Early this week we left Istanbul and took a short flight to a region called Cappadocia–one of the 18 UNESCO sites in Turkey.
With a 1am take off, the flight made for an exhausting trip even though it only took an hour and a half.
At the Kayseri airport, we rented a car and drove another couple of hours to a small town in the region of Cappadocia where our host was awake and awaiting us.
Cappadocia is a landscape that appears a lot like that of Capitol Reef National Park–white stone formations and canyons.
The stone here is different though. It’s not sandstone but a soft volcanic stone called “tuff”.
Erosion has left irregular cones of the stone standing in the landscape. Some of them even have mushroom shaped caps like the hoodoos in Utah’s Goblin Valley, although the ones in Cappadocia are much larger.
The area was first settled in Paleolithic times–more than 8,000 years BCE. It lies along the Silk Road trade route and has been an important region for millennia.
What makes the area most famous is that into this soft stone, people have carved all sorts of caves and recesses.
The caves first started with the Hittites, but where then occupied during Roman times, then Byzantine times. Later the Ottomans came and moved into the caves.
Although most of the people in this region now live in homes and apartments in town, some still live in the caves. Run a few power and water lines to a cave and they make a fairly comfortable dwelling.
Some of these caves have been inhabited without significant interruption for thousands and thousands of years–although they have changed hands a few times.
We met a man named Memo who still lives in the same cave his family had occupied for 400 years, although for the last four years, he only lives half the year in the cave. He let us come into his home and see what modern cave life looks like.
No matter where we drive in this area, there are countless caves visible from the road. They’re everywhere.
I can’t imagine what this area would have looked like at night two thousand years ago with fires and candles lit in the tens of thousands of caves in the hillsides.
On one day of our trip, we took a tour of an underground city named Derinkuyu. It was the largest of the 26 underground cities that have been discovered in the region, and archaeologists believe there are probably more.
The one we visited had ten different levels! The deepest is nearly 200 feet below the surface.
The first levels were constructed by the Hittites at least 3000 years ago using stone tools and animal bones to excavate the soft stone. This first, and nearest the surface, level was used to house livestock. Since the caves stay between 60 and 70 degrees all year round, they would bring their livestock down into the caves during the cold winters nights, then back out into the light during the days. They even carved mangers and watering troughs into the stone.
After the Hittites, Assyrians and then Persians occupied the area of Cappadocia.
Later, during Roman rule, the area of Cappadocia was important to groups of early Christians. Christians from Cappadocia are even mentioned in the bible in Acts 2:9
“Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judæa, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia”
Cappadocia’s position on the very far Eastern border of the Roman empire, left it exposed to attacks. Raids from tribal groups to the east spurred the people living in Cappadocia to build fortifications. Instead of constructing castles and fortresses though, they expanded the caves first excavated by the Hittites.
The dug tunnels below the previously constructed caves and constructed entire underground cities. These cities were not used except during times of raids.
More than 40 underground cities have been discovered!
The one we toured is the largest yet discovered and is called Derinkuyu. It had eleven levels and at its deepest point is 200 feet underground. Over six hundred entrances to Derinkuyu have been discovered.
It is thought that this city could house between 10,000 and 20,000 people for up to two months during a siege.
The tunnels that led down to the deeper levels were purposely dug very low and narrow so that if enemies did enter the tunnels, they could only come slowly and single file so that could be easily picked off. These narrow tunnels could also be closed off by rolling a specially cut round stone across them. These large stones could be rolled across a tunnel but three or four men, but took ten men to roll back and open the tunnel.
The cities had a complicated ventilation system with both vertical and horizontal shafts that interconnected. Special small tunnels were dug through which people could shout to others in the city. Wells were dug into the deepest levels that extended down another 30-40 feet.
This city was even connected to an adjacent city via a 7 mile long tunnel 100 feet underground! All the rock the chiseled through had to bee hauled up to the surface through those small tunnels. That sounds like backbreaking and very dusty work
During times of religious persecution, first from the Roman empire and later from Arab invaders, Christians practiced their religion in secret underground. There were churches, confessionals, a religious school, even a baptismal font carved into the stone underground.
It was a unique experience to walk through a short and narrow tunnel 200 feet underground and come out into a large cavern carved into the shape of a cross where centuries ago, people came to worship in secret.
Jane and Nolan felt pretty claustrophobic in the underground caves and despite our reassurances that the caves had held strong for thousands of years, feared imminent collapse. Ashley and I felt a little claustrophobic as well. At one point, our guide had indicated a narrow tunnel that led to a”school”. This part of the cave was not lit and I started down it using the light on my phone. It was the smallest tunnel I went into in the city and it was so low that my back scraped the ceiling as I slowly, and in a very hunched position, made my way down. It spiraled down and I had no idea when I’d reach the “school”, which turned out to be a large open room. At several points, I had to talk myself into continuing down. When I got back to the rest of them, Jane was crying because she thought I was going to die down there and Margaret was crying because she didn’t get to go down with me. In typical fashion, Margaret had a great time in the caves and wasn’t nervous in the least.
Unfortunately the last few days in Cappadocia, two members of our party were pretty ill. Things got bad enough that one fellow soiled his britches and had to wear shorts despite the chilly weather there last couple of days. Fortunately, none of the kids got sick.
Overall, despite the severe gastrointestinal upset a few of us experienced in Cappadocia, we had a great time.
Our lodgings there were in a cave carved into a stone cliff. “Cave hotels”of this type are pretty popular in the region. It was really fun to sleep in a cave and was quite comfortable.
Our host was fantastic and obviously a friend to many in the small town we stayed in. Three of the five nights we were there, he lit a campfire outside the hotel and friends came to visit, smoke hand-rolled cigarettes, and play the sitar and sing. It was definitely a highlight of the trip to sit around the fire and listen to them sing, despite the secondhand smoke.
On Friday night, we caught an 11 pm flight back to Istanbul, finally arriving at our apartment there at 4am. Our poor kids. Truth is though that they do remarkably well with these jarring upsets to their sleep schedule.
We’ve got just a few more days in Turkey and will still make another post about Istanbul. I think Turkey is going to be hard to beat.