Among the Cappadocians

30th November, 2012
Urgup, Zelve, Ozkonak, Goreme, Uchisar, Avanos (Nevshehir, Turkey)

For all photos for 30th November, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

We are staying in Urgup, a town on the edge of the Goreme National Park in the Nevsehir district of Turkey. Today was a little like our day at Petra – not directly related to the bible, but you could hardly visit the region without visiting Goreme. We are in the middle of ancient Cappadocia, best known for its most famous sons, the 4th Century “Cappadocian Fathers” (St Basil of Caesarea – modern Kayseri, about 30kms away from here, St Gregory of Nyssa, and St Gregory of Nazianzus) and for its astounding geography (more about this in a minute). It was, from early times, a great centre of Christianity (Cappadocians are mentioned as being present at Pentecost), and a great place of trouble for the Christian community too, first under Rome (until Constantine legalised our religion), then from incursions by the Arabs (7th Century on), the Seljuk Turks (11th Century on) and finally the Ottomans (14th Century on). Today there are virtually no Christians in the area at all, since the 1924 forced exchange of Christian and Muslim minorities between Greece and Turkey.

The history of the area stretches back earlier than the Christian era, of course, right back to our friends from yesterday, the Hittites. It was certainly earlier than the Roman period that people in the area first began carving out dwelling places for themselves and temples for their gods in the soft tufa rock sediment from the ash eruptions from ancient volcanoes (probably not the ones that are so visible on the horizon today – they are much younger volcanoes than the rock around Goreme). But the practice remained right through the Christian era and even up till 1952, when collapsing rock killed a number of inhabitants of the remaining cave village of Zelve, and the Turkish government relocated the remainder of its citizens to “New Zelve” – shades of Petra all over again.

So now Zelve and Goreme and Uchisar and any number of other settlements are “ghost towns” – or “Outside Museums” – but as such have more visitors than ever before thanks to the fact that these places have been placed on the UN World Heritage List and have become major tourist attractions. Actually, I would put them on my list of “last chance to see” locations because (like Petra and the Dead Sea) the forces of nature are catching up with us. The same forces of erosion that have created the alien landscape of conical rock “fairy chimneys” is still wearing away the local rock into new such formation, but in the mean time, the old rocks are crumbling away and several thousand years of human creativity with it. check out the photographs to see what I mean. In Zelve, for instance, there are three main valleys on the map for tourists to explore. One of them is now closed, as rock falls make it too dangerous to enter. Even as you walk through the other two, what you see is oddly “cut-away” dwellings, with halve a room collapsed into the valley and the other half on full display to the elements. There are not only dwellings here in the rocks, there are churches too. There is only one mosque, of later construction, and hence in fairly good condition. Entering the hewn-out rooms of the old houses and churches is a bit unnerving, as you never know when the next rock fall will take place…

When we arrived in the area, there were at least eight hot air balloons floating high above us. This is a very popular way to see the Goreme National Park, and I would dearly love to do it one day. Heck, lets be honest, I would be happy going ballooning anywhere, but a Cappadocian balloon ride would be the very thing. (Note to self: this is another thing to do before you die.) We, however, had our feet firmly fixed to the ground. I probably took far too many pictures – to anyone looking at them, they will appear just to be an endless series of pictures of rocks. After rambling around Zelve for an hour or so, we returned to the bus. I grabbed a lighter and a block of pumus stone from a stall holder in the car park, and then looked more deeply into his shop. There I found a form of head gear that has wrap-around scarf bits on the back and sides – a kind of Eastern deerstalker. It was 12L (about $6.50), so I gave in to temptation and added it to my hat collection. I have no idea what it is called, but it is very good for keeping the cold wind off my ears and neck as I wander about.

