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Complete Guide to Cappadocia

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Cappadocia, in central Anatolia in Turkey, is famed for its interesting architecture and geographical layout, including the underground cities, cave churches, and houses that are carved into the rock. Cappadocia’s interesting geological formation was created as a result of rains and winds eroding the level plain located between the volcanic mountains Ericyes, Melendiz, and Hasan, over thousands of years, resulting in a strange, other-worldly appearance of rock formations. The combination of erosion, of flood water running down the hillsides of the valleys resulted in the geological formations being eroded into odd, bizarre shapes, and have been called Fairy Chimneys. This area, thanks to its unusual topography, was regarded as sacred and originally called ‘Khepatukha’ in the Scythian language, meaning ‘the country of the people of the chief god Hepat’. 

The history of Cappadocia, too, is rife with adventure and mystery, with the region first being formed millions of years ago, thanks to erosion of soft layers of lava and ash from the volcanic mountains nearby. Human settlement in Cappadocia dates back to the Paleolithic era, and was later occupied by the Hittites, who hosted trade colonies and founded commercial bridges between counties – indeed, Cappadocia played an important role in the formation of the Silk Road. During the Persian invasion in the 6th century BC, after the collapse of the Hittite Empire, resulted in the name, Cappadocia – meaning ‘land of beautiful horses’ in Persian. By 332 BC, the Kingdom of Cappadocia was established, and the region eventually became a province of Rome in 17 AD when the kings of Cappadocia were defeated by the Roman generals. Cappadocia then became a centre for education, and became an important place for the Christian faith, and the deep caves below granted a safe haven for Christians from Roman soldiers. By the 10th century, however, Cappadocia slowly became a tributary to the Turkish states that were established, and by the end of the 12th century, the Anatolian Seljuks had established dominance over the region, cementing Cappadocia’s place in Turkey. 

Güllüdere Valley

The Güllüdere Valley, a famous valley in Cappadocia, is located in the Göreme district and is famous for its wide structure, and for its religious implications and for being accepted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Within the Güllüdere Valley are a number of churches, significant for their architecture and their role in history. The trails that loop around this valley are easily accessible to visitors, and the walk is stunning as it provides views of the fairy chimney-strewn vistas in Cappadocia. Apart from this, the valley is famous for the rock-cut churches that have delightful fresco fragments and intricate carvings that are done on the stone. If you’re planning a short trip to Cappadocia, make sure to take some time out to visit this valley. 

The route in Güllüdere Valley is approximately 4 kiloemetres long, and is a pleasant walk, and the trekking path is actually divided into two paths. This is because there is a cluster of churches in different points of the valley, and for those who want to see all the churches in the valley must walk two different routes. The churches in the valley are the Church of the Three Crusades, the Ayvali Church, the Church of Anna, the Church of St. Agathangelus, and the Column Church. 

Pigeon Valley

Güvercinlik vadisi, otherwise known as Pgigeon Valley, is situated between Göreme and Uçhisar, and is another valley that is ideal for trekking through, as the trek is relatively easy and accessible for tourists of all ages. The name of the valley comes from the thousands of pigeon houses that have been carved into the stone, since the bygone era. Though these pigeon houses can be found throughout Cappadocia, there are an exceptional number of these houses in the valley; indeed, they were carved wherever there was free space, including in abandoned cave houses and churches. 

Since ancient times, pigeons have been valued in Cappadocia, for food and for fertiliser, for the infertile soil. Though pigeons do not play such an important role in the area today, these homes are still maintained by locals, and can be found on top of rock pillars, or inside excavated caves and churches throughout the region. Pigeon Valley is a delightful experience to walk through, and guests who are looking for a more adventurous venture can opt for a hot-air balloon and get a bird’s eye view of the valley from above. As most hot air balloon tours start early, you will be able to see the entire valley as the sun comes up, resulting in some breath-taking views.  

