Taking stock

The Family and I had breakfast on a narrow terrace on the top floor of our hotel in Kusadasi, looking out towards the harbour. We talked about what we’d seen in Turkey. It seemed to me that it had been months, but it was less than a week since we’d landed in Istanbul! The incredible sights of Cappadocia: fairy chimneys, balloons filling the sky, underground cities, now seemed so far removed. Trudging through the ruins of famous Greek cities, looking at the remnants of what used to be the wonders of the ancient world, had driven those older experiences into some far corner of the brain.

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We looked at our phones together, swiping through the galleries of the last few days. Did we really see that? Remember the wonderful wine there. And that great Turkish coffee! Can you get me another glassful of that superb lemonade? Too soon it was time to leave for a drive to Pamukkale.

Fruit juice and gözleme

The food writer, Diana Henry, writes “The path of the conquering forces of Islam, as they swept their way across to North Africa and up into Spain and Sicily, is marked in citrus groves.” But did the Arabs have oranges before the Turks came to the Mediterranean from the western plains of China? I wondered as I drank gallons of fresh pressed orange juice every day. I branched out into the sweet red pomegranate juice later, but the sour and sweet taste of the Turkish oranges remained my favourite. This is something I’ve enjoyed in every country which borders on the north of the Mediterranean. In Turkey I could find a little stall in every market corner of a village.

The other wonderful thing I discovered was the gözleme (pronounced goez-li-may). I first saw it being rolled when we walked along the Ihlara valley. In a little pavilion by the side of a restaurant which sprawled along the banks of the river, two ladies were hard at work rolling out these things which are like a paratha. The ladies were busy, and did not look like they would take kindly to interruption. Talking to others I figures that the dough is unleavened, just like paratha dough, and fillings can be as varied than typical parathas.

I ate gözleme fairly often later, but every time I ate them I remembered these two ladies rolling them out like a factory. I’ve had paratha adventures in Old Delhi’s streets, where potato, spinach, and meat are common, and chocolate parathas have been invented recently. Gözleme seems to have undergone a similar evolution.

Goodbye to Cappadocia

At first sight Göreme was charming. The village emerged from caves carved into cliff-sides, fairy chimneys dotted about the town! After spending a few days in Cappadocia, I thought it wasn’t nearly as lovely as I’d first thought. The town was a typical tourist hub, full of cheap things, lots of hotels and tour agencies. But then on my last evening I was charmed again by the cars I saw while walking around town.

The parked one was a beauty. But earlier in the evening, while searching for a place where could taste the Cappadocia wines, we’d come across another beauty. A 1953 Studebaker Starlight coupe? Not quite that classic, but a beauty nevertheless. I passed another classic convertible. I may sometimes miss a car, but a convertible makes The Family stop and look every time. This was no exception. I also admired the look of the Göreme Cafe; there was not a single person there below the age of seventy. This wasn’t the place we were looking for.

Later, after a tasting a couple of wines we walked back to our hotel. Most shops had closed. We passed one of the many carpet shops in the town, just as it was about to shut. The next day would be the beginning of the month of Ramazan, a time when nights become more lively. Very early the next morning I heard drums on the road announcing the approach of sunrise. This is an old Turkish custom, warning people during Ramazan that they have to finish their pre-dawn breakfast, Sehri, before the sun rises.

I could get another hour of sleep before leaving to catch our flight on to Izmir and the Aegean coast. I caught a breakfast at a small kiosk (a word which changed meaning as it came into English from Turkish through French) at the airport. After choosing a freshly pressed orange juice, a coffee, and a fresh-baked pretzel I stepped back to take a photo. The shop had everything that a traveler might need: food, souvenirs, even some luggage. I clicked a photo of a charming piece of luggage elsewhere in the airport and sent it to the Youngest Niece. Her instant response, “Cute!” She’s at the age when this word is over-used.

Derinkuyu overground

The village of Derinkuyu seemed a little schizophrenic. On the one hand there was the ancient underground city, and on the other the Greek orthodox church, both abandoned in the 1920s. The underground city is one of the major tourist draws in Cappadocia, but very few walk the few steps to the church. Between the two there seems to be a dividing line which cuts through the village. On the side which contains the entrance to the underground city a market place has come up; there are cafes (featured photo), and even a little hotel.

