A stark lunar landscape. A mysterious open-air sculpture carved by Mother Nature’s chisel. These common descriptions of Cappadocia really just tap dance around the subject. So let’s just get this out of the way: Those fascinating “fairy chimneys” evoke nothing so much as anatomically correct erections — and circumcised ones at that. Imagine what a field day American film censors would have had if George Lucas had succeeded in his original plan to shoot Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace in Cappadocia.
Nobody knows who the original inhabitants of the region were, or who first hollowed out shelters in the soft rock of these sheltered ravines and odd “chimneys.” But as a largely barren and desolate area, central Cappadocia was bypassed by most expansionist armies, making it a perfect refuge for the early Christians following in the footsteps of St. Paul, who established the first Christian colonies here.
The natural land formations and huge expanses of silence are just a part of the mystery of the region. As an incubator for Christian philosophy, the monasteries, cave dwellings, and feats of underground engineering are a testament to human ingenuity. Cliff walls of the valleys are riddled with innocuous-looking cavities that on closer inspection turn out to be centuries-old dwellings or chapels decorated with colorful frescoes and biblical images.
Cappadocian soil is extremely fertile, and a general tour of the region will reveal numerous vineyards in and around the valleys. Famous for its local wines, Cappadocia is a major producer; you may want to veer off at a sign for Sarap Evi (wine house) for a leisurely tasting. The creatively named Sarap Evi, in Ürgüp, has wine tastings in the evenings, but it’s just as fun to drive up to any local producer and fall into the dance of local hospitality.
The erosion that carves out this fascinating topography began over 60 million years ago and can be seen in various stages even today. As the devastating 1999 earthquakes illustrated, Turkey is caught between the insistent pressure exerted from the Asian and European continental plates. The Erciyes Mountain, Melendiz Mountain, and Hasandag — all dormant or extinct volcanoes — are the result of underground forces that thrust these landmasses above water level eons ago. Recurrent volcanic eruptions blanketed the area with boulders, ash, and lava, over time creating layers of sediment, with the underneath layers more solid than the newer, softer levels of sediment.
The formation of the fairy chimneys is just an example of wind and water erosion in an extreme state. The early stages of erosion are visible in the graceful channels and dunes of the valleys. But as the elements carve away at the channels, the mass of tufa splits from its supports and forms pillars or pyramids. And without the protection of those basalt boulders caught in the balance of gravity and time, the pillars slowly whittle down to nothing, and the crowning boulder comes crashing to the ground. The precarious nature of the tufa has earned Cappadocia a place on UNESCO’s list of Natural World Heritage Properties so that it receives aid for restoration and preservation of its unique environment.
AttractionsIn antiquity, Cappadocia included all of central Anatolia, stretching as far as Ankara in the north and Adana in the south. Today the region includes the area in and around a small triangle formed by Ürgüp, Avanos, and Nevsehir, where the canyons are the deepest and the pigments in the rock-cut churches are the richest.
If your time is limited, it’s possible to visit the major sites of the area in 2 full days with either your own car or the assistance of a local tour operator. Doubtless, you’ll wish you had stayed longer. Tours can be either tailor-made, and therefore more pricey, or selected from a stable of standard issues.
Typical day tours include:
- A visit to the Open Air Museums of Zelve and Göreme, overviews of the valleys from Pasabag and Dervent, a climb up to the top of Üçhisar Fortress, and an optional pottery demonstration in Avanos.
- Visits to the underground cities of Kaymakli and Derinkuyu and a leisurely 4km (2 1/2-mile) hike through the monastery-rich gorge of Ihlara Valley.
Tours may also include horseback riding; more challenging sports such as mountain biking can be easily arranged, but these are generally not advertised.
Operating with the most experience in the region is Argeus, Istiklal Cad. 13, Ürgüp (tel. 0384/341-4688; fax 0384/341-4888; www.argeus.com.tr), which provides expert guidance on Cappadocia and Ankara, as well as destinations throughout Turkey. Regular group tours, including all museum entrance fees and lunch in a restaurant, cost 131YTL ($95) per person for groups of six or more; private tours cost 300TYL ($220) and get cheaper the more people you have. Argeus is also the local representative of Turkish Airlines.
For a more off-the-beaten track experience, contact Cappadocia Tours, Istiklal Cad. 19/9, Ürgüp (tel. 0384/341-7485; www.cappadociatours.com), which is the companion agency to Gamirasu Hotel. Led by Süleyman Çakir, tours and hotel stays will be assured the highest of quality; think visits to local village events and historical hikes lead by Süleyman or a professional archaeologist. Expect to pay 216YTL ($160) per day for between 2 and 10 passengers including the guide and driver. For an additional 34YTL ($25) per person, all entrance fees will be included (these do add up), as well as vehicle expenses and an a la carte lunch, including wine.
Aiming for the middle ground is Stone Park Tourism, Istiklal Cad. 19/E, Ürgüp (tel. 0384/341-8897; fax 0384/341-5348; www.stonepark.com.tr), at about 88YTL ($65) per person per day. As for budget outfitters, they come and go, and vie for your business around the bus station.