A cave of one’s own

Near Turkey’s geographical heart, Cappadocia is a region of dramatic cliffs, gorges, and rock pillars. For centuries locals have excavated cave dwellings and whole underground cities into the rock. Philip Sander goes in search of a cave with a view

Derinkuyu’s Underground City, a stronghold dug deep into bedrock. Pakhnyushchy/shutterstock.comCappadocia is famed for its landscape of fantastic rock formations, including the so-called “fairy chimneys”. Photograph by Berzina/shutterstock.comThe cliffs around Göreme are riddled with the remains of cave dwellings and churches. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinIn the steep lanes of Göreme. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinPoppies blooming in the Ihlara gorge. Photograph by Nicholas LaughlinThe small town of Uhisar nestles on the slopes below its “castle”. Photograph by Vlada Z/shutterstock.com

At surface level, the entrance to the underground city didn’t look like much: a simple stone building with tiled roof, a gate where a guard checked visitors’ tickets. Nearby was a dusty field, perhaps a park, and a street lined with shops selling tourist souvenirs or agricultural supplies. The modern-day town of Derinkuyu seemed sleepy and workaday. But beneath our feet, or so we’d been told, was one of the archaeological wonders of Cappadocia, and we were impatient to see it.

Ahmet, our guide, had a greying crewcut, an authoritative bearing, and a way of issuing invitations that sounded like orders. We suspected he used to be a drill sergeant, and he seemed determined to shepherd his charges along with military efficiency. “Sorry, this way, please.” Our group formed a neat line near the entrance. “Now,” said Ahmet, “this is the time to say who has heart problems, asthma, or claustrophobia.”

No one owned to these ailments, so we began our descent into the warren of ancient tunnels and chambers hacked into the bedrock underfoot in centuries past. A modern flight of steps took us down to the first level, a perfectly commodious cave which once served as a kind of anteroom to the chambers below. A winding tunnel led further on and down, opening onto smaller caves that once served as granaries, winepresses, and larders.

But the tunnel grew alarmingly narrower the deeper we went, and at the fourth level down it turned into a steep staircase apparently scaled for juvenile hobbits. Ahmet gave a mighty bellow into the narrow staircase entrance that clearly meant something like “Get out of the way!” For this was not a two-way thoroughfare, and as I descended in a half-crouch, I wondered if I should have admitted to a touch of claustrophobia.

After a hundred-odd steps, the staircase opened into a broad pillared chamber. Here, nearly two hundred feet underground, Derinkuyu’s deepest level included a cruciform church excavated from the rock, and the lower end of a ventilation shaft. It was also furnished by the site’s caretakers with a long wooden bench, a good point at which to pause and try to imagine spending days or weeks living in this subterranean stronghold, in an age long before electric light.

Near Turkey’s geographic centre, the Cappadocia region has a history shaped by its geology. A great plateau, bounded by mountain ranges to north and south, is covered with a thick layer of soft volcanic rock. Over many millennia, streams and rivers have cut valleys and deep gorges into this surface, creating a landscape of cliffs and ridges and even stranger formations — like the famous “fairy chimneys,” tall, conical pillars which cluster in certain vicinities. Long-ago inhabitants of the region realised the soft volcanic rock is also easily cut away by human effort. Cappadocia is thus a land of caves and tunnels, where houses, churches, and fortresses are hewn into hillsides. Or deep into the bowels of the earth, where I was now catching my breath.

According to archaeologists, the first caves below Derinkuyu date back to Roman times, the early centuries AD, and the complex reached its final extent by the ninth or tenth century, the era when Arabs from the south invaded what was then a Byzantine Greek settlement. Though it’s referred to as a “city,” this system of caves wasn’t a permanent settlement, but a sort of secret fortress, where citizens could retreat in times of danger. As many as twenty thousand people plus their livestock may have sheltered here, bringing enough food to withstand a siege. With the great millstone doors at the upper level rolled shut, those longtime Derinkuyans must have felt secure from whatever havoc was raging above.

As long as they weren’t troubled by claustrophobia.

 

Safely returned to the surface and the open air, I decided I wouldn’t have enjoyed a Derinkuyu getaway. I might have taken my chances with the Arab marauders instead. But the second archaeological site we visited that day was more to my liking.

Just outside the village of Ihlara, in the southern reaches of Cappadocia, the Melendiz River has cut a deep gorge. The cliffs along its ten-mile stretch are riddled with rock-cut churches and cave monasteries, which for centuries gave refuge to Greek monks. The best preserved are still decorated with wall and ceiling paintings of Biblical scenes, saints, and icons of the Pantocrator — Christ depicted as Ruler of the World.

Sandy paths and wooden bridges connect the main archaeological sites of the gorge, and its rushing stream is lined with groves of olive trees, fields of vegetables, and wildflower meadows. Visiting the churches usually involves a quick scramble up the lower slope of a cliff, and from their cavern entrances you can enjoy a view that probably hasn’t changed much over the centuries.

