The Iconoclast wars

If you travel through Cappadocia you come face to face with the early history of Christianity, and its interactions with the Romans (very endearingly called Pagans) and, later, with Islam. Tourist brochures tell us that the Roman emperor Constantine founded Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and declared Christianity to be the state religion of the empire in the 4th century CE. After becoming the religion of the empire, churches slowly gave up the strictures of Moses against painting and sculpture. By the 7th century CE churches were full of paintings, like the one that you see in the featured photo. This is from the central dome of a cave church, Ağaç Altı Kilise, in Ihlara valley. The figure in the middle is the Christ, shown as Pantocrator, and his throne is surrounded by a bunch of dancers in robes.

George the dragon-slayer apparently came from Cappadocia. I found it interesting to look at how people are dressed. The Pantocrator and his host are dressed in flowing robes. If you look closely, it seems that the clothing is entirely draped: like the Indian dhoti and shawl. The rider has some kind of sewn armour over his upper body, covering his draped clothes. Notice that the legging seem draped, much like a dhoti.

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century CE, the Arabs expanded rapidly. The Mediterranean world of antiquity saw a balance of power between Persians and the Greco-Roman empire. With the Arab annihilation of Persia in the 7th century CE, this world came to an end, and the golden period of Byzantium began. In the war between the Arab empire and Byzantium, ideological imputations were important. From the time of the second Caliph, Islam doubled down on the application of the Mosaic law against “graven images”. Byzantine politics reacted to this by the rise of the Iconoclast party, who wanted to rid churches of images of Christ, Mary, and the saints. This became the dominant view between the 7th and the 10th centuries CE, when Cappadocia was a border region with wars moving across it. Many of the churches in the Göreme open air museum date from this period.

This is probably one of the most ancient doorways I’ve taken a photo of. The door is certainly almost a couple of millennia younger than the doorway it is fitted to. The cross above the door was acceptable to the Iconoclasts. The bird was almost certainly not. For this reason, and from its asymmetric position, the chances are good that it was added later. This door was the site of a passive-aggressive war of instagrammers. I managed to get an unobstructed shot a priority dispute was in progress. Since I did not want a person standing in front of the door, I realize that I came down in favour of the Iconoclasts, at least this once.

Three volcanoes

As we came in to land in Kayseri airport, I was surprised to see snow-covered peaks. A quick check told me that the cones of three dormant volcanoes poke out over the 1000 meter high plateau of Cappadocia: Erciyes, Hasan, and Melendiz. What we saw from the bus as we transferred to Göreme was the highest of these: Mount Erciyes, whose peak is at an altitude of 3917 meters. In mid-spring it was still fully covered in snow.

We had views of the peak again the next day (above). The volcano last erupted about 80,000 years ago, but is not supposed to be dead yet. Since Kayseri is only about 25 kilometers from it, you might have to avoid this airport in case of Erciyes becomes active yet. I looked at the smooth white flanks of this peak and wondered about skiing, and then was not very surprised when someone told me about the resorts on the slopes of the mountain. Can you climb to the peak? The answer was not very clear, but I guess you could if you wanted to, but it is not commonly done.

On our last day in Cappadocia we traveled southwards, past Nevşehir. The horizon was then dominated by the two peaks of Mount Hasan (3253 meters high) and Mount Melendiz (2963 meters in altitude). Most of the time I saw them as two distinct peaks close to each other, although they are about 40-50 kilometers apart. Apparently Mount Hasan erupted about 9000 years ago. A painting, which was moved from the neolithic Çatalhöyük to the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara, is said to be a representation of this eruption. Some call it the world’s first landscape painting. Ankara and the the World Heritage site of Çatalhöyük are both in our bucket list for future visits to Turkey.

My favourite view of the double volcano came when we looked down at the Valley of Doves which runs between Göreme and Uçhisar. The combination of the fairy chimneys carved below our feet into the landscape and the distant snow-covered peaks rising above the horizon is a sight that encapsulates Cappadocia. I wish I’d come here in better light.

Uçhisar Fortress

The rock-carved fortress-village of Uçhisar is one of the main reasons I would like to go back to Cappadocia. The 1270 meter high peak stands a couple of hundred meters above the surrounding flat landscape, and is immediately visible when you take the road towards Nevşehir from Göreme. After I saw this breathtaking fortress, I realized that it is a short walk from Göreme. If we had completed our walk along the Zemi valley, we would have come up near it. We could also have walked along the Valley of Dovecotes, or just taken a taxi, if we had left ourselves enough time on subsequent days. But an ancient fortress which now welcomes tourists to stay in rock-cut rooms is a good reason to go back to this enchanting plateau.

How old is this fortress? It is certainly recorded by the Ottomans in the 15th century CE, when they began to push back the Seljuks, who had won this territory in the 11th century. But it seems that the Byzantines may have used it as a frontier fortress in the iconoclast centuries, between the 8th and 10th centuries CE, when it was busy defending its empire against the Arab expansion. It is barely a two-day walk to the ancient city of Hattusa (modern day Bogazkale), which was the capital of a people called the Hatti. The Hatti had fought off the Akkadian king Sargon in about 2300 BCE, fallen to his grandson Naram Sim half a century later, and been occupied by the Hittite king Anitta in 1700 BCE. The technology of this early Bronze Age would have sufficed to carve rooms into the ignimbrite rock of this area. So it is not out of the bounds of reason to believe that Uçhisar played a role in these historic wars. But I cannot find any archeological studies which actually date the beginnings of these excavations.

