Cappadocia: Inside Turkey’s incredible underground city
(CNN) – It is a landscape that looks almost alien. Soft rock tuft – erupted from volcanoes millennia ago to create a series of ethereal “fairy chimneys” shaped and sculpted by nature. This is Cappadocia.
Climbing over the Eastern Plain of central Turkey, this historic area is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting thousands of tourists each year. Many take hot air balloons into the sky as the sun rises, much better to see the rock formations referred to as “fairy chimneys” that come in all shapes and sizes – cones, pointed, and even some hints.
Nature may have created this landscape, but it was ancient civilizations that turned it around and adapted it to their own purpose. The locals have worked hard to preserve this history and the traditional cultures that have developed after it. And nowhere is it more visible than the deep beneath these towering limestone peaks.
Balloons are the ideal way to experience the serene landscape of Cappadocia.
The soft rock here, with its spiral caves and row of natural caves, meant that Cappadocia became known for its underground cities in medieval times. When the armies arrive here, thousands of people will escape and survive underground, sometimes for months on end.
Derinkuyu stretches over 18 floors at a depth of 85 meters and is one of the largest and deepest underground cities in Turkey.
Omer Tosun is a local antique collector and owner of the first luxury hotel in Cappadocia. It is his duty to introduce fascinating visitors to every aspect of Cappadocian culture, especially Derinkuyu.
Wandering in the chimneys of the fairies begins a journey of discovery in this unusual place.
“Imagine this,” he says, standing in a once underground stable. “People are farmed outside and then when an army attacks these people they take all their animals and go inside.”
Omer explains that up to 20,000 people would have been hiding in these narrow passages for months at a time when Mongolian forces were wandering over. They would use hundreds of warehouses, living spaces and even communication tunnels through which they could shout messages and broadcast news about what was happening above ground.
Today, Omer runs the Hotel Museum. This luxurious property has been painstakingly restored for two decades and houses 60 caves and 10 incredible buildings, some dating back a thousand years. Omer’s work to revitalize the ruins means that tourists can now stay at this historic spot, hidden beneath Uçhisar Castle, the highest point in Cappadocia.
The luxurious Museum Hotel has 60 caves and 10 buildings, some from 1,000 years old.
The caves are decorated with original works of art, with an impressive Sultan Suite filled with hydromassage overlooking the fairy chimneys.
“It looks like Eden Garden,” says Omer. “We have a lot of beautiful birds around and they come and welcome you,” pointing to a pair of love owls.
What this amazing hotel, and these ancient cave cities, reveals is how the landscape has shaped the people of Cappadocia and how they have shaped it again over the last millennia.
The Dark Church is an ecclesiastical beauty.
There is no better place to understand this connection between nature and people than the Goreme Open Air Museum. Originally believed to have been a Byzantine monastic settlement before becoming a place of worship in the 17th century, the numerous chapels cut deep into the rock are home to incredible art and crafts.
While each one is beautiful, the most amazing of all is the Dark Church. The inaccessibility outside the cave gives little indication of the ecclesiastical beauty that is hidden inside. Known as the Dark Church because it has no windows, the lack of light means that its magnificent frescoes have been fully preserved. The colorful representations of Christ on the cross and the betrayal by Judas date back to the 11th century. Just like in Derinkuyu, it pays to wait for the unexpected.
Land of beautiful horses
Cappadocia is said to have taken its name from horses.
Wild horses have roamed these mountains for centuries. Legend has it that it was their presence that gave Cappadocia its name.
“Cappadocia means the land of beautiful horses,” confirms Irfan Ozdogan. Irfan is a modern Turkish cowboy, owner of a small mandala located in this rocky wonderland from where he takes tourists for a walk in this wonderful landscape.
Irfan rides offer stunning views of the fairy chimneys, as well as visitors the opportunity to slow down and enjoy the pace of exploring the area on horseback. As the Turkish proverb says, “He who has no horse has no leg.”
Irfan Ozdogan is a modern Turkish cowboy.
However, the landscape of Cappadocia does not just serve postcard images with the most famous natural phenomena or does not host an underground wonderland. The Kizilirmak River, which crosses the beautiful city of Avanos, is another example of nature working with locals to create something beautiful. This river and the mud it produces gave generations of craftsmen a distinctive red clay that made Havana famous for its pottery.
Galip Lorukcu is a master of art, his work is celebrated all over Cappadocia and beyond. Using a traditional kickwheel, it is obvious that he learned his art from a young age.
Potter and Hair Collector Galip Lorukcu.
“I learned it from my father. My father learned it from his father and so on,” he says as he works. He is, says Lillian’s wife, at least the fifth generation of his family to work with the beautiful clay created by the nearby river.
The speed, accuracy and ability that Galip demonstrates is excellent, improved for many years of learning and practice. “If he worked all day, he could make about 150 pots,” says Lilian. Even with the help of Galip, it is impossible to make something that even looks like a pot when he tries the kick wheel for the first time, let alone make works that he has exhibited in exhibitions and in his own shop.
Strange, wonderful and unique
Avanos Hair Museum: Probably one of the strangest collections in the world.
But Galip does not specialize only in ceramics. He has another interest, something that points him to Cappadocia and does not come from the natural landscape. Inside the back of its pottery is the Avanos Hair Museum. Understandably, it has been described as one of the strangest museums in the world. And with good reason.
There are more than 16,000 trees from all over the world here. This is not such a large collection – rather sacred to female locks. It’s hard not to shake the feeling that it is a little strange.
“I do not force them to give, they give themselves,” says Galip. “Who am I to say whether it is strange or not?”
Women have been giving their hair to Galip for over 30 years, including Lilian. “I’m so used to it because I live in it,” he laughs. “But I remember at first I thought it was very funny.”
Centuries of tradition add to the rich experiences and modern magic of Cappadocia, Turkey.
Hair has at least one purpose. Everyone who donates their locks leaves a label on them, with names chosen at random for a free week of food, accommodation and ceramics. A way, albeit a slightly different one, for Galip to impart his skills as a potter.
All this does not suggest that Cappadocia is not full of traditional Turkish quests. In fact, it is one of the best places in the country to come for its most famous export: carpets. And few people know more about them than Ruth Lockwood, a New Zealand rug expert who came to Turkey more than 30 years ago.
He says that while the tradition of producing, selling and shopping for carpets remains strong, things have changed “enormously”.
“When I first came here, it was wild. It was like the Woodstock of carpets, and people would still say to me, ‘Oh, you weren’t here, were you then?’ ”
Lockwood explains that merchants bring a huge number of rugs and tapestries to entice tourists to part with their cash. The key, he says, is not to get excited when you find something you like.
“It’s always best not to look too enthusiastic when shopping,” he says. “Because, you know, they get an idea that you like. And of course the price will go up.”
Lockwood has learned to choose the best vintage rugs, the ones that help in the history of Cappadocia. Instead of seeing them as second-hand, he says they are “… beautiful vintage. They are antique. And they represent a story and a tradition to which we can not return.”
“Every region, every region, every village, every tribe has sizes, colors and designs that belong to this group.”
This love for the specific, the elaborate and the beautifully created is what sums up Cappadocia. It is a complete one-off. There is a unique landscape, with unusual and enriched experiences.