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Cappadocia — strange, beautiful, relevant

It’s not unusual to find “silent tourists” in this mountainous Turkish region — those who have run out of adjectives for what they see before them.

CAPPADOCIA, Turkey — There are few places on earth where the strangeness of nature is more striking than Cappadocia.

The lunar-like conical formations are the result of volcanic eruptions during the Cenozoic era, 30 million to 60 million years ago. Over the millennia, snow, rivers and earthquakes churned through the layers of lava, creating tufa, a soft and malleable stone. Erosion did the rest.

Gazing up the precipitous path — its steps worn over the years into faded imprints in the stone — the roof of a church is just visible overhead.

As I wind my way to the top of the path the composition becomes clear, the wooden door to the church centered between several smaller caves. Hollowed out behind the rock face, the church was built to serve a community of Christians living in the surrounding mountains as far back as the 9th century.

Tourists explore Cappadocia’s Rose Valley, one of dozens of popular hiking trails.
(Nichole Sobecki/GlobalPost) 

The Tokali Kilise (Buckle Church) looks much like it probably did a millennium ago. From the outside it blends smoothly into the surrounding cliffs and crags, but as soon as I step inside it is transformed. Unlike the rough-hewn hermitages that dot the landscape, this is a work of vision and precision. Four tall pillars support the high-domed ceiling and the walls are covered with frescoes. Off both sides of the main room are several smaller apses. The floors are littered with empty graves; the presumed-to-be-final resting places of the church’s most devoted guardians.

The artwork adorning the church comes from different eras, the primitive symbols of red ocher peering out from behind the detailed face of a saint. The works range from the geometric designs derived from the cross of the iconoclastic period, when figurative painting was banned as idolatry, on into the 13th century, when the Mongol invasion and Islam separated Cappadocia from Byzantium and its art.

A sanctuary for persecuted Christians since as early as the second century, these communities carved their homes, their churches and their shelters into cliffs and in the weird, soaring “fairy chimneys” that make Cappadocia such an extraordinary landscape. The chimneys are like Rorschach tests or galleries of abstract art, allowing the imagination to suggestion giant mushrooms, cartoon characters or structures of male anatomy.