Fairy chimneys and underground cities – Goreme, Turkey

Site 357 – Goreme National Park and the Rock Site of Cappadocia, Turkey

Cappadocia must be one of the most contested pieces of land in human history. As a relatively flat, relatively easy to traverse plain that links the middle east and Europe, there has been no shortage of rampaging armies using the area as a highway. Apart from periods of relative stability under the Roman Empire, residents of Cappadocia were continually under threat from invaders seeking to take their produce kill the owners. What is an Anatolian peasant to do?

As it happened, they built an underground city.

This is easier than it sounds. Cappadocia is an interesting place geologically, as the landscape is largely made up of a soft volcanic stone called tuff. Tuff is easy to carve, so in much of the region the residents gave up trying to build houses out of difficult-to-acquire timber and instead dug out cave dwellings. These have been fairly durable due to the lack of rainfall in the area, and a large concentration exist in the town of Goreme, Cappadocia’s tourism capital.

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The national park named after the town is populated with an eerie forest of  so-called “fairy chimneys”, which formed when a lid of harder stone protected the tuff underneath from erosion. Some fairy chimneys became houses, but most stand untouched but oddly threatening, like a petrified army or biblical pillars of salt. It’s best visited at dusk when the fading light illuminates the pretty ochre tones of the landscape and makes the fairy chimneys stand out.

But back to the underground city. It must have occurred to the ancient residents of the region that, since houses were so easy to dig out of stone, they might as well keep digging downwards. Subterranean dwellings are pretty easy to hide from invaders. The underground city of Derinkuyu is the most accessible of these sites, and purportedly was capable of containing 20,000 people and their animals, which astonishes me.

It’s a claustrophobic place. The entryway is small enough to keep hidden from marauders  and any expectation that the interior would be spacious is quickly thwarted. I don’t like enclosed spaces or crowds very much, so Derinkuyu tested me. Narrow passageways open into small rooms which were meant to contain a flock of sheep. Around every corner there seems to be another flight of steep stairs leading further into the depths. The original builders were Christians, so occasional chapels provide some relief from the crush, but even these places of worship resemble a fallout shelter more than anything else. I simply cannot imagine what this place must have been like with several villages worth of people and animals crowded in for weeks or months at a time. The stench must have been overwhelming.

Claustrophobia notwithstanding I loved the Goreme region. Despite only being a night’s bus trip from Istanbul it feels like a frontier town. There is a sharp divide between rural and metropolitan Turkey and the people in Goreme were friendly without the overtone of cupidity found in the big cities. The enchantment of the fairy chimneys seems to seep into everyday life.

However the end of my visit was anything but magical. Overnight the son of the owner of my rock-hostel suffered carbon monoxide poisoning from a poorly maintained water heater. He had been sleeping in the boiler room to stay warm, without realising that the fumes were undetectable. I was woken by the sound of his father howling and tyres screeching as his body was driven to the nearest hospital, hours away. Lacking anything else I could do to help, I ran the hostel for a couple of days (easier than it sounds) before leaving for the coast with a heavy heart.

I still sometimes think about that boy.

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