After three months without traveling due to corona virus lockdowns and quarantines, Sean and I were itching to go out and explore again. With many places still closed we decided to exchange ancient cities and museums for the open country of the Phrygian Way hiking trail.
We began our hike just outside the town of Seydiler following a shallow stream as it wound its way through valleys lined with rocky outcroppings. Fields of white and purple poppies were in full blossom, red poppies grew wild in the ditches, and grasses were a brilliant emerald green of new growth. The poppy is the symbol of the province of Afyon which gets its name from the opium which came from these locally grown poppies. While opium production has ended, Afyon is still known for all sorts of foods made using huge quantities of poppy seeds, a fact that may explain the provinces ranking as one of the happiest places in the country!
Only a couple hours in and it had become clear that keeping on the trail was going to be a real challenge. Even though we started at the official trail head, we had gone about five kilometres only seeing two badly faded trail markers. This was to set the tone for the entirety of our journey. The guidebook was often confusing, the trail markers impossible to find, and the map a bit too general to really instill confidence. The soft volcanic tuff which gets shaped by wind and rain into beautiful shapes, erodes so quickly that the painted markers don’t last long. Combine that with some government reforestation projects and open grasslands, and its easy to see how much of a challenge it would be to maintain an obvious trail spanning 506 kilometres.
The result was that we really had to think through our route, interpreting descriptions from the guidebook with what we could see of the topography. Amazingly we managed to stay right on the trail for the entirety of our hike, often stepping right on badly faded markers before we could be sure that we were going in the right direction. While stopping to consult maps cost us a great of deal time the challenge of orienteering was actually pretty fun.
About halfway through our first day we came to the farm of Şaban Şen, who is actually mentioned by name in the guidebook. As we caught sight of his farm we hesitated, trying to figure out how to pass by without attracting too much attention from the ever present Turkish guard dogs. Spotting us he waved us over energetically. We walked though his picturesque patch of land as he turned hand cut hay with his massive pitchfork. We chatted together for a time, asking about his life, his farm, and how he helped in marking out the hiking trail which he sometimes uses himself on horseback when getting to his land from the village. He told us about serving bowls of homemade yogurt in his little stone house to ill prepared hikers that passed through. Şeban was incredibly exuberant and, like everyone we were to meet in our three days in the area, very friendly.
Following Şabans directions out of his valley we climbed into the high meadow land of Ağın Mountain where trees gave way to low scrub and wide-open spaces of grass. Catching a glimpse of the cave filled cliffs that crowned the meadows ahead, we made our way up the long sloping pasturelands. We found our way blocked by three large flocks of sheep spread out between us and the caves. To be clear, sheep and goats are not an issue, but where there are sheep there are sheep dogs. Turkey’s sheep dogs are as large as they are aggressive and overzealous, so our first step was to find the shepherds, get their attention and go meet them. Once the dogs see you with the shepherd, they’ll let you pass through the flock without any trouble.
These shepherds, like Şeban, were incredibly friendly, if somewhat less animated. They were happy to chat, have their picture taken, and pass on useful information about water sources and which caves were which. Later that evening a shepherd made the steep climb up to us to make sure we had enough food and to invite us to spend the night with them in the little shepherds huts that had been built next to the sheep pens in the meadowlands.
While the invitation to spend a night with the shepherds was genuinely tempting, we had plans to check off a bucket list experience by spending a night in an ancient cave settlement. The settlement is carved into a wide cliff wall stretching a short ways beneath the mountain’s summit, and while there seems to be rather little information about the history of the place, we know it was well used during the Byzantine period when a church was carved into the rock. Today the cave dwellings are bare, outer walls have collapsed and caves near the ground level are used as shelters for animals. The floor of the chuch was deep with manure though the vaults and niches are still quite beautiful. Apart from a few small crosses there’s little other detail left to see.
Due to the caves being full of manure or nearly impossible to get into we settled for a rock shelf that had once been a home. Two and a half walls remained, the roof and outer walls worn away and collapsed long ago. As it got dark we were kept awake by the stunning sight of countless stars shining bright on a moonless night. Despite the worry of roving sheepdogs and the regular plinking noise of pebbles falling on us from above we managed to fall asleep.
With first light came the sounds of bleating and bells carrying up from below as flocks of sheep worked their way up to the higher pastures. In the early light before the sun had quite broken over the hill tops the cool light made the great humps of soft white stone look like massive snowbanks.
The morning hike was through more high pastureland until we made a descent through a narrow cleft valley with a farm house in the midst of it. Thanks to a large and very aggressive dog snarling at our heels we passed through the valley quite quickly. We didn’t stop for pictures.
Miraculously, the dog had put us right onto a trail marker, though it was to be one of the last we would see for a very long time. The trail became completely muddled at this point, the guidebook and trail markers suddenly useless. After long deliberation we decided to follow what we could make out on the maps and hope for the best. Within minutes we came across the rare sight of another trail marker, we had managed to stay on the trail the entire time!
