Cappadocia, which roughly translates to “the highland of good horses” in ancient Persian, had been on my bucket list for at least a decade. (The second “c” is hard and pronounced like a “k.”) Our short flight from Izmir landed us in Kayseri whose population of one million makes it the third largest city in Turkey. As in Izmir, we didn’t stop in the city but headed directly to our hotel in “fairy chimney” country. Once one of the major stops along the Silk Road, Kayseri looks very industrialized today. It lies at the foot of the extinct volcano Mt. Erciyes, one of the many extinct volcanoes in the area.
Contrary to popular belief Mt. Erciyes did not contribute to the formation of the “tufa” that makes up the sensational eroding geological structures called “fairy chimneys” for which the Goreme Valley in Cappadocia is famous. The so-called “fairy chimneys” (Geologists call them hoodoos.) formed as a result of much older volcanic activity that began millions of years ago when a fault formed between two continental plates. The volcanic eruptions continued for about eight-thousand years and laid down thick layers of lava and ash.
When the volcanic activity stopped, the wide plateaus covered with volcanic debris began to be eroded by rain, wind and warming and cooling temperatures to form mushroom-like shapes with the harder basalt rock as caps on top of the softer tufa stems. Areas without basalt layers eroded into the deep canyons and valleys for which Cappadocia is also famous. The area actually reminded me of parts of New Mexico.
For millennia human beings have taken advantage of the tufa to construct homes, places of worship, and hiding places, altering and generally enhancing the landscape almost as much as the elements. Tufa is excellent building material, easy to cut with simple tools and relatively light weight with superb insulating qualities in an area with cold winters and hot summers.
On our drive through the somewhat barren but interesting countryside our guide Seyhun pointed out the many vineyards along the highway. Cappadocia seems like unlikely wine country, but in reality the area has been producing wine since at least the Hittite period which began in 18th century BC. The vineyards aren’t obvious because the vines are more like bushes growing low to the ground. About a third of the grape harvest is used for wine-making.
Grape growing sThe political situation in Turkey has really deteriorated since we were there in 2013. Our travel agent, the International Kitchen, is no longer offering tours to Turkey. The U.S. State Department urges U.S. citizens to reconsider travel there because of the danger of terrorist attacks, especially in popular tourist areas around Istanbul. Laurie, March 2018eems to be a largely part time occupation with the cultivators working full time elsewhere, often in the large tourist industry, and farming on the side. The maitre d’ at our hotel, for example, grows white grapes for wine while working the morning and evening shifts at the hotel and cultivating his vineyards in his free time.
Close to our hotel we made a brief stop for a bit of exploring and a photo op at a tufa formation that looks like a camel. The landscape is truly awe-inspiring, a combination of the toadstool world I imagined elves and fairies living in when I was a child but huge like a lunar landscape or the setting of a Star Wars episode. Even though the city of Kayseri seems to have a budding industrial base, Cappadocia as a whole is mostly agricultural because of the fertile soil that resulted when the mineral-rich tufa combined with guano from the pigeon population. More on the pigeons later.
Our Hotel in a Cave
Our hotel was the MDC Cave Hotel (www.mdchotel.com) located in Urgup, one of the larger towns in Cappadocia and a convenient base from which to explore the area. Urgup was a major trading center on the Silk Road and now has most of the up-scale hotels and restaurants catering to the tourist trade. A boutique hotel, the MDC is a truly fabulous place to stay with no two rooms alike. It was constructed from 33 individual homes that had been built into the tufa caves. But there is nothing cave-like about the accommodations.
Later, after we all had settled into our spaces, we toured each others’ rooms before dinner. Noel and I had what I like to call a “love grotto” in our space. From our bedroom there were stairs down to another pretty good size room with a bed built into a cozy (not at all claustrophobic) alcove carved out of the tufa. The stairs to the grotto were a little uneven, so I wouldn’t have wanted to climb up to the bathroom at night. We had a huge bathroom with a jacuzzi plus a living room. All the rooms have high ceilings and very nice outside patios. We actually had an extra single bed in our room, so our suite could have accommodated at least three people plus another adventurous soul or two in the love grotto.
