The Surreal Landscape
Where Fairies and Monks Mingle

The unique rock formations of Turkey’s central
region have inspired the human spirit in diverse
ways – to create fantastic tales and saucy postcards,
and even triggering the birth of monasticism

By Amanda Castleman

CLIFFS swell and bubble among the apricot trees, raw rock fingers clutch at the sky, boulders perch atop narrow stone stalks. The landscape of Cappadocia – Turkey’s central region – would put Dr. Seuss to shame. Salvador Dali too. The terrain is that fantastical.

Remember the haunting homes of the Sand People in the first Star Wars film? George Lucas filmed here in central Anatolia, 300km southeast of the capital Ankara.

The epicentre of sci-fi strangeness lies between Urgup, Avanos and Nevsehir. Desert hues blaze: crags of scarlet and gold, tan and grey, lunar white. Canyons plunge into the earth, flanked by conical pyramids. But the terrain is not just a scenic backdrop: for millennia, the Cappadocians have carved dwellings and churches into the rock.

Three mighty volcanoes shaped these sinuous valleys and hills. The first spread a gooey layer of ash over the plateau. This delicate stone, called tufa, is easy prey for the elements. Wind and water sculp it into ever-evolving domes, hollows, clefts, cones and dreamscape shapes.

Later eruptions scattered harder lava over the area. As the soft underbelly erodes, huge boulders teeter upon tufa towers. Many take on an unmistakably phallic appearance, much emphasized by the saucy postcards – and the sniggering backpackers who purchase them.

Such sensible geographical explanations displease the locals, who prefer mythology as bold and colourful as their homeland. Angels, they claim, perched the stones atop the stalks. Fairies carry off troublesome humans, those who fight Fate, and lock them inside the lunar cliffs.

Other tales insist that the ‘little people’ once lived alongside the Cappadocians, until a forbidden interspecies romance spoiled the harmony. The fey folk were driven out in a fit of vengeance. Homeless and bereft, they transformed into birds. The contrite citizens then welcomed them back, by hollowing dovecotes into the soft rock.

In reality, farms hoped to attract pigeons and gather their rich droppings for fertilizer (perhaps the secret of the region’s sweet fruit and famed wine). For centuries, this was Turkey’s main export to Europe, until chemicals won out. The old stories are not so easily dismissed, however. Locals still refer to the strange pillars as ‘fairy chimneys’.

Biblical grandeur

Flights of fancy aside, Cappadocia has sheltered humans since the late Paleolithic era. The Kizilirmak River provided water, fish and fruit trees, while the caves made home-building simple. Need an extra room? Get scraping with a lump of obsidian. Today the crude gouges are still visible in the chambers.

The mighty Hittite Empire once ruled here, before being toppled by the battle-thirsty Thracians, sweeping over from northern Greece. A crucial crossroads between East and West, the area saw its share of invaders: Phrygians, Cimmerians, Scythians and Medes. The names smack of biblical grandeur - and Cappadocia even merits a mention in the New Testament.

Locals quickly learned to lie low, as marauding hordes stampeded across the plains. They burrowed dozens of underground cities, some stretching to depths of eight stories. Archaeologists can not date the earliest chambers, but know the Hittites hid under the earth and suspect the bolt-holes date even farther back.

Air ducts channeled fresh breezes through the labyrinths, while other tubes funneled away tell-tale smoke from cook fires and torches, which stained the hewn walls black with soot.

Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, south of Nevsehir, are the most impressive constructions. In times of trouble, people lived in the upper levels, making wine, grinding flour and praying in the danker areas below. Large boulders sealed the doors.

Xenophon, history’s first war correspondent, toured an underground city in 401BC. He found locals holed up, avoiding pillage by Spartan irregulars and mercenary Greek soldiers. “Paths had been excavated for the use of livestock, but the human inhabitants used step ladders,” he wrote. “Goats, sheep, cattle and fowl jointly occupied the dwellings with the children.”

He then went on, in best journalistic tradition, to critique the wine, laced with barley. “This drink was too strong unless it was diluted with water. But its taste was quite pleasant once you became accustomed to it.”

The Lydian king, Croesus, preferred to stand and fight, defending Cappadocia against the Persians in 575-546BC. Stymied on the banks of the Kizilirmak, he called upon the wily Ionian, Thales of Miletus, to get the army onto the other side. The engineer rerouted half the current with a deep trench, according to Herodotus. “Now, once it had been divided into two streams, it was a simpler matter to cross the river,” the historian wrote.

