The unique landscape of Cappadocia has become one of the star attractions of Turkey. Despite being plastered across tour brochures, however, it still retains much of the mystique that makes it so enchanting. While the dryness and omnipresent dust give an impression of barrenness, the volcanic tuff that forms the land is exceedingly fertile, and the peculiar formations of soft, dusty rock have been populated for millennia. The area’s major appeal has to be its startlingly dramatic vistas – light dancing over fields of fairy chimneys and still-inhabited rock caves dotted throughout modern villages. Both local wine, produced since Hittite times, and the renowned pottery works fashioned from the clay of the Kızılırmak River, are still key crafts. In addition, the horses from which the region takes its name – Cappadocia translates from Hittite as “land of the beautiful horses” – still play a big role in local life, and make a popular way for visitors to explore the region.
The most famous sites are located within a triangle delineated by the roads connecting Nevşehir, Avanos and Ürgüp. This region holds the greater part of the valleys of fairy chimneys; the rock-cut churches of the Göreme Open-Air Museum, with their beautiful frescoes; and the Zelve Open-Air Museum, a fascinating warren of troglodyte dwellings and churches. Nevşehir, the largest town, is an important travel hub, while Ürgüp and its neighbouring villages, Göreme, Çavuşin, Uçhisar and Ortahisar, all make attractive bases for tours of the surrounding valleys. Avanos, beautifully situated on the Kızılırmak River, is the centre of the local pottery industry.
A little further out, the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı are astonishingly sophisticated labyrinths that attest to the ingenuity of the ancient inhabitants. The Ihlara valley near Aksaray, a red canyon riddled with churches cut into its sides, is perhaps the most spectacular sight not to have yet felt the full force of tourism. Kayseri has long been a quiet provincial capital, recommended for its Selçuk architecture and bazaars, and side-trips out to the ski resort on Erciyes Dağı and the Sultansazlığı bird sanctuary. To the south, attractions around the town of Niğde include the Eski Gümüşler monastery, whose frescoes rival the more famous examples in Göreme.
The earliest known settlers in the Cappadocia region were the Hatti, whose capital, Hattuşaş, was located north of Nevşehir. The growth of the Hattic civilization was interrupted by the arrival of large groups of Indo-European immigrants from Western Europe, the Hittites. After the fall of the Hittite Empire, around 1200 BC, the region was controlled to varying degrees and at different times by its neighbouring kingdoms, Lydia and Phrygia in the west, and Urartu in the east. This continued until the middle of the sixth century BC, when the Lydian king Croesus was defeated by the Persians under Cyrus the Great.
Saved from Persian rule by the arrival of Alexander the Great in 333 BC, Cappadocia subsequently enjoyed independence for 350 years, until it became a Roman province with Kayseri (Caesarea) as its capital. Despite this nominal annexation, effective independence was ensured in the following centuries by the relative lack of interest of the Roman and Byzantine rulers, whose only real concerns were to control the roads (and thereby keep open eastern trading routes), and to extort tributes. Meanwhile the locals existed in much the same way as they do now, living in rock-hewn dwellings or building houses out of local stone, and relying on agriculture, viniculture and livestock breeding.
This neglect, combined with the influence of an important east–west trading route, enabled various faiths, creeds and philosophies to flourish. Christianity was introduced in the first century by St Paul; suffering from increasingly frequent attacks by Arab raiders, the new Christian communities sought refuge in the hills, where they carved out dwelling places, churches and monasteries.
The Selçuk Turks arrived in the eleventh century, quickly establishing good relations with the local communities and channelling their energy into improving trade routes and building the kervansarays that are strung along these roads to this day. After the Selçuk Empire was defeated by the Mongols in the middle of the thirteenth century, Cappadocia was controlled by the Karaman dynasty, based in Konya, until it was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the fourteenth century. The last Christian Greeks left the area in the 1920s, during the exchange of populations by the Greek and Turkish governments.