Two hundred miles southeast of Ankara, the traveler in Turkey comes to the volcanic plateau of Cappadocia. Eons ago (in the Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene Epochs, to be exact), Ercyas Dag and other surrounding volcanic mountains spewed layers of volcanic ash which wind, water, and frost have eroded into today's surreal landscape of fretted canyons and forests of cones and spires. Each tuff rock has weathered in its own fashion, so the forms are varied. Some rise to a sharp peak, others balance flat, caplike rocks. The Turks call these strange formations peribacalar, or fairy chimneys. Aptly named or not , this lunar landscape bewitches all who see it.

No one knows who carved out the first dwellings inside the soft tuff pyramids and cliffs. Since prehistoric times, Cappadocia has served as a gateway between East and West. Hittites, Urartians, Phrygians, and Persians passed through here.

In classical times, Cappadocia was a Roman province of 37,000 square miles. It was during the Roman period that Christians first came to the area. Peter included the Cappadocians in the salutation of his first letter to the dispersed Christians. Both St. George and the 4th century St. Basil were Cappadocians. From the 5th to the 13th centuries, hermits and monks excavated churches and frescoed them, side by side with troglodyte farmers who grew cereals and cultivated vines and orchards. The Turks living here today grow much the same crops. The potassium-rich chalky soil produces fine apricots, apples, walnuts, and grapes.

In late October, when I went to Cappadocia, the fruit trees and vines made gold and russet patches among the silvery wild olives in the valleys between the tuff canyons.

Now that Turkey is once more safe for travelers, tour busses disgorge Germans , French, and a few Americans to stare at the most important and accessible frescoed churches. Most of these tourists do not linger long. They do their sightseeing from Club Med at Uc Hisar or the comparative comforts of Urgup or Nevsehir, at opposite poles of the most spectacular 12-square-mile area.

I went, instead, to the smaller village of Ortahisar, middle castle, midway between the two larger towns. Its setting is dramatic: A jagged orange rock citadel towers above the pale houses that have been cut tier on tier into a ravine-plunging cliff. Flat roofs have been added to some dwellings, and some facades are carved with handsome Seljuk Turkish flowers, stones, or shells. Scalloped or beaded arches enclose heavy wooden doors, which open from the street to rock platforms where flowers are grown in pots and apricots spread to dry. Cut into the tuff below, stables shelter donkeys and cattle among sacks of grain and dung.

In 15 years the town has scarcely changed except for a gaudy string of lights proclaiming its name above the castle. Here there is no sense of Turkey's military government. I saw neither soldiers nor police, not surprising since Ortahisar remained peaceful even at the peak of Turkey's political unrest.

The pattern of daily living has also changed little over the centuries. Veiled women still spin and weave, draw water from the fountains, and trot off to the orchard and vineyard on tiny donkeys trailing spirals of chalky dust.

The Goreme hotel offers no luxury in the iron cots, basin (cold water), or the Turkish toilet down the hall. But it is clean as Turkish homes are clean and as small Turkish hotels almost never are.

The restaurant next door I found dark and depressing, with its clientele of shabby men in caps and baggy suits. Surprisingly, the owner-chef produced very good shish kebabs and tomato salad.

I was the only foreigner in town. Occasionally other guests arrived at the hotel, farmers coming in at night from still more outlying villages to catch the morning minibus into Nevsehir or Urgup.

The advantages of being the only tourist were soon evident. Shortly after my arrival the hotel manager, Agah Koksol, knocked at my door. He introduced his brother Ahmet, an English teacher at the Nevsehir lycee, and his friend, Uksel, a banker from Nevsehir. Together we organized my sightseeing tour more deftly than any tourist bureau. Uksel had an automobile, so he offered to drive me to Goreme and the other sites easily accessible by car. Ahmet volunteered the services of another friend who could help me see the dozens of churches, which must be visited on foot. On his own free day he proposed to accompany me to Kaymakli, the underground city 12 miles south of Nevsehir.

