We leave behind Istanbul and the gilded splendors left on the banks of the Bosphorus by two millennia of successive empires for a further jump backward into ancient history. The next stop is Nevsehir, the gateway to Cappadocia, in the heart of the arid highlands of Central Anatolia. In Cappadocia, or “Land of Beautiful Horses” in the language of its Bronze Age Hittite settlers, history is hewn into the rock, by the elements and the various human waves that have inhabited it since pre-Hellenic times.
FAIRY CHIMNEYS AND BYZANTINE CAVE CITIES
Millions of years of volcanic activities covered the area with layers of lava and compressed volcanic ash (or tuff) that were then eroded by the harsh climactic conditions into an otherworldly landscape of jagged cliffs and soaring towers. “Fairy chimneys” were formed when the lava covering the tuff gave way along preexisting cracks and the remaining protected areas became isolated pinnacles. These pillars of soft rocks topped with conical lava hats can reach heights up to 130 feet (40 meters).
The region is a beehive of cave and cliff dwellings. By some estimates, local inhabitants were carving their homes into the soft tuff as far back as 4000 years ago. Later, some of the first Christian settlements were established in the protective remoteness of the area. Eventually they grew into vast underground cities capable of sheltering tens of thousands inhabitants.
One of the largest, Kaymakli is a fascinating seven-floor labyrinth of tunnels, some of them quite narrow, with the various living spaces arranged around ventilation shafts. Of the four levels open to visitors at this time, the first floor holds mainly stables and a giant millstone that controls access to the other floors. A stunning church with a pillared nave and two apses is carved into the second floor, its domed ceiling covered in vivid Byzantine frescoes. The third floor contains all the life-sustaining areas: wine and oil presses, grindstones and kitchens.
We spend the night in Uchisar, the highest point in Cappadocia, topped by a sprawling cliff dwelling, the Uchisar Castle. From there the entire city, many of its buildings anchored to the rock face, cascades all the way down do the valley below. Our hotel is nestled in the rock, at the base of the castle. The view is jaw dropping!
The next day, we head to the nearby troglodyte (cave dwellers) complex of Pasabagi (more gloriously frescoed rock churches there). This is also the area where the most spectacular “Fairy Chimneys” are located. The site is known as Monks Valley, as the chimneys were home in the fifth century to a hermitage of Simeon monks, who lived in seclusion by cutting shelters high the pillars.
GREEK AND ROMAN ANTIQUITIES CONVERGE
Because we are “in the neighborhood” (i.e. Turkey), we don’t want to miss the ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus. It’s quite a trek from Cappadocia: a three-hour drive to Ankara, during which we ride along the crusty banks of Tuz Gölü (meaning Salt Lake). With its 643 square mile (1,665 square kilometer) surface, it is the second largest lake in Turkey and one of the largest hypersaline lakes on the planet. After a quick stop in Ankara, the country’s capital since it replaced Istanbul in 1923, we fly to Izmir for the night and we are ready to explore Ephesus in the morning.
In spite of its long and illustrious Greek history, it is the memory of its Roman grandeur that remains. By the first century B.C. it was one of the largest city in the Mediterranean world with a population of more than 250,000. It had the world’s largest theatre and its largest building, the temple of Artemis. Both can still be seen, although little remains of the latter. But the stunning façade of the Library of Celcius, built a couple of centuries later and the iconic monument of Ephesus, still stands in all its awesome splendor.