I had dinner the other night with an engineering student studying historical renovation. “You work with what’s available,” he said as we discussed building materials, styles and techniques. There is no simpler way to explain the homes, churches, and castles of Cappadocia than that statement.
Created thousands of years ago with the eruptions of three volcanoes and carved by the wind and rain, the unique landscape surrounding Göreme at the heart of Cappadocia is a perfect example of living rock.
The soft tuff, the porous rock formed by the consolidation of volcanic ash, provided the perfect building material where little other exists. Strong, but easily carved with simple tools, the cliff faces, fairy chimneys, and even the valley floor, provided refuge from the elements and protection from persecution.
The underground cities at Derinkuyu and Kaymakli, believed first developed by the Hittites and later expanded by early Christians, descend up to eight stories below ground. Designed to house thousands for several months, if necessary, the cities have areas for livestock, food storage, living quarters, churches and even a winery. Linked by back-bending, narrow tunnels, sections could be blocked off by large, round stones rolled in front of
As I followed our guide from room to room, I imagined living in such tight quarters, unable to see the sun or stars, where the passage of time is indiscernible, and I’m struck once again by the lengths humans will go to survive in hostile environments.
Back out in the open air, high in the cliff walls along Rose and Pigeon Valleys, the small openings carved by human hands created a different kind of sanctuary for pigeons from larger predators. The prized birds were a staple for the local community. The birds and eggs were used for food, the guano for fertilizer, and the egg whites, when mixed with dirt and straw, for plaster.
I had time and spent a good portion of my days wandering the valleys and exploring the remains of homes long since abandoned and crumbling beneath the weight of time. Some required a challenging climb that few, by the lack of established trails, choose to attempt. My forays weren’t without their rewards, such as the remains of an ancient church, its pillars now hanging freely from the domed ceiling, that still contained remnants of the original frescoes.
The best examples can be found at the Open Air Museum, a Unesco Wold Heritage site just a short walk from Göreme. This former Christian community built primarily between the 10th and 12th centuries, contains a convent and monastery, churches and mausoleums, and eating areas where the table and seats are carved right from the stone. The frescoes, painted by professional artists brought in from as far away as Constantinople, depict scenes from the old and new testament.
As I crab walked down the steep tuff rock face and side stepped the icy narrow trails of Pigeon Valley, it occurred to me I should have told the hotel where I was headed …in case. It didn’t occur to me to head back, too intent on reaching Uçhisar Castle, the remains of one of the largest carved fairy chimneys in the region, and hoping it might be visible enough for photos, despite the heavy fog eclipsing the hillside. No such luck.
While there are some locals who still live in these antiquated homes, for the most part the fairy chimneys and hillsides of Göreme have been taken over by hotels offering the cave experience. Quickly warmed by a small fire, the chimney rooms are surprisingly comfortable and cozy.
While you can cover the highlights of Cappadocia in a few days with one of the many tour agencies, with so much to see, it’s worth your time to take a little more to explore the valleys and surrounding towns, embracing the rugged beauty of a landscape in a perpetual state of change.