Imagine a terrain formed millions of years ago, a vast lava plain, created by several volcanoes and their eruptions. Fast forward through the next couple million years, through eroding winds and rain. Then imagine that thousands of years ago, hunter gatherers discovered that the basalt that created this otherworldly terrain was soft enough to carve out to create shelter. Over the next 4500 years the human hand of Cappadocia would continue to define the terrain that the volcanoes had started.
From prehistory until very recently, countless groups of people have inhabited the so-called “Fairy Chimneys” of this region. In 2000 BC, the Hittites lived there. In Roman times, Christians fled to the caves, digging layer upon layer beneath the earth, in a complex systems of tunnels. Throughout the Middle Ages, the caves were used as monasteries, as schools, as convents.
Into modern times, the caves of Cappadocia have been enlarged, refined, even modernized. While tourism increases and cave hotels afford every luxury, small groups of people continue to live in the caves that have served their families for generations. Others have had to leave because the caves have become unstable, but they continue to live close by their “ancestral” homes.
It is impossible to understand this terrain unless you experience it. It is impossible to understand how people could have lived this way, even when you are standing right on the spot and staring at it. Their lives speak: A two thousand-year old fire pit. A thousand-year old monastery dining table and bench carved directly from the rock. A depression in the cave floor where medieval grapes were crushed to make wine. Sleeping berths hollowed out in family quarters. Cave churches with frescoes from as far back as 600 AD. Tourists names and initials carved into the soft walls, some as far back as the 1800s. Convent stairways cut from the rock that wound around at precarious angles to the sleeping rooms high above.
My family and I spent three days touring the region. We hiked, we climbed, we descended, we hunched over and went cautiously through dark tunnels. We stood in awe at the sheer magnitude and at the tiniest of details. We took a hot air balloon ride at dawn and were speechless, seeing the terrain from above. We ended each day barely able to process what we had seen and learned.
(Many thanks to my beautiful daughter-in-law Janelle, whose artistic eye and steady hand capture the magic of wherever she goes)