The artwork throughout the hotel is terrific with many antiques, lovely framed suzanis and hand-woven rugs. Suzanis are embroidered textiles that were originally made by Uzbek women living along the Silk Road as it passed through Central Asia. The textiles tell the stories of their lives from birth to marriage and were used as dowry pieces. Suzanis represent the broad cultural connections made along the Silk Road and have influences from Greek, Persian, and Ottoman art. The word “suzani” means “needlework” in Farsi. Still hand-made today, suzanis for the most part come from Uzbekistan and are widely sold in Turkey. They are perfect complements to the tribal rugs that are woven in Cappadocia.
Dinner that night was excellent, accompanied by really good Cappadocian wine. One of the outstanding dishes was a tandoori soup. We had a pre-assigned table which was very nice in comparison to the festival seating we had encountered at the KoruMar on the Aegean leg of our journey, but this is a much smaller hotel.
The most delightful aspect of our evening meals was the very charming singer and musician who entertained us with traditional Turkish folk songs and seemed to be a master of several stringed instruments including the Turkish saz or baglama as well as the standard modern guitar. The saz is a lot like the medieval lute with a deep round body but with a longer neck. On our next trip to Turkey I would love to hear more traditional folk music. One evening on the streets in Istanbul we heard tantalizing snippets of some interesting Turkish violin music coming from a nightclub full of young people. Music is an aspect of Turkish culture that merits more investigation.
The highlight of breakfast the next morning was two women dressed in traditional garb sitting on the floor in front of griddles making gozleme. Gozleme is a large round hand-rolled pastry, thicker than phyllo dough, brushed with oil, filled with various goodies, folded and finally grilled. We had a choice of cheese, spinach, potato or any combination cooked to order. It was divine. There was also a really fine buffet of fruit, vegetables, yogurt, cheeses and cold cuts. The coffee was great and there was real juice, no Tang.
After breakfast we began our exploration of the Goreme Valley. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, Goreme National Park is riddled not only with hoodoos but also with man-made tufa caves that served as homes, churches, storage rooms and animal shelters. Human habitation has its roots here at least as far back as the Hittites. Cappadocia sat precariously between competing empires, first the Greeks and Persians and later the various tribes nipping at the heels of a declining Byzantine empire. The local population developed the practice of hiding out in tufa caves. This practice increased in the 2nd century AD when Christians arrived in the area to escape Roman persecution.
In the 4th century monasticism was spreading out of Egypt and many of its practitioners came to the Goreme Valley to pursue their ascetic way of life. At that time St. Basil the Great was the bishop of what is now Kayseri and there he wrote the rules for monastic life that are still followed in the Greek Orthodox Church. St. Basil advocated a more community-oriented way of life instead of the solitary asceticism of Egypt. Under his leadership the first Christian churches were built in caves in the Goreme Valley and eventually formed the monastic center that is now the Open Air Museum.
There are thought to have been close to 150 cave churches in the valley but most have disappeared through the ravages of weather and human strife. You can see the remains of seven in the Open Air Museum. The churches are small, generally accommodating less than a hundred worshippers.
There is an earnestness about the frescos inside the churches that I found enchanting, probably reflecting the idealism of early Christianity. Some frescos are more artistically sophisticated than others, polychrome on gessoed walls with much attention paid to the narrative. They could be in an alcove in Hagia Sophia. Others are simpler with mostly monochromatic red images painted directly on the tufa walls. It was interesting to see expressions of heavenly transcendence inside caves.
From the Open Air Museum we stopped at Pashabaglari, “the general’s vineyard,’’ also known as the Monks Valley because Christian monks took refuge here. Pashbaglari is known for its double and triple topped “fairy chimneys.” Until about 20 or 30 years ago the area was full of orchards and vineyards cultivated by the local villagers. As tourists started coming to see the tufa formations, conflicts arose between the villagers and sightseers who were inadvertently tromping on the crops.
