The more we travel the more we decide that places that are famous and well-touristed are often that way for a reason. Cappadocia very much fits into that pattern.
We didn’t really know what to expect. We knew that there were “fairy chimneys,” but didn’t think that pictures of the terrain looked so remarkable, compared to, say, Bryce Canyon in the American Southwest. We knew that there were “underground cities,” but despite their size, we didn’t see why they should merit great fame, given the existence of other large manmade cave and tunnel systems around the world. We had some vague sense of the Christian history of the region, but had little context to put it in.
As it turns out, Cappadocia is not really about the fairy chimneys or about the underground cities. Much like Petra (see post of 10.09), Cappadocia is greater than the sum of its parts, a combination of natural beauty and human construction that defies the imagination. Moreover, Cappadocia, like much of Turkey, is a pleasurable travel destination, with tranquil villages, friendly locals and an outstanding selection of hotels and restaurants, which would almost merit a visit were there nothing at all to see. We were even impressed by the sites–the range and quality of Christian art on display is impressive, clearly world-class. The nature of the scenery has us already looking forward to our next visit, as we would love to see the region in all of its different seasons.
For us, outdoing the “sights” of Cappadocia, by which I mean the cave churches and underground cities, were the Cappadocian towns themselves.
Utterly picture perfect, the town of Ortahisar lies at the base of a beautiful rock formation which has been pierced through with chambers and a pathway to the top, more like swiss cheese, as they say, than any other structure we have seen. From nearby, a view takes in Mt. Erciyes (Dagi) in the distance, perfected framed by the “castle” and the tall minaret of the local mosque. While the castle seemed to be officially closed, perhaps for safety concerns, a painted arrow pointed the way around the blocked gate and through an open window with a brick conveniently placed as a step up.
Not quite rivaling Ortahisar in beauty, but a wonderful place to base a Cappadocia stay, is the town of Uchisar, a sort of French tourist ghetto a few kilometers south and uphill from the principal village of Goreme. The view from the cozy hotel La Maison du Reve is, as one says, worth a million dollars.
Close-up, Uchisar. As you can see, a great deal of the town is actually cut into the rock, the chambers providing not only living space but temperature-controlled storage for perishables, such as fruit.
Cappadocia may lie squarely in the middle of now Turkey, but a wealth of churches with Christian art and Greek script leaves no doubt as to the identity of the then-residents of the region. The reported existence of a Cappadocian civilization goes back to Herodotus (5th c. BC), and it is believed that Cappadocia was Christianized in the 4th c. AD, with the surviving churches dating mainly from the 8th-11th c. AD. The Greek Christian population moved away in the twentieth century population exchange (see post of 10.28).
The Goreme Open-Air Museum, located just uphill from the village of the same name, contains the large concentration of Christian cave churches and art in Cappadocia.
“The Nunnery,” Goreme Open-Air Museum
Apple Church, Goreme Open-Air Museum
Dark Church, Goreme Open-Air Museum
Home sweet cave. There are several hotels in Cappadocia with cheesy names such as “Flintstones” and “Bedrock” (in fact, we stayed at the latter and recommend it), and many hotel rooms and some private homes in the region are, in fact, built into caves or fairy chimneys.
The Ihlara Valley, southwest of Goreme, contains a second set of (somewhat less impressive) cave churches, built scenically along the banks of a small stream.
The churches in the Ihlara Valley are cut into the base of the cliffs of the canyon.
Perhaps the most impressive site in/near the Ihlara Valley is the Selime Monastery, which features some of the greatest rock-cut architecture we have seen, far exceeding anything else in Cappadocia and reminiscent of the Ajanta Caves (see post of 7.24).
Underground city of Kaymakli. There is much evidence of Christian habitation of the underground cities, but the Christians were not the first to live underground in Cappadocia, with at least some underground dwellings described in the region since classical Greek times. The underground cities acted as hiding places in times of conflict, such as the Arab conquest, and made use of hidden entrances and defensive barriers to prevent invasion.
An expensive, but popular, excursion: Cappadocia by hot-air balloon