3 – 6 May 2014
Ever since we saw the hills and valleys of Cappadocia, with ancient churches and entire cave-towns carved into the sides, hiking elsewhere just hasn’t been interesting. Cappadocia, in central Turkey, has apparently been inhabited since 7500 BC(!). In addition to having the most awe-inspiring landscapes you could want, it’s also Turkey’s biggest wine-producing region and the site of some of the earliest evidence of grape domestication and wine production in the world. We went on a tour of one winery in Urgup that wouldn’t have been out of place in Napa Valley, CA.
The wine is pretty good, but it’s the relationship between geology and culture that draws tourists to Cappadocia. Tens of millions of years ago, a few volcanoes erupted and covered the area in ash. The ash compressed and became soft tuff, which erosion sculpted into a surprising landscape of porous towers (“fairy chimneys”) and weirdly wavy hillsides. As the hillsides erode, you can see new fairy chimneys in various states of emergence, like a time-lapse landscape on the scale of millions of years.
Early Christians found refuge in this region during the Roman empire’s persecution of the new religion. They carved out homes and churches in the relatively soft tuff, living in vast complexes inside the hills and chimneys and in sprawling, interconnected underground cities (up to 55 meters underground, or 8 floors) that housed thousands of people and included space for livestock, graveyards and wineries. People lived in the rocks until the 1800’s, and today some cave homes still exist, as well as many boutique “cave” hotels for tourists.
Wander around any given town in the region, and you can easily find yourself in some old caves, at the end of a street -wherever a town runs into a hillside, the regular houses just give way to houses inside the hills. We stayed up on a hill in small, peaceful Uchisar, which had expansive views of the whole region and gave a little window into village life.
The sad part about the region is that most of the frescoes we saw were covered in graffiti, and many of them had the eyes or faces of the figures scratched off (we never found out if the scratching off happened a long time ago or was as recent as the graffiti). It was really an exceptional level of defacement that we had not seen in any other tourist site across many countries. Additionally, every time we peeked over a ledge to look down into a rock ledge, or cubby, we found empty plastic water bottles. The bottles filled every spot that in any way resembled a receptacle. The plastic trash was a sad anachronism in the stone and earthen dwellings.
We got (mostly) away from the tourists and trash when we went to hike the entire 14 km Ilhara valley. For once, the guidebooks weren’t exaggerating whey they described it as the most beautiful valley around. The entire length of the valley walls is full of dwellings, hundreds of churches, and even a mosque cut into the rock, dating from the Byzantine. It is thought to be the first settlement of the first Christians who fled to the area to hide from the Romans.
The day we went to hike, it rained on and off, and hailed. We got caught in a huge downpour in a wide part of the valley – no caves were around for shelter. While we huddled, mostly wet, under a tree, an old Turkish woman who was working on a nearby field walked over to us. She wore a headscarf and a skirt – no raincoat or umbrella. I reached out my hand to help her up on the high ground under the tree with us, and then she unleashed a torrent of words in Turkish. It seemed like a proper scolding, but I just smiled at her and pointed toward our destination. Once she realized there was no hope of our understanding each other, she exclaimed, “ALLAH!” and headed out in the downpour, walking slowly down a path until she disappeared from sight.