Rugs and Lost Cities in Aksaray

/ By Josh

Back in September 2017 I went on a trip with my family all over Turkey. Along the way we took a stop in the town of Sultanhanı where I met Menderes, a local rug trader. We spent hours talking about different types of rugs, the industry, and the way Turkey’s shifting culture has changed the world of rug weaving. There was so much more that he wanted to show me, so I made plans to come back again that winter. Finally, after many delays (and only fourteen months later) I have made it back!

Nevşehir Caves Cappadocia
The endless maze of caves and tunnels in Turkey’s Cappadocia

Making our way to Sultanhanı from Kayseri we stopped to explore some cave houses, got stopped by the police who decided to have a conversation with me via Google Translate, and, as we were on the Silk Road, we attempted to visit the Caravanserai at Ağzkarahan only to find out that restorations were abandoned years ago and the door welded shut!

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Pulling into Sultanhanı we met our friend in front of the massive Caravanserai and, after a quick lunch of Etli Ekmek, a local speciality, we picked up where we had left off a year ago and continued the tour of the town’s surprising busy rug industry.

Sultanhanı Turkish Rugs
Even though he knew we weren’t going to buy anything Menderes couldn’t help but tear the store apart to show us his favourites
Sultanhanı Turkish Rugs
Shaving a rug before it gets bleached to give it an antique look

Despite being a relatively small town, a huge number of the locals work in the rug industry in one way or another. Local women weave or spin wool, while many of the men work repairing or straightening old rugs. Some take old rugs and recycle the hand-spun wool while others chop them up and stitch them together into new mosaic-like rugs. In some cases, brand new rugs are bleached and re-dyed to suit the tastes of Western markets. There are wool dyers, rug sourcers, and of course a few rug merchants, all with their own niche so that competition stays relatively low. The weirdest sight by far was seeing hundreds of rugs laying in heaps in the dirt and spread in the middle of the road.

Sultanhanı Turkish Rugs
Bleached rugs being dried

Menderes is incredibly passionate about rugs. It’s hard to tell if his place is a store or a personal collection. He had all sorts of special rugs that would likely be really hard for him to sell. He told me he had just bought one that he probably shouldn’t have bought considering the expensive winter ahead, but he just couldn’t pass it up. If you ever want to know about different rug types, qualities, and styles he’ll gladly spend hours teaching you!

Sultanhanı Turkish Rugs wool dye0
Hand spun yarn being mixed in a cauldron of natural dyes

Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anyone weaving rugs as the cold hadn’t set in yet even though it was November! Honestly, when I realize how cold it is back in Canada, I’m so glad to be in Turkey where frost has only just begun to appear!

After our tour of Sultanhanı we spent a night in the Aksaray city centre in one of the best hotels I’ve been in in a long time! No filth, a working shower, a toilet that flushes, no bugs, and best of all, no brothel! So not at all like Ankara

Çanlı Church Ruıns
The church with Mount Hasan rising out of a thin fog across the valley.

Now because we had no idea how long we were going to be staying with Menderes I hadn’t made any further plans or even done any real research regarding where to go next so after breakfast we headed for what appeared to be one of the least touristic sights on the map: Çanlı Church.

Aksaray Çanlı Kilise Church
Aksaray Çanlı Kilise Church

Aksaray Çanlı Kilise Church Cave
Roosts for pigeons carved in the sides of old churches and homes

This turned out to be a great choice! The church building, though ruinous, was still impressive and the views of Mount Hasan were stunning. In typical Cappadocian fashion the hills around the old church were full of caves, tunnels, and the pits left by the occasional treasure hunter. To top it off we met a man there whose job is to stop and report treasure hunters! He invited us over to one of the caves for tea and pulled a wood burning teapot/fireplace type thing out of another cave, then tea and sugar from another, and cups from yet another cave. When a couple of truck drivers showed up for tea he went to yet another cave for extra cups! I jokingly asked why he kept all his stuff in different caves instead of just one. Everyone laughed but I never did find out why he spread his stuff out everywhere.

A couple of days after returning home I was going through pictures from this trip and I realized that I had made a huge mistake; I had totally forgotten to take his picture! I do this all the time. I meet an interesting person, think about taking their portrait, then totally forget as I get caught up in learning about their fascinating lives! The best I got was the side of his head.

Aksaray Çanlı Kilise Church Cave
Tea in a cave with one of the best views you could imagine! That’s me in the blue just in case you’ve never seen me (I’m usually on the other side of the camera).

