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"In Cappadocia" By Mary Lee Settle

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Posted 24 December 2003 - 11:44

"In Cappadocia" By Mary Lee Settle

In Cappadocia

Central Turkey hides treasures in its mountains and caves

LOOMING OVEP, KAYSERI, PROTECTING IT, AND ALWAYS THERE to destroy it, is the main reason for its choice as a capital city, not only of the Se1juks but of the Hittites, the Romans, the Phrygians, the Byzantines. Erciyas Dagi is one of the highest mountains in Turkey, an extinct volcano where in late August we could see snow on its peak. Its fantastic explosion millennia ago formed the strange landscape of Cappadocia.
There are none of the famous carved pinnacles in the city, but there is, underground, said to be another city of rooms and tun- nels, hollowed out of soft volcanic rock, where the people hid until whatever swirl of trouble, natural or man-made destruction, was over and they could come up again.
Erciyas Dagi and its sister mountain, Melendiz Dagi, dominate the flat land west of Kayseri. Eons ago, they spewed out the new world of tufa and granite rocks for hundreds of miles around them. Gradually, through time, the slow sculptor, water, carved out river valleys, hills, caves in the soft rock. Much of Cappadocia looks like a desert tossed by the wind. It is some of the richest agricultural land in the country.
The mountain seemed to follow us as we drove for miles west from Kayseri along the central plain. After a while it was as if the car weren't moving, a sensation Eke being on a ship at sea, mo- tionless, going nowhere. The land moved past around us. The plains were flat to the horizon, so far away we seemed to see the earth's curve, blanketed in August with huge fields of sunflowers all turning toward the east. In Turkey they are called moon flowers; like the moon dependent on the sun's reflection for their color and light.
From time to time we saw cars and the ever-present tractors with carts behind them parked beside the road by green fields. We stopped, too. People from the villages were bent over the low vines, picking grapes. Yusuf went into the field and brought back large bunches of fat white grapes, but he would not let me eat them until they had been washed. He said they had medicine on them.
Beyond the fields, stone sheepcotes were scattered over the low hills that were the first glimpse of a changing land. They looked so like ancient houses that the locals say that once people did live in them. They were built on solid stone plateaus with such thin top- soil that the stone showed through, and runnels that might have been old drainage ditches or ditches made by snow melt. The pro- tective cotes foretold winters of deep snow when the sheep, part of the lifeblood of the central plains, have to be sheltered from the winds that blow all the way from Asia, and from the deep snow that in the spring melts and pours down into the hidden valleys and makes the land so lush.
Cappadocia was once the name for a great plate dominated by the two mountains, where, during the second millennium B.C., the Hittite Empire covered a huge area of central Turkey, from Ankara southeast to Malatya, and from the Black Sea in the north to the Taurus Mountains 4n the south. Now Cappadocia is the unofficial name for a much smaller area, pitted with deep valleys, roughly be- tween Nigde in the west and Kayseri in the east.
Ahead of us, a high hill was pierced with caves as small as win- dows in the honey-colored rock. We dipped down below the plain, on a steep Ottoman road finely paved with square black stones so that I had a sense of hands, thousands of hands, carefully placing them there. The road curved around the first of the tufa hills, and there they were, the buildings of the troglodytes, carved into the rock, the first sight of the villages, the churches, the dove- cotes where, for centuries before what we think of as historic time (which seems to be pushed back every year as we find out and learn to read the signs), people have lived, protected themselves, and carved perfect retreats for religious anchorites.
Think of a huge cave without a top, where the stalagmites, some of them as high as ten-story buildings, are exposed to the sun and the deep blue sky. Think of them as blush pink. It is as if suddenly the moon landscape, which we are now familiar with in its deso- late beautiful skeletal forms, were to become a Garden of Eden, for they are surrounded and permeated with vineyards, with fields of bright vegetables and fruit, with lush river valleys and lines of for- mal cypress trees growing along their banks, green below the brown and fawn level of the high plains of central Anatolia.
Xenophon and his hoplites got drunk in one of Cappadocia's underground cities. Early Christian saints carved monasteries in its hills. There are Byzantine cave churches. More than a hundred un- derground cities, like the one rumored to be under Kayseri, have been found there, and more are being discovered all the time.
Once it was thought that djinns carved the cities. Medieval travelers said that the strangely shaped cones were huge religious statues. To Muslims, the cave churches were haunted by figures with the "evil eye" that they found in frescoes painted on the walls, so that the eyes of many of the figures have been carefully scratched out. But the natural carving of the soft rock is more fan- tastic than fantasy, more eerie than ghost stories.
Cappadocia was lost to the Western world for centuries until the early twentieth century, when P&re Guillaume de Jerphanion, a French Jesuit priest, riding on horseback through central Anatolia, happened on "valleys in the searingly brilliant light, running through the most fantastic of all landscapes."
We drove down from Avanos into the steep gully that hid the monasteries of Göreme from an alien world for so long. Göreme,

