the walls and consists mostly of stylised crosses and geometrical designs, while the later churches applied plaster to the walls and then covered them with popular scenes such as The Assumption, The Annunciation, The Visitation, Nativity, Flight into Egypt, Transfiguration, The Last Supper or Crucifixion.
The ‘Apple’ Church is said to be one of the most fascinating in the Göreme Valley because of its rarely seen symbolic decoration. The name of the church comes from a nearby apple tree, and it dates from the mid 11th - early 12th century and has a detailed layout with nine domes, four columns, three apses and a floor plan of an enclosed Greek Cross. The columns are not supportive but are there to mimic or follow normal church architecture and to create an aesthetic appearance. There are 15 painted scenes from the life of Jesus.
In contrast to this richly painted tomb is the Church of Saint Barbara which was carved from the same continuous rock mass as the Apple Church, and dates to the 11th century. The painted brick red figures were applied directly to the rock surface and it is thought that some of the symbols in this church are involved with sorcery and the breaking of spells to ensure protection against the devil. Look out for the painting of a rooster above the saints, who is pecking at something (possibly a flower) and beneath it, between two crosses, a strange creature that has risen to its feet. According to Christian mythology, the rooster was apparently thought to rise early in the mornings and chase away evil spirits and that it was also a reminder of the desire for freedom. The creature that is difficult to identify is said to be a symbol of evil.
Nearby is the Serpent Church, which also dates to the 11th century, and has neither domes nor
columns. The name of the church comes from a painting on the left of the entrance, depicting Saint George and Saint Theodorus killing a serpent in the form of a dragon. Also look out for the painting of emperor Constantine with his mother Helena who are depicted with the ‘True Cross’ between them and a composition showing Saint Basileios holding the bible with Saints Onuphrius and Thomas, a Cappadocian priest, next to him. Onuphrius is said to have spent 60 years in the desert, subsisting solely on roots and dates which may explain the triffid-like object in front of him.
One church within the complex requires an extra fee to enter but it is worth it to see the magnificent frescos in the Dark Church, which have been restored and has only recently re-opened. This is said to be the most important and magnificent church in the Göreme Valley and dates to the 12 - 13th centuries. Its name comes from Karanlik, which means dark in Turkish because it was protected naturally for centuries because of its secluded situation. However, it is not been so lucky from the damages of mankind. The church has a cruciform plan, with a central dome and four columns and is entirely carved into the rock. At its entrance are the remains of another church from an earlier era. I liked the small touches in the paintings here: in the nativity scene for example, the donkey and ox are warming baby Jesus with their breath and by licking him and in the Crucifixion scene blood pours from the right side of Jesus’s chest where it has been pierced by a spear.
Located outside the museum, just down the road opposite the car park there is one church not to be missed. It is called Tokali Kilise (Buckle Church) and is the largest in the region and is likened to a cathedral. It is made up of three segments that were built at different times - a single nave church, the new church and the oldest part that was used as a cemetery. The most stunning aspect of this church are the brightly coloured paintings in the new section - the part that runs perpendicular to the first barrel-vaulted area. The new church is rectangular in plan with
According to Christian mythology, the rooster was apparently thought to rise early in the mornings and chase away evil spirits and that it was also a reminder of the desire for freedom.
a single narthex and corridor and with the apse separated from the nave by columns and dates to the late 10th - early 11th century. The quality and beauty of the colours is unique in the Cappadocian churches and they consist of a lapis lazuli blue, green, red and browns. The topics of the frescos are numerous and include the usual stories, but also include the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, The Apostle’s walk on the water of the Sea of Galilee, the healing of the lepers and many other stories. As you leave the new church, don’t miss the enormous Roman soldier that is on your right. When I asked the guard who he was, he looked at me pitifully and said it was Herod, and couldn’t I read his name next to the figure? It was all Greek to me however.
It is worth noting that the Open Air Museum has a fabulous gift shop that is full of books about the museum, the region and all aspects of Turkey, new and old. There are also the usual gifts, but I didn’t have much time to browse as we were on a deadline. I only mention it in case you are looking to find a great guide book for Cappadocia - you can find it here. We also talked to some fellow travellers from an American group and they mentioned that all the security that had been in place at all the sites they had visited had definitely made them feel safer once they had arrived in country. This was definitely good to hear.
And so our brief visit to Cappadocia came to an end. We had only seen a small amount of what this area has to offer and next time I would like to see the Hittite hieroglyph inscription at Topada, Acigöl, the town of Ürgüp, which is one of Cappadocia's oldest settlements, Sinassos with its Greek architecture, the Gömede Valley (a smaller version of the Ilhara Valley), the ancient Roman city of Sobessos with its ongoing archaeological excavations and the 'small but beautiful' museum at Nevşehir.
Turkey is a country that is full of diversity - it has beaches, historical cities, ancient sites and the naturally geographical stunning landscape of Cappadocia. The consensus of my fellow travellers, be they Russian royalty or local businessman, was that it was definitely an area not to be missed and should be on everyone’s bucket list to visit - and the sooner the better.
Left: 15th century map of Anatolia from Münster’s Cosmographia showing Cappadocia (Image: Rarelibra CC BY-SA 2.5). Right: Towards the mountains (Image: © Cam Wheels) Previous page: Ballooning over Cappadocia (Image: © Fiona Richards)
Bottom: A suite at the Gamirasu Cave Hotel Left: Ballooning over Cappadocia - a magical experience (Images: © Fiona Richards (top), © Steffi C @ steffi_daydreamer (bottom))
Above, left: An underground passage at Derinkuyu with huge stone visible that could close off the corridor when under attack (Image: © Nevit Dilmen, CC BY-SA 3.0) Above, right: One of the underground rooms (Image: © Martijn Munneke, CC BY 2.0)
Right, top: The beautiful Ilhara Valley Right: The dome of the Sumbulu Kilise (Both images © Fiona Richards)
Above: Fairy chimneys near Göreme, (Image: Benh Lieu Song, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Left, top: The Camel formation Left, middle: The Cathedral at Selime Left, bottom: Tree covered with blue wadj eyes overlooking the valley to Göreme (All images © Fiona Richards) Right: The Göreme Open Air Museum (Image: Bernard Gagnon CC BY-SA 3.0)
Above: Fresco on the ceiling of the Tokali Kilise with beautiful blue colouring (Image: Georges Jansoone CC BY 3.0) Below: Sunrise over Cappadocia (Image: © Fiona Richards )