On the other side the village seems to be crumbling and falling apart. Crumbling, derelict places hold a special fascination for travel bloggers and photographers, it seems. My companion for the hour was a keen photographer, and he turned out to be a blogger as well. We walked towards this other side of the village first. The ignimbrite which has been carved into villages and troglodyte cities for millennia also seems to give blocks of stone to build houses with. Some of it was rough, and not very handsome to begin with.

Other houses had been made with care and love. The relief work in the stone above windows, and the niche, would have been part of the facade of a beautiful house once upon a time. Now it looked like an abandoned mess. A hole had been bashed into one of the stone block, probably to provide an opening for a pipe. And now the whole frontage had begin to crack.

I zoomed back a bit to take a photo of the surroundings. You can see two houses, standing side by side, each of which would have looked pretty once upon a time. Both households would have had some pride in living so close to the town’s church. Now the wall of the lower floor is crumbling. A hole gapes in one of the walls; perhaps a door frame and lintel have been removed. The facades are cracked and sagging, and will not last much longer.

Round the corner, and right outside the church I saw this small house. It hadn’t started crumbling yet. Still there were signs scrawled over it: Satilik (meaning “for sale”) and Satilik Ev (Turkish for “house for sale”). What happened to this side of the town? The Greeks who lived here left a century ago, why have the houses been put up for sale now?

The other side of the village doesn’t look rich, but at least it is not deserted and crumbling. I saw lines of cafes. Some were closed, but the chairs and the table outside seemed to indicate that the closure was temporary. Later in the day, probably, the cafe would reopen. The dappled sunlight looked cheerful.

Next to it, other cafes did some business. Each of these establishments had one occupied table. An old man sitting alone did not want to appear in the photo, but was not bothered enough by me to either tell me to stop or to walk away. You can see him holding up a napkin to cover his face. People at other tables are not bothered by me. This village sees a lot of tourists, and the locals pay them little heed, unless they are in the tourist trade.

An abandoned church

Most tourists who come to Derinkuyu spend their time underground. I abandoned this tour fearing for my back and had to spend an hour or so overground, waiting for The Family to return. Although I do not play the lyre, I did not turn to look behind me as I climbed up. I don’t know whether that was the reason, but The Family did return above ground soon. In the hour I had, I walked around the market square of the village, and found a structure which looked like an abandoned Greek Orthodox church which I could explore.

In the market I met another photography enthusiast from my bus who had remained above ground. We walked to the church together. Later I would find that this is the Üzümlü Kilisesi (Grape church), and maybe should be called St Theodoros Trion Church. The weather was very fickle. When we walked into the church yard through a gate below the elaborate bell tower the sun was bright. This photo from the south west corner of the yard shows the arcaded main entrance.

There was a very rusty door set into the southern facade. Around it was a beautiful low-relief sculpture of a stylized vine with leaves. From a distance I’d thought that this was made in terra cotta, but closer up I was not sure. These vines give the church its local name, the Grape Church. Most accounts say that this church was built in the 19th century CE. One source claimed very specifically that it was built during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid.

Some accounts claim that the church may have been used by ethic Turkish Orthodox Christians who used the Greek alphabet (they were resettled in Greece in 1923), but there is an absence of definitive information. In any case, the church was clearly abandoned, but still in pretty good shape. In spite of a severe economy with decoration, the front facade was beautiful, with symmetric arcade arches that you see in the photo above.

The doors here were spectacular even in their rusted and neglected state. The beautifully carved curves in the stone above the door caught my eye. The lemniscates on the doors have the symbolic meaning of regeneration and endlessness, a meaning that predates its modern use in mathematics (and general culture) as the symbol for infinity. Although this church is said to have been built long after the symbol took on its modern, more mathematical meaning, its use on the main door into the church refers back to the earlier symbolism.

The arch above this doorway was spectacular. You can see the wonderful depiction of vines laden with grapes. On the outer edge of this band is another vegetable motif: is it sheafs of wheat? The rectangular panels inside the arch are not as well-preserved. I could see a human figure riding some animal in the panel on the left, but the one on the right has been defaced. The central panel is clearly symbolic: the largest piece has birds, and there are cattle below it. Some part of the panel may have broken and was replaced by a plain stone block at some point.

