Cappadocia: Ihlara Valley, Underground Cities, & Caravanserais – July 2004

Cappadocia occupies an area about 1/7 of that of central Anatolia. It is situated roughly between Aksaray in the west, Kayseri in the east, Avanos to the north and Nigde to the south. The spectacular landscape is composed of canyons, gorges, volcanic mountains, fairy chimneys, caravanserais, churches carved into the mountains, and entire cities built into the rock. We spent 11 unforgettable days in Cappadocia, hiking the valleys, climbing up mountainsides, exploring the churches and underground cities, and sharing meals and conversation with the local Turks.

Ihlara Valley:
Our first stop in Cappadocia was a small village at the northern end of the Ihlara Valley. The route was fabulous, and the landscape changed quite suddenly, transforming into mountain peaks, beautiful rock formations, and cave dwellings built into the rock.

We camped the first night inside one of the rooms of a huge rock formation that had a monastery and dwellings built into it. The monastery was an enormous structure carved into the rock, having one or two chapels, galleries, a kitchen with a high chimney and burnt ceilings, a pit for the fire, tombs, graves, windows, living chambers, donkey-holds, and pigeon-holes, where pigeons were used both as messengers and for their excrement. The rooms and galleries rose steeper and steeper. We climbed the 302 steps to the top. We climbed the final rock wall with the help of tiny footholds, our backs to the wall, shimmying up backwards. The footholds were far apart, made obviously for men. It was a bit frightening, and even more so going down. But the view from the top was spectacular.

The monastery took several hours. Afterwards, we went by tractor to the top of another hill with another cave monastery. We had drinks at a restaurant in the valley to celebrate Stephanie’s 30th birthday. Sadir drank to Stephane’s health, while his brother Mahmoud, as a “good” Muslim, refrained. Sadir’s friend played the saz (a 7-stringed instrument), and we finished the evening at his house, eating dinner Turkish-style (family-0style, around a platter of food on a cloth spread out on the ground). It was our first homemade Turkish meal – corba (soup), beans, homemade yogurt, and a cake-like bread.

We slept at Murat’s, the local grocer. His young wife, Seriban, was plump and of a cheerful disposition. Four months married, and three months pregnant. Sadir commented on how all Turkish women are fat – their only job is to stay at home cooking, making food, and making babies. Neither occupation is good for the waistline.

Hike through the Ihlara Valley:
We hiked the Ihlara Valley the next day. It was absolutely magnificent. The gorges of Peristrema, the shallow river that cuts through the canyon, and the vegetation that follows its course are of outstanding beauty. In fact, the area had been covered with tuff and lava at the outpouring of two volcanoes. The Melendiz River cut through the 100-m. thick layers, creating the canyon, which is 15 km. long and 150-m. deep.

The Byzantine monks inhabited this valley, and dozens of painted churches were sculpted into the rock. As the valley is almost hidden from the eye and geographically hard to reach, the churches didn’t suffer much from the 7th-century invaders. The Valley was a place of flight for many monks coming from Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, and you can see many foreign influences on the paintings and iconography of the area.

We started our 10-hr. trek from Selime and walked several km. beside the river, in an area lush with vegetation. There was sometimes a small dirt path, sometimes none at all. You just had to climb your way over rocks and boulders. It was very green, very fabulous. We were all alone.

The valley started with the fairy chimneys and rock monastery at Selime, and finished at the town of Ihlara. We explored almost every church in the valley, almost every cave, every opening in the rock. We climbed up and down the mountains, in and out of the churches, crossed the river a dozen times. Huge boulders covered the landscape, where the rock had caved in and fallen in pieces off the mountainside. It was no wonder. The tuff rock of the area crumbled at the slightest touch. It fell apart in your hands. We had to be careful as we hiked up and down the mountains, as the wrong footing could send a piece of rock falling below, or a careless hold on the rock could send your support into tiny grains, as if the rock had turned to sand in your hands. The landscape was in constant movement. You could see that several rooms that had once had high ceilings and entryways were now almost completely filled with the crumbling rock caused by erosion.

As we approached the first rock church, a group of boys spotted us and ran over, eager to show us around. They showed us one huge pit with skeleton bones, mostly leg bones. One boy held up a long leg bone triumphantly for us to se, crying “Skeleton! Skeleton!” He threw it down the mountainside, and then started crunching some of the brittle bones that lay in the grave.
Most of the churches were clustered between Belisirma and Ihlara. We visited a dozen of them, crossing back and forth across the river. Some were small, some were large, some painted, and others had designs carved into the rock. They had names such as “The Old Chimney Church,” “The Smelly Church,” “The Somber Castle Church,” and “The Twisted Rock Church.” The “Serpent Church” shows women being attacked by snakes, with their sins written beside them: adultery, disobedience, forgery, and abstinence from breast-feeding. Unfortunately, the paintings were heavily covered in graffiti. Most of the eyes and faces of the figures were scratched out. I found names and dates dating back two centuries.

Ihlara was fabulous, unforgettable. Judging from the number of rooms, churches, and pigeonholes piercing the canyon walls, the community that had once been living there had been quite sizable.

Across Central Anatolia:
After leaving Murat’s, we biked towards the heart of Cappadocia, watching the central Anatolian plateau spread out before us in golden wheat fields, potato fields and scattered sunflowers, bordered by mountains. A herd of cows moving across the plains reminded me of Texas; the dusty gas station in the middle of nowhere is what did it for Stephane.

Cappadocia’s Underground Cities:
One of Cappadocia’s unique features is its underground cities. We visited Derinkuyu, one of 36 such cities in the area. It is a compound of 8 floors carved into the relatively soft tufa. There were living quarters, granaries, a winery, stables, shrines, a missionary school, deep wells, even a prison – all built around ventilation shaft (70 m. deep). The floors were superimposed, and a labyrinth of tunnels connected the rooms. Large, round stone slabs blocked the passageways when needed, and the rooms were completely dark except for small light holes. The caves were easily accessible from the aboveground cities and were built mainly for refuge during attacks by invading armies. People could live there for up to six months and were inhabited at least since the 7th C. BC.

Agzikarahan Caravanserai:
Another feature, mostly Ottoman, of Cappadocia is its caravanserais. We battled the wind to get to the Agzikarahan Caravanserai, east of Aksaray, and stayed all day, sharing baklava and conversation with a great French family, whose father surely could have been a movie star. The caravanserai itself was the third largest in Anatolia, built between 1231 and 1239. Caravanserais were self-contained shelters that were built in the 13th C., during the Seljuk period, in order to house or shelter the caravans as they traversed the Silk Road with their goods. They were built at a distance of one-days’ journey (15-30 km). The caravanserai was built of a solid stone wall with an enormous decorated door, a large courtyard, an arched, open room, an eating hall, a repair room, change and money facilities, hammams, and sometimes a small mosque.