On the drive with Uksel we saw the best-known sites of Goreme, Cavusin, and Zelve, now set up with parking lots and entrance fees.

Golden Goreme, perhaps the former Korama mentioned in the Acts of St. Hieronymous, has the most important cluster of frescoed cave churches. It is also famous for its six-story pyramidal monastery. Within this cone the tuff has been carved with stables and feeding troughs for animals; shelves and slots for hanging pots; and a long refectory table and benches.

The cave churches are even more interesting. They possess all the features of a Byzantine church. The more complex have domes, cupolas, arches, and apses flanked by aisles. Since all of this is carved from stone, there is no need for columns and pendentives - but they are given these, too, though the columns don't always meet the arches, or the pendentives the dome. The four most famous columned churches are Karanlik Kilisse (Dark Church), Elmali Kilisse (Apple Church), Carikli Kilisse (Sandal Church), and Tokali Kilisse (Buckle Church).

The 10th- and 11th-century frescoes in these churches are also elaborate. A painting of Jesus looks down from the dome, scenes from his life are painted along the sides, and prophets and saints adorn arches and columns. The glowing colors are usually tomato red, ochre, and olive green. Karanlik Kilisse has beautiful blues. Blue tones are also found at the Pigeon Church, below the horseshoe-shaped escarpment of Cavusin.

Simpler churches and chapels at Goreme are decorated with linear designs in blood red. These decorations were once thought to be iconoclastic from the 8th century, when figures were not allowed. These designs, however, also appear in sections of the later 10th- and 11th-century churches.

The earlier iconoclastic chapels are found in the cave-scarred cliffs of rosy Zelve, where the decorations are limited to crosses and fish.

On another day, Ahmet's friend Ali, a retired Army photographer, guided me to the most out-of-the-way valleys and cliffs where others of the 150 frescoed churches are hidden. A guide for these less accessible churches is really necessary. Some of the going is rough. The churches are unmarked, and climbing into them is difficult, because there are no hewn steps. A few were once reached by rope. Now you climb by foot holes in the rock face, and a helping hand is comforting. These churches offer both a more adventurous and a more intimate experience. I found the two most interesting valleys, El Nazar (Evil Eye) and Kilicler (The Swords). In Kilicler high on the lip of a canyon, Sakli Kilisse (Hidden Church) is perhaps the most charming of all. This cave church was not discovered until 1956, so its 11th-century frescoes are fresh and undefaced. I was especially enchanted by a beautiful angel, Romanesque in feeling.

Underground Kaymakli was new to me. It has been excavated and opened to tourists more recently than the cave churches, though as early as the 4th century BC Xenophon described underground dwellings he saw in eastern Asia Minor. Ahmet told me the early Christians hid here from the Romans. He may be right; he is a guide at Kaymakli in the summer months and has talked to the archaeologists who worked here. At any rate it is certain that Kaymakli was a refuge for Christians during the Arab raids in the 7th and 9th centuries. Then it may have housed 16,000 people. It is connected by a six-mile tunnel to another underground city, Derinkuyu. And it is an unbelievable seven stories deep, though only four stories are open to the public. According to Ahmet, the archaeologists compare the construction (or excavation) to that of a tree trunk from which the maze of passageways and rooms branch out.

Heavy millstones stand by each low entrance. Even when closed off, the underground city received fresh air from ventilation shafts whose depths also served as wells. Here again are all the rock-carved features encountered in the cave monasteries, such as the feeding troughs for animals.

As fascinating as I found the remains of centuries-old civilization, I was almost equally interested in the daily life of the villagers.

I immediately experienced a few of Turkey's current problems. Because of the lack of foreign credit, nothing can be imported. Power is cut off several hours each day, but the serious fuel shortage probably affects Ortahisar somewhat less than many places because the homes there, cut back into the tuff as they are, retain some heat in the winter.