A keyhole in a door has been enlarged into a larger hole. I peered through it. The interior of the church seems to have the same elegant simplicity as the exterior. Light streamed in from open windows. There are cruciform windows on the sides (you can see one in the featured photo). When I looked in through this peephole I saw that the apse had several more of these windows. I regretted that the church was closed, and my regret became sharper later when I found that it is sometimes open, and a previous lucky visitor has posted photos of frescoes from the interior in TripAdvisor.

We completed our circuit of the church. A drunken local had led the way in. A couple of other visitors had walked in and out. Now we saw an old lady walk in. She seemed to have been here before; her walk was confident, she knew where she was going, and she did not bother to gawk at the church. I wondered whether she would open the church, but she was only there to rest for a while. From this end I could see the three cruciform windows in the apse which illuminated the inside. We completed our circuit and walked away.

Imagination Valley

We reached Zelve open air museum in the afternoon of a lovely day. The sun was warm, but the air was fresh enough that walking was pleasant. One of our target areas was a set of interconnected chambers cut into the rock, from two stories above the entrance level to a story down. Unfortunately some workers decided to burn plastic trash in this region, and the smoke drove us all away. That’s the smoke you can see in one of the photos in the gallery below.

The day was too pleasant to remain annoyed. We found a nice double tower which had been turned into a house by carving out rooms inside. The windows in the tower were painted in decorative patterns. Apparently this area was inhabited until 1952, when the frequency of rock falls and subsidence increased to the point that the population of these villages were evacuated. The earliest inhabitants probably came here during the centuries of the Arab-Byzantine wars, somewhere between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. A thousand years of human habitation is quite as impressive as the landscape through which we walked. Spring brings flowers and butterflies. I managed to take a few photos of a Painted lady, Vanessa cardui. This is often called the most common butterfly in the world; it is found on all continents except Antarctica. Can you help me with an identification of the flower?

After a break for coffee and ice cream we went on to see the fabulous landscape of the Devrent valley. This is popularly known as Imagination valley because of the interesting shapes that erosion has created. The easily eroded Cemilköy ignimbrite is overlaid by the harder Kizilkaya ignimbrite. This more recent layer was laid down in volcanic activity about 4.3 million years ago. In all the interestingly named shapes that you see below, you can see a thin layer of Kizilkaya icing over the Cemilköy cake.

Camel – Imagination Valley, Cappadocia, Turkey
Two dervishes – Imagination Valley, Cappadocia
Lizard – Imagination Valley, Cappadocia

Selime Cathedral

The town of Ihlara lies at one end of a picturesque valley cut by the Melendiz river into the volcanic ignimbrite of Cappadocia, and gives the valley its name. At the other end of the Ihlara valley is the village of Selime, nestled below a tall cliff. I suppose that this cliff is an eroded remnant of the oldest cut made by the river. When you approach this by road, if you look carefully, you can see signs of ancient habitation at the top of the cliff, and all through it.

How old are these? Recent surveys of these structures assign them to the middle Byzantine period. Although there are tourism web sites which talk of the settlement as being from the 1st century CE, and simultaneously as fortifications made by the Seljuk Turks for defence against Mongol invaders, I wonder whether all this can be traced to exactly the same place. Certainly these historical events have left their marks on Cappadocia, but it is unlikely that one small spot in this large area could be definitely connected to all these bits of history. Stories that some parts of Star Wars were filmed here are easily checked and dismissed, since the locations where the films were shot are very well known.

We climbed a path up from the road into a complex of caves called the Selime Cathedral (featured photo). A little clamber along well-worn paths in the rocks brought us to an uneven courtyard (above) flanked by several cave complexes. We’d bought a bottle of water from one of the little shops which surround the parking lot at the base, and this seemed like a good time to have a long swig at the water. The strange perspective makes you feel you will need both hands perpetually to keep your balance, although the ground is not as uneven as it looks. In any case, The Family and I wanted our hands free, so we put the bottle on a bench, meaning to come back and take it.

