Fairy Chimneys

We flew in to Kayseri airport and ran through a thunderstorm to a bus which was to take us to Göreme. We dried off during the long bus journey as we looked out at the landscape which turned from green fields to the white rock chimneys which Cappadocia is famous for. Every guide and guidebook tells you how the word came from a Persian source which means Land of the Beautiful Horses, but a very interesting news story from four years ago throws some doubt on this etymology. Even Wikipedia, never known for scholarship, treads very gingerly around the issue of etymology. But it is a good story, and I don’t mind opening with a scene we came across in our first walk through the countryside which echoes it.

We dumped our baggage in our lovely room in the hotel, a modern house backed into a cliff of the volcanic material the area is famous for, and rushed out for a short walk. It was too late to walk to the nearby outdoor museum, but we took a side route into the Zemi valley and Görkündere ridge. This little-known walk is a wonderful introduction to the special landscape of Cappadocia. As you can see in the photo above, the flat landscape has been eroded into a succession of chimneys. Around Göreme you can see clearly the layers and varying colours of rock laid down in epsiodes of volcanism through the last 10 million years. Erosion can be seen today from about 5 million years ago. So the landscape would have looked roughly similar throughout human history. But of course erosion continues to this day. As evidence you can see at the bottom of the landscape, modern houses are several meters below the ancient rock-cut caves.

I love to see my landscape up close. The photo above shows the lovely textured rock which the free-standing chimneys are made of. It looks pretty friable, and I’m sure with a chisel and hammer I could make a pretty big dent in it. Many of the caves were probably carved out with these ancient tools. This mixture of pumice and compacted volcanic ash called tuff has a name; it is called Ignimbrite. This completely useless piece of information clutters up my mind. I hope that putting it down here will help me rid my mind of it. The darker rock at the top of the chimney is a harder cladding which protects the chimney like a roof.

The thunderstorm had left the place cool, and we needed our warm jackets over our tees as we walked. Now, when I look that this photo, I recall a guide’s story about why these structures are called fairy chimneys. According to him, people used to brew alcohol in these places, and sometimes the fumes would catch fire and be seen from far as a blue glow; so the name. Not very believable, but a nice story anyway. The huge vertical cracks in this rock will reduce it to rubble within a generation or two. Erosion is not always a slow process, nor is it uniform.

The walk was lovely; we saw birds, wild flowers, and insects, enjoyed the weather, and the slow change of light. The day had been stormy, and, as a result, the evening light was spectacular. One of the last things I could photograph was the light of the setting sun putting a lovely glow on clouds and rocks. Fairy chimneys? Enchantment? You better believe it.

The Black Sea

We flew in to Istanbul’s new airport around midnight and took a taxi to the Black Sea resort of Kilyos. The flight had been tiring, and we fell asleep immediately. It was only in the morning when we went down for breakfast that we found what a charming village we had chosen to spend the night in.

We’d seen this huge stone tower outside the hotel when we looked out in the morning. At the reception we were told that it was part of a Byzantine “water castle”. Looking at the map, I realized that modern day Kylios lies between Istanbul and the area known today as the Belgrade Forest. This was one of the sources of water for Constantinople. So I guess this immense tower is the remnant of a Byzantine aqueduct.

We walked past it to the village. At a cross roads there was a cluster of shops. A knot of women who’d been chatting in front of the grocery store had begun to melt away by the time The Family and I reached the square. When I took a photo of the store front, only the shopkeeper was in the frame. I liked the wooden upper balcony. It looked like the owner of the shop could have lived in the upper floor.

Across the road was a store with fruits and vegetables on display. In this part of the near-west I didn’t expect to see anything really new. It was mid-spring, and I saw strawberries and apricots on display. Along with those were trays of juicy blackberries. Both The Family and I had grown up eating wild blackberries, usually before they had a chance to ripen. The shopkeeper hurried over to sell us a box of the fruits, dut in Turkish. We munched on them as we walked through the village.

The next store was a kiosk with clothes. Modern shops at the western end of the ancient silk road are not that different from those in Xi’an and Guangzhou, at the eastern end. When you examine the labels on the clothes you find that the silk road has come alive again. It was a little surprise to see the Turkish flag flying in the store. Over the next few days I was to see the Turkish flag prominently displayed in many shops.

The freshness in the air and the warm sunlight made the prospect of sitting at an outdoor cafe very welcome. If we’d not just finished breakfast I wouldn’t have minded sitting down. The Family and I looked at the menu and then disappointed the server by walking on.