If Fred Flintstone took drugs, he'd probably hallucinate about living in a place like Cappadocia. Its geologically bizarre hills have been the site for some of the most eccentric settlements in human history. Soft, red rock is topped with harder, darker layers, allowing for a process called differential ero- sion. So what? So ... people down the centuries have been able to gouge living spaces from the soft underbelly, while the hard outer shell preserved-and continues to preserve--those same living spaces intact. The Hittites were the first to dig in. Then, from the sixth to the thirteenth cen- turies, came Christians on the run from marauding Arabs. Speaking of marauding, these days it's the turn of the hordes of backpackers ... except, of course, if you break with convention and come in the winter.
-David Cox, "Cappadocia in January"

now deserted of people, has been made into the most fa- mous of the outdoor muse- ums of Cappadocia. Even filled, as it was the day we saw it, with tourists from all over the world, there is still the strange atmosphere of secrecy that it depended on when it was a Christian monastic re- treat. Most of the churches are hidden behind the cam- ouflage of small windows that make them look from outside as if they were houses or storerooms. They hide, like a vast beehive, up ladders, in caves, through labyrinthine entrances, around the steep walks of G6reme-here a church with tenth-century frescoes, there an earlier one, probably second century. But once within, their wall paint- ings are vivid. Some of them have colurrms like theatrical sets, since they are formed within the soft rock and need no such supports.
Some are primitive, some like more sophisticated Byzantine churches. The earlier ones are decorated with the red ochre that has been used in sacred places since prehistory, with drawings of animals and saints, hiero- glyphic signs, secret symbols.
I followed Yusuf up rickety ladders, through tunnels, around the steep sand-colored paths. In one, we stepped over shallow, empty graves carved into rock, some small enough for children. In an- other we found life-size frescoes of the fourth-century Emperor Constantine and his mother, Saint Helena, holding between them the True Cross, which she is said to have discovered on a pilgrim- age to Jerusalem.
A fresco of a strange hermaphroditic figure with a woman's body and a man's face is life-size too, an image once sacred to the Mother Goddess, the most powerful deity in Asia Minor long be- fore the foundation of the coastal Greek cities. She was served by priests who were castrati, and one of her incarnations was as a bearded figure dressed as a woman. Here, the figure has been turned by legend into a Christian saint. She was a beautiful woman, they say, so pursued by men that she prayed for protection for her chastity, and her prayer was answered with some extremity@ She was given the face of a bearded old man.
The most elaborate church at G6reme is called the Church of the Buckle, after a carving in the inner dome. Inside, it is a pure Byzantine church-the carved columns, the story of the Virgin Mary around the walls, the intimate side chapels. Sunlight streams in from the barrel entry and turns the underground vault into gold. Beyond it, deeper within the small, elaborate main body of the church, concealed lights re-create the illusion of candlelight. The place commanded such quiet that I forgot that I was under a high hill, surrounded by tourists. The whole place is a carved and painted version of a prehistoric sacred cave.
It would take weeks to see all of the churches of Cappadocia. It is estimated that there are more than 400 of them in the area, and there are more to be discovered.
For centuries, G6reme was a training ground for priests; tradition has it that it was visited by Saint Paul, who saw it as a perfect place for teaching missionaries to go into a still-shamanistic country.
The colors in all of them are rich. Why they have not long since faded is a mystery. But at first an even greater mystery is why these rock formations have provided homes and hiding places since pre- Hittite times. Coming from the east, the pathway of Hittite, Persian, Greek, imperial Roman, and Byzantine Roman, Turkish marauders for so many centuries, you can sense why.
In a wonderfully fertile land, these were sanctuaries for people, their animals, and their goods, out of sight of the great sweeps of armies and of nomads that passed by on the high steppes of cen- tral Anatolia, above their hidden valleys.
Many of them have been occupied ever since. Up until about thirty years ago, the village of Zelve was a fully populated, work- ing town. It is carved into the rocks around a natural amphitheater, with two deep ravines opening into it. There is still the rock- carved mosque at the entrance to the Muslim ravine, and churches, hard to reach, in the Christian ravine.
I climbed up into the Christian ravine, and there was a mill with the mill wheel still on its cave floor, and a church with stalagmite columns. There were storerooms, houses, some of them out-of- bounds because they were dangerous.
Christians and Muslims seem to have lived amicably side by side for centuries. With the fine farming around them, the cave mills, the hidden stores, they were self-sufficient people.
But after all the years, the village reached its capacity. The walls between the cave rooms were too thin. There were rock falls. The rooms were becoming overcrowded and dangerous. So the people have been moved to the new village, Yenizelve (New Zelve). We passed them, the women still veiled, riding donkeys to their fields. Now Zelve is deserted, except for the thousands of tourists who come to see a ghostly and silent village of stone.
