My imagination is working overtime. One minute, I am a dervish whirling through this surreal land in my long white skirt and brown hat. I am barely a speck in the universe. My arms seem to propel themselves toward the heavens, and I open them up to receive grace from God above.
The next minute, I pull into a parking space in Goreme and suddenly I am Wilma Flintstone, Fred’s wife. My cave house is up ahead in that group of fairy chimneys with the mushroom caps. It was formed by the forces of nature millions of years ago.
My local city is underground and overrun with tourists. This is where Christians hid from their Arab invaders in the 10th through 12th centuries. Inside are churches that were decorated by Byzantine monks, and stables, kitchens, fireplaces, banquet halls, and wine cellars that at one time served 20,000 residents. I duck as flocks of pigeons fly overhead, departing in formation from their nesting areas in the craggy pinnacles and fairy chimneys.
I am in Cappadocia in central Anatolia, Turkey. This large 7,700 square-mile area encompasses four neighboring provinces and was formed from the ash and lava created three million years ago by volcanic eruptions. Over the ages, wind, rain, and man have transformed the land into what we see today.
My day trip starts early in the morning with a transfer from my hotel in Istanbul to the airport where I catch a short flight to Nevsehir. The plane is filled with excited travelers, many of them planning to stay for a few days in one of the cave hotels, taste some local food and wine, and hike in this dramatic landscape. Some are eagerly anticipating a balloon flight, one of the more popular activities available, and for good reason. It is said that this is the best place in the world to take a balloon ride. Others are planning to go horseback riding or rent an ATV and traverse the hills, valleys, and dirt roads stretching for miles in every direction. There is something awesome here for everyone.
My tour guide is Zeki; he and I have only seven hours together and will be looking for more sedate activities. Zeki is a good guide. He lives with his wife and young son in Nevsehir and has a master’s degree in archaeology and history from the university, a perfect background for his job. We get into the car and head down a winding roadway to start our tour at one of the most spectacular and famous landmarks in Cappadocia, the UNESCO-listed Goreme Open Air Museum. Here you can enjoy both the breathtaking beauty of nature and the study of ancient history.
Fairy chimneys, also called hoodoos or tent rocks, are scattered throughout the museum grounds. These are several stories high and have a base that looks like a tent with a top that resembles a mushroom cap. Formed from the erosion of layers of soft rock topped by harder rock that erodes less easily, they look a little like gigantic cookie jars. Historically, they have been used as cave houses and churches, and today, as hotels and restaurants. Fairy chimneys in other parts of Cappadocia may look very different, depending on environmental factors and the type of rock from which they are formed. For example, in Love Valley, they are phallic shaped, and in Imagination Valley, they look like animals.
Eleven cave churches have been clearly identified here in Goreme—the Old Church, the New Church, the Church of the Sandals (i.e., footprints), the Snake Church, the Apple Church, and so on. They all have a Maltese cross over the doorway and 11th century frescoes narrating scenes from the Bible inside.
The Dark Church is the most famous because it has some of the best frescoes in all of Cappadocia. The entrance is through a narrow winding tunnel which opens up into the narthex. When it was discovered in the 1950’s, layers of pigeon droppings covered the walls. It took 14 years to clean them and underneath were found the exquisite paintings, miraculously preserved by the feces. Included are scenes of the journey to Bethlehem, the nativity, the last supper, the crucifixion, and others.
Cappadocia’s underground cities with their labyrinths of secret tunnels and underground passages several stories below ground were built centuries ago. Evidence suggests settlements as far back as the ancient Hellenic and Hittite empires. During the Byzantine period, these were monastic communities inhabited by monks and Christian refugees who were hiding from Arab invaders. We visit a community, silent today except for the tourists. At one time it was thriving and busy with people going to church or tending the graveyard, stables, storage rooms, kitchens, fireplaces, wine cellars, and dining halls. Large millstone doors were used to close off the tunnels and provide protection against intruders.
Extracted from Traveling with Elizabeth – EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES AROUND THE WORLD. Now available from Amazon.