Aksaray Çanlı Kilise Church

Our next stop, one that we more stumbled upon than anything else, was the town of Kızılkaya, home to the Neolithic site of Aşıklıhöyük. Aşıklıhöyük was as unimpressive as any other neolithic site where, to protect the fragile mudbrick structures, most of the site is re-buried or under large shelters and all the best goods are kept in the Aksaray museum. In town while getting some groceries we met the owner of the local tea house who took us on a tour of the old town, a series of beautiful old stone houses and cave homes abandoned after an earthquake sent car-sized boulders through walls and roofs. The red cliffs above the town are the source of the town’s name which means “Red Boulder”. Apparently 50 movies have been filmed in this amazing location, including The Ottoman Lieutenant, and it’s pretty easy to see why!

Aksaray Kızılkaya Aşıklı Höyük
A somewhat typical sight at any neolithic site
Aksaray old Eski Kızılkaya
One of the many old homes in Old Kızılkaya. This particular one was our guide’s father in-law’s home.

Day three turned out to be the most exciting by far!

Once again we drove out of the city centre, this time intentionally down the wrong road in hope of finding some cool new sights. The fog turned out to be so thick we could barely see the road at times but the fog itself was gorgeous!

Aksaray Nora Yüksek Kilise
Shortly after taking this shot it got so foggy I almost had to stop

Along the way we saw a sign reading “Nora” and “Süt Kilise” (meaning Milk Church) and decided to investigate. After getting some incredibly vague directions we decided to stop and climb a hill in hopes of finding the church. At the top of the hill we found a small excavation that revealed some minimal signs of there once having been a building there. A rather anticlimactic find. But thinking that we’d be total idiots if there actually was another church in the area and we simply missed it, we decided to continue looking around.

Aksaray Nora
Some of the scattered sections of rough walls and doors

As we went on we started to see walls of rough, uncut, jumbled stones, much like a shepherd would make, only the stones were way too big. Further along we saw a few with doorways intact, then reaching the crest of the hill we were blown away! A whole valley filled with ruined buildings, streets, stairs, and even a few arches left standing with the snow-capped peak of Mount Hasan looming close! Thank goodness we didn’t give up!

Aksaray Nora Ruined City Helvadere
Our first sight of the ruined city!
Aksaray Nora Ruined City Helvadere
A ruined church, one of the most intact buildings in the city

Perhaps the best thing about this is that we had no idea what we were looking at. There were no signs, no explanations, and no indication that the place had ever been excavated (other than by the odd treasure hunter of course)! This sense of mystery and discovery combined with the vastness of it and the massive peak of the mountain made this one of my favourite places I’ve ever been to in Turkey! Some local shepherds later explained that archaeologists had not yet excavated anything there and that it’s mostly used as a grazing ground for flocks of sheep. I honestly can’t recommend this place enough; visit Nora!

Aksaray Nora Ruined City Helvadere

As it turns out my lack of research isn’t totally to blame for my not knowing anything about Nora. Apparently very little is known about the place and if you look at Wikipedia or the myriad of other sites that plagarize from it, you’ll run into the issue that Nora was also known as Mokissos, which was later renamed Kırşehir. The problem is that Kırşehir is 100kms to the north, nowhere near Mount Hasan. Were there two places called Mokissos then? The mystery continues…

Aksaray Nora Ruined City Helvadere

After many hours of exploring Nora, some locals in town told us that there was a castle and ruined church further up the mountainside that we could drive to. The drive though the oak forest on the frosty roads was stunning (though rather slippery at times) and the church (known as Süt Kilisesi or Milk Church), sitting high in the alpine slopes of Mount Hasan, offered yet another magnificent view! The castle, however, was so unimpressive that we actually mistook it for a warehouse when we passed it the first time. The castle looks like a poor attempt at building a castle for some tourist attraction. Kind of like the type you’d see at a mini-golf course started by a bored retiree with a vague understanding of masonry and a love for rocks. It was tiny, the walls thin, and all the stones set vertically. If it wasn’t for the clear remains of a chapel in the one corner I’d honestly think it was some sort of weird fake. So skip the castle and just go see the church above the tree line!

Aksaray Nora Ruined City Helvadere
Süt Church on the slopes of Mount Hasan
Aksaray Nora Ruined City Helvadere
This beautiful mountain was visible from almost everywhere we went on this trip.

With our time slowly coming to an end, we decided to start making our way back through the heart of Cappadocia towards Kayseri. With stops in Ihlara, where we had an amazing lunch with a very philosophical restaurant owner and another break at the aptly named Yüksek Church (High Church) we wove through the deep red and pitch black cones of ancient volcanos, down into the deep canyon road by Soğanlık, and into southern Kayseri just as the sun set.

Yüksek Kilise High Church