After years of researching and compiling notes on every historic, cultural, and natural sight I come across, I have a pretty good grasp on what there is to see and do in Turkey. However, there is an exception: Cappadocia. A sprawling region so jam packed with stunning sights it can be hard to sort out what is what. To make matters worse, it’s one of Turkey’s most popular tourism hotspots which means Google maps and social media sites are full of mislabeled selfies. The average tourist visiting these places has no idea where they actually are, making for a sea of misinformation that would make even covid era twitter blush.
So, when my brother said he wanted to see Cappadocia before heading south-east to stunning city of Mardin, I knew I had to finally take the plunge and come to grips with this genuinely stunning land of underground cities, towers of twisted stone, minaret-like stone spires, and ancient churches.
As my brother is a teacher, the only time he had free to travel was during spring break in the middle of March. Now March in Turkey is a tricky thing. While some years you could go swimming, more often than not it is sunny but cold. So much so that there’s a saying that roughly translates “Looking out the door in March makes you burn your hoe and shovel.” Some say its because the sun tricks you into not rationing your firewood, so you run out and have to burn your tools instead, others because you give up on the hope of spring planting and just burn your tools.
Either way, March can be cold.
And cold it was.
The day we arrived in Cappadocia it was -14 (that’s 7 Fahrenheit) and there were piles of dirty old snow frozen hard everywhere we looked.
Not having a lifetime to explore the entire Cappadocia region we limited ourselves to the sights around Göreme, the heart of the Cappadocia, begining with the Göreme Open Air Museum.
In the late Roman and Byzantine periods Cappadocia became a key center of Christianity, with important church leaders and thinkers coming from the region. These religious leaders had a hand in shaping Christian thought and were present at church councils such as the Council of Nicea.
Beyond theology, they also shaped the landscape of Cappadocia itself, establishing monastic communities that cut churches, hermitages, and seminaries into the soft rock with doors and windows peaking out of virtually every cliff face.
Göreme Open Air Museum is one of these religious communities with some of the finest churches, chapels, and refectories that you can see in Cappadocia.
That evening we set up at a view point overlooking the village of Ortahisar, meaning “Middle Fortress”, waiting for the colours of sunset over the pale stone village. Sipping sahlep (a drink of orchid bulbs and cinnamon) we attempted to keep warm as temperatures dropped well below freezing. The sunset colours never came and as the sky darkened a light snow began to fall.
After a night in a freezing room, we got up early to watch the hot air balloons drift through Cappadocia’s famed landscape. The sky was hard and gray, threatening more snow, turning the bright colours of the balloons and hills flat. Instead of the slow dance of colourful balloons set against a golden sunrise we got a comedy of Range Rovers racing though rough fields attempting to place trailers directly under the lazily drifting balloons. Sometimes the balloons would lift again, threatening to take the trailer back into the air with it.
We spent the rest of the morning in Zelve, a set of three connected valleys, the cliffs of which are filled with the remains of homes, winepresses, mills, churches, and dovecotes. While Göreme Open Air Museum made you wonder where people lived to necessitate so many churches, Zelve showed you how full of life this region once was. While it’s unknown when these valleys were first settled, it seems to have reached a peak sometime near the 10th century and was inhabited until the 1950’s. It’s easy to look at these cave-dwellings as something ancient, and yet it’s only in recent times that these buildings have been abandoned to such an extent. Even today caves are still cut into the rock on a massive scale to create storage facilities for farm produce.
With the weather taking a turn for the worse and snow beginning to fall we decided to take shelter in one of these modern caves and visit the Güray Pottery Museum in the town of Avanos. Avanos sits astride the Red River, named for the red water and clay that lines its banks. Even after untold centuries this red clay is still used by the famed potters of Avanos.
The Güray Museum consists of a stunning set of grand tunnels cut into the rock with the wares of some of Turkey’s most celebrated potters and painters on display alongside hundreds of ancient pieces, connecting the present with the past of clay shaping and painting.
Leaving the shelter of the gallery, we found the weather was still against us, the views of fairy chimneys and picturesque towns obscured behind thick falling snow. Boring for pictures and boring to read about!
Beaten by the weather we made our way along slick roads to the town of Ürgüp to experience something a little less weather dependant: Testi Kebap. Despite what it sounds like, testi is the Turkish word for a clay water jug, and testi kebap is a dish of cubed meat, tomatoes, peppers, and spices slow cooked in a clay jug on coals or in an oven. The jug is broken open and the meat poured out over a plate of rice.
