A Strange Wonderland
22 March 2015
Sculpted by erosion and honeycombed by human hands, the moonscape of Cappadocia is a remarkable sight, writes Tatyana Leonov.
Entering Cappadocia feels like the discovery of another realm. It’s an eerie fairy tale, a peculiar wonderland, a mesmerising nirvana. Fairy chimneys sprout from the earth like church steeples and serrated pinnacles rocket skywards beside sprawling valleys of undulating browns, yellows and the occasional burst of green. It’s a jagged, toothy terrain and it’s bizarrely beautiful. I think it might be my favourite place on earth.
This strange, lunar-like topography, in Central Anatolia, Turkey, is the result of erosion many millennia ago and, more recently, man’s ingenious hand. Some of the caves are home to exquisite frescoed churches from another era, a smattering of homes and, more recently, hotels, shops and restaurants. Beneath the earth there are massive magical mazes to explore. It’s believed that the Byzantine Christians used the valleys and caves as a shelter, first from the Romans and then later Muslim Arab invaders. Some experts say there are close to 40 underground cities, others speculate there could be hundreds. No one knows for sure.
Stooping to avoid hitting my head against the rock ceiling, I snake my way through a web of tunnels that coil like twisted veins in all directions. I’m grateful we have a local expert, Murat Gulyaz (author of Rock Settlements and Underground Cities of Cappadocia and director of the Nevsehir Museum), as well as our day-to-day guide.
The labyrinth of about 100 or so tunnels spans eight floors, although only segments of the top four levels are open to the public. I manoeuvre my way around living quarters, stables, churches, storage rooms, kitchens and wine rooms. Although it’s believed that residents lived in these cities on a temporary basis (in times of attack), the intricate layout and number of storage plots suggest a forward-thinking and economically stable population.
The deepest city, Derinkuyu, extends to a depth of about 85 metres and has several wells in it, leading some experts to believe it could have housed 20,000 people at any one time. Numerous academics speculate that Derinkuyu and the city of Kaymakli were once both part of one colossal underground city, connected by a five-kilometre tunnel.
Above ground, Göreme Open-Air Museum is one of the Cappadocia’s most visited sites. Here, winding, cobbled paths lead to a tapestry of ancient cave monasteries and churches, some with their striking colourful frescoed walls still intact. Karanlik Kilise is the most famous of the churches. Its paintings are particularly bright and beautiful, preserved because the church had few windows and therefore little light to damage the ancient murals.
Being a tourist hub, Cappadocia has plenty of hustle and bustle. “Ice-cream, ice-cream!” bellows a young vendor, sporting a mischievous smile and donning a traditional Kahramanmaras hat and vest (Kahramanmaras, about a 41⁄2-hour drive away, is considered Turkey’s ice-cream capital). As soon as he has someone’s attention, he begins the skilful art of flinging and tossing the sticky, stretchy Turkish ice-cream, working it into a sphere as the crowd grows. A few metres away a group of Chinese tourists are taking selfies in front of a camel, trying to include the enchanting scene in the background. Truth is, it’s impossible to capture it all.
Because the region is undergoing an almost-continuous state of excavation, there are plenty of less-trodden and uncharted paths to walk and explore with the right guide. Murat takes us to the recently excavated Kirk Sehitler church and we find ourselves face-to- face with an assemblage of exquisite murals. The walls here are adorned with predominantly cobalt blue frescos – a rare use of minerals for colourings instead of the organic paints usually found in Cappadocia’s churches.
Recently, a hair belonging to the artist was found on one of the icons, and Murat can’t contain his excitement. Once DNA testing is complete, will we find out more about these captivating people and their extraordinary lives?
Although many amazing sights are located inside caves, afternoons are for fresh air and gazing at the entrancing panorama of cone-filled valleys from somewhere high, watching the sun salsa over the serrated clefts and mushroom- like chimneys. We stop at a viewpoint overlooking Göreme and Avcilar Valley and gawk, some of us neglecting to take photos because we can’t tear our eyes away from the spectacle.
In a cave beneath the lookout is a handicrafts and souvenir shop, Gizli Bahçe, and we are invited into the connecting cave home for a cup of Turkish tea. Only 10 or so families still live in caves in Cappadocia, so the invitation is special. We plop ourselves down on the carpet beside owners Hasan and Bahar and chat (with the assistance of translation) about our lives.
Come nightfall, I head outside, sit under the stars and listen to the soothing serenade of the rustling wind. Distant lights flare from cave windows and I hear laughter erupting from one of the restaurants concealed in the moonscape. Although it’s time to clamber down into my cave hotel room and change for dinner, it’s hard to pull myself away from possibly the best vista in the world.
When to go: April to June and September to November are ideal for pleasant temperatures and dodging peak summer crowds.
Where to stay: The seven cave houses and 40 cave rooms at Yunak Evleri in the village of Urgup (yunak.com) are carved into a mountainside and date back to the 5th and 6th centuries. The charming public areas include a sunset deck, a lounge room and a music room.
What to wear: Comfortable clothing and closed, hard-soled shoes.
What to eat and drink: Hand-rolled gözleme; freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.
More information: goturkey.com