Eastern Turkey Sampler: Exotic History and Scenery
By David Rich
I’ve always been fascinated with Cappadocia in central Turkey. With 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, it’s unlike anywhere else on earth.
The epitome of this visualization is realized in the Love Valley, where a photo is worth a million uncensored words.
I drove to Cappadocia, briefly, some years ago, in my trusty German RV, arriving on a gorgeous sunny afternoon. Before I had time to see a single thing the sun dropped below the horizon and a blizzard blew in.
I trudged through swirling snow to buy anti-freeze and rigged a light-bulb on the engine block to keep it from freezing, but by morning the temperature had dropped below icy and everything was frozen.
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.
After checking into a quaint cave hotel, I finally began sightseeing at the Goreme Open Air Museum, one of the world’s great bargains at $12 a person. This pittance buys hours of ducking into ten churches carved from the solid rock around the time of the various crusades, which for non-Crusader buffs were about 800 years ago.
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.
Touts offer camels for riding, smelling like Puff the unwashed dragon, so skip camels with perpetual bad breath, permanently unflossed and grimy.
The valleys of Zelve and Pasabag offer striking hiking, the latter hosting the world’s sexiest police station inside an extremely macho pointy hill. The valleys surrounding Goreme are packed with shapes not normally found in geologic nature, eight valleys tinted rose, red, marshmallow pink, honey, and yellow, culminating in the Love Valley, packed with giant sex symbols outstanding in their field. I heard one lady exclaim, They look just like little huts. Not exactly.
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.
In towns surrounding Goreme, from Uchisar to Cavusin, Urgup and Ortahisar, cave cities were built into hills like Swiss cheese hundreds of feet high, the forerunner of the big city condo, bargain leases readily available.
The original intent was defensive, for protection against the ruffians on the major trade routes running though the area. In addition, the locals built over a hundred major underground cities with the whole kit and caboodle of ancient living requirements, from places for horses, cooks and the dead, to granaries and real pit toilets, buying safety from a siege for months, now up to three thousand years old.
The above ground 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 you 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 forlornly 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.
Shake Hands with Heracles
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.
After hop-scotching around the border with Iraq, Kurds on both sides happy with the new regime, I landed at Lake Van, a gorgeous blue to aquamarine that’s actually dead as road kill. Still, the setting is stunning, the lake surrounded by snow streaked mountains of reddish, green and purple ores.
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.
Three kilometers (2 miles) off the south shore sits an island with the usual ancient ruins and more interestingly, an old Armenian Monastery. Akdamar Kilisesi was built in 921 and is covered with colorful frescoes of Old Testament fables.
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.
The Palace has been newly restored on an elevated plateau six kilometers (four miles) southeast of town. Lonely Planet calls the Palace “the epitome of the ‘Thousand and One Nights’ castle.”
The setting is backed by rippling cliffs in sienna and purple, almost fronted by 5137 meter (dang near 17,000 feet) Mt. Ararat, which sits hidden around a corner.
For exotic history and astonishing scenery covering thousands of square miles, try eastern Turkish delight — a sampler that puts Whitman’s to shame.
David Rich is GoNOMAD’s most intrepid writer, braving blizzards, monsoons, desert heat and State Department travel advisories to visit the world’s most out-of-the-way places from the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan to the wilds of Borneo to the Harley-Davidson Rally Week in Sturgis, South Dakota. He lives in Glendale AZ where his latest passion is flying his own plane.