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.

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.

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