Cappadocia, Turkey, a land stolen from a mystic’s dream, is surrounded by a desert landscape with cone-shaped towers rising up between razor cut cliffs. Caves carved into these otherworldly rock formations have been inhabited since ancient times and, through an arrangement made by our hotel in Goreme, we were invited to share a glass of tea with one of these modern-day cave dwellers inside his ancestral home.
Upon entering a quaint courtyard, we were warmly greeted and introduced to the mustached owner and his teenaged son of a forty foot “Fairy Chimney”. We were then led up a staircase to an open door on the second level. As we passed over the threshold, the welcoming scent of a wood-fired stove added to the illusion of stepping back in time – thousands of years.
The interior, cooler and darker than houses I’m familiar with, was still very cozy and well lit by lamps and windows cut through the exterior walls. Rock flowed out and around us, curving into the ceilings, floors and walls of several more rooms where beautiful Persian carpets and plump kilim pillows were laid out across seating areas cut into the stone. With a polite smile, our host beckoned us into the pit serving as their dining area and we obediently filed in around a small table as the man’s son began passing around glasses of hot tea. Our host sat at the head of the table and, in a deep voice, began to tell us the epic story of this fascinating land.
Three million years ago, two continental plates butting against one another stimulated millions of years of extreme volcanic activity. Mount Erciyes, the “Father of Cappadocia”, along with several other volcanoes, filled Anatolia’s high-plateau with layers of ash, lava, and basalt that, over time, compressed into tufa, a light and easily cut rock. Wind and rain then eroded away the softer soils to reveal the surreal landscape we’ve come to know as Cappadocia. Having the properties of hardened lava, tufa is a very strong, porous rock; perfect for building durable structures, and as people began settling the area they carved, not only homes, but entire cities throughout the region. Palaces, community centers, warehouses and processing plants, even cathedrals covered with elaborate murals depicting Christ’s life were carved out of these rock formations during centuries of occupation.
But the architectural bond between Cappadocia’s caves and its occupants isn’t just a one-way relationship. Moisture expelled by people creates a protective covering over the rock surface, acting as a sealant that slows the rate of interior erosion. It’s an integral piece of the construction that was not fully appreciated until the government moved the cave dwellers into more conventional housing in the 1950s only to find a dramatic decrease in the integrity of the structure. Now these caves are mostly used as secondary homes during the summer months when their naturally cool interiors offer a great relief to their occupants.
As we sip the last of our tea our host invites us to explore his home. He gestures to a rock-cut staircase where we climb through a hole to the third level. Being higher inside the cone, it is a slightly smaller, single room where more carpets are spread out across the pitted floor. A center column supports the structure and another staircase rises through the ceiling to the fourth and final level of the cave. The column extends up to this small room where collections of niches are carved all across the walls and more windows provide magnificent views of the dusty landscape outside. The son is waiting for us there and tells us of the room’s importance as a nesting place for the pigeons his ancestors used to produce the region’s highly-prized fertilizer.
One-by-one, we retreat through the holes in the floor until we find our host once again waiting by the open door. He invites us to come back again and offers us a chance to look at his collection of hand-made obsidian jewelry in his shop on the first level. It’s a sales pitch I’m sure his ancestors have made for centuries and, like the millions of people who’ve visited Cappadocia in the past, we find it hard to refuse his offer of trade and friendship.
Written by Guest Contributor, Dena Weigel Bell for EuropeUpClose.com
Dena Weigel Bell holds a Bachelors of Fine Arts and has participated in several study abroad programs, exploring the cultural history of over thirty countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. She continues to travel for pleasure, learning many new things on each adventure and writing about them at www.denaweigelbell.wordpress.com.