There are a thousand reasons to travel. For some it’s to exchange the rat race for lounging in the sun on a sandy beach, for others it’s to sit in quiet side-street cafes, experiencing the flavours of authentic cuisine while watching people flow by. For me the thing that really motivates me to travel is a sense of discovery, the feeling of going somewhere few others go, somewhere unusual, digging deeper into the essence of a place and even getting to known it better than many locals.
That and an OCD-like compulsion to visit all 1500 sites that I’ve compiled on my To-Visit list.
So, once again joining up with Fred, we set out to satisfy our OCD need to check sites off that list, and to see what unexpected places and experiences are out there waiting to be discovered.
This time around we set our sights on the province of Karaman, a land of wide prairies borders on the south by the Taurus Mountains and dominated by Mount Karadağ in the north. Karadağ, meaning Black Mountain, is an extinct volcano, a massive cone rising out of the plains, and home to a number of fascinating sights.
Along the road to Mount Karadağ we took a detour to visit the ancient site of Kilistra. While the history of the site is murky, it bears the hallmarks of a Late Roman/Byzantine Cave settlement with homes, churches, wineries, and tombs all cut into the soft rock. In particular the Sandıkkaya church, carved to resemble a small byzantine church both inside and out, is one of the most striking sights and only one of a handful in the country built like this (see Ayazini and Kubbeli Church in the Soğanlı Valley).
What should have been a short detour became much longer as our hunt for the cistern took us up and down the valley, peaking into caves as we went. The issue with finding underground sites is that the only thing you can see from the outside is a small black square. Staying hidden was the goal behind these cave settlements, and this ancient design was at work making things difficult for us.
Successful in Kilistra we again set our sights on our main goal of Karadağ, only to be waylaid by a little brown sign marked for Hartapu, a Hittite monument set on top of a lesser volcanic cone near the main bulk of Mount Karadağ. While I had originally wanted to visit the monument, there was a lot of vague and contradicting information about it. Not wanting to find myself on a wild goose chase, I grudgingly opted to skip a visit to the Hittite King this time around.
Now seeing clear directions for the monument, we decided we had to at least give it a try.
Following the sign we passed through fields of corn and wheat until a tall red cone rose up on our right with the remains of a fortification wall near the top. Doing some quick reading online I read that the monument was on a cone called “red peak”, was between the villages of Adakale and Süleymanhacı, and had the remains of a Hittite fortification wall on it. Having found a spot that fit all those descriptions and not seeing any other signs for the Hartapu, we decided to search the hill. While the weather was scorching, we were feeling adventurous, so Fred ran up by himself while I drove around the base of the mountain surveying the rocks with my long lens from the comfort of the air-conditioned car. We found nothing.
With daylight hours running low and many sights left to see, we decided to look just a little further before giving in. We found nothing until, risking the wellbeing of our little car, I opted to drive through a field strewn with rocks where we finally found our next clue! It was a sign indicating we had found the monument! Though, Hartapu was still nowhere to be seen.
We were now at an entirely different cone, one that was black rather than red and was not between the two villages; how people were supposed to find this sign in the middle of nowhere I have no idea. This time I couldn’t send Fred up alone so we spread out to see if we could find the monument hidden among the crags above us.
Finding traces of broken pottery, things were beginning to look up, and even better yet when we made it to the summit and found the remains of a fortification wall, and yet, there was still no sign of the engraving. These engraved monuments can be quite faint and hard to spot; sometimes nothing more than a few characters or figures etched into otherwise unworked stone. After a great deal of scrambling, we were beginning to lose hope, worried that we would have to check every single rock on the mound in order to find it. Having searched the top we began descending, I was just poking my head in a small cave with bits of broken pottery strewn around when I heard Fred call out, he had found it!
No matter how many flaky social media posts have abused the phrase “its not about the destination, it’s the journey”, it is still true. King Hartapu on his throne was fascinating, but the difficulty of looking for it made it so much more rewarding to finally find it. And really this is the sense of discovery that makes travel so exciting to me.
Taking our leave of the Hittite king we once again turned towards Mount Karadağ. With evening coming on quickly we still hadn’t reached our main goal for the day: the 1001 Churches of Mount Karadağ.
As it turned out, we were to get sidetracked yet again.
Rounding a bend on the slopes of Mount Karadağ, we were suddenly met by a wall of white smoke rolling out from a forest of scrubby oak trees. Through the trees I could see men climbing among smouldering black mounds, shoveling and raking, all wreathed in smoke.
We had found colliers, something I had wanted to photograph for years! These men had come from far away Mardin to do the dusty, smoking work of producing charcoal on the slopes of Mount Karadağ. The oak is cut nearby then tightly stacked into large mounds. The mound is then covered in damp straw then covered in ash and dirt. Holes are opened and closed on the side of the mound to draw the fire throughout the entire pile but smothered to keep the wood from being consumed. After fifteen days of smoke and heat, the oak is turned into charcoal, the fuel for all the best Turkish dishes.
We had arrived just as the sun was setting behind the shoulder of Mount Karadağ, the low slanting light creating beautiful silhouettes and making the smoke glow yellow.