We turned a corner and walked down a path which sloped into the sea. A bakery was doing brisk business. We looked at the breads on display. The style of breads here are not very different from those in other near-western countries. The baking seems to be done at a lower temperature than that commonly used in the far west of Europe, so the crust is not as crisp as in France or Germany.

It was too early for restaurants to open. Kilyos seemed like a town which is open late at nights, and, as we found elsewhere in Turkey, such places wake slowly. This restaurant seemed to have its menu properly set out in the mural beneath large picture windows. Street art can be so useful! We walked past this menued wall towards the sea and got the featured photo. Small waves lapped the shore; there seemed to be a sandy beach a little way off on one side. The water seemed clean in spite of a nearby shipping lane.

Unfortunately we didn’t have the time to sit around and enjoy the perfect weather and the crystal water. We had to catch a flight out to Cappadcia soon. We turned to go. On the way we passed through an open cafe, and I paused to look at their selection of beers. There were a lot of internationally well-known brands, but one shelf held the local beers. I would get to taste several varieties of Efes during the trip. I didn’t see Bomonti again, and if I have to believe the average reviews, it was no great loss.

As we walked back to our hotel, a Black Sea cat crossed our path. It ran across the path, climbed part of the way up a staircase and glared at me as I paused to take a photo. This was a good sign, the first of the feral cats of Turkey. When we passed it ran back across the street. It had come out only to look at us!


Still in light sleep, I registered the fact that The Family had opened the door on to the balcony of our room in Göreme. It was just past sunrise, and the room was full of light in spite of drawn curtains. Then my muzziness was gone when The Family’s excited voice called to me to get up and get my camera. I rushed out with my phone in hand and saw a marvelous sight. There were silent presences hovering in the air above us. It was as if we were inside a story by Franz Kafka, and a tenth of the town’s inhabitants had been turned into delicate teardrops which floated above us.

After some discussion we’d decided against taking a balloon in the morning. It would have been a wonderful sight from up there, but the spectacle from down here was stunning. All the movies about alien invasions, where spaceships come screaming down from the sky, fail to imagine what a stunning sight it is to have a hundred huge things silently floating above you. I went back to sleep, and when I woke later, this was like a strange dream. Only my photo remained to prove to me that what I’d seen was real.

Talking Turkey on World Book Day

April 23 seems to be the International Book Day, designated by UNESCO to be the World Book and Copyright Day. I understand that it commemorates the dates on which Cervantes and Shakespeare died (in the same year, but on different days, the blame for this strange happenstance belongs to Pope Gregory XII). The sheer number of writers across the world means that this is also the birthday of other famous writers. Vladimir Nabokov happens to be one of them.

That’s a good reason to sit down and make a list of the books I’ve been working my way through as I get ready for a trip to Turkey. This part of the world has an amazing history. So many different civilizations washed across this antique land. There are neolithic sites from before the invention of agriculture, the Greek ruins of Ephesus, Troy, Aphrodisias, Miletus (birthplace of Thales, famous for saying things like “The past is certain, the future obscure” and for being the town through which the Maeander river, well, meanders), Persian ruins dotted across Antalya, remnants of the Byzantine empire across the country, and finally, the great constructions of the Ottomans.

I knew too little about the Byzantine empire. So I decided to read the Chronographia written by Michael Psellos in the 11th century CE. This is a series of biographies of the Byzantine emperors in the century before Psellos’ own time, although some of the most interesting parts are the author’s own memoirs. Judith Herrin’s book Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire surprises the Western reader with the contention that the medieval era was not the dark ages, and me by being a good tourist guide as well. I understand that the book The World of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown has a similar thesis. I haven’t started on it yet. The first book I did finish was the extremely informative Byzantium: a Very Short Introduction by Peter Sarris.

Except for little factoids such as that Cervantes took part in the naval Battle of Lepanto against them, I knew very little about the Ottoman empire. I have started to remedy this lack of education through a short reading list which started with Giancarlo Casale’s book The Ottoman Age of Exploration, which throws surprising light on the Zeroth World War centered on the Indian Ocean. While this is highly educative, it is somewhat peripheral to our forthcoming trip to Turkey. For that I have reserved Halil Inalcik’s magisterial survey The Ottoman Empire: 1300-1600, and Sukru Hanioglu’s book A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire.

I’m afraid that I no longer have the time to finish my reading list before the trip, so I’ll take these books along on my ereader and enjoy them as I travel during the month of Ramadan through the land they describe. The Family is pretty sure that this won’t be our last trip through Turkey. “Its history is quite as interesting as those of China and India,” she said. Not to mention that samosas and koftas originated in Turkey.