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.