15, 2003 -> In Cappadocia
We arrived at night, blind to our surroundings.
In the morning, the view from our cave window made us gasp.
Dozens of phallic pinnacles pierced a crisp, winter-blue sky.
Behind them, younger, half-formed pinnacles waited for time
and the elements to free them from a deeply-folded cliff.
A massive, dark crag reared up behind them all, riddled with
holes, like a colossal termite mound. Ancient, alien, beautiful,
awesome, menacing, and above all, indescribably weird, the
landscape of Cappadocia cannot be imagined - it must be seen.
Thirty million years ago, nearby Mt. Erciyes
was a very active volcano whose frequent eruptions covered
the area in layers of ash. Over time, the ash compressed into
a soft, porous rock known as tufa - easily eroded by rain,
snow, and wind. The otherworldly formations of Cappadocia
include shark's tooth pinnacles, fairy chimneys (a 'cap' of
harder material balanced atop a spire of eroded tufa), Hershey's
Kisses, and mushrooms. But nature was not the only sculptor
of Cappadocia. For thousands of years, men and women have
been carving homes, stables, storage vaults, and places of
worship into the soft stone.
Geologists have demystified Cappadocia's landscape,
but early Christians must have seen the hand of God in its
creation. In the 4th century - around the time that the Emperor
Constantine converted to Christianity and founded Constantinople
- Christian ascetics began to carve hermitages into the soft
cliff walls and pinnacles. In the 7th century, when the new
religion of Islam was spreading at sword point across the
Middle-East, Central Asia, and North Africa, these caves may
have been used by the Christian faithful to escape persecution
at the hands of raiding Arabs.
Eventually, the Byzantines restored order, and
during the 7th to 11th centuries, the people of Cappadocia
emerged to carve ever more elaborate churches and monasteries,
the vaulted ceilings and columns decorated with colorful frescoes
of the Life of Christ and local saints. In the Goreme Open
Air museum, very close to the town center, we visited a cluster
of cave churches and monasteries. Many of the figures in the
frescoes had their faces chipped away by destructive Christian
zealots in the 8th and 9th centuries - the Iconoclasts - who
believed that depicting humans was idolatrous. An hour's drive
south of Goreme, we walked 16 km through the beautiful Ihlara
valley, past scores of cliffside churches.
"Now you are cave man and cave woman!"
the hotel owner said as we ate a traditional Turkish breakfast
of hard-boiled egg, olives, cheese, tomatoes and bread. The
word troglodyte - cave man - is often used to describe the
towns and citizens of old Cappadocia. Guidebooks talk of the
'troglodyte towns' of Ortisar and Uchisar, and the men and
women who carved homes into the rock were 'troglodytes.' But
the word troglodyte is a pejorative, suggesting a hirsute
cave-dweller with a protuberant jaw and small brain cavity.
Webster's defines 'troglodyte' as "a member of a primitive
people dwelling in caves."
It didn't seem fair to me. At Derinkuyu, we
descended into the largest underground city, an 18-20 floor
wonder complete with stables, schools, wine-making areas,
homes and tombs. The first levels may have been dug by the
Hittites, an advanced society that flourished in the 2nd millennium
BC. There were small handles carved into the walls for tying
up the animals. A system of tiny tunnels allowed room-to-room
communication. Fresh air was provided via a series of ventilation
shafts. Huge round millstones could be rolled across the main
passageways to block entry to would-be attackers. In short,
the people who built this city may have spent some time in
caves, but they were certainly not primitive.
In a country blessed with interesting sights,
Cappadocia, after Istanbul, is Turkey's star attraction. In
the summer, thousands of tourists endure 10-hour bus rides
from Istanbul to scramble across its bizarre landscapes, crowd
into its cave churches and gawk at thousand-year-old frescoes.
Even in winter, the tourist towns of Goreme and Urgup remained
busy. Hotels and hostels offered rooms fully or partially
carved into the rock. There were "Turkish Nights"
at restaurants where locals danced in Ottoman dress and belly
dancers incited lust and envy. Predictably, the towns suffer
from the same unchecked development and lapses of taste that
bedevil many tourist centers, a good example being the "Flintstones"
cave hotel in Goreme - complete with a yabba-dabba-dooing
"I reckon apple is the best," said
the young Scottish man sitting across from us. He and his
girlfriend were on their third bowl. We were sitting in Wendy's
Wine Bar, smoking fruit-scented tobacco through our 'nargile'
pipes (also known as water pipes or hubble-bubbles), and enjoying
the warmth of the wood stove. Snow had fallen on the mountains
ringing the plateau, and the night air was bitingly cold.
Filtered by the water in the nargile's bottom chamber, and
sweetened with a variety of flavors (vanilla, pomegranate,
lemon etc.), the smoke was smooth, and the tobacco relaxing.
We swapped travelers' tales and listened to 'chill out' music.
When we walked home, bundled up against the cold, the outlines
of the pinnacles had dissolved into the night, and solitary,
dim lights from within the caves hung in the ether.
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