Eastern Turkey Sampler: Exotic History and Astonishing Scenery
I’ve always been fascinated with Cappadocia in central Turkey, its underground churches with colorful ancient murals, cave houses carved into ten-story high cliffs, and weird volcanic tufa sculpted by rain and wind into chaotic shapes, mostly tall, round and pointy.
The formerly trusty diesel engine would barely turn over, slogging for ten minutes like a snow cone before it finally caught its breath and sounded like it might live another day. I had no choice but to dash down to the warm Turkish coast to thaw out, seeing precisely nothing of Cappadocia.
But I finally got back to Cappadocia during a blitz through eastern Turkey, and the photos were sublime, though the pictures from the Love Valley might better be described as highly interesting.
The churches and a multi-story nun’s convent were bedecked with murals in pale to vivid blues and burnt sienna, others starkly white and red, plus fancy columns, arches and embellishments, apostles and saints with big golden haloes looking like Green Bay cheese-heads.
Goreme is the heart of Cappadocia, at five a.m. every morning hosting flights of a dozen hot air balloons in a rainbow of colors, firing swishes of gases roaring like Puff the Magic Dragon. The balloons hover above pointy rocks hollowed in classical columns, looking like a field of giant Ku Klux Klanners tattooed with 3D caves and pocked with Romanesque columns.
Best of all you can wander at will and never get lost. Notorious landmarks are always visible to port or starboard, from Uchisar’s soaring cave cliffs to the pink wadis of the Rose Valley.
At sunset all protuberances glow golden, making stunning photos, particularly in the valley of the fairy chimneys where pointy hills are topped with saucy black hats like French raconteurs, graceful hundred-foot stones topped by dairy queen heads in pointy swirls.
The aboveground is jammed with excellent restaurants and local wines, soft like a grape juice soufflé.
At nearby , whirling dervishes in white beards and tall black hats twirl nightly, skirts to cow a fifties teeny bopper, jitter-bugging in a single direction for hours, like a kid’s game of twirl until your get dizzy and fall down. But these guys amazingly don’t.
I left Cappadocia to drive to mystical Mt. Nemrut (2150 M, 7000 feet), littered on top with six-foot (two-meter) tall stone heads, a photo of which graces the cover of Lonely Planet’s most recent edition of its Turkey guidebook.
The heads on the east side of the mountain have been arranged in front of the enormous statues from which they were lopped by earthquakes and the sands of time, while those on the west sit forlorn by themselves.
These monoliths were built by the grand-daddy of all delusions of grandeur, Antiochus I Ephinanes (64-38 BCE), who saw himself as a god-king like Apollo (Mithra for those Persians out there, or Hermes for Greeks), Zeus and Heracles, so he ordered their statues carved flanking his own godly façade, commemorating a kingdom that lasted 26 years.
The setting is spectacular and on the way up you’ll see columns topped with an eagle and lion, an old Roman bridge, jagged castle ruins and a perfect stone relief showing Antiochus’ daddy shaking hands with Heracles.
I dropped to ten miles from the Syrian border at Harran, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited sites. See Genesis 11:31-32, where it’s spelled Haran and Abraham hung out some years back.
Modern Harran is cheek by jowl with mud beehive houses, cool in the sweltering summers and warm in cold winters, sumptuous inside with lavish Turkish carpets, throw pillows, and water pipes among a forest of colorful tassels where it’s always teatime.
Outside, tiny school kids dressed like movable rainbows shout and squirm while tots bathe two to each red tub with soapy heads amid ruins of Turkey’s oldest mosque and an ancient arch, building stones strewn for 5000 years. The biggest ruin is a citadel from the time the inhabitants worshiped Sin, god of the moon.
The enormous lake, a fourth larger than Rhode Island, was formed by an ancient volcanic eruption that covered its exit river with hundreds of feet of lava. The result is alkaline water where only carp survive and clothes may be washed clean without soap.
Castles from ancient dynasties pock the countryside from the sprawling complex above Van, a city of half a million nufus (Turkish for people). Van was occupied from the 13th to 7th centuries BCE by the biblical kingdom of Ararat, aka Urartian.
Mt. Ararat dominates the skyline of Dogubayazit, 36 km (23 miles) from the main crossing into Iran and site of the quite incredible Ishak Pasa Palace, which I immediately dubbed Alhambra east.
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