Much of the terrain here was scrubby pine forest growing on top of a near-white powdery soil. Where water flowed the soil was exposed to look like bright white trails. The trail carried on among the pines till we found ourselves at one of the mornings more interesting points. The trail climbed out of the trees and onto a wide flat stone surface known as the Ornaş Harmanyeri, an open threshing floor used by locals until quite recently. The stone of the threshing floor drops sheer into a mass of fairy chimneys and strange rock formations, carved with rooms, chamber tombs, and alters. The ground surrounding the fairy chimneys is flat and sown with grains that, for centuries, would have once been gathered by hand and threshed on the clifftop where we stood.
After a couple more hours of trail confusion we arrived at the hamlet of Duraklar, and, thanks to some helpful locals managed to avoid more dog troubles and set out in the right direction. From this point on till the end of the day the trail made use of gravel roads and tractor tracks through an ever-flattening landscape. Passing through towns and villages people stopped to ask what we were doing walking with such heavy packs in the heat, or why we didn’t just drive? Long distance hiking is still a strange concept to most Turks, especially in the villages where mountain walking is usually done with a few dozen sheep for company.
At the village of Alanyurt we found more cave settlements, tombs, homes, and what appeared to be small chapels, now used as haylofts. Sweet smelling and inviting compared to the manure filled caves we had seen up till then. About a kilometre outside of the village we came to the place known as the Abraham Caves, home to the ruins of a beautiful Byzantine Church. While time had worn away much of the roof and front of the church, vandals had left their ugly mark on the ancient site as well. According to the guide book there were figures carved in high-relief still in tact not all that long ago. Instead we found a block of stone freshly broken off from the wall, the mark of a chisel still visible. Sadly, local treasure hunters think that the best place to search for hidden gold is behind statues, often damaging the most precious aspects of these ancient sites.
While exploring the tunnels around the church, Sean and I were forced to make a decision. Sean’s hip had been giving him more and more trouble as the miles wore on and his limp had become quite bad. Three months of government-imposed lockdowns had apparently put us rather out of shape and with another seven kilometres left to cover that day and another fifteen the next, it was looking like our hike could come to a premature end. After weighing our options for a while we decided to abandon traditional hiking and go for some cultural adventure.
The next seven kilometres were mercifully flat and had us walking through a flat shallow valley of planted fields, wildflowers, and a line of willows that marched as far as the eye could see along a shallow stream. Instead of camping in the valley like we had planned we turned up into the village of Eski Eymir, where a local dairy farmer hailed us from his squat stone-walled barn. After a few glasses of ayran, tea, and cake he arranged for a milkman to drive us to our destination of Ayazini. Just to be clear, this milkman doesn’t deliver milk, he actually picks up milk from farmers who may only have three or four cows. Sitting in his truck as he did his route, he had to explain the strange guests he had in his truck at every stop along the way.
We arrived in Ayazini long after dark (the milkman’s route was none too short) and found our way to the köyodası. A köyodası is a remnant of old village life, literally meaning ‘village room’ its a room or small house set aside for visitors or wayfarers like ourselves. Staying in the köyodası in Ayazini was everything I hoped it would be!
Before bedding down for the night we had to hang a ground sheet over the window to keep out prying eyes. I had already caught an old lady watching from her house as Sean stretched on the floor.
Leaving the windows open to cool down the room and dispel the smell of mildew meant an early wake up call coutesy of a mosque across the street. I got up to explore the village in the soft morning light while Sean rolled over and attempted another hour or two of rest before the noise of village life got into full swing.
Ayazini is a an ancient settlement dating from the Phrygian period, though much of the main sights today belong to the Romans and the Byzantines. The ancient city sprawls along a cliff face lining one side of the valley, with churches, chapels, a necropolis, and countless cave dwellings hewn into the soft stone.
The modern village is built in the midst of the ancient settlement, fairy chimneys are built into homes like over-sized chimneys, and phrygian era tombs peek out above the rooftops. The way the strangely shaped rocks, with ancient figures and windows, blend with the living village is really quite unique. What makes it particularly enjoyable is just how authentic it feels. Traditional lifestyles havent given way to tourist shops hawking trinkets.
While wandering the village in the cool morning was beautiful (my knees didn’t fully agree with this sentiment), the thing that I was really looking for was Ayazini’s rock hewn church. While cave churches are fairly common in Turkey, this one was carved from the cliff side, both inside and out. On the outside it looks almost as if a typical Byzantine church, with its domes, vaulting, and rounded apse, is emerging from the living rock. While most of the detail is gone, there are hints left of long lost ornateness. The interior domes and vaulting, are much as you would see in any other Byzantine church from the same era, though all carved out of a single piece of living rock, now completely blacked by moisture and soot.
While we had to cheat, skipping the third day of hiking and a night of camping, spending a night in the köyodası was well worth it. We got to sleep in a cave settlement, hike through Phrygia’s natural and historic beauty, managed to avoid any serious run ins with dogs, and met plenty of interesting people. And there’s only another 421 kilometres left to go!