Uçhisar Castle

Uçhisar, situated at the highest point in Cappadocia, is approximately 5 kilometres from Goreme, and contains the ever-popular Uçhisar Castle. For those interested in trekking, it is possible to walk from Goreme to the castle through the Pigeon Valley; otherwise, there are buses and cars available to take you to the castle. History enthusiasts can note that the Uçhisar castle functioned as the main point of defence for the Cappadocia region, thanks to its unique height and placement. Throughout the castle (built into the mountain) are empty rooms hollowed out into the rock, connected by a series of staircases, tunnels, and passages. At the entrances of the rooms are millstone doors that were used to control access in and out of the castle. Unfortunately, erosion has worn away at the castle, so all the rooms are no longer accessible, with some of the rooms in the north side of the castle being used as pigeon houses today. 

Although the rooms may be hollow, the best part of the Uçhisar castle is the view at the top; those that make it to the top are rewarded with a stunning panoramic view of the surrounding towns and the geological formations known as fairy chimneys. There are many rock cut churches that are both, on the outskirts of the castle and within it, along with a few simple Byzantine graves that are on top of the castle. There are fun myths that revolve around the defence tunnels, and some myths say that the tunnels reach from the castle far into the surrounding towns. Unfortunately, these tunnels have long-since collapsed, making exploration impossible. The Uçhisar town itself is a quaint, quiet spot and is worth a stop for the night, especially if you’re planning to visit the castle in the evening. The town is filled with souvenir shops and cute cafés that are perfect for local Turkish cuisine, and for picking up small items for loved ones. 

Soğanlı

The Soğanlı Valley is located in the south-eastern part of Cappadocia, and this valley, too, contains several rock-cut churches and other rock-cut buildings that were carved from the stone of the Cappadocian landscape. The Soğanlı valley is great for explorers who are looking to check out some Cappadocian caves, while also going off the beaten path. This valley is preferred, thanks to its relative peace and quiet, where guests can enjoy the hiking trails, churches, and pigeon houses to themselves; with no set trail in place, it’s possible to fully explore the caves to your heart’s content, and discover a new, off-beat side to Cappadocia. The village of Soğanlı, too, is a cute, quaint village to visit, with people living traditional lifestyles, as they have done for centuries past. The village itself is small and slightly difficult to access, so many tourists tend not to visit. The food is locally sourced, and the cuisine is traditional Turkish cuisine, so guests who are looking for a more rural experience would enjoy the trip to the Soğanlı village, and soak in some authentic Turkish culture.

The valley was first inhabited by Byzantine monks, from the 9th to the 12th century AD, and are responsible for approximately a hundred of the churches that have been found in the valley, along with the rock-cut houses and cloisters connected via tunnels. Unfortunately, some have been buried or ruined through the ages, though there are many notable pigeon houses carved into the cliff, with entry holes marked on the cliff using paint. 

At the beginning of the valley lies the Tokalı Kilise, also known as the ‘strap church’.  This church is high up in the cliff, and is accessible via a steep staircase. Inside, the church contains a nave with two aisles, but the frescoes of the church have been lost to time. As you progress into the valley, you will come across the Church with Black Heads, or Karabaş Kilisesi. This church is in the northern branch of the valley, and the frescoes of the church were produced in the 13th century (as seen in an inscription of the Byzantine general, Michael Skepides, above the west door). The frescoes show scenes from the Life of Jesus, and studies have shown that this church may have been a monastery. In the southern valley lies the Church of Santa Barbara, also known as Tahtalı Kilise, or Wood Church. This church is arranged with a hall and a side chapel, and is dated to approximately AD 1006 or 1021. The frescoes on this church depict scenes from the New Testament, as well as the depiction of the Seven Sleepers in Cappadocia – a reference to the story of a group of young people who hid in a cave outside Ephesus to escape religious persecution, and emerged from the cave 300 years later. The Turkish name of this charge is derived from the wooden bridge that was constructed to provide access to the church. 