Not far from the smoky piles of the colliers we visited the village of Üçkuyu where I had heard we could find some of the scattered 1001 Churches of Karadağ. This was based on pictures shared on Google Maps, which is possibly the least reliable source in existence. So, with little faith we decided to check it out and make sure there was nothing there.
Only, there were churches there. Lots of them.
With the light failing we had to leave Üçkuyu unexplored and return in the morning. Day one over and we hadn’t even begun to explore Mount Karadağ!
When we arrived early the next morning we were greeted by the locals and their flocks leaving for the pastures. We wandered through the old village, a mix of ruined buildings collapsed into heaps of rubble and others rebuilt as low-roofed stables for the sheep and goats. Scattered among them were the remains of old churches, the rounded apses and fine masonry hinting at their original purpose. In the corner of one of the old churches we found a mihrab, the niche used by the leader of the prayers in a mosque. While much of the village was destroyed, some buildings were repaired and repurposed, this particular building served as a mosque until around 1970 when the roof collapsed. As most of the inhabitants had already moved away further down the mountain it was deemed unnecessary to repair and so has now sat in ruin for about fifty years.
Today there are only six inhabited homes left in the village of Üçkuyu, most of those who remain are semi retired and too poor to afford the move into the new village or city. Their homes, built with the rubble of the ancient town blend with the ruins.
Walking back from the upper churches we met Musa, a local who has lived his 85 years in Üçkuyu and seen it go from a lively village full of families and prosperity into its current state of abandonment. While many villages have seen their populations depleted by young people moving to the cities, preferring professional jobs over the labour-intensive work of farming and animal husbandry, Üçkuyu has become especially forlorn.
Musa’s wife had recently passed away, leaving him alone apart from visits from his son and grandson who come by occasionally to check up on him and keep him company. During the hard winter months Musa remains in the village where heavy snow has to be removed from the flat packed-earth roof, and a fire lit to keep the home warm. There are no stores nearby so getting food is also difficult. He had us into his home for tea, apologizing regularly, saying that now that his wife was gone he couldn’t host us properly. I asked if I could take a picture of him but he said he was “too old, perhaps if he was younger.”
The village of Üçkuyu sits close to one of the passes into the Karadağ crater so we took the gravel road up in search of the wild horses that live there. Apparently, they can be quite difficult to find as they roam the upper edges above the crater, often passing out of sight behind the numerous peaks as they graze on the steep slopes. As soon as we got into the crater itself, we began to see signs of the horses; I figured if I couldn’t find the horses themselves, I could always take a picture of their droppings instead. However, we were spared from having to take pictures of manure when we soon caught sight of them high above us on the rim of the crater. Getting out and climbing quietly to find a better vantage point, we spotted more and more of them, totalling around thirty.
The horses here are known as “Yılkı” horses, which means that they are descendants of domesticated horses. The word “Yılkı” carries connotations more like Mustang rather than feral, though, essentially, they are the same thing.
The horses were eventually spooked by our steady creeping towards them and so we descended outside the crater to the village of Madenşehir, the site most often associated with the 1001 Churches Karadağ. Here we found the largest church remains just on the edge of the village. The forewalls and apse of the church were still standing, and between them the northern wall appeared to defy gravity. This main church was marked as the basilica according to the sign, though further below the village was the remains of a much larger church with only its horse-shoe apse and a few tall stacks of masonry remaining to give any impression of the once incredible size.
While both Madenşehir and Üçkuyu were essntially quite similar, both made up of low stone houses built among the ruins of an earlier city with the remains of churches peaking out here and there, they felt completely different. Üçkuyu was a village at the end of a dead end road, its population depleted and its future sealed as a historical site rather than a village. Madenşehir on the other hand was still full of the sounds of animals and the rumble of tractors, with people hurrying about their business, the historic remains serving only as a backdrop, secondary to the harvest and work at hand.
Crowning one of the the Black Mountains lesser peaks, a volcanic vent, we found a rather unusual Roman ruin. At the summit of this cone are a number of lookout towers and in the center of the crater a wide circular pool. The roads to this lesser known site were rough and we had to stop a few times to pull boulders (and the occasional tortoise) out of the narrow track. Eventually we had to abandon the car and make our way on foot.
While the pool, partially dismantled to allow animals access to the water, and watchtowers were a unique sight, the most interesting part came on our return journey down the mountain. Making our way back down (driving in reverse for over a kilometer until we found a spot to turn around) we met a man living in a little shack overlooking the ruins of yet another historic village. He was in charge of protecting the historic sites in this part of the mountain. His job was to protect what remained of historical value in this area, to protect it from builders looking for cut stones and potential grave robbers who he mocked as idiots. “Do they really think these village peasants had gold to bury here? If they had gold they would have moved to the city! If I had money do you think I’d still be here?”.
Undoubtedly starved for company in this lonely place, he was happy to share all he knew with us. He pointed out faint patches of cleared land on the slopes above that had once been vineyards tended by the Greeks. He showed us the remains of churches and told us about the history of the castle above.