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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.
With its cool mountain climate and fertile volcanic soils, Cappadocia is blessed with the ideal climate for growing grapes. Wine making here dates back four thousand years, and many vineyards remain small and family run. Their crops are used for both wine and grape juice, as well as being boiled to produce pekmez, a sweet grape syrup. Local wines are celebrated in Ürgüp’s International Wine Festival, held each October, and can be sampled on vineyard tours (try Kocabağ Kav Butik or Turasan).
Cappadocia today holds more than a thousand churches, dating from the earliest days of Christianity to the thirteenth century. For many centuries the religious authority of the capital of Cappadocia, Caesarea (present-day Kayseri), extended over the whole of southeast Anatolia, and it was where Gregory the Illuminator, the evangelizer of Armenia, was raised. The region also produced some of the greatest early ecclesiastical writers, including the fourth-century Cappadocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzen and Gregory of Nyssa.
By the start of the eighth century, the political power of Cappadocia’s increasing number of monks was beginning to cause concern, leading to the closure of monasteries and confiscation of their property. The worst period of repressive activity occurred during the reign of Constantine V, marked by the Iconoclastic Council of 754. All sacred images, except the cross, were forbidden, a ruling that had a profound effect on the creative life of the region’s churches.
After the restoration of the cult of images in 843, the religious activity of Cappadocia saw a renewed vigour. The wealth of the Church increased to such an extent that in 964 monastery building was prohibited, an edict only withdrawn in 1003. Meanwhile, the religious communities were brought to heel, controlled to a greater extent by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Even though Cappadocia continued to be a centre of religious activity well into the Ottoman period, it had lost the artistic momentum that had produced the extraordinary works of earlier centuries.
The peaks of three volcanoes – Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz Dağları – dominate Cappadocia. It was their eruptions, which covered the former plateau of Ürgüp in ash and mud some thirty million years ago, that provided the region’s raw material: tuff, formed by compressed volcanic ash. Erosion has worked on this soft stone ever since, to form the valleys and curious fairy chimney rock formations for which the region is so famous.
The original eruptions created a vast erosion basin, dipping slightly towards the Kızılırmak River, which marks an abrupt division between the fantasy landscapes of rocky Cappadocia and the green farmland around Kayseri. Where the tuff is mixed with rock, usually basalt, the erosion process can result in the famous cone-shape chimneys: the tuff surrounding the basalt is worn away, until it stands at the top of a large cone. Eventually the underpart is eaten away to such an extent that it can no longer hold its capital: the whole thing collapses and the process starts again.
In the Cemil valley, near Mustafapaşa, the cones give way to tabular formations – table mountains – caused by the deep grooves made by rivers in the harder geological layers. Another important region lies northwest of the Melendiz mountain range – the valley of the Melendiz Suyu, or Ihlara valley. The most individual feature of this region is the red canyon through which the river flows, probably the most beautiful of all the Cappadocian landscapes.
The village of GÖREME, just 3km northeast of Uçhisar, is one of few remaining Cappadocian settlements whose rock-cut houses and fairy chimneys are still inhabited. These, along with the village’s celebrated open-air museum, make it a hugely popular tourist destination. The honeycomb of cave dwellings etched into the landscape not only provides visual intrigue, but is well equipped to provide for everyone from budget backpackers to luxury holiday-makers. and there are carpet shops, pansiyons, tour companies and restaurants everywhere.
While the influx of visitors has enabled the local economy to boom, the fragile environment is under increasing pressure, and prolific construction has pushed out many local residents. Despite the commercialization, however, Göreme has held on to a degree of authentic charm, and a short stroll off the main street or into the nearby valleys will still take you up into tuff landscapes, vineyards that the locals cultivate for the production of pekmez (grape molasses), and the occasional rock-cut church, unknown to the crowds who frequent the nearby museum.
The Göreme Open-Air Museum is the best known and most visited of all the monastic settlements in the Cappadocia region. It’s also the largest of the religious complexes, and its churches, of which there are over thirty, contain some fascinating frescoes. Virtually all date from the period after the Iconoclastic controversy, and mainly from the second half of the ninth to the end of the eleventh century.
