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November 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 Fred painting.

"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.