The next morning we woke to a break in the clouds, with the landscape covered in a light blanket of snow. As the Turks poetically put it “the land had donned her wedding gown”. While getting around was a challenge, sometimes sliding backwards down steep roads, the views were stunning.
The opening in the sky was brief and once again we took shelter underground, this time in the underground city of Derinkuyu.
While not the largest of Cappadocia’s numerous underground cities, at 85 meters deep it is the deepest. Known today as Derinkuyu (Turkish for “Deep Well”), the town was called Malakopea until the 1920s by the town’s Greek inhabitants who still used the underground city as a refuge even in the early 1900s.
The underground city, with its many rooms, storehouses, church, kitchens, and wells, could shelter thousands of people and animals in times of need. Even today, with the majority of the city inaccessible to the public, it feels like a vast maze, the little arrows showing the route to the exit necessary to keep visitors from getting lost amid the looping passages and interconnected chambers.
Heading south from Derinkuyu we left Cappadocia behind and began to take the long drive to Mardin, but this being Turkey, there was plenty to see along the way. As we passed out of the soft fantastically shaped hills of southern Cappadocia we had to pass by numerous other monasteries and underground cities. While there was clearly a lot left to see in Cappadocia, I felt like I had at last gotten a grasp on the place even with the short time we had.
Eventually leaving central Turkey and passing down from the Taurus Mountains into the coastal plains we finally found a bit of warmth. This area, known as the Çukurova Plain, is one of the hottest areas in Turkey where the locals are famous for shooting at the sun as it roasts them.
This year it was still cold even in March.
Along our road was the picturesque medieval castle known as Yılankale (Yılanlıkale), or Snake Castle, perched high above the highway. A few years ago in a previous trip to Osmaniye I visited the nearby Castle of Anavarza and the numerous Castles of Osmaniye Province but never managed to visit Snake Castle even though I’ve driven right beneath it multiple times. With the weather on our side I finally got to make the climb up to the keep, see the relief of the Armenian king flanked by a pair of lions above the door, and take in the view of this historically strategic plain.
It was here that the Mediterranean and Syrian worlds collided. From here Romans passed into the frontiers with the Persian Empire, Arabs raided into Byzantine lands, and Crusaders marched into Abbasid and Seljuk lands.
Passing as many armies and wayfarers had before us (though a whole lot faster and in greater comfort thanks to the automobile) we were now making our way through a landscape of bare striped limestone hills with fertile fields occupying the low points between. Pausing only for a fantastic supper in a small town on the banks of the Euphrates, we arrived in Urfa, the City of Prophets, well after dark.
Urfa, in history also known as Edessa, is a city of exceptionally deep history in a country already abounding in deep roots. Edessa is the possible and traditional site of Ur, the birth city of Abraham, Father of the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic faiths. It was an important center of Eastern Christianity, a key city of the Armenians, Syriacs, and even a Crusader kingdom not to mention the deep Arab and Kurdish influence. It is a city full of legends and sacred sites.
Unfortunately, if we hoped to ever make it to Mardin, we could only spend a few hours here.
The first sight we visited was a small water filled cave below the foot of the ancient castle, said to be the birth place of Abraham himself. There we met the Imam of the mosque that sits in the midst of the sacred area. He and his family were proud descendants of the Prophet Mohammed through Ali, his son-in-law. We chatted for nearly an hour and, though I could understand him easily enough it was obvious we were now in a very Arab city where Arabic root words took precedence over the Turkish and the letters “H” and “K” were pronounced in all their guttural glory.
Near the cave is Urfa’s best-known site: the Fish Pool, also known as the Pool of Abraham. According to the legend Abraham enraged Nimrod, king of the city, when he preached against the city’s many idols in favour of one almighty God. In response, Nimrod cut down all the trees in the region and made a vast fire and had Abraham cast into the fire. But as soon as Abraham touched the flames the fire turned into water and the wood into fish, the descendants of which fill the waters of the pool and outflowing canals today.
Before reaching Mardin there was one last stop just outside of Urfa that we had to make.
Göbeklitepe was only unearthed in the 1990s and what was found there has thrown our understanding of the earliest human settlements into disarray. Göbeklitepe consists of a series of circular buildings supported by large “T” shaped megaliths. Dated back to the prepottery neolithic period, the sight is thought to be about 10-11500 years old. The “T” stones are carved with low relief depictions of animals, boar, scorpions, cranes, and large predatory cats. There is also a large pair of central “T” stones with belts and human arms carved on them.
Leaving the barren hills of Göbeklitepe the first stage of our trip was coming to an end and Mardin was drawing near…