16.03.2013 - 16.03.2013 14 °C
The day was supposed to be rainy but dawned fairly clear and bright, albeit with a briskness to the air, common to Cappadocia. Upon checking out of our hotel, we realized a pleasant surprise as the two large, excellent meals provided by them commanded less than ten dollars a person. We were suspecting it would be a lot more as the tables had fancy cloths and real wine glasses, items we hadn’t yet seen at any of our Turkish dining experiences.
The town of Guzelyurt, population 2700, has a lot to offer in its own right for sight-hungry tourists: cave dwellings, a few old churches, and a beautiful vista. The cave abodes are a complex of tunnels and ancient cliff dwellings, homes hollowed out of the volcanic rock serving various communities over the centuries. Apparently, there are hundreds of such cities in Cappadocia, some accommodating as many as 30, 000 people at a time. Guzelyurt’s was small and acted as a warm up for our main site in Derinkuyu later in the day. We noted a cave church called Sivisli Kisili in the stone buildings dating to the 13th century, with Byzantine-style frescos of Christ still visible on the walls. Nearby was St Gregorios Church, now converted to a mosque, claiming to be from 385 AD. However, it looked much too new for that so we suspect a lot of it had been restored. Christian and Muslim artifacts coexist in this part of Turkey, testifying to the various layers of history that this region has seen. In driving through the Monastery Valley on the edge of town, we came across a cemetery, with tombstones from both the Christian and Muslim faiths; new graves were sandwiched among the very old ones with decayed gravestones. There was no one about save for the herder urging his three cows through to better pastures. The beautiful panorama displayed nearby Mount Hasan in all its glory, an idealized version of the sleeping volcanic mountain, replete with its cloak of snow and waiting patiently for the neighbouring fields to turn from brown to green.
We stopped by Nargolil, a lake promoted in the brochures as thermal due to its natural hot springs. We saw evidence of this by the big bill boards directing us to the two massive hotels promoting the lake’s restoration qualities. We advanced to see the crater lake and eagerly placed our hands in the water to see how bathtub-like it was. What a surprise to find it freezing cold! We’re not sure what has happened and whether those springs are now defunct but we’re wondering whether the writing is on the wall for those hotels considering their livelihood depends on the thermal capability.
The main stop of the day was the underground city of Derinkuyu. We were curious to understand what was meant by an ‘underground city’ as some that are so billed are actually above ground. We knew we were at the right place because we could see the tour buses and long row of vendors. As we parked and vacated our car, several older, heavyset, traditionally dressed Turkish women swarmed the car on all sides, each carrying a basket of small sewn cloth dolls and dangling them in front of us, shouting ‘One lire! One lire!’ It was quite the gauntlet but knowing I had absolutely no room in my bag, it was fairly easy to resist. They graciously accepted the tenth ‘no’ and retired to their perches waiting for the next vehicle to arrive. We quickly made a beeline for the ticket office and were shown to stairs descending into the stone ground.
Once inside the cool caves, we began to relax again, and took in our surroundings with some wonder. The city was completely underground, and in reading the short brochure, claimed it descended twelve stories (85 metres down into the earth), of which visitors could explore the first eight. The underground areas had been furnished with low electric lights so that we could navigate the catacombs safely. One of the security guides began to explain the various rooms, pointing out stables, a winery, kitchen areas, etc. He mentioned how the first three floors down were created by the Hittites in the 8th century BC; more floors were then added by the Romans and, later still, by the Byzantine Christians in the 12th century AD, bringing the total underground levels to twelve. Since we have learned to be wary of those offering their knowledge at such sites, I made sure I checked the guard’s identification badge to ensure he was official staff. He was; we were impressed that commentary came with this tourist site as usually that is not included in Turkey’s attractions. However, when he finished explaining the first floor, he then broached the delicate subject of offering the full tour as an ‘unofficial guide’ (since he wasn’t supposed to be doing this while he was a security guard). The price would be 50 lire ($30). Feeling chagrined once again, we let him know we would attempt to figure it out on our own.
As we travelled farther and farther down the steep, low, narrow stairways, descending deeper into the hewn out rock, and roamed about the labyrinth of chambers, it was impossible not to cast one’s mind back to those days centuries ago, when people may have used them to hide from raiders and persecutors. Some above ground homes were connected to the underground caves so habitants could quickly flee below when invaders came. Having worshipped as Christians all our lives and knowing early Christians had lived and worshipped here too made me feel a kinship with them. We marvelled at the organization, compromise and collaboration that must have been achieved in those years, in order for the community to run smoothly. Other questions came to mind. How did they chip away so much rock and remove it to the surface? How did they light up all the underground areas sufficiently? How did so many people move about in the narrow passages? Where did they all go to the bathroom? And why was there a spot for graves – was that practical?
We were in awe of some of the construction. There were long, wide ventilation shafts and evidence of wells that served the whole community. We were able to visit many family compartments, a large open meeting place, a barrel-vaulted school room, a church (carved so that it was in the shape of a cross, with the usual transept), the grave area, and a baptismal font. The ticket office warns people against going underground if they have heart or asthma conditions but they said nothing of claustrophobia! Fortunately, none of us suffered from any of those so we spent about an hour touring the multiple levels (60 m). I had engrossed myself so thoroughly in the darkened maze of rooms that when returned to the harsh sunlight and found ourselves once again amid the colorful street stalls, it took a moment to get oriented. Making our way past the security guards playing marbles in the dust with the local youth (I think it was for money), we once again ran the gauntlet and drove off.
As we approached Goreme, we were treated to great views of the ‘fairy chimneys,’ conical projections formed from volcanic tufa (soft, porous limestone) that have been eroded by wind and water over the years. They can come in different shapes, such as mushrooms, but the forest of cones we see in Goreme looks other-worldly. I would say it was somewhat Disneyesque but since Cappadocia came first, perhaps Disneyland is Cappadochian instead. We hope to see more of these amazing structures tomorrow.
Our evening was punctuated by three interesting conversations; the first, with the young man at the hotel reception, who had left university in the fourth year of his English education degree because he missed this part of Turkey and his friends; the second, with a computer engineer/music teacher/musician/professor who had lived in San Francisco for a number of years and who had played in Victoria at St Ann’s Academy on one occasion; and the third, with the restaurant owner who learned seven languages through tourism and self study. From the ex-student, we learned of mandatory military service and the effect it had on one of his friends serving in eastern Turkey; from the musician, we heard his opinion of the effect of Westernization and Turkey’s subsequent Islamic backlash with negative results on culture and independence. The third man charmed us with his very good English, gave us a lesson on crop growing Cappadocia-style (with little water), and made the inevitable offer of helping to get us a good deal on a carpet.
Truly, it was a fascinating day in so many ways.