Swirling against the cloudless blue sky is a group of dervishes, captured amidst a frenzied performance. But their music cannot be heard and their movement cannot be seen. It seems like a witch cast a spell upon them while they were performing, and turned them into stone. I look at them again and it feels like everything around me is a mirage. But that is what the valley of Cappadocia offers.
Nestled in the heart of Goreme, Cappadocia is a land of rocky cones and giant pillars chiselled into various shapes by erosions and volcanic eruptions. These creations of nature are called fairy chimneys or hoodoos. My guide directs my attention to what he calls a ‘sculpture zoo’. It’s up to you to decide what you want to make out… hidden in these rocks. I see a dragon waiting to breathe fire into the landscape, while a camel looks lazily at me. A lizard, a snake, an alligator—all seem to sprout out of nowhere. But only if you have an eye for them; otherwise they are just mute rocks. No wonder it is called the ‘Valley of Imagination’.
One hoodoo looks like a crocodile to me… my companion argues that it resembles a snake. A few hoodoos rise up like mushrooms that appear to be kissing each other. Amidst all the wildlife mimicking rocks stands one hoodoo that looks like the Virgin Mary cradling infant Jesus.
Dwellings beneath the ground
People built underground cities, homes and churches in these rock spires at a height of 40 feet or more. Their cave homes are set in a tableau of yawning valleys and some of these earthen pillars scale 100 feet! Cappadocia has over 35 underground cities explored so far. I visit one of the largest underground city in Goreme, called Kaymakli.
Amidst all the wildlife mimicking rocks stands one hoodoo that looks like the Virgin Mary cradling infant Jesus
A narrow tunnel takes me below the surface of the earth. As I get used to the dim light, I see rooms hollowed out of rocks with spaces for kitchens, beds and storage. I pause by chambers, churches and cellars as I crouch and crawl around. I can’t help but wonder how the Christian settlers of the 7th century would have lived here. For them it was an attempt at escaping the Arab invaders. Right now, we are barely 10 of us in here but this underground settlement built across eight floors once supported 3500 people. Living in fear and desperation can bring out the ingenuity in people. These cities are now covered in a veil of darkness but they are architectural marvels that were hidden for years.
Roaming around the fairy chimneys
In Cappadocia, fear not only drove men to live underground but also atop, including in the 50-feet tall fairy chimneys. Mushroom-headed hoodoos surround me in Pasabag, better known as the Monks Valley, which is situated a kilometre away from Goreme. It is located amidst a vineyard and hence the name Pacha’s vineyard. As I crane my neck to look higher, I see small homes carved at the pinnacle of the cones as it splits into multiple cones where hermits once hid. One of these fairy chimneys was home to St Simeon in the 5th century. When news of his miracles started reaching people, he distanced himself from them by carving a home at a height of 50 feet. He needed privacy and his ‘high rise’ home provided him with that. He came down to ground only for food and water.
Art flourished here during troubled times as well. The Open-air museum in Goreme is a proof of that. Now declared a World UNESCO site, this is located at the centre of Cappadocia. It is a vast monastic complex with 11 churches, carved into the rocks and showcases some of the most beautiful frescos of the Byzantine period. Dated between the 10th – 12th centuries, these cave chapels were places of refuge for monks who had settled here.
You need at least three days to cover the main sights of this region. Goreme is one of the key cities here and a hot-air balloon ride offers breath-taking views of the unusual landscape.
Churches of a bygone era
The names of these churches are as queer as their shapes. There is the Apple Church, the Snake Church, the Sandals Church and the Dark Church among others. The most spectacular of all the churches I’ve visited is the Dark Church. There are paintings everywhere, depicting scenes from the New Testament, Nativity, Last Supper, Betrayal of Judas and Crucifixion among others. My guide tells me that after the Turks invaded the region, it became a dwelling place for pigeons and it was restored recently after the pigeon droppings were cleaned out. However, I am a little surprised that the eyes of all the Biblical characters seem to have been scratched out deliberately.
In Cappadocia, fear not only drove men to live underground but also atop, including in the 50-feet tall fairy chimneys
On our way back, we stop at the Tokali or Buckle Church that lies at a short distance from the museum complex and is the largest church in Goreme. It has four chambers—the old church built in 10th century, the New Church added in the next century, the Paracclesion and the Lower Church. It also has a crypt underneath. Stunning paintings in rich indigo decorate the walls of the four main chambers, depicting in detail the Life of Christ and his 12 apostles. Outside is a nunnery which rises up six storeys high, although tourists are not allowed beyond the second storey.
Cappadocia is full of mysteries and in this dreamy and surreal landscape, I stand and stare for hours until it is time to leave. Travel, they say, expands the mind. My little tryst with Cappadocia leaves me in awe but mostly humbled.
- Cappadocia land of rocky cones and giant pillars: Licensed under [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Marcel Oosterwijk [flickr]
- A passageway in the underground city of Kaymakli: Licensed under [CC BY 2.0] from Frank Kovalchek [flickr]
- The sculpture zoo of Hoodoos: Licensed under [CC BY 2.0] from Adam Baker [flickr]
- Fairy chimneys near Goreme: Licensed under [CC BY 2.0] from Frank Kovalchek [flickr]
- The street market at Kaymakli: Licensed under [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Tiberio Frascari [flickr]
- The frescos inside St. Jean Church: Licensed under [CC BY-SA 2.0] from Tiberio Frascari [flickr]