Even before Turkey's increasing economic difficulties, her per capita income was the lowest in Europe. The current 90 percent inflation compounds this poverty. At least the people of Ortahisar are accustomed to making use of everything at hand, so inflation affects them less than the poor of the ''Gecekondus,'' shantytowns of the cities. They dry fruits and vegetables on their balconies. Seeds of squash are even toasted for a snack. They gather dung from the donkeys and supplement it with guano from pigeons who are raised here; the rock faces are honeycombed with pigeon cotes. They sift charcoal for reuse and stack branches for winter burning.

The women make their own clothes and knit sweaters for all the family. They still wear the traditional ''salvar,'' long baggy bloomers of plaid or flowered cotton and two head scarves, the ''yasmak'' covering the face except for the eyes. In view of the dust and donkey rides, it is not an impractical costume. Sneakers are an innovation, a very useful one for cobbles and dirt roads. They pointed to mine saying, ''Siz de'' (''You, too'').

Braided hair is sometimes blond and eyes are often blue. Some of the villagers may be descended from early Christian settlers; pockets of Greek Christians remained here until 1922. And Galicia, settled by Gauls, is a neighboring province. Avanos, a few miles away, was probably a Celtic town, its name echoing the Avons, Avens, and Afens of British Wales.

At first the women withdrew from my camera, wrapping themselves more closely in the outer veil. Later their eyes smiled over the ''yasmak.'' Even after they were used to me they said ''no'' to the camera if men were present on the street. In their own homes they were less shy. One pretty woman refused to be photographed as she swept the lintel with the Turkish handleless broom, but she opened her door calling, ''Gel, gel'' (''Come, come''). Inside she was delighted to pose with her daughter after she had changed her ''salvar'' for a long printed cotton skirt. She even telephoned her husband, the telegrapher at the post office, to tell him of my visit. This was the only telephone I saw in a private home.

This house was furnished in a more urban style, with an oversize red velour couch and chairs. As in the other dwellings, However, the walls were whitewashed with arched ceiling and wall cupboards. In most homes the beds and couches, carved from tuff, are covered with hand woven kelims and carpets.

Many of the homes have a loom, for the women of Ortahisar are famed for their rugs. They not only weave them but also card the wool and dye it with leaves, berries, and roots: mistletoe berries for green, pomegranate for yellow, various roots for red. Formerly the women had to rely for sales on dealers who cheated them. Now Ahmet Koksol has formed a cooperative and sells rugs as far away as Germany and the United States.

On the last day of my stay I went with Agah Koksol and his wife and daughter to their vineyard and apricot orchard a few miles out of town. They invited me because Agah thought I would be interested in a small monastery and frescoed chapel discovered in their orchard. But the order of the day involved loading their two donkeys with panniers of dung for the vineyard and at the orchard gathering the pruned branches into four huge bundles for the donkeys to carry back to the village.

The hard work was shared with good humor and affection, the atmosphere that of a family outing. At the end of the day Agah asked me to photograph his wife and him, something that still would not happen in many Turkish villages.

Tourism of course has changed the lives of the villagers. Ahmet Koksol has a vision of a Holiday Inn for Ortahisar. If Turkey's economy recovers sufficiently , his dream may come true for Goreme, and its surrounding caves could become one of the world's great tourist attractions. In such an event the tourist will be more comfortable, but may no longer enjoy the village's old fashioned hospitality. Practical information:

Cappadocia is included in a Crossroads of Civilization Tour of the World of Oz. You also can arrange for a Turkish Tour from Ankara.

If you go on your own, THY has several daily flights from Istanbul to Ankara. But connections between Ankara and Kayseri are early morning flights, which may necessitate a stopover in Ankara. The price of THY Instanbul-Ankara-Kayseri is 4350 Turkish lire (about $40; the dollar currently is worth 110 lire.)

From Kayseri you can reach Urgup or Nevsehir by minibus. These towns have second- and third-class hotels. The third class Buyuk in Urgup has charm but erratic plumbing. Price is around $20 for double room and breakfast.

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