The best-known churches in the main complex of Göreme are the three eleventh-century columned churches: the Elmalı Kilise (“Church of the Apple”), the Karanlık Kilise (“Dark Church”; separate entrance fee of TL8) and the Çarıklı Kilise (“Church of the Sandals”). All were heavily influenced by Byzantine forms: constructed to an inscribed cross plan, the central dome, supported on columns, contains the Pantocrator above head-and-shoulders depictions of the archangels and seraphim. The painting of the churches, particularly of Elmalı Kilise, is notable for the skill with which the form and movement of the figures correspond to the surfaces they cover, and their features are smoothly modelled. The intricately carved facade of the restored Karanlık Kilise is painted an expensive blue colour, obtained from the mineral azurite.
The open-air museum holds various late eleventh-century single-aisle churches that are covered in crude geometric patterns and linear pictures, painted straight onto the rock. The Barbara Kilise (“Church of St Barbara”) in this style is named after a depiction of the saint on the north wall. Christ is represented on a throne in the apse. The strange insect-figure for which the church is also known must have had a symbolic or magical significance that is now lost.
The Yılanlı Kilise (“Church of the Snake”) is most famous for the depiction of St Onophrius on the west wall of the nave. St Onophrius was a hermit who lived in the Egyptian desert, eating only dates, with a foliage loincloth for cover. Opposite him, Constantine the Great and his mother St Helena are depicted holding the True Cross. Between the Yılanlı and the Karanlık churches is a refectory with a rock-cut table designed to take about fifty diners.
The small town of HACIBEKTAŞ was chosen by one of the greatest medieval Sufic philosophers, Hacı Bektaş Veli, as the location of a centre of scientific study. It was renamed in his honour after his death, and his tomb is located within the Hacı Bektaş monastery complex. The main part of the complex, however, dates from the Ottoman period, when it was the headquarters of a large community of Bektaşi dervishes.
Hacıbektaş is also well known for its onyx, by far the cheapest in the region – the relevant shops are located in the street that leads up to the monastery.
Construction of the monastery complex started during the reign of Sultan Orhan in the fourteenth century, and it reopened as a museum in 1964. It comprises three courtyards, the second of which contains the attractive Aslanlı Çeşmesi, the lion fountain, named after a lion statue brought from Egypt in 1853. The sacred karakazan or black kettle (actually a cauldron) can be seen in the kitchen to the right of the courtyard. Important to both the Bektaşi sect and the janissaries, the black kettle originally symbolized communality, with possible reference to the Last Supper of the Christian faith.
To the left of the courtyard, the Meydan Evi, where formal initiation ceremonies and acts of confession took place, bears the earliest inscription in the complex, dated 1367. Its beautifully restored timber roof shows an ancient construction technique that’s still in use in rural houses in central and eastern Anatolia. It’s now an exhibition hall containing objects of significance to the order, including musical instruments and a late portrait of Hacı Bektaş, apparently deep in mystical reverie.
The third courtyard holds a rose garden and a well-kept graveyard, where the tombs bear the distinctive headwear of the Bektaşi order. The tomb of the sage is also located in the third courtyard, entered through the Akkapı, a white-marble entranceway decorated with typical Selçuk motifs including a double-headed eagle. A small room off the corridor leading to the tomb is said to have been the cell of Hacı Bektaş himself.
While little is known about the life of Hacı Bektaş Veli, he is believed to have lived from 1208 to 1270. Like other Turkish intellectuals of the time, he was educated in Khorasan, where he became well versed in religion and mysticism. After journeying with his brother, he returned to Anatolia and lived in Kayseri, Kırşehir and Sivas. Eventually he settled in a hamlet of seven houses, Suluca Karahöyük, the present location of the monastery.
Hacı Bektaş’s teachings, on the other hand, are well known. His great work, the Makalat, gives an account of a four-stage path to enlightenment or Marifet – a level of constant contemplation and prayer. The faults that grieved him most were ostentation, hypocrisy and inconsistency: “It is of no avail to be clean outside if there is evil within your soul.” This could be the origin of the unorthodox customs of later followers of the Bektaşi sect, which included drinking wine, smoking hashish, eating during Ramadan and – for women – uncovering the head outside the home. Hacı Bektaş’s widely quoted dictum on women was unequivocal: “A nation which does not educate its women cannot progress.”
The teachings reverberated throughout the Muslim world, and sects including the Bektaşi, the Alevî and the Tahtacı still follow traditions that originated in his doctrines. These now form the main counterbalancing force to Islamic fundamentalism in Turkey.
