Tag Archives: Cappadocia

Living in Caves in Cappadocia

We spent three nights in a cave. We’ve had some unique accommodation during our trip, but sleeping in the caves of Cappadocia certainly tops the list so far. The area around Cappadocia is full of cave like sleeping options, be them underground, in mountainsides or in one of the thousands of ‘fairy chimneys’ that bubble up from the earth. These conical structures are what characterizes the topography of Cappadocia and make it one of the most sought after tourist destinations in Turkey. They were created over millions of years when consolidated volcanic ash was exposed due to continuous erosion.

The area has been inhabited for over four thousand years and reinvented by its many settlers. Between the ancient Hittite, Persian, Arab, Byzantine, Ottoman and Christian history, Cappadocia seems to be a place lost in time. Its landscape also gives it the illusion of being lost in space. We have not been on the moon (yet), but we’d imagine that it looks something like Cappadocia.

Over the past twenty years, Cappadocia’s most recent reinvention has been around the tourism industry. The fairy chimneys serve as homes as well as hotels, restaurants, hammans (bath houses), and stores. Towns, such as our temporary home of Goreme, have been built around the structures, to the point where it’s hard to tell where one chimney ends and a man made structure begins.

In addition to the bizarre landscape, the sense of spirituality left an impression on us. Up until a few hundred years ago, this area served to shelter Christians hiding from religious persecution. It was also in this region that Rumi and his resulting whirling dervishes spread their philosophy. Today, one can hear the frequent Muslim calls to prayer while visiting one of the many centuries old underground churches or monasteries. It all reminds us how far we have come – in many parts of the world at least – on religious tolerance. Most of us have the luxury of choosing what faith, if any, to follow. And with that, living in a cave can be a choice too.

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The Hittites Surprise Us in Mazi

In these days of guide books, travel websites, blogs and opinions galore, there are few travel experiences that catch us completely off guard. Once in a while there is an exception, such as our recent experience underneath the town of Mazi in Cappadocia.

As early as 1800 B.C., the Hittites built an elaborate system of underground caves and tunnels around Cappadocia. These cities were subsequently settled and expanded by Persians and Romans. Most recently they served as refuges for Christians, who were able to continue their faith in underground hiding from Persian and Arab rule.

We were warned that the tour crowds can make the known underground cities claustrophobic. Not wanting to give up on the experience, we asked our hotel owner whether we could see a less visited location. He suggested trying the newly excavated underground cities beneath the town of Mazi.

We almost missed Mazi, a town of just about 1,000. As we slowed the car, men leaving the town mosque after the mid day prayer gathered around to study us. We must have looked thoroughly confused because a burly man came up and introduced himself as the excavator, Issa.

Issa was extremely friendly, as most Turkish have been, particularly after noticing we have two kids in tow. He invited us for Turkish coffee inside what looked like a boarded up construction area. It all seemed rather suspicious, but the town was so unassuming that we figured we’d just go with the flow and see where things took us.

Issa and his crew have only excavated a small portion of Mazi and there is a lot that they still do not know about its inhabitants. What we do know is that thousands of years ago, these people had an advanced system of communicating, managing livestock and even mulling wine.  They had clay ovens that cooked their food and heated their homes, as well as and separate areas for sleeping, bathing and cooking. They managed to build cities that stretched five stories underground and two above, the ancient versions of our skyscrapers. Their architecture was complete with air vents, escape routes, and guillotines for the unwelcome and unexpected intruder.

We learnt that the Hittites had an elaborate hierarchical system and, it this conference room, the king entered through the big doorway, while his court bowed down to make it through the shorter entry.

The scale and sophistication of these cities given their age is unlike anything that we have ever experienced. Our appreciation was all the greater because we were treated to an intimate preview of the area, which few other tourists have seen. Next year, Mazi will formally open up to tourists. The dirt lot where Issa hosted us over coffee will be a ticket area. Visitors will get to see the underground cities beneath Mazi, but they won’t be treated to Issa’s hospitality and infinite patience. For now, Issa wants to share what he has already found with others and asked for our help to make a welcome sign.

We were Issa’s only visitors for that day. While we most definitely had an experience off the tourist route, it seemed somewhat ironic that by making the sign for Issa we played a role in putting Mazi on the tourist circuit for the rest of 2012.

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East or West in Turkey?

We were driving from Ankara to Cappadocia in Turkey. Ava and Kayan had been passed out for the two hours when Ava opened her eyes and exclaimed, “Look Kayan, it looks like New York!” When we asked why, her reply was, “The sky is blue and the clouds aren’t moving.”

We would have thought it was the snowy terrain, particularly after five months around Asia that would have reminded her of New York. Either way, we too felt the change in scenery, culture and weather after arriving in Turkey. Had we left the emerging world for the developed? Straddling both Europe and Asia, Turkey has a mixed personality. It’s a little bit East and a little bit West. It echoes ancient civilizations and empires yet boasts modern buildings and highways. Our first culture shock upon landing here was the lack of paperwork. After bureaucracy intensive Asia, it was very strange to get a Turkish visa (required upon landing for U.S. Citizens) and go through immigration and customs without filling up a single form. Good thing too, since the only writing instruments we had were color pencils. The entire process was very efficient and very impersonal. No eye contact required. It was a drastic departure from Asia, where we could barely cross the street without someone engaging us in conversation. Then, as if proving that she had different personalities, Turkey shocked us again. Upon exiting customs, a man with a big smile greeted us with a “Welcome to Turkey!” and handed each of the kids balloons boasting the Turkish flag and lollipops. Now that would never happen in New York.

The most glaring similarity to New York has been the prices. Our rental car for a week is about $1,000. Lunch at a roadside rest stop was $35, a far cry from our $1 dishes in Chiang Mai. East or West, ancient or modern, it’s all debatable. What we do know is that Turkey is opening up a whole new area of the world for us to explore. We’ve never seen New York, London, Istanbul and Baghdad so cozy together.

We’re planning to spend several weeks exploring Turkey and some of the caucuses. Perhaps by then we ‘ll know where this board is urging us to go.

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