Cappadocia: At Mehmet’s in Uchisar & the Fairy Chimney Valley – July 2004

At Mehmet’s and Binas’ in Uchisar:
After leaving the underground city at Derinkuyu, we biked to Nevsehir, the regional capital. The landscape was pretty, and five km. before Nevsehir, we passed a town called Gore, where houses were carved into the rock on the mountainside. It looked as if most of the houses were still inhabited. Then east of Nevsehir to the “golden triangle” of Cappadocia between Nevsehir, Avanos, and Urgup. The landscape changed immediately. Suddenly there were fairy chimneys and stone spirals made out of the soft tufa lava, for which Cappadocia is so famous. We decided to camp somewhere in the valley that evening, stopping first at the village of Uchisar to take a look at the citadel, which is the highest point in the region.

The Uchisar citadel was built into the rock – a huge rock sitting on top of the mountainside. The rock is the color of sand and has hundreds of rooms, similar in style to the monastery at Selime. The citadel had been the most populous settlement in Cappadocia until threats caused by erosion caused people to move away. Byzantine graves can still be found inside the citadel. A tunnel once ran from the top of the citadel to the valley floor, but disappeared because of erosion. The view from the top is beautiful. The pinkish hues of the Rose Valley in one direction, the pointed rock formations, and abandoned rock cave houses immediately below us.

At the top, a man speaking impeccable French approached us and asked if we wanted to spend several days at his house, to use it as a base from which to explore the region. He was a friendly man, old and convivial with a toothless smile. We said, “Why not?”

He was Mehmet, the first tour guide in Cappadocia. Binas is Mehmet’s 37-year old wife, round, jovial, and laughing. She is very religious, unlike Mehmet – no alcohol, no smoking, prays five times per day. Binas went to work at age 6 and is now illiterate. She made lots of food for us: fried fish, eggplant, corba (a very spicy soup), ayran (a yogurt drink), tomato and cucumber salad, cherry jam – all accompanied by copious amounts of strong Turkish tea. Tuba is their 14-year old daughter and Neslihan her 14-year old cousin, who stayed by my side, touching my hair and clothing and hanging on every word I said. They showed me their crayons and colored markers and gave us a drawing as a parting souvenir – one of us as stick figures, Stephane with green hair.

Stephane put up a tent in the yard for the girls to play in. They were thrilled. All the neighborhood girls came over to play, and Tuba and Neslihan wanted me to sleep in the tent overnight with them, as a kind of girls’ sleepover party! The funniest thing – the neighbor woman was afraid that the tent would attract snakes and dogs!!

Though Mehmet had worked as a tour guide for over 20 years, his wife and daughter had NEVER – not even once – visited the region. They have NEVER seen the valleys, the canyons and gorges, the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia. They have never left the small village of Uchisar, except to visit Binas’ parents. How is that possible? Is that his choice or their choice? Does he want to take them, but feel unable because of social norms, which dictate that women stay in the home? Or does he himself wish them to stay in the home and not get a glimpse of the outside world?

I wonder how Binas feels about the fact that she has never visited Cappadocia. I wonder if she would like to go or if she accepts the thinking that “a woman’s paradise is the paradise of her own home,” as the Muslim teaching goes. She didn’t even know where the surrounding villages of the region were, which were only 3-10 miles away.

Many girls in Turkey, especially eastern Turkey, are married by the age of 15 or 16. It’s almost impossible to imagine that girls like Tuba and Neslihan, with their crayons, stickers, and sleepovers could go from childhood games to marriage and pregnancy in one year. Babies raising babies. After marriage, life for women is one of seclusion – inside the house.

We had a great time with Mehmet. He and his friends, Ahmet and Gulpery, took us to one of the valleys for a barbecue – chicken, liver, and hot peppers cooked over an open fire. We sat under the shade of an overhanging rock, and how they found enough wood for the fire in that dry, rocky landscape is still a mystery to me. We stopped at Avanos, where the art of pottery-making is still widely practiced, then drove through the towns of Ortahisar, Mustafapasa, and Urgup, cute towns where people still inhabit some of the houses built into the rock. We sat in the lush garden down in a valley, while Mehmet’s friends sang and played the stringed saz. We also stopped at the magnificent Valley of Love, so named because of the clustering of large rock formations that look like happy male genitals.

Hiking in the Valleys:
We hiked many of the valleys in the “golden triangle.” The first one we braved was the Pigeon Valley, whose trail started behind Mehmet’s house in the rock dwellings of Uchisar. The path was very green, with some tiny melon patches, deep gorges, and steep canyon walls. The valley gets its name from the small cavities carved into the high rock walls, which were used as pigeon holes during the time when the villagers raised the birds for their guano, or dung, which was used to smoke the fields.

The hike was scary. The path was not at all obvious during the first half of the hike. We had to climb up the mountains, up and over rocks. I got stuck on one rock – the soft kind that crumbles to the touch. Every move I made sent small rocks tumbling below and rocks crumbling to sand. Then we got to a point where there was absolutely no going any farther. The mountainous trail plunged steeply into an abyss below. Even turning back would have been frightening.

We saw a red tent with the name “Ahmet” painted on it perched near the cliff’s edge, then we saw the man himself, come to rescue us. He took us up a VERY steep mountainside, smooth except for a series of tiny foot holes too far apart for me to reach. Ahmet had to pull me up. Then we had to walk along the precarious edge of the narrowest of narrow cliffs before rejoining the trail. We followed it down in the valley until we reached Goreme, where I was very happy to be on safe ground again.

The Rose Valley, which we tried the following day, was absolutely stunning. We started from Cavusin, walked past some fields, and then found ourselves in the valley of a canyon whose mountains and jagged rock formations were red, yellow, and rose-colored. We hiked to the top of one of the peaks for a breathtaking view over the entire valley. We could see the cliffs and mountains in every direction, as far as the eye could see. Some of the spiral formations, plus the rose color, reminded me of Bryce Canyon in Utah. We climbed in and out of many of the rock churches, even picnicking in the cool shade of one of them. It was an all-day hike, very difficult in 105-degree heat, no shade. But it was fabulous. Words don’t do it justice.

We had a great picnic lunch overlooking the mystical fairy chimneys of Pasabag, which are renowned for having two or three “hats”. The formations rise up in the middle of vineyards and sunflower fields.

One of the most impressive areas of Cappadocia is the town called Goreme, which is located in the center of the Uchisar – Avanos – Urgup triangle. It is where the most spectacular formations of Cap