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Cappadocia's Rocky, Remarkable Past

Getting lost in Turkey's stone-hewn villages

By Colin WoodardSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 22, 1998


We were in it together - the parched sand, weathered stone, a rented east German motorcycle, and I - cooking under the harsh midday sun in the company of some pencil-length lizards. The sand, stone, and reptiles were all taking it well but the motorcycle had decided to take a siesta, and I'd been wondering just how many miles I'd driven since the last sign of human life.

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Then I noticed a portal carved in the hillside a stone's throw away. Rock-hewn homes are scattered everywhere in this part of central Turkey, and despite the earthquake risk some are still inhabited. If you're ever going to find a motorcycle mechanic living in a 1,000-year-old cave-house, this would be the place to look.

On closer inspection it was clear that nobody had lived here in a very long time. The portal had no door and opened on a cool, silent passage descending through the volcanic stone. Curious, I followed this down a flight of hand-hewn steps and into a subterranean chamber that literally took my breath away.

I was standing in the middle of a vaulted, Byzantine church carved from the solid rock centuries ago. Pillars and capitals supported a domed ceiling 20 feet overhead. A window had been cut through to the sheer cliff face on the opposite wall, through which a sunbeam illuminated the chamber. Brightly colored frescos covered walls, ceiling, and pillars, all of which had been sculpted out of solid rock by Cappadocia's now-extinct Christians.

Nearby, an entire monastic complex had been excavated inside a six-story high boulder. Over the hill an abandoned village of rock-hewn homes had been cut into the hills, boulders, and cliffs.

Had Fred Flintstone marched out of one of the stone doorways he would not have looked out of place, but they had all been abandoned for decades, if not centuries. It took all afternoon to explore the warrens of chapels, storerooms, and houses on this rocky hill. Afterward, the motorcycle started on the first try, but even with its cooperation it would have taken months to see everything this region has to offer.

Cappadocia, located high on Turkey's arid central plateau, appears to have been borrowed from another world. Wind and water have sculpted volcanic stone into forests of gigantic cones, spectacular rift valleys, canyons, mesas, arches, and cliffs.

Since ancient times, people have also been sculpting the rock, creating homes, churches, and fortresses inside the cliffs, cones, boulders, and bedrock. Beneath the ground they excavated subterranean towns and cities - one able to accommodate nearly 30,000 - and many linked by underground passages. In this millennia, Ottomans constructed a network of forts to protect merchant caravans, hilltop villages clustered at the foot of their mosques' elegant minarets.

Most of these human contributions to the natural landscape were prompted by the fear of invasion. Cappadocia may be a remote Middle Eastern backwater today, but for thousands of years this high plain was at the center of world geopolitics. Here was the homeland of the Hittites, a Bronze Age civilization that once rivaled the Egyptians. With its collapse 3,200 years ago, the region changed hands countless times as rival kingdoms tried to secure control of this important route across Asia Minor.