Blown Away in Cappadocia

The impressive brown hills of Turkiye's Cappadocia. Max Hartshorne.
The impressive brown hills of Turkyie’s Cappadocia. Max Hartshorne.

Türkiye’s Most Famous Place

By Catherine Stryker

Ballooning in Cappadocia
Ballooning in Cappadocia.

Cappadocia is a spectacular area in central Türkiye, dotted with fantasy pyramids, pitted with troglodyte dwellings and heir to centuries of human wrangling over territory, trade and souls.

In ancient Persian it was called Katpatuka, or ‘Land of the Beautiful Horses’ but you do not have to be a geologist or history buff to be blown away by the landscape. A week’s hiking followed by a hot air balloon trip will do it for anyone.

My trip was hosted by Alan Turizm, a family run business based out of Urgup in the center of Cappadocia. When the transfer bus deposited me outside the Surban Hotel, I gaped openly at the yellow cliff face that rose above me, riddled with hundreds of dark cave entrances carved into the rock. “The old village,” explained manager Halil Elalan.

“Some people still live in the caves. But you’re only here for a few days. We must get started immediately.”

I was whisked off to dinner with his family, apologies being offered for the unashamedly touristic dining venue. As dervishes whirled in the Yemeni cave restaurant, Halil filled me in on the crazy geology that shaped the area.

Erosion Laboratory

Cappadocia resembles a vast laboratory where nature conducts advanced experiments on erosion and durability.

Volcanos laid down a thick layer of soft ash known as ‘tufa’ and a second harder covering over the top. Over time the tufa crumbled away leaving hard caps teetering on the top of isolated pillars. Volcanic activity finally petered out in the second millennium B.C., so impressing the locals that they started a fire cult that endured until the arrival of the early Christians.

One of the hundreds of hot air balloons that take off nearly every day in Goreme, Cappadocia Turkey. Max Hartshorne photos.
One of the hundreds of hot air balloons that take off nearly every day in Goreme, Cappadocia, Türkiye. Max Hartshorne photos.

The Christians joined forces with the landscape and carved out innumerable churches, especially around Goreme. Visiting all of them would be a labor of love, but guides will take you to the best sites, especially those with hidden entrances, such as the White Church in the Rose Valley.

Hiking is the best way to get up close to the results of the geological upheavals. Our hiking route began at Kizilcukur, known as the Red Valley for the color of the rocks, passed the village of Cavusin, and ended in the valley of Zelve.

The unmarked paths took us between pyramids in various states of erosion, with or without caps, flat mushroom-like overhangs and undeniably phallic columns. It was a crash course in mineralogy. I noticed how the tufa crumbled to the touch. It felt like granulated sugar.

Near Yaprakhisar village in the Ilhara Valley
Near Yaprakhisar village in the Ilhara Valley.

Underground Cities

Prehistoric residents began digging into this stone, carving out simple, increasingly elaborate dwellings. As Cappadocia was along important trade routes and subject to unending raids, they had the bright idea of digging down.

Entire underground cities were constructed; an estimated 150 were complete with stables, kitchens, wells, tombs, ventilation shafts, storehouses, and latrines.

Whole populations could vanish into these labyrinths and survive for months, connecting with other cities through now-collapsed tunnels.

While they are hard to date, most specialists attribute the oldest levels to the Hittite people making them some three thousand years old.

Suitable for Survival

Early Christians found Cappadocia highly suitable for their survival. Relentless persecution drove them far into the valleys, where they hollowed out rock sanctuaries and extensively used the underground citadels.

The nearby fairy chimneys of Pashabaglari were used by hermits who spent their days in meditation, sitting perched between earth and sky. Hermits excavated their cells inside the chimneys, leading lives of extreme asceticism, digging their own tombs into the rock and competing with each other to see who could deprive himself the most.


Into the Valley of Zelve

In the Valley of Zelve, there is a veritable warren of dwellings, churches and monasteries inhabited up until 1953 when it became a World Heritage site. In the tea garden, I met Yeshar Bey who, between sips from a shapely glass, revealed that he had lived with his family in the caves that connected two valleys with a tunnel running between.

As he watched tourists roam between the Church of the Grape and the cavernous monasteries cut into the cliffs, he reminisced on the days when water had to be carried home in buckets and the first day that an electric cable was strung from the valley floor to their cave entrance.

There is little overlap between local lives and the visitors who come to marvel at the landscape. Although tourism has brought new income streams to some, most still depend on agriculture.

On the steppe lands, potatoes are grown for export to Iran and Iraq, and wheat is abundant. Vines also do particularly well here, with little vineyards growing in the chalky soil between the valleys. The grottos make excellent natural cellars, and there is an ancient tradition of viniculture.

Children at Ilhara valley
Children at Ilhara valley.

Back in Urgup, I appreciated the continuity of this tradition when Halil showed me the fountain he built in the gardens of the meticulously restored Seljuklu Evi hotel.

One tap is for white wine and the other for red. To find out more about the local cuisine, Halil arranged for me to visit the home of a family in the village of Ulasli Koyu.

