In the heart of Anatolia in Turkey lies the strange rocky landscape of Cappadocia, where nature has carved out huge areas of rock pillars topped by small hats in a harder stone – they are called “fairy chimneys” by the inhabitants and are the result of millions of years of volcanic activity. Long before the time of man, the earth spewed forth lava with chunks of harder material in it, covering the area. When the ashes and lava finally cooled, wind and water went to work. The softer stone was eroded away, left standing only where a cap of hard stone protected it. The pillars were born.
From the Stone Age and onwards people came to live in Cappadocia, making use of the architecture provided by nature. In the soft tufa stone of the pillars they hollowed out storage rooms and dwellings, creating whole villages cut out of the rock. These man-made caves provided shelter against enemies, since they were hard both to find in the wild landscape and even harder to get up into, and they were cool in the scorching heat of summer as well as keeping a temperature of about 15 °C in winter. Today, you can see the openings dotting every cliff face, many of them with sturdy doors and ancient looking locks that tell you they are still in use. High up they may be used as dovecotes and at ground level as goat pens, and it is still usual to have some of the back rooms of a house carved out of the cliff.
Cappdocia was the homeland of the Hittites in the Bronze Age, and later on became part of the Lydian kingdom of king Croesus (the one who allegedly turned everything he touched into gold). It was governed by local aristocrats who were left in place even as Cappadocia was made part of the Persian empire. In time, Alexander the Great conquered the Persians and would have liked to be master of the land with the fairy chimneys as well, but it slipped out of his grasp and became an independent kingdom. Independence was however not easy in a world of warring super-powers, especially when one of these was Rome… The whole turbulent period ended with Cappadocia becoming a Roman province.
Being Roman meant having a fair share of Roman problems as well, and one of these problems was the new religion of Christianity. This is the reason you’ll find underground villages like Kaymakli in Cappadocia, hollowed out just like the rooms in the pillars but much more secret and difficult to spot. People didn’t live there, but it was a refuge when they were persecuted and the caverns continued to be used as such whenever there was trouble brewing, right up to modern times. Every family in the village had its special rooms and places for the most precious livestock, there were wells, air intakes and sleeping benches. Squeezing through narrow corridors really gives the modern visitor a feeling for the hardships of times gone by…
The most famous epoch of Cappadocia starts in the Byzantine empire. Now of course Christianity was the national creed of the emperors, and over 1000 small chapels were laboriously cut out in the rock pillars, complete with vaults and columns, and decorated with beautiful frescoes in strong, muted colors. These small churches also were hard to discern from the outside, and the faithful accessed them by ladders and trapdoors – this meant that if an area shifted into non-Christian hands in the fighting between the Byzantine empire and the tribes and empires to the east, people were could still practice their faith quite safely.
Visiting the rock churches is only part of the adventure in this landscape, though. It is a hiker’s and climber’s paradise, and the small towns and villages with their mosques and minarets are perfect places to idle away an afternoon, getting to know the patrons of the coffee shop and watching village life unfold. Spending a summer holiday at the Turkish coast you can easily make an excursion to the fairy chimneys and get right to the most spectacular places, like Göreme with its more than 30 rock churches. If you’re more adventurous the main city of Kayseri is linked by air and railway with Istanbul, so get your backpack and go exploring on your own!