The view from here was wonderful. On one side we could see a village nestled into a curve made by the cliffs. Every town and village in Cappadocia looks like it has emerged slowly from the caves cut into rocks. In fact, this could well be how many of them started. The path up had twisted and turned a bit, so now I tried to get my bearings. It was the middle of a very cloudy day, so the sun wasn’t much use. I couldn’t see the parking lot from up here, but I could look back along the path we’d climbed and guess where it was. So this village, Selime, would be behind the parking lot.

There were signs of a community which had spent their lives here. Pigeon coops were carved into walls around the courtyard. I wondered about the cultural significance. Doves and pigeons have dropped out of our diets, but ever since my first visit to China I have been finding evidence that eating pigeon meat was fairly common even early in the twentieth century, Were these niches in the walls made to encourage a source of easy protein? There seemed to be no easy way to climb up to the coops, but then I haven’t spent my life in cliff-dwellings.

We walked into a cave which was marked Kilise, Turkish for church. The rock above the entrance was carved into a decorated lintel. The artists and architects of this place definitely had worked in buildings which were not carved out of rocks. When you build a house with bricks or mud, a lintel is needed to protect the wall above a door from collapsing into the empty doorway. There is no lintel for the entrance into a cave; if it collapses then it will collapse from the interior. So making a decoration in the form of a lintel means that the aesthetics built in a different style of construction has been imported into a place where it is not needed.

The inside of the church was very elaborate. An outer “room” looked like a two-storied barrel vaulted nave. There were aisles behind the row of pillars above, and a further smaller “room” at the end where an apse would be in a modern church. There were a couple of pits on the floor which looked deliberately carved. The place had been carved by people who had developed a fine understanding of the principles of construction of rock-cut structures: of how large a space could be, and how much support had to be provided in the form of pillars to prevent the rock from collapsing. At the same time, the style was clearly imported from that of free-standing structures.

The next cave we entered was labelled a basilica. This was very elaborate inside, with a nave separated from aisles on both sides by rows of pillars. The apse is also elaborate with a round high window to let in light. There are other openings to let in light. These openings have not been kind to the murals whose remnants you can still see. Somewhat protected under the arches between the aisles we could see portraits of saints. Only the red paint survives. One pigment has faded to white, and another has been consumed by the same process of weathering as the rest of ignimbrite. Perhaps this was originally the yellow of the rock, and the faded colour was a blue or green. One can imagine a very colourful interior with these replacements. In the barrel-vaulting above the nave one can see the remnant of a much larger painting. This will probably not last another lifetime unless something is done soon.

I’d managed to avoid including other tourists in most of my photos, but the next cave I tried to see was the scene of intense instagramming. I waited for a while, but each vacated niche would be instantly taken by another young lady. We did not have the time for this cave to empty out. China has opened so recently that this enthusiasm is expected; I guess things will change in a decade or so when travelling abroad becomes more common for the Chinese. We looked in the bin next to the bench, but there was no bottle there. Perhaps an instagrammer had taken it for a prop. We left, knowing we could get more water at the parking lot.

Flavourful Cappadocia

I hadn’t thought I would love breakfasts in Turkey so hugely. Turkey lies at the boundary between Mediterranean and west Asian food zones. The breakfast was a wonderful mix. I have a tendency to overdo the meat, but I could not neglect the varieties of feta, the olives, tomatoes, and herbs, the moussaka, and the wide varieties of bread, and the yoghurt and olive oil. All this with uncounted cups of Çay. Breakfasts were the most self-indulgent parts of my days in Turkey.

The other big surprise were the wines of Cappadocia. We had read about the ancient tradition of wine-making in this region; even the underground cities of the early medieval age had winepresses. But the history of wine in this region is much older, can be extrapolated back to about 3000 BCE. Fatigue had driven this out of our minds on the first two nights, but on the third night The Family and I found a quiet open-air bar which we liked the looks of. Seeing a local Göreme red wine on the menu we ordered it out of curiosity and were blown away by the complex taste. I noted the names of the grapes: this one was a mixture of Öküzgözü and Boğazkere. Both these varieties of grapes are local and have a long history. I would meet Öküzgözü several times later. The barman was willing to give me a taste of the white Narince, which was also complex. We went with the red wine. I noted the name of the winery, Kocabağ, and asked for it every time we had wine elsewhere. It turns out that this is a highly regarded winery with a small production run, and is not so easy to get. We struck lucky on our first try of Cappadocia wine, but we were to discover much more later.