For better or worse, the government intervened by taking over the land and giving the villagers licenses to sell souvenirs and food. It’s a bit of a tourist trap but the formations are so stunning that it hardly matters. We were only there less than an hour but you could easily spend several hours hiking and exploring.
Carpets, Balloons and Claustrophobia
After lunch we visited Bazaar 54, a carpet cooperative established in 1987 by what seems to be a joint venture of private enterprise and the government. The venture encompasses 54 villages in the area and its purpose is to promote and protect the tradition of carpet-weaving, its indigenous designs and use of natural dyes. Bazaar 54 provides employment for hundreds of local women weavers both in their homes and on site. We were given a private tour of silk production, dying and weaving and an overview of the types of carpets sold by Bazaar 54 and what to look for in hand-woven carpets.
Frankly, the designs of the silk rugs left me cold. I am drawn to the traditional wool Ushak carpets developed in the late 19th century when Oriental rug production underwent a rejuvenation. Ushak carpets combine tribal designs with the floral patterns of earlier Oriental rugs and use larger knots on an all-wool foundation. Roughly 70% of all Turkish rugs are made in Cappadocia.
Noel and I purchased a 90-year-old Ushak after some intense bargaining. I don’t know if Bazaar 54 is the cheapest place to purchase a carpet but I am sure of the quality. We didn’t have to pay to have it shipped home. It arrived about six weeks after we returned.
One activity I absolutely wanted to do during our brief stay in Cappadocia was a balloon ride. Seyhun arranged to have a representative of the hot air balloon company, Kaya Balloons, meet with us before dinner to make arrangements for a sunrise flight the next morning.
The rides are not cheap. I think we paid roughly $350/person for an hour’s ride. The company flies several different size balloons, some carrying as many as 28 passengers. Thanks to our friend Carol’s insistence that she didn’t want to be stuck in a crowded balloon and not be able to see, we managed to get ourselves into an 8-person balloon basket. I was actually amazed at the size of the large balloon baskets and was very happy to be in a small one.
We dutifully got ourselves up at 4am the next morning and were picked up by the company for our 5am ascent. Watching the balloons being inflated in the dark was almost as interesting as the ride itself. I have a bit of vertigo so I was afraid I might freak out being so high up in an open-air balloon, but the ascent was slow and the air calm.
It was wonderful floating over the dramatic landscape while the earth lit up below us. Our friends Jan and Richard had done a balloon ride in West Virginia earlier that spring and had had a rough landing in someone’s back yard, so they were understandably a bit anxious about the landing, but I’m happy to report ours was gentle. We arrived back at our hotel in time for the gozleme breakfast. I overate and had two.
This was a very busy day. We spent a good part of the morning after breakfast exploring the underground city of Kaymakli. There are about 36 known underground “cities” in Cappadocia. Excavation into the tufa to form the cave cities probably began with the Hittites, but the peak occupation time occurred from the 3rd through the 7th centuries AD when the Christians expanded them to hide first from the Romans and at the end from the invading armies of Islam.
Kaymakli is eight levels deep, only four open to the public. Roughly 3000 people at a time are thought to have taken refuge there. The first level has stables for the animals, the second a small church and some living quarters, the third and fourth more living quarters, communal kitchens and a winery and lots of storage. All the levels are organized around ventilation shafts.
You have to duck down to go from one level to another and the ceiling heights of the levels are quite low. If you’re over 6’ tall, you have to watch your head. Apparently, people spent weeks underground hiding quite effectively from invaders on the surface. But I have to say, I would probably fall on my sword before I could spend much time underground like that. Our visit was interesting but very claustrophobic. I was glad when we emerged into the open air.