Preparing Dinner with the Family in Cappadocia

Cappadocians have a tradition of great hospitality and the Serim family were no exception. I watched the women prepare the dishes and arrange them on a round tray at floor level.

They explained the process behind each dish, the first step of which was always going to your field, orchard or barn to get the raw ingredients.

Garlands of dried vine leaves are hung in the kitchen and used for making ‘dolma’ or little rolled-up vine leaf parcels with meat inside. Another specialty is a dish called ‘guvech,’ a tasty stew cooked in a tall, thin-walled terracotta pot that is broken open for serving.

Madame Serim took me to the outdoor kitchen area in the small yard, lifted a cover on the floor, and revealed the pit oven, or’ tender.’ It was circular and deep, with a pot of beans slow-cooking at the bottom.

Circular marks on the walls showed where the raw dough had been applied to cook a batch of flatbread. In the floors of the caves I had visited, I had seen identical round pits, the outlines of former ovens now filled in with sand.

Women of the Serim family preparing 'pufburek' for lunch. Catherine Stryker photo.
Women of the Serim family preparing ‘pufburek’ for lunch. Catherine Stryker photo.

Valley of the Tulips

Another valley we explored was Soganli, known as the Valley of Tulips. In addition to housing churches with frescoes in various stages of preservation, it is home to numerous dovecotes. The birds were an important source of fertilizer for centuries.

It was gathered twice a year, some of used on the fields for fertilizer, some of which was exported. People decorated the entrances to the caves with patterns that were supposed to attract the birds.

Many churches were sealed up and used for birds in later centuries, thus preserving the frescoes intact. In the village, the enterprising women sell knitted socks even in thirty-degree heat.

An elderly dame caught me off guard with her question, “Madame, do you want a baby?” A peek in the black plastic bag revealed the dolls she had fashioned from scraps of fabric, wood and wire.

IMG 5922

The Valley of Ihlara is a long canyon with a river flowing along the bottom. A tree-lined walk takes you to several intriguing churches dating from 636 A.D. when thousands of Christians expelled from Syria and Palestine took refuge here.

In the Snake church, naked sinners are shown being tormented in hell for various misdeeds, while in the imaginatively named Fragrant Church, a beautifully drawn hand makes a sign of benediction from the center of a giant cross.

Many frescoes in Cappadocia are damaged by centuries of graffiti and the deliberate disfigurement of faces dating from Islamic times when the Byzantine frontline finally crumbled to Islamic expansion.


Rest Stops

When the Seljuk Turks took over, they left their own stone legacy in the form of mosques, palaces, hospitals and caravanserais along the trade routes. One of the best examples of a caravansaray is Sarihan on the road to Avanos.

Camels were ushered through the great door in the fortified walls and sent to the vaulted stables to the left, humans were filtered to the bathhouse on the right, and the bazaar took place in the center.

The Seljuks arranged these rest stops across their domain to encourage trade, taking it upon themselves to guarantee safe passage to merchants. The remains of the caravansarais are dotted 30 kms apart across Anatolia, about a days journey for a loaded camel train.

The Seljuks inherited the underground cities and used them for military purposes. One of the best examples is Derinkuyu to the south of Urgup. Descending over 40 meters in depth to eight levels, the city could house up to 20,000 people and their animals. The passageways were sealed by great millstones artfully engineered so that a few people could maneuver them into place.

A belly dancer entertains diners at a cave restaurant in Cappadocia.
A belly dancer entertains diners at a cave restaurant in Cappadocia.

Several examples are still in situ. The centers were drilled out so spears could be stuck through. Some of the entrances to the underground cities even had holes for pouring boiling oil over the enemy. Security was paramount and the ancient architects considered everything.

Up Up and Away

A hot air balloon flight leaving Goreme at dawn gives an unforgettable overview of the area. The basket lifts gracefully off the ground, propane gas roaring like a dragon’s breath. The wind favored us with a trip across Uchisar, a former citadel carved into the highest rock outcrop in the area.

The pilot’s vertical control allowed us to drop low between the fairy chimneys and across the flat roofs of the town, startling residents taking breakfast on their terraces.

From the balloon, the folds and valleys of the steppe are laid out for full inspection and the gentle pace of travel gives plenty of time for observation. The light winds of Cappadocia are well suited to this ecological form of travel and it is well worth blowing your budget on.

Other irresistible buys are pottery from Avanos. In the Sirca pottery works, Fahti Sirca continues the tradition begun by his family seven generations ago and will give you as much or as little information as you can take about the shaping and baking of clay.


His cousin Bahri is a master artisan who spent months painting an eye-poppingly intricate design on a giant vase with a single-haired silk brush.

The record-breaking piece is on display in the cavernous showrooms.

While everything is for sale, this one item is not. Sirca also makes replicas of ancient Hittite designs in homage to the founders of Avanos, who began making pottery with river clay.

To truly appreciate their craft, you can try your own hand at the potter’s wheel. The ever-courteous staff keep their glances of pity directed to the ground.

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