As we traveled across the plateau, we got glimpses of Uçhisar from several directions. The most spectacular view is from the road to Göreme (featured photo), but the one from the Valley of Doves (above) is also superb. The fortress has been evacuated, but a route is still open for tourists to climb to the top of the peak. On our last evening I’d half-planned to spend the evening walking in the village of Uçhisar and finding dinner there. But that day was tiring, and we came back to Göreme without stopping on the way. So Uçhisar remains to be explored on our next trip.

A placid volcano

Our tour of south-west Cappadocia stopped at a bowl inside a mountainous terrain filled with water. It was called Nar Lake. Nar is the word for pomegranate in Turkish, and the name comes from the peaks which rim the crater. I found later that this crater was formed in an explosive volcanic event maybe 12-40 thousand years ago. Standing there, I saw a placid crater lake, perhaps less than a kilometer across, empty roads surrounding it, and sparse signs of human habitation.

No part of the world is really undiscovered or unexplored any longer; we’d arrived here on a guided day tour in any case. Although there was no other car or van nearby, any illusion that there are few tourists was dispelled by three children holding a lamb and a donkey, demanding that we pay to photograph them. Still, there is an air of desolation and silence about the area. The rubble at the edge of the crater looked like burnt cinders. Was this the remnant of the building of the road, or part of the original volcanic geology?

I had been hearing bells ringing ever since I got off the bus, and now, looking down, I saw that they came from sheep which were grazing at the bottom of the crater around the lake. I walked a little along the rock cinders and saw that the rocks continue all the way down. Probably not junk from the road then, I thought. The lake has been studied in detail, and sediments in the lake bed have been analyzed to infer climate changes over the last 14000 years. Special conditions at this lake gives a fine grained picture of a succession of wet and dry climates over the millennia, as well as unusually dry centuries.

I found the place beautiful in its desolation. There was abundant grass in the crater, and some reeds grew in a border around the lake. Pollen deposited in the bottom of the lake throws interesting light on the history of this region. Apparently the land was settled by wheat and fruit farmers in the early Byzantine era, abandoned for several hundred years (7th to 10th century CE) during Arab invasions, as a result of which forests re-established themselves. The land was resettled for the farming of cereals in the Byzantine Golden Age, and has been continuously farmed since then. My unaided eyes saw only the surface of this deep history. Nor did I see the microscopic diatoms, Clipeoparvus anatolicus which have been found only in this lake.

The first Turkish dinner

When we were preparing for our trip to Turkey, The Family, who usually disdains the preparatory stuff that I read, picked up the article on food and read through it. Two phrases that she repeated were lokanta and ev yemekleri. We were to find out that a lokanta could be anything between a Turkish equivalent of a good dhaba and a reasonable self-service restaurant. Ev yemekleri was more interesting, since it meant a place which served home-cooked food. So, after two days of airline food, when we were in Göreme, looking for our first Turkish dinner, coming across a place which was both was a stroke of luck.

An Indian will find some things quite familiar in a Turkish menu: Çorba (pronounced shorba) clearly means soup, köfte are obviously meat balls and Çay (pronounced chai) is, of course, chai. The family running the restaurant was welcoming and all smiles, and if the boisterousness of the man was not fueled by a little Raki, then he was the most outrageously extroverted person I’d ever seen. We chose to start with the lentil soup, Mercimek çorbası. You can see this in the featured photo. It became an instant favourite.; The Family and I oscillated between this and the tomato soup through the rest of our trip. An order of köfte was an instant follow up. A basket of soft white bread appeared on the table, and was a lovely way to soak up the gravy.

The evening had turned a little cold outside, and the stove in one corner of the lokanta kept the place cozy. A couple of pots on the stove were clearly being kept simmering. When we asked we were told that this slow-cooked meat was a specialty of the house. It takes eight to ten hours to cook, and what we saw here was the next day’s meat being left overnight to be done. Today’s was ready in the kitchen. Both the husband and wife spoke English, although the man was more fluent. We liked the vegetables and meat being cooked together, so we asked for a plate.

This came with a rice and salad. I would get used to this combination of salad over the next few days. Every plate of rice would have a glob of chopped onions with parsley and another glob of chopped cucumber and other leaves. The tomatoes were served either on the plate, as here, or separately. Combining a curry and rice with chopped salads is a fairly standard way to eat in India, so I guess most Indians who eat meat will not find Turkish food very alien. The tastes are pleasantly different though.

The lady came along to tell us that the Çay would be on the house. We’d had Çay for breakfast and knew that it is unsweetened. The Family asked for şeker (pronounced sheker), an easy word to remember. I have tea without sugar, so şekersiz was fine with me. The lokanta was very basic, furnished with plastic chairs and tables, but the food was excellent. We would go on to try many different kinds of places, but this first experience made us come back to lokantas again. We never found a reason to regret it.

The first three notes just happen to be…

The cliffs at sunset

Göreme. Gö re me fa sol la te. I would have whistled as I walked if I weren’t so tuneless that The Family objects to it. Our first long walk in Cappadocia turned out to be full of wonderful sights. The fairy chimneys that the region is famous for are hollowed out with caves in which people used to live, and apparently still do. Göreme had several such caves still in use. The path was beautiful, full of the wildflowers that you can see in spring, and lots of sparrows and magpies.

The trail is well-marked, and you don’t need to worry about getting lost. We passed a party in progress. We tourists require exoticism, and the party disappointed by being totally ordinary: normal people dressed up for a party, holding glasses of wine in their hands and taking photos of each other. I did a little ambush photography. It had rained in the day, and the sky was full of clouds. But the sunset was glorious, and lit up the landscape like an enchantment.

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.


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.