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.

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.

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.

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.