Wind and water have carved a bizarre landscape out of the soft, volcanic rock that constitutes Cappadocia. The result of eons of erosion is a strange, yet captivating, canvas.
Humans moved into Cappadocia almost 4,000 years ago to farm the fertile soil. Vineyards abound here, and today, farmers grow potatoes, beets and barley.
But pretend for a moment that it’s a little over 2,000 years ago and you live here — smack dab in the middle of Anatolia — what was known as Asia Minor, but is now called Turkey.
Marauding armies traversing Central Anatolia look to control this rich agricultural region so close to the Silk Road, continually putting your hometown in harm’s way. When Alexander the Great comes a knocking, what do you do?
Make like a mole!
For millenia, people living in Cappadocia have taken advantage of one of the oddest geographies on the planet to protect themselves by tunneling underground. Over the centuries, underground cities in Cappadocia, seven and eight levels deep, were built and connected.
Yesterday, we visited just one of those cities, Derinkuyu. The first two layers, with easier access to the surface, were dedicated to housing animals, cooking, and disposing of waste. Living chambers were located on the lower levels.
Inhabitants could shut themselves in and keep invaders out by rolling huge stone doors into place to block off parts of the underground city. The interconnection of tiny tunnels formed a labyrinth that was difficult for outsiders to navigate.
Early Christians found Cappadocia to be a safe haven. Churches, complete with baptismals, were constructed underground to provide security during times of persecution.
Deep wells provided water, air shafts were constructed for ventilation, linseed oil was burned for lighting, even morgues were carved out to hold the dead. Inhabitants could live for a couple of months underground before needing to return topside. Take that, Alexander!
From Derinkuyu, we traveled west to the Ilhlara Valley and descended into a picturesque canyon to hike.
We stopped in at a Byzantine church, Daniel Pantonassa, which was carved into the canyon walls.
We followed a stream through the canyon on to Belisirma for lunch.
On the north end of the canyon is the Selime Cathedral and Monastery, perched inside a tall rock.
We scrambled over the rocks, climbing up the volcanic stone to the cathedral.
The cathedral consisted of 10 rooms interconnected by tunnels and/or passageways. The first non-secret mass in Cappadocia was held here in the Byzantine Era.
Making our way northeastward back toward Göreme, we stopped in Pigeon Valley, aptly named as it is home to the largest pigeon coop I’ve ever seen.
Pigeons played a integral role in Cappadocian communities. The birds were consumed. Pigeon poo was used as fertilizer. The yolks of pigeon eggs were used in painting. Pigeon bones were used as sewing needles. And, pigeons carried messages between settlements. Consequently, I saw pigeon coops carved into large sections of rock wherever we went.
I left Cappadocia with a better understanding of the term “pigeonholed” along with incredible pictures of a canvas painted by erosion that I’ll not soon forget.