After lunch in Ihlara village, at a restaurant on the riverbank — where the waiter threw leftover bread rolls for the paddling ducks — a stroll through the gorge was an excellent way to pass the afternoon. The last spring poppies were still in bloom, and at strategic perches along the stream anglers cast their lines, with hopes of trout for dinner. Electric blue dragonflies hovered. The cliffs of the gorge rose sheer above us, honeycombed with geometric patterns of small man-made holes: dovecotes, once home to tame pigeons.

The river emerges from the gorge near the town of Güzelyurt, clinging to a cliff pierced with dozens of caves. A generation or two ago, many of these were still in domestic use, snug rooms tunnelled into the soft rock, cool in the summer and warm in winter. Across the valley, past a grove of pines, is the ancient monastery of Selime, another complex of caves and tunnels, with its two-storey “cathedral” cut into the rock. This was once a stopping-place for travellers, with cave stables for horses and camels, and cave dormitories for visitors. At the front of the monastery, a rock pinnacle is carved into a watchtower, surveying the whole valley below.

As I photographed the view I reflected on the tendency of medieval monks to favour remote and dramatic landscapes. There are far worse places to seclude oneself from the world, I thought, than this tree-lined gorge with its milky blue stream and profusion of wildflowers. And given the right comforts, a nice dry cave makes a perfectly acceptable home.

 

Which I knew from firsthand experience, since I’d been sleeping in a cave the past few nights myself. Like many visitors to Cappadocia, we’d based ourselves in the town of Göreme, at the heart of the region, near a confluence of valleys lined with fairy chimneys and deep clefts in the cream-coloured cliffs. Our hotel’s terraces and rose bushes were tucked into a cluster of rock pillars, and our room, entered down a shadowy staircase, went thirty feet into the rock. It was called the Stable Room, and perhaps in years past it had indeed sheltered horses or sheep. Now it was fitted up with carpets and solid furniture, hot water and embroidered blankets.

Cobbled lanes led precipitously down to Göreme’s main streets, where canals divided the town into quarters and mulberry trees carelessly dropped their fruit. Roses cascaded abundantly over stone walls and old wooden gates painted blue or pale green guarded courtyards and gardens. The centre of Göreme bustled with shops and restaurants, but on the outskirts, the streets quickly turned into paths, and a ten-minute stroll took us into a narrow valley of vineyards and eggplant fields. The hills nearby were profuse with flowers, few of which I could identify: deep violet, pale pink.

On our very first evening in Göreme, like all sensible visitors, we’d climbed the hill just behind our hotel to a ridge on the town’s eastern edge, ideal for admiring the sunset. A simple café served wine in earthenware goblets and bowls of pistachios, and we passed a very contented hour there, watching the light change and the hills and cliffs around us turn first a soft gold then a pale pink, as shadows crept from narrow valley clefts. To the west, just past the next ridge, a jagged peak stood up against the sinking sun, and as dusk fell with a desert chill, lights began to twinkle on its slopes. This was the “castle” of Uçhisar, Göreme’s nearest neighbour, and we decided we’d explore it the next day.

A bus ticket to Uçhisar cost all of ten lira, and ten minutes later we were in the main square, not far from the foot of the “castle” — a natural rock peak, containing dozens of hollowed-out rooms and passages. At Derinkuyu, people dug down to create a refuge from danger. At Uçhisar, they dug upwards. Most of the castle chambers have been cut off by erosion and rockfalls, but banks of stairs along the sheer sides allow ascent to the summit, crowned by a flagpole.

This is the highest point in central Cappadocia, and we lingered there, spellbound by the vista. The geology of the landscape was easy to grasp from our vantage: the rolling plateau incised by rivers, the strata of soft rock along every mountainside, the fertile and sheltered gorges. We could pick out the minarets of Göreme in the middle distance, and below us was Pigeon Valley, lined with poplars, and named for its density of stone dovecotes. Uçhisar’s neat red roofs spread out in an orderly grid, broken by the gleam of pewter-domed mosques. Butterflies played about the rocks of the summit, pale yellow with black stripes.

Then suddenly a melodious cry started up from the town below. It was the midday call to prayer, and every mosque had its loudspeaker to broadcast the muezzin’s appeal to the Muslim faithful. Their singing poured from the five minarets of Uçhisar, and even the muezzins of Göreme were audible in the distance. Distinct but interweaving, the voices made accidental harmonies, and in the pauses we could hear tractors rumbling in the streets beneath us.

It must have been an acoustic effect of the slopes and caverns, but the muezzins’ calls seemed to be dropping from the sky as much as rising from the earth. When it ended, a hum lingered in the air for a fraction of a moment, and then from far in the south I heard a grumble of thunder.

Not a bad spot to pass the centuries, I thought.

 

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