When you think of fairy chimneys, castles, caves, underground cities, and balloons which place comes to mind?? Disney World? Magic Kingdom? Not for me! I think of the beautiful and FANTASTICAL Cappadocia in central Turkey. Cappadocia is located in Anatolia with a geological uniqueness formed millions of years ago by numerous active volcanoes. Volcanoes in that region began erupting 10 million years ago and a few are still active today. The lava produced by the repeated eruption of these volcanoes formed a thick layer of tufa which varied in its hardness. Lakes and rivers, wind, and rain all contributed to the erosion of this tufa layer, eventually giving the area its present, unique shape.
Over time, many civilizations have taken advantage of the region's soft tufa stone by carving underground shelters, caves, and churches as they sought refuge, protection, and isolation from threats in the area. This left the countryside scattered with amazing cavernous architecture, fresco-adorned rock-cut churches, and massive subterranean spaces that can now be awed by visitors. Dove-cotes are another common feature of the terrain as numerous columbaria type niches have been carved into the tufa walls to allow for the efficient gathering of pigeon droppings to serve as fertilizer for the region's farmers. While local farmers did not have much farmland, dove excrement significantly increased the yield of their crops. Another amazing sighting is the beautiful hot-air balloons gracefully floating over the vast landscape. A hot air balloon ride above the Cappadocia landscape is an indulgence not to be missed!
I want to familiarize you a bit with the history of this region if you don't already know. While human settlement of this area dates back to prehistoric (Paleolithic) times as shown by some archaeological findings, more abundant and written records date to the Bronze Age. That is a great time to start! The Hatti culture graced this area from about 2500-2000 BC and they were followed by the Hittites in the latter half of the 2nd Millenium BC. At that time the Hittite Empire was both rival and trading partner to Egypt's New Kingdom. During those troubled times of war with their enemies, the Hittites began carving subterranean dwellings through the soft tufa, to create temporary shelters and places of escape. Those underground cities were connected to houses by hidden passages. Long labyrinth-like tunnels connected hundreds of rooms in the underground cities. As more space was needed the inhabitants hollowed out floors beneath existing rooms, ultimately digging deeper and deeper downwards. Some of those cities were 8 stories deep! Trap doors were created and large millstone wheels that could be rolled into place to block access were carved to afford added protection. Stables, kitchens, living rooms, wineries could all be found in those well-developed underground cities. Some of the cities can be still visited TODAY in places like Derinkuyu and Kaymakli. In the early 12th c. BC, the Hittite Empire suddenly collapsed with the unforeseen arrival of the Sea Peoples.
Cappadocia then entered its dark period. The area was overtaken and governed by foreign powers like the Assyrians and the Persians until the arrival of Alexander the Great. After the Persians were expelled, the people of Cappadocia were able to form their own independent Kingdom for a couple of centuries, until ultimately being conquered by the Romans. Initially, the area prospered under the Romans, as the region was part of the silk road. Trade caravans, passed through the area as they transported goods from the east toward the west, to Rome. When the Romans began to persecute Christians, the caves and subterranean shelters in the Cappadocia area, again served an important role. The Cappadocian Christians of the Roman era were fundamental in expanding the subterranean cities as they, too, fled for safety from religious persecution. They added churches to the underground cities. During the Byzantine years, the persecutions continued as the Christians were raided by the Sassanids in the 7th century and thereafter the Arabs in the 8th. Hence even more subterranean development occurred. The underground cities were most widely used by Christians, however, during the time of the Iconoclasm movement (726-843 AD) when icons were banned by the church in Rome. Pro-icon believers started to take shelter in the Cappadocia region and many worshipped underground.
Above ground, the Christians also left a phenomenal footprint. By the end of the 2nd c. AD a large Christian community had formed in Cappadocia. St. Basil, the Bishop of Kayseri, founded many small secluded settlements far from the villages and towns. He played a decisive role in introducing worship to the region at large. He is frequently noted in the iconography and frescoes of many of the churches in Göreme. Monks in the 4th and 5th centuries sought isolation and seclusion in the unique mountainous terrain of Cappadocia. The hermits of Cappadocia distanced themselves from the world by carving their dwellings into the fairy chimneys, hollowing them out from top to bottom. They lay on beds made of rock and locals fed them in their lofty perches via buckets that were lifted to them by rope. Later, during the Byzantine years, Christians cut spectacular churches into the rock and intricately decorated them with numerous, gorgeous, colorful frescoes. These, too, can still be visited. Göreme Open Air Museum should be a MUST-SEE on your visit to Cappadocia, as it is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1984. There, you can tour approximately 10 such churches. Some of these churches are Buckle Church, New Church, Apple Church, Chapel of St. Barbara, Snake Church, Dark Church, Chapel of St. Catherine, Sandals Church, to name a few. Most of these churches date to the 10-13th century AD which was during the Byzantine years when the Anatolia region was under the control of the Seljuk Turks. It is worthy to note that the Seljuks did not interject their authority over the Christian patriarchy.
The natural beauty of the area centers around multiple mountains and valleys with unique landscape features. Some of these are Monks' Valley, Devrent Valley (Imagination Valley), Rose Valley, Red Valley, White Valley, Pigeon Valley. Each has either unique coloring or striped ash strata or characteristic rock formations or an impressive number of dove-cotes. The panoramic views over ALL the valleys are magnificent and can be best appreciated from an aerial perspective in a hot-air balloon.
Quality and worthwhile souvenirs to take home from the region, if you so desire, are rugs and pottery. Avanos is known for its exemplary craftsmanship in both of these art forms. The main economic activity in this town is pottery which dates back to the Hittite period. In fact, the Hittites had a distinctive pattern, that is still featured on the pieces today. The red clay worked by the craftsmen comes from the residue of the adjacent Kizilirmak River (the Red River). You can visit the ateliers of the craftsmen who mold and shape the beautiful pottery with their hands while using a foot driven spinning wheel. Anatolia is also well known for its art of carpet weaving. This skill is dominated by the Cappadocian women who hand-knot and weave carpets featuring intricate designs over the course of months. Sometimes with wool, other times with silk, but ALL handmade.
If you decide to visit the Cappadocia region at some time, then Göreme is a wonderful town to stay in. It is centrally located to all the major sites and is abundant with many dining and shopping options that are easily walkable in the town center. I highly recommend staying in a cave hotel. These are unique accommodations embedded in hollowed out tufa rock.
It is so fascinating to see a modern town, replete with private homes, hotels, bars, shops, restaurants, mosques, and schools fully integrated into such a fantastical and beautifully bizarre landscape. I was truly enamored! I hope that I managed either to rekindle some fond memories if you have already traveled to Cappodocia in the past, entice you to MOVE IT UP on your bucket list if you have been contemplating a visit or introduce you to an area and history that you may not have been familiar with. Cappadocia is beyond SPECTACULAR, as are several other areas in Turkey that I have visited thus far. I highly encourage you to explore this beautiful country, savor their delicious foods, and enjoy their exceptional hospitality. ❤️