An annual festival, held in Hacıbektaş August 16–18, celebrates the philosopher’s life.
The small village of MUSTAFAPAŞA, 6km south of Ürgüp, makes for a pleasant excursion or, with your own transport, a good base for explorations. Its charm lies in its concentration of attractive konaks with carved house facades, which date back a century or so to the era when it was known as Sinasos and home to a thriving Greek community.
Mustafapaşa is also central to a cluster of little-visited churches. Its main square holds the Aios Konstantine Eleni Kilisesi (daily: summer 8am–7pm, winter 8am–5pm; TL3), dedicated to Constantine and his mother St Helena, while a monastery complex across the village, reached via streets of houses cut into the tuff cliffs, includes the churches of Aya Nicolas and Aya Stefanos.
The church of Ayios Vasilios, overlooking the Üzengı Dere ravine, holds some well-preserved frescoes, although the faces are damaged, as well as four rock-cut pillars. Below it, pre-Iconoclastic and tenth-century paintings in the partly rock-cut Holy Cross church include an attractive Christ of the Second Coming.
As most visitors to Cappadocia never get beyond the well-worn Nevşehir–Avanos–Ürgüp triangle, southern Cappadocia is far less charted and trampled. There’s a reason for its obscurity – the two major towns, Aksaray and Niğde, leave a lot to be desired as tourist centres, and much of the scenery is a depressing mixture of scrub or barren steppe. That said, the area does have its fascinations – most notably, the Ihlara valley, between Aksaray and Niğde, where the Melendiz River has carved a spectacular narrow ravine with almost vertical walls. Also easily accessible from Niğde is a small enclave of beautifully painted rock-cut churches belonging to the Eski Gümüşler monastery. South and east of Niğde, the spectacular limestone spires of the Aladağlar Mountains rear from the plateau, affording excellent trekking and climbing.
At the valley’s southernmost point, the Ihlara village offers two separate entrance points to the valley. One is in the village itself, and the other at the Ihlara Valley Visitor Centre, a car park and information point around halfway along the main road between Ihlara and Belisırma. This latter entrance provides direct access to the area that holds most of the valley’s churches, via a precipitous but manageable descent of several hundred steps that plummet 150m to the valley floor. Walking from either village to this point offers a tremendous sense of solitude; easy trails run in both directions, each taking about one and a half hours.
The monastic occupation of the Ihlara valley, or Peristrema as it was originally known, seems to have been continuous from early medieval times until the fourteenth century. It would seem from the decoration of the churches, whose development can be traced through pre- and post-Iconoclastic periods, that the valley was little affected by the religious disputes of the period; the paintings show both Eastern and Western influence.
The most interesting of the churches are located near the small wooden bridge at the bottom of the steps from the visitor centre. A plan down here shows all the accessible churches, most of which are easy to find. To the right of the bridge, on the same side as the steps, is the Ağaçaltı Kilise (“Church under the Tree”). Cross-shaped with a central dome, the church originally had three levels, but two have collapsed, as has the entrance hall. The magnificent frescoes inside depict the Magi presenting gifts at the Nativity, Daniel with the lions (opposite the entrance in the west arm) and, in the central dome, the Ascension.
The Pürenli Seki Kilise – 500m beyond, 30m up the cliffside, also on the south bank – can be seen clearly from the river below, although its frescoes, mainly depicting scenes from the life of Christ, are badly damaged. Another 50m towards Ihlara, the Kokar Kilise is relatively easy to reach and showcases the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Flight into Egypt and the Last Supper in the main hall. In the centre of the dome, a picture of a hand represents the Trinity and the sanctification.
Perhaps the valley’s most fascinating church is located across the wooden footbridge, 100m from the entrance. The Yılanlı Kilise (“Church of the Snakes”) contains unusual depictions of sinners suffering in hell. Four women are being bitten by snakes, one of them on the nipples as a punishment for not breast-feeding her young. Another is covered in eight snakes, while the other two are being punished for slander and not heeding advice. At the centre of the scene, a three-headed snake is positioned behind one of the few Cappadocian depictions of Satan; each of its mouths holds a soul destined for hell.
Another church worth exploring is Sümbüllü Kilise (“Church of the Hyacinths”), just 200m from the entrance steps. Its attractive facade is decorated with horseshoe niches, while its badly damaged frescoes show Greek influence.