There are many idealized places in this world. Destinations we dream of, spurred on by the golden glow of movies and postcards, only to arrive and realize that pictures don’t always tell the truth. Take, for example, Paris, France. No city is more romanticized in the collective American mindset, yet Paris is just like any other city: populated by real people, filled with real triumphs and failures, home to the rich and the poor. In the end, many have found that they prefer the Paris of their imaginations.
Fortunately, there are places that are impossible to over-hype. My husband, Jacob, can attest to that – I’ve been hyping Cappadocia, Turkey for years since my last life-changing stint there. Thankfully, all of the pictures, nostalgic stories, and foaming at the mouth still were not enough to over exaggerate the alien-like surrealism of the city.
Cappadocia lies in an area of central Turkey surrounded by three dormant volcanoes. Volcanic activity over the ages has left massive deposits of a soft and porous stone that is easily shaped by wind and rain. The result is a surreal landscape riddled with secret caves and “fairy chimneys”: pillars of stone, carved by years of erosion into columns that guard the land like a thousand watchtowers. As the stone is so malleable, caves and fairy chimneys have been used as natural housing for thousands of years; rather than constructing homes on the land, people instead constructed their homes in the land. The stone provided natural insulation, and most of all, protection from enemies.
“The valleys were moonscapes, a scene from another planet, the fairy chimneys scattered in the midst of trees just beginning to show their autumn colors.“
Vast communities of ancient Christians settled this area of Turkey. The evidence of their occupancy lies everywhere: they built churches (by the hundreds), monasteries and cities. Because of their long history of persecution, however, they chose to build their churches, monasteries and cities in secret, hidden places.
Jacob and I visited one of those hidden cities, flabbergasted as we stood 8 stories underground in the middle of a street. It extended further – another 2 levels underground – with capacity and resources for 10,000 people, including livestock, to live for one month. In the past, these cities were used primarily in times of crisis: if needed, the entire population could disappear overnight, sliding a rock behind them to cover the entrance. There are schools, wine presses, stables, churches, graveyards, wells, and ventilation shafts. There are even tunnels that extend as far as 13 km, connecting underground city to city.
We spent our days climbing around the dry and dusty landscape, straying as far as we could into the wilderness in one days’ walk. The valleys were moonscapes, a scene from another planet, the fairy chimneys scattered in the midst of trees just beginning to show their autumn colors. One afternoon, we walked through the deserted fields of a farm, stealing from a tree the sweetest honey-flavored apple we had ever tasted.
“We left Cappadocia feeling like astronauts leaving the moon, casting longing glances behind as we muttered: “We’ll never be able to describe this.”
High in the fairy chimneys, holes and windows were clearly visible punched into the stone – often too high to access safely. We managed to climb up to a few of the openings, slipping through a crack in the rock to find ourselves in incredible places.
On one occasion, we hoisted ourselves up a dangerously steep rock to enter a window that had a little cross painted next to it. Once inside, we found ourselves in an abandoned church. Dilapidated murals covered the walls and archways. The carved columns had broken off at the base and hung perilously from the ceiling. Many of the churches are painted elaborately with murals of Jesus’ life and the saints and apostles; these cave churches, however, were often discovered by religious persecutors who vandalized the paintings by scratching out the eyes from the murals.
We crawled into as many places as we could find, scuttling through small windows and tunnels to explore further into the caves. We always returned back to our hotel in the evening, exhausted, dust-covered and scratched, but grinning ear to ear.
Our hotel, as it was, sat on the edge of a valley; the houses built in and around the fairy chimneys of the town Goreme. The surreal landscape of Cappadocia lends itself as a popular destination for hot air ballooning. In the mornings, we’d wake at sunrise to watch the balloons take off. Even before we were outside we could hear the balloons, silent except for the shots of flame, like crashing waves, which propel them up. The sight took our breath away.
When we finally left Cappadocia, we felt like astronauts leaving the moon, casting longing glances behind and muttering: “We’ll never be able to describe this.”