But for centuries,.people lived there and carved homes out of the tufa hills and the volcanic pinnacles. They were so easy to carve that a family simply whittled out another room for each child born. The rock is so soft that it cuts like soap, but it hardens as soon as it is exposed to the air. After centuries of exposure to air and wind and water, the curved surfaces seem to have gone back to being organic shapes.
Nowhere is this more true, and eerier, than in the underground "cities," carved deeper and deeper into the earth, which shows the depth of the volcanic tufa. The largest known one-only redis- covered in 1965-is at Derinkuyu. Eight levels have been opened to visitors. Stone tools and graffiti have been found that prove that it has been in use since pre-Hittite times, at least 5,000 years ago and probably more.
The carving of the low corridors is like a living intestinal or- ganism. I became a troglodyte, head down, following the single file of tourists deeper and deeper into the labyrinthine rooms, past the mills, the churches, the baptisteries, the empty graves. There were round sculpted stones that were used as doors to close off whole sections in case of discovery or attack.
It was cool. The temperature never changes and the air, all the way down the eight levels that have been opened to visitors, is as fresh as the surface. I looked down a deep air well. It seemed hot- tomless-there are at least twenty more stories, not yet fully ex- plored, below.
When I went, there must have been hundreds of people mov- ing slowly along the dimly lit corridors, following the arrows that pointed the way. Otherwise, it is easy to get lost in a wrong turn- ing, deep underground. What had been protection for the people who made these places through the centuries is a modern night- mare. Sound is muffled. The cave-like "city" demands silence. The silence of wonder and not a little controlled fear.
About three stories down, there was a large central room with five or six exits. We found a French girl, crying. She had lapsed into blind claustrophobic panic, and she was frozen against the wall, afraid to move. Yusuf oftered to take her back to the surface, after making me promise, which he didn't need to do, that I would not move until he came back. In one of those lacunae of emptiness that can happen, even when there are so many people, I found myself completely alone there. I could feel the panic rise like a temperature, but curiosity outweighed fear, and when he came back I went on with him, down to the pit bottom, where the corridors were little more than waist-high and the rooms dead.
To go from life underground to the town of Orgdp, as old and as new as all the rest, is to witness the birth of cities, from cave to mansion, still going on today. When I walked along a street of Orgiip, I could hear truck engines revving in a garage inside the mountain. When I went to one of the small hotels, the rooms at the back were carved out of the high hill behind it. The exterior stone trim on the doors, the balconies, the dentils of houses in Orgdp reflect a history of kingdoms. There are beautiful Seljuk- Turkish facades, Greek columns, a half-fallen Roman temple fa@ade to a tomb, an Ottoman-Turkish gateway, all sculpted of honey-colored stone that gleams in the sun.
Orgiip is a green city, a city of flowers. I sat in the section of the park reserved for women and families and had tea, surrounded by a garden and huge funeral urns, like the urns Ali Baba hid in, that had been found underground. I could glimpse, as I passed, the flower-decked columned courtyard of a restaurant that was once a medrese, or perhaps a palace, for this has been a kingdom, lost for centuries to the outside world.
But the people who have lived there since their ancestors, and in some cases their own parents, came out of the caves, go on, un- aware of being lost and found and lost again, from the time of the Hittites or Xenophon or the Byzantines or the Turkish tribes. They have made the best wine in Turkey in the mineral-laden vol- canic soil, raised fruits and vegetables, and hidden their beasts and their food and their families down below the ground when they had to.
There is level after level, ancient and modern, of Cappadocia, from the underground cities to the latest tourist hotel perched above a honey-combed hill, to the fortress of U@hisar. The fortress is one of the highest points in Cappadocia. It is carved out of a great pinnacle of tufa, corridor after corridor, room above room.
We climbed outside steps in the wind, going up and up until we came to shallow graves at the pinnacle, hollowed out of the rock like the graves at G6reme.
It is a natural skyscraper above the surrounding country. We looked, as Hittite, Greek, Roman, Seljuk, Ottoman soldiers on watch had done, over the tangled, deceptively desolate valleys, their towers and castles and statues and chimneys formed not by men but by time and water. We could see all the way to the horizon of tableland above them, and to the mountain, Erciyas Dagi, that began it all with its ancient eruption, said to be one of the great- est ever on earth.

Mary Lee Settle also contributed "Above the Ruins of Ephesus" in Part One. This story was excerptedfrom her book, Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place.

"In Cappadocia" By Mary Lee Settle

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