Devil Towers or Fairy Chimneys: A weekend in Cappadocia
Last weekend I took some friends to visit Cappadocia, which is unlike anywhere else I’ve visited on Earth, and sometimes so surreal that I felt like we had stumbled onto another planet. It’s currently known as the home of fairy chimneys, but before the Turkish Tourist Board came up with that pleasant moniker, they were called devil towers. I’m not sure how long that name was around, because the area is one of the oldest Christian settlement areas, and people from various historic areas have called those chimneys and towers home.
The drive from Ankara was less than scenic because of intense fog, but my San Diegan friends and I were tripping on the fall colors we could see, old-school CDs and the intense feeling of freedom you always get from a road trip. My Turkish TomTom was really determined that we would see the “scenic” route, and sometimes put us on roads that abruptly ended or transformed from pavement to steep rocky creek beds in the space of a meter. My car is neither practical nor rugged, so we made a lot of U-turns and multi-point turns. We learned our lesson: we are smarter than the machines! Still, we relied on the GPS to get us around the region with mixed success. I’m still trying to find a decent map of the 50 square mile area, since we couldn’t find all of the various valleys and formations to hike that I read about. Unfortunately most of the tourist shops offered the same book that is full of pictures but little actual information. It’s not really a problem, however, as the landscape is so incredible that whether you’re lost or found there’s always something to see.
Eroding volcanic formations from 2 million to 65 million years ago have created all kinds of spectacular rock formations. Going through the area is like watching clouds – everybody sees something different, and sharing your view never gets old.
In late November Cappadocia is significantly colder than Ankara or Istanbul. For those of us deprived of seasons for the last several years, anything out of the ordinary is welcome, and I was happy to be out in the chill air. It was also perfect for eating my favorite type of Turkish food: stew made with lamb meat and various fruits, from plums to apricots to pomegranates.
The fog was a blessing in disguise as well. The most popular tourist activity in the region is hot air ballooning, and since all the sunrise rides were fogged out, we got to see plenty of launches and balloons in flight when we arrived in the afternoon. I’ve been ballooning in San Diego and wasn’t terribly impressed, but I think that Cappadocia is probably the best place in the world to do it, since you can see the topside of all these stunning views.
Like most of Turkey, Cappadocia has hosted countless civilizations, starting with the Hittites, the earliest known people in Anatolia. They started the cave dwelling and carving homes from the rocks. In Kaymakli, we toured a 5 story cave city that was used by Hittites to hide from Assyrian and Phrygian attacks, by early Christians to hide from Romans, and finally by Romans to escape Persian attacks. Most of the underground city crumbled in earthquakes over the centuries, but we were able to see several living rooms, kitchens, pantries and churches. More memorable than the city structure itself was the cramped feeling of walking and crawling through the cave tunnels and stairways while imagining life inside, before lighting and modern ventilation. Although there are several air shafts, during periods of hiding most were cut off to prevent enemies from poisoning the air or trying to contaminate the water sources. It’s not clear whether there was a natural spring inside the dwelling, but it’s likely considering how there are natural springs pretty much everywhere you go in Turkey. Seeing the corners where chamberpots were kept while contemplating little fresh air contributed to the discomfort. Still, what remains in the city is really interesting: hooks carved from the rock to tie baby hammocks, churches with crosses and frescoes still on the walls, huge round stones used as doors to block off sections of the cave, and a huge stone with tons of little carved pockets used for spice storage.
On our last morning in the Valley, we visited the Goreme Open Air Museum, which is what remains of a Christian monastery with rock-cut churches, mostly from the 10th-12th centuries. The churches are in remarkable shape, and for the most part the frescoes inside are well preserved. In a few of the churches the faces on lower walls have been scratched out, but it looks to be the work of amateurs or kids, since the ceiling frescoes are still untouched. I never figured out whey there were so many churches in the same tiny place, especially since some were decorated with the same stories or themes. I guess you can think of it as a bunch of chapels, and the whole area as a huge church.
We stayed in a cave hotel in Urgup. The cave room was really pleasant, despite the absence of a window. It’s incredibly economical, as the innkeeper runs a woodstove for a few hours in the morning and the thick walls keep the rooms cozy. One morning at breakfast he showed us a picture from the 50s of the view from the balcony, which we compared to the current landscape. Over the years, entire parts of the rock had just crumbled away! I sadly realized this would happen when we were hiking on our first day in the valley and whatever I touched crumbled slightly. If you want to see this amazing place, come soon!