The highlight of this cooking lesson was making dolmas, stuffed grape leaves. The secret technique to making them, aside from being skilled at rolling, is to steam them upright in a clay pot lined with lettuce to keep them from sticking and with lemon to enhance the flavor. We thoroughly enjoyed our cooking efforts with good red wine outside on one of the terraces. The hotel has a well curated gift shop offering antiques as well as items like Aleppo pepper flakes which I think are the best pepper flakes in the world.
Ceramics and Sufis
Our next stop was another shopping opportunity, this time for ceramics at Omurlu Ceramic in Avanos. [As of March 2018 the ceramic company appears to be closed.] We were given a thorough orientation of the three kinds of pottery the family-owned company produces – replications of red clay ceramics first introduced by the Hittites in 2000BC, Chinese style ceramics introduced by the Ottomans and the family’s own “peacock” style with its under glass glaze that prevents cracking. The shop has basically two price levels, high-end, one of a kind ceramics, and lower price point, mass produced work that is great for gift giving. I found the Iznik style tiles to be particularly nice. The shop packs the pieces extremely well and offers shipping that guarantees safe delivery.
On our way back to our hotel we stopped at a spot that overlooked Pigeon Valley (Guvercinlik). Although the pigeon population has declined somewhat recently, pigeons have played an important role in Cappadocia’s agriculture. They have been used not only as a means of communication but also by farmers as producers of fertilizer from their droppings. You see dovecotes everywhere carved out of the tufa.
After dinner that night we were privileged to attend a Sema, a whirling dervish ceremony performed by Sufi dancers. Our friends Richard and Jan had seen a nightclub performance of Sufi dancing while we were at the Aegean resort, but this event was an authentic whirling meditation. The practice of Sufi whirling dervishes was inspired by the writings of the Persian poet Rumi, an Islamic mystical poet and philosopher.
A Sema practitioner believes that all beings revolve — electrons and protons around a nucleus in atoms, planets around the sun, the blood around the body through the heart. The ceremony represents a spiritual journey of love through the body and mind of the individual to a union with perfection or God. The dancer turns toward the truth by revolving from right to left around the heart. His arms open with his right hand toward the sky to receive God’s blessing and his left hand is turned toward the earth. The ego is dissolved into a state of ecstasy.
The secular government of Kemal Ataturk closed all the Sufi orders in 1925 but later in 1927 allowed the tomb of Rumi in Konya, Turkey, to be reopened as a museum. In the 1950’s the government began to allow limited performances of Sufi dancing. In 2005 UNESCO declared the Mevlana Sema in Turkey one of the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” And so it goes . . .
A Happy Ending
The next day we flew back to Istanbul for two days of unguided relaxation and reflection on our Turkish journey. We stayed in the Antea Hotel in the Old City this time, very near the Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque. At first we were a little taken aback at the small size of our rooms, but despite the close quarters the rooms were quite adequate with good bathrooms, comfortable beds and high tech lighting and other amenities. The breakfast included with the room was very good. We were able to walk to the Grand Bazaar, pretty touristy but a good place to buy suzanis and Yemeni slippers, and took a boat ride along the Bosphorus. On our last night we dined at the Sarnic Restaurant located inside a 1500 year old Roman cistern. Truly beautiful atmosphere with live music. [Sadly, as of March 2018 this restaurant appears closed.]
One observation I made during this stay in Istanbul is the unbelievable number of cats in the city. As we were walking to the Sarnic, we passed by the back door of a restaurant where the workers were feeding scraps to what I assumed were feral cats. There were dozens of them. It was a bit creepy, leading me to wonder how small birds are surviving in the city. Presumably, the rats and mice are under control.
At Ataturk Airport the next day as frequent flyers we were all allowed into the Prime Class Lounge. It is the best airport lounge I’ve ever been in with a wide variety of food, much grilled to order, and unlimited, pour-it-yourself wine and liquor. All gratis. I can’t heap praises enough on our guide Seyhun Aktoprak and our travel company, The International Kitchen and its owner Karen Herbst. Noel and I plan on booking again with The International Kitchen , perhaps a culinary tour of Tuscany.