Cappadocia: The land of fairy chimneys and phallic-shaped rocks

My nine months in Turkey have provided me with the opportunity to bear witness to some of the world’s most breathtaking sights: a multi-colored Istanbul sunset from Prince’s Islands, Barcelona’s colorful landscape seen from Park Guell, a boat ride through the Grand Canal in Paris’ Versailles property, the view of the Black Sea from its steep cliffs, a bird’s eye view of Budapest from the highest point in the city, and the list continues…However, nothing has been quite as mind-blowing as my recent trip to Cappadocia.

IMG_1189The 12-hour bus ride from Istanbul shuttled us past the greenery of the north coast and transported us into the barren desert that is central Turkey. Generally, I would riddle my definition of “nature’s beauty” with key features such as rivers, lakes, mountains, greenery and rolling hills. So when I gazed out the bus window only to see flat, dried earth stretching as far as my eyes could see, it may be surprising that I could define it as beautiful. The brown shades of dirt and hues of yellow from the dried grass complemented the vast blue sky perfectly. At this point in the trip, we were only a few hours from our final destination, but already I could tell this trip would challenge my idea of “beauty.”

1371163_573231186076884_93079670_nCappadocia is an area of land situated between three ancient volcanoes a few hours south of Turkey’s capital city of Ankara. This World Heritage Site attracts thousands of tourists from all over the world throughout the year. Visitors can observe the traditional art of ceramics and jewelry making, sip the region’s sweet wine, find accommodation in caves (I’ll explain later), float over the valley in hot air balloons, ride quads through the small hills clustered in the valleys…but most of all, they come to see the after effects of a war between wind and water versus solid earth.

IMG_0960editedThousands of years ago, a series of volcano eruptions covered the valley in lava and ash. As nature’s elements took their toll, the soft layers began to erode and only the hardest substances remained. Nowadays, phallic-like pillars of rock reach up into the sky more than 100 feet and give the land an out-of-this-world look. Never in my life have I seen something as unreal-looking as the “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia. The pillars sit among small cliffs of soft rock that have withstood the elements as well. I could have sworn that our bus was secretly a spaceship that transported us to Mars, but no, this strangely beautiful place is located in Central Turkey.

Now my explanation of Cappadocia wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t explain how humans have interacted with this natural phenomenon. Thousands of years before Alexander the Great, the Romans and the Byzantines, human hands began leaving their marks on the area. Perhaps the real transformation from all-natural to human-touched first took place when Christians were seeking religious freedom from the Byzantine Greeks and retreated to the area to seek refuge and safety. Rather than building free-standing houses and buildings, the people decided to craft their dwellings INTO the rock walls in hopes of concealing their location from enemies. As time progressed, inhabitants continued crafting homes, churches, hotels, stables, etc., within the soft stone that covers the region.

IMG_0972editedAt first glance, the valleys and small cliffs appear to be dotted with small holes; a closer look reveals that these “holes” are actually windows and within the windows is an intertwining network of living quarters. At one point, we had the opportunity to crawl through the multi-storied complexes. Unlike modern-day houses that have stairs, the only way to move from floor to floor in these “buildings” is to climb up through narrow holes in the ceilings by placing your hands and feet in small nooks that have been etched into the walls. Although it challenged my agility and fearlessness, the climb to the third floor of one of the structures was well worth it when I looked out the window to see a valley of fall-colored trees amid freestanding pillars.

Fast forward to the 21st century and you can still find “cave dwellers.” The Turkish government pays locals to live in some of these humble abodes in exchange for protection from vandals and tourists who may be a bit too curious. Residents have installed pane-glassed windows and wooden doors, while also outfitting their homes with electricity to allow for modern day luxuries such as television and running water. For tourists who have a liberal traveling budget, they can fork out extra money to sleep in one of the hotels located within the rock walls as well. Our tight budget still allowed us to spent one evening in a traditional Turkish restaurant that had been etched into one of the caves.

IMG_1188Later in the trip, our group stepped below the earth’s surface into a complex network of tunnels and rooms. Cappadocia has several underground cities, but the largest of these was home to more than 20,000 inhabitants at its peak. The miles of narrow tunnels dip deeper than 200 feet and were so integrated that the people had little reason to leave the safety of the city’s tunnel walls. Although I can’t find confirmation, I’m sure the people during this time were midget-sized because I felt like the Hunch Back of Notre Dame whenever I reached the end of most of the tunnels.

The step-by-step account of our trip is unimportant, but without a doubt, the landscape of Cappadocia was one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring sights I’ve ever seen. It’s a must-see for any trip to Turkey and I hope everyone finds it as mind-blowing as I did.

Update (November 18): CNN.com posted an article about the top 8 underground cities in the world and Cappadocia made the list…obviously: http://edition.cnn.com/2013/11/18/travel/underground-attractions/index.html

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