Next stop was to another odd kind of dwelling common to the area. We went to Ozkonak where there is an example of what are called “Underground Cities”. As Hakan pointed out, they are not in fact cities at all, but rather refuge shelters in times of attack from external forces. It is rumoured that these multi-room complexes up to twelve metres below the ground were originally used by Christians to hide during persecution, but more credible to me is that they were used to avoid Arab raiders after the 7th Century. It seems that these underground room networks were used in time of peace too, for making and storing wine and grain and all other kinds of food. There was plenty of water also, so whenever the population had to flee into them for protection, they could stay down there for quite some time before having to emerge. The tunnels that connected the rooms were only possible to negotiate bent double, and at the end of many of them there would be a huge rolling stone door, much like that often depicted at the tomb of Jesus, to seal off access should the system be breached. We were warned not to enter these “cities” if we suffered from claustrophobia, and I must say I didn’t experience any twinge of discomfort – until at one point at which our group emerged from a long narrow tunnel into a room in which a previous group was already present. they could not get out until we had all come through the tunnel, and the room was getting squeezy and stuffy. Eventually we got to the end of the complex, and turned around and came back out again into the light. I cannot imagine how it must have felt living down there for months uncertain of whether the threat above was still there or not. The closest thing I can think of today would be a nuclear bomb shelter. In fact, if ever there was a nuclear ware, the modern day Cappadocians would have a ready made shelter into which to retreat.

By this stage it was nearing lunch time, and Hakan said he was taking us around to a cooperative carpet producing company which was subsidised by the government and which would provide us with lunch and refreshments as well as giving us an introduction into the production of Turkish carpets. Hullo, I thought, I know what this is. Back in 2007 our guide to Ephesus had taken us to just such an institution which ended with the hardest sales pitch I have ever experienced. In that 2007 experience, we were not told by our guide that this was a sales pitch, and that if there were any sales he would get a cut of it. Hakan was at least honest about this. He told us straight away that there would be a sales pitch at the end, and that if any sales were made he would get a commission, but he added that we should not feel obliged to buy, and further that if the price was too high for any piece we wished to purchase, he would happily forego his commission to lower the price. It turned out to be exactly the same set up and presentation as I had experienced in Ephesus 5 years ago, but for all that, it must be said that it was an educational experience as we were shown the weaving process, the different kinds of rugs produced, the process for extracting silk from a cocoon, and then a huge range of carpets from many different regions as we ate pide and drank raki.

As it was, the prices were very good (probably something to do with the Australian dollar), and the quality was certainly top notch. I fell in love with a certain kind of wool on wool carpet that was made without any dyes, but simply utilising the different natural colours of wool off the sheep. These were very warm and inviting to touch and lay upon. I was up front with the seller – I wasn’t going to buy anything – nevertheless he dropped his price from $2250 to $1960 for the rug I was looking at! (That cost included free delivery home too, by the way). In the end, about four members of the team bought rugs, so it was worth their while. One member of the team said “What has this got to do with a biblical study tour?” to which the answer was, of course, very little except that just about everyone in Jesus’ day – and Abraham’s for that matter – would have sat on a rug at some stage…

Next stop was the Goreme Outside Museum. Goreme is similar to Zelve, except that it was not a civilian city like Zelve, but a monastic settlement for both monks and nuns, including dormitories, refectories, laundries, and lots and lots of churches and chapels. Some of these have very well preserved icon frescoes. It is a little difficult to sort out all the various artistic streams represented by the decorations on these rock churches. For a start there are the icon frescoes themselves, which are absolutely beautiful. The general thought is that these date from about 11th Century. The best examples are inside the so called “Dark Church”, which cost an extra 8 lira to enter – note to all future visitors: pay the money, because you don’t want to miss this. Every square inch of the tiny church is covered with icon frescoes. Unfortunately there were strict rules against taking any photos in these churches – so I determined to buy a book about the pictures in the Museum gift shop when we left . I did find an excellent book “Paintings of the Dark Church” by Halis Yenipinar and Seracettin Sahin (1998, 2005), but they wanted 150L for it (about $80), and it was quite heavy (thinking of the weight luggage limit on Turkish Airlines). So I thought “I’ll look it up on Book Depository and buy it when I get home.” Well, I did this this evening, and discovered that BD doesn’t have it in stock, and Amazon has two used copies starting at US$200…

