Cappadocia's Rocky, Remarkable Past

Getting lost in Turkey's stone-hewn villages

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.

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.

Alexander the Great, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs ruled or raided the Cappadocian city-states in turn. With all the fighting, local inhabitants literally dug in - excavating their communities from the soft volcanic rock in easily defended cliffs or mountainsides. For centuries, it was one of the centers of the Christian world, and its rock-hewn monasteries produced some of the great early ecclesiastical writers like Basil the Great and Gregory the Illuminator (who brought the new faith to Armenia.)

The last Christians were expelled after World War I in accordance with the infamous "population exchange treaty" between Greece and Turkey (a document that forced millions from their homes to allow the two countries to homogenize their ethnic make-up). But well over 1,000 churches remain, some dating back to the earliest days of Christianity, and almost all predating the Ottoman invasions of the 13th century.

Today, this traditional region is becoming dependent on tourism. Pensions, restaurants, and tour operators have sprung up in Goreme, rgp, and other villages. It's still largely undiscovered, however, and the resourceful visitor will often have the less-known sites to themselves.

Unfortunately, recent decades have also seen the defacement of many church frescos, which some Turkish teenagers identify with perennial archenemy Greece. Many sites are completely unguarded, and a number of iconic church paintings have had the initials of local youth carved into their faces. Perhaps the importance of tourism to the local economy will encourage better custodianship.

That night our host apologized for the state of the monuments as we sat around his courtyard fire, while lamb shishkebabs sizzled and the cook played a three-stringed fiddle. "Now we have arranged marriages and MTV existing side by side, and it can be bewildering for young people growing up," he said. "But I think the situation will improve. After all, we've always been at the crossroads of the world."

What You Need to Know

When to go to Cappadocia: Spring and autumn are often the best times to go, to take advantage of moderate weather and smaller crowds.

Getting There. Numerous private companies run modern, air-conditioned Mercedes motor coaches direct from Istanbul (12 hours; $15) - a great way to get a feel for the Turkish interior.

Getting Around. Nevsehir is the major transportation hub, but it's far nicer to stay in Goreme or rgp. While you can get around by bus and minivan, Cappadocia's sites are spread over a 50-by-30-mile area and it's worth renting a car or motorcycle on arrival in the region.

Money. Turkey is inexpensive for travelers. Credit cards are not widely accepted in Cappadocia, and traveler's checks can't be cashed just anywhere.

Safety. Before you go, check with the US State Department about travel advisories. Turkey is generally safe, but an ongoing counterinsurgency operation against the Kurds in the east of the country has led to occasional reprisals in Istanbul. The usual precautions against pickpockets apply, but unlike Istanbul, most of Cappadocia is extremely crime-free.

Highlights. Some key sites in the region: the underground city at Derinkuyu, the Goreme open-air museum, the Uchisar fortress, and the churches and scenery of the Ihlara gorge. Tour outfits in Goreme and rgp offer tours to most of these places.

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