An excavated city

One of the oddest things to see in Cappadocia are the underground cities. We visited a place called Derinkuyu. You walk down a set of stairs and suddenly you are in a maze of passages carved out of the volcanic ignimbrite. It is the caves of Cappadocia written large; large enough to hold about 20,000 people. The spaces are totally bare: not a single decoration or touch of ancient paint. Any signs on the walls and all the lights are all modern.

Very little is known about the origins of these cities. Some people point to passages by the Athenian historian Xenophon as the earliest known records of these places. That would date them at about 5th century BCE. They could be much older. Hittite origins have been speculated; that would push the origins back to about 5000 years ago. What we seem to know for certain, from contemporary records, is that during the centuries of Arab-Byzantine wars, the 7th to 10th centuries, these underground cities were used as refuges by the local population for short times. The lack of knowledge makes speculation easy; there are some who would like to believe that extra-terrestrials came to earth just to dig holes in the Anatolian plateau. Some of the ancient structures cannot stand by themselves, and had to be strengthened by later arches, as you can see in the photo above.

The roughness of the walls, the uneven supporting columns, the occasional falls show that the level of technology that was used to carve out a place like this was not terribly advanced. I looked up at a ventilation shaft and wondered whether it would bring the rain down. Sheer dedication, and several hundreds of years of chipping away at rocks, would have been responsible for a place to grow as extensive as this. What we seem to know is that the Greek-speaking inhabitants of Anatolia continued to use these caves until the population exchange of 1923. After that it was forgotten, and rediscovered only in 1961.

Anatolia is geologically active, and there have been many earthquakes recorded in history. However, the Cappadocia region is rather stable. In spite of that one could expect that underground excavations would occasionally collapse. I saw one side chamber walled off with a modern wall. Perhaps the area beyond that had become unstable. Most of the interesting things were at lower levels, but I was already developing a backache from stooping. The Family decided to go on down while I climbed back up to the sun.

After about an hour The Family came back up talking of having to walk bent down through long and low corridors as she went down to the eighth level. She’d seen niches carved into living spaces, beds, tables, and benches carved out of stone, little cubicles for livestock at the second level. There were no paintings or decorations visible, she said. I looked at one of thefew photo she had taken (above) and found it interesting that the steps are carved much more finely than the walls. In any case, the photo convinced me that I’d made the right decision in not going further: the corridors were too low.

Watching ducks in Ihlara valley

We had a wonderful walk through the Ihlara valley. Confusingly, the river which flows through it is the Melendiz river, and the valley is really named after a nearby town. It was a lovely spring day. The valley was full of families out for a walk. We’d climbed down some steps to look at the murals in the rock-cut church called the Ağaç Altı Kilise before starting on the walk. This is a narrow valley, with the river taking up more than half the width of the valley. Trees straggle down the slopes on either side; we’d passed almond and pistachio trees on the way down. Between the trees and the tall cliffs, the path is well-shaded.

We’d been so busy seeing all the wonderful sights that Cappadocia offers, that we’d not managed to keep much time for simple joys like this. At the end of the trek, we saw a little group of locals who were just chilling. The river bank on our side was too steep to follow their lead and dip our feet into the cold water. The Family had been keeping an informal count of the number of the number of women who cover their heads. Although most Turks are Muslim, the country’s secular constitution has allowed people personal choice in matters of religion. The clearest sign of this is the very large fraction of women who can be seen with their heads uncovered.

Although we couldn’t dip our feet into the water, I could spend some of my time watching ducklings. Elsewhere, we would meet a dedicated group of birders who had seen Dalmatian Pelicans nesting. We had no such luck. But it was pleasant to sit in the cool breeze next to the river and watch the clearest sign of spring: a melee of Mallard ducklings. The adults were in their glossy breeding plumage, but it was the chicks which caught my eye.

The chicks of the Mallard have stripes of black across the eyes, and black on the top of the head and back. I don’t know the identification of this chick. Several of these were mixed in with a bunch of Mallards. Could it be that new hatchlings do not develop black colouration till later? Idle thoughts come to a relaxed and idle mind. That’s a nice state to reach on a holiday.