Kaymakli 

There are a number of underground cities that are found in Cappadocia, though there are two that are noteworthy – Derinkuyu is the deepest underground city, while KaymakliThe Kaymakli underground city is contained within the citadel of Kaymakli, in central Anatolia, and was first opened to tourists in 1964. This is one of the widest undergound cities in Turkey, stretching around 19 kilometres, and may have first been built by the Phrygians (an Indo-European people) in the 8th or 7th century BC. As the Phrygian language died out during the Roman era, the inhabitants, who had converted to Christianity, expanded the existing caverns to add chapels and Greek inscriptions, and the culture itself is often referred to as Cappadocian Greek. The city was further expanded during the Byzantine era, and the city was connected to the Derinkuyu underground city as well, through a system of tunnels; research has shown that these cities were used as spaces of protection by Christians from Mongolian incursions in the 14th century, and was then used by refugees from Turkish Muslim rulers; till the 20th century, people were still using these underground spaces to escape waves of persecution by the Ottomans – these tunnels were eventually abandoned in the 1920s, and have now become a historical artefact and a treasure trove of information. 

The underground city consists of nearly 100 tunnels, and are four floors deep. The tunnels here are different from the ones in Derinkuyu, as the tunnels here are narrower, and more steeply inclined. As only a small portion of the complex is open to the public, it is not possible to tour the whole city; as far as we know, the first floor contains a few stables, a church, and a few rooms that would work as living spaces. On the second floor is a church, a few living spaces, and graves that were next to the church, supporting the idea that these graves belonged to the religious. The third floor is by far the most important, as it contained storage spaces, kitchens, and wine or oil presses. Compared to other underground settlements, Kaymakli is one of the largest in the region, and the large areas that have been reserved for storage point to the need to support a large number of people underground. 

Derinkuyu

The Derinkuyu underground city is a multi-level city, extending to a depth of around 200 feet (or 60 metres), and is big enough to have sheltered around 20,000 people, along with food stores and livestock. The underground city could be closed from the inside with large stone doors, and each floor could be closed of separately. Similar to Kaymakli, the city also contained stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories, chapels, and wine and oil presses. What’s unique about this city in particular is the room on the second floor, widely spacious, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling. Reports point out that this room might have been used as a religious school, while other rooms were used for learning.

Similar to Kaymalki, the caves might have initially been built in the 8th or 7th century BC, though the city was fully formed in the Byzantine era. Connected to the other underground cities using a series of tunnels that were kilometres long, these underground cities were used as forms of protection by refugees, and by those seeking some safety and sanctuary. Derinkuyu’s entire complex is large and approximately half of it is currently open to the public.

Göreme Open-Air Museum

The Göreme Open-Air Museum stands in the centre of the Cappadocia region, and is a short walk away from the Göreme village centre. This space contains some stunning examples of rock-cut churches with incredible frescoes, many of which still retain their original colour. The Göreme Open-Air Museum was declared to be a member of the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1984, and is the first site on many tourists’ itineraries when they decide to visit Cappadocia. The area covered by this museum includes 11 refectories, with rock-cut tables and benches, each one associated with a particular church. Though the ideal situation would be to visit all 11 churches, those who have a packed trip can stop by and see a few major churches, including the nunnery, the St. Barbara Church, and the Apple (Elmali) Church, among others. 

The Elmali church is one of the most prominent churches in the area, thanks to its vivid colours, and has four columns and a central dome. The frescoes and its paintings date to the 11th or 12th centuries, and narrate scenes from the Bible and from the Life of Christ. The name is derived from the apple orchard that was in front of the main entrance, but has unfortunately collapsed long ago. The St. Barbara Church, on the other hand, is situated behind the Elmali church, and here, the motifs are painted in red, directly onto the rock. The walls and the dome of the church are beautifully painted with geometric symbols, mythical animals, and military symbols. This church dates back to the second half of the century. 

The name Cappadocia, traditionally used in Christian sources throughout history, now has historical and touristic significance, and is used to define a set region of stunning natural wonders, including the awe-inspiring fairy chimneys, along with a unique cultural and historical heritage. The region itself is diverse and contains eons of history within its walls, from the volcanic eruptions that first moulded this land, to the honeycomb-like network of caves created by human beings; as living spaces, places of worship, stables, and storehouses were all dug into the stone – indeed, there are tunnel complexes that run below ground that formed entire towns, and as many as eight different stories are hidden underneath the surface.  

 

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