Then there is a completely different style of decoration which is a rusty red paint in rather childish patterns and plant designs with the odd bird design. This looked to me to be classic Iconoclastic decoration, but Hakan assured me that it was by the post-Iconoclast artists. I couldn’t see it myself. There is no way these substandard decorations could be by the same artists or for the same sensibilities as the beautiful frescoes. And then there is the later defacement of the icon frescoes. This defacement is so bad that I am surprised (well, not really) that Hakan did not mention it. Whole faces and eyes are scratched out with sharp implements, or deep gouges over all the figures. This could only be done by someone – post 11th Century – who had a deep hatred of images. Seems to me that there is only one possible culprit…

Another feature of the Goreme churches were that most of them included shallow “crypts”. I presume these would once have been under the floor, but now the niches where the bodies were placed were clearly visible in rows of narrow troughs lying parallel to one another. Just to make clear the purpose of these troughs, one of the churches in the “museum” actually had a couple of skeletons placed in the crypt holes.

After Goreme, we drove out to Uchisar, the town known in the tourist trade as “the Swiss Cheese City” because of the many rock faces with windows and doors carved into them. Like Zelme and Goreme, this town features many now disused dwellings carved into the fairy chimneys. However, the town is not deserted. Aside from a thriving line of stalls selling all sorts of items, many of the rock dwellings have been converted into hotels, restaurants and cafes (and I rather suspect that some are still used as dwellings although Hakan denies this). We only had a ten minute stop here, but I went wandering off, as is my wont, to take photos of working rock dwellings which I had spied from the bus. This brought me around (eventually) to a fairy chimney that had a garden out the front with chairs and tables and a ladder up into a hole in the chimney. “Look, look,” said the owner, “Go in. Up six floors!” I stuck my head inside the hole at the top of the ladder to see a central stove, carpets and cushions on the floor and a kitchen further in the background where tea and coffee were being made. Oh, how I wished I had an extra half hour to explore the whole interior and have a cup of coffee with these people. But the bus was already waiting for me when I got back. As usual…

Last stop before going home was for mass. I have been using an app on my iphone which utilises pre-downloaded maps and gps to show you where you are in the world (the three most important things any taveller should know, according to Douglas Adams, is who you are, where you are, and when you are – an iphone is a great help with this as long as you keep roaming data switched off!). The app is called Pocket Earth and it has been really useful. Any way, it showed our bus on the map as a blue dot climbing a hill outside the town of Avanos on a road that ended with a cross marking a Christian place of worship. We pulled up on the top of a hill in a small car park, and then were directed down a paved road/pathway on the side of the hill directly over the valley below. we walked about 200 metres before reaching a hole in the rock face, which, when entered, revealed an old – really old! – carved out church. Again, dates appeared a little odd, because the decorations on the walls appeared to be from the iconoclast period, but Hakan said that this church, which was on private property, dated from the 4th Century. If that were so, this was one of the oldest churches in which I had ever entered, let alone celebrated the Eucharist. (The church of the Holy Sepulchre probably doesn’t cut it, as the place where we celebrated mass there was in a Crusade add on). It was well towards evening, and most of the light was provided through a hole in the apse, but otherwise the only light was provided by tea light candles placed in the niches. Rosemary began by leading the group in singing “Here I am Lord”, which appeared to me a little out of character with our surroundings, and Fr Thin presided and preached the homily. He was needing to use the candles for reading the missal by the end of the mass. The place was well set up for the celebration – they had a chalice and ciborium made of alabaster, little lamps and a cross on the altar, and there were rows of benches in the nave for us to sit on. It made me wonder whether groups like ours routinely were given use of this ancient church, for surely there was no local community to use the place?

Back at the hotel by 5pm, again having difficulty with the internet which seems to come in waves and bouts. It being too cold to sit outside to smoke, I sat by the fire in the lobby which had just been lighted and began writing there. I ordered a hot cup of Salep – a hot milk vanilla and spice flavoured drink that I had discovered on my last trip to Turkey. Most of the group are going out to see the Whirling Dervishes at the local Caravanserai tonight, but we are on our way in the morning, and I want to finish writing and publishing the photos.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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