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.

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.

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.

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.