Cappadocia — strange, beautiful, relevant

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.

Such bizarre geography lends itself to long walks or rides on the backs of the region’s famous horses (in Hittite language Cappadocia means “land of the beautiful horses.”) It’s not unusual here to find “silent tourists": those who, having run out of adjectives for the sights before them, have simply resorted to a look of stunned amazement.

Once reliant almost solely on agriculture, Cappadocia is now becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination and the visitors are bringing with them some surprising changes. Just 20 years ago, many of the cave-houses dotting the landscape lay abandoned. Today, however, these forgotten homes have been given new capital and many are turning their ancestral homes into hotels or secondary homes — improving their economic situation while maintaining the area’s unique architectural traditions.

Winemaking, another of the region’s traditions, is also thriving, bolstered both by tourism and through recent ventures into international markets. Cappadocia is one of the oldest existent wine regions in the world and its ancient methods can still be seen in old monasteries. Then there is the famed Avanos, a craft center known for its pottery since pre-Christian times. And the most photographed thing in the region: hot air balloons. Ballooning in Cappadocia is famous across the world, albeit an expensive treat at more than $300 for 90 minutes.

Cappadocia’s rugged attractiveness is in itself enough to make it an important destination for travelers, but it is its rich history and role as a cradle of Christianity that gives it a profound human dimension as well.