Thales’ ingenuity couldn’t win the battle, however. The Persians took control, introducing a fire-worshipping religious cult and decadent administrators. The nobility sold natives into slavery to pay debts. Traces of the grand Mesopotamian culture faded away, replaced with Greek-Ionian traditions.

After Alexander the Great ousted the Persians, Cappadocia became a kingdom, though still buffeted by invaders. Rome downgraded the area to a provine in AD17.

Brotherly love

The impoverished region attracted early Christians, following in the footsteps of Saint Paul, in the second century. They fled Roman – and later Muslim – persecution. The twisted valleys, spires and underground cities provided ample hiding places.

Cappadocia became the birthplace of monasticism 200 years later. Saint Basil – the bishop of the nearby town Kayseri – abandoned the idea of the mad religious ascetic in the wilderness, in favour of brotherhood.

Under his guidance, clergy ate and prayed together. Hard labour was an essential form of worship, so they farmed, herded, wove and worked metal. They gave up all private property and led chaste, reflective lives: poor in body, rich in spirit. The monks and nuns of the Greek Orthodox Church still follow Basil’s rules today.

The saint helped build the first churches in the Goreme valley. These early houses of worship – scraped into tufa caves – were dabbed with geometric patterns and symbols, such as roosters and grapes. The artists avoided images of god, favoured by the western Greeks, but abhorrent to the Eastern tradition.

In 726, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III forbade the worship of icons. More Christians took refuge in Cappadocia, and the frescoes tackled more daring themes, such as the life of Jesus, including the Nativity, Last Supper and Crucifixion.

Thirty spectacular painted churches stand in Goreme Valley, now an open-air museum (and a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The mediaeval monks grew bolder architecturally as well, fashioning twisting pillars, arches and decorative colonnades.

The tufa retains colour well, so the scenes are startlingly vivid at times. But rumours of ham-fisted restoration – read “repainting” – circulates through the crowd. Then a foreign visitor does the unthinkable: loudly questions the horrific graffiti etched into the art.

Some marks are clear-cut vandalism, the likes of “Yusef loves Elmas”. Others smack of iconoclasm, however, especially the great scrapes across the saints’ faces. On high ceilings, pick marks reveal where it seems rocks have been hurled repeatedly, until the accusing almond eyes fade away into creamy stone.

A young Turkish woman, clad in a traditional headscarf and trendy denim jacket, tries to explain. “The painting is very old, it decays.”

“Just around the eyes?” pursues the dogged New Yorker. “I should be so lucky.”

“We did not do this. The Turkish people, we make the painting better again.” She is so clearly unhappy, the subject drops and the tourists shuffle off awkwardly.

Cappadocia’s other big draw – the Caravansaries of the Silk Road – is less controversial. The Selcuk Empire renewed the area’s trade ties, shuttling spices, ivory and fine cloth from the Far East. In return, they gathered slaves there, trained them in warfare, and sold them to the south.

Travelling merchants could stay at each caravansary free for three days, under the protection of the sultan. These vast complexes included baths, mosques, stables, sleeping quarters and marketplaces. Many, like the splendid Agzikarahan outside of Aksaray, now display carpets.

Bauble merchants

Expect an unusual degree of hustle and desperation among the rug and bauble merchants of Cappadocia. Turkey – still reeling from the 2001 recession – saw tourism slump dramatically during the second Gulf War. The sun-and-surf coastal areas still netted some bold package-tourists, but central Anatolia was desolate in high season.

Hotel proprietors lurked on deserted roads, just in case a traveler might blunder past. They chased after vehicles, bellowing the merits of their A12 double room, pleading for their children’s bread.

Despite the economic hit, the Cappadocians were unstintingly polite to visitors from war-mongering countries. The personal and the political are very separate here, as throughout Turkey. They have the easy-going tolerance of a much-conquered people. No matter how much the chariots – or SCUDS – may thunder, the residents endure, like the rocks they call home.

Though weather-beaten about the edges, they re-emerge from the underground cities, dust out the fairy chimneys and laugh gently, as the sunset bathes the twisted landscape, nature’s most surreal – and beautiful – joke.