Enchanting Cappadocia


By Füsun Atalay
October 4, 2012

Published in the Sept-Oct 2012 issue of MyLIFE magazine

Fairy Chimneys rock formation near Gorëme, in Cappadocia, central Turkey – Photo by Benh LIEU SONG

Visiting Cappadocia to witness its richly layered, stunningly beautiful landscape from a hot air balloon before sunrise, walking among remnants of many cultures that inhabited the land as far back as 500,000 B.C., admiring its fauna and flora thrive despite the parched earth may be the most incredible experience of my lifetime. Even if this is my third return, the magic I felt at first still beckons with the sultry tongue of the sizzling Anatolian sun, and thus the enchanting Cappadocia holds me under its spell. To some, three days may suffice to abandon themselves to the mind frame of this magic; to others, weeks may not.

No excellent writer or photographer could do justice to the magnificence and the magic of what spreads before one’s eyes bearing its fiery soul, which beats with rich history.

The area, known as Kapadokya in Turkey, comprises Aksaray, Kayseri, Kirsehir, Nevsehir and Nigde—an area close to 300 square kilometers. A work in progress, the area has been evolving geologically since 60 million years ago. Kapadokya Valley was formed 10,000 years ago after the latest eruption of three volcanoes: Göllüdag, Hasan Dagi and Argeus. The ash and lava these volcanoes spurted covered countless other mountains before settling into soft tufa layer as they cooled. The erosion brought on by cooling of the tufa layer reaching 150 meters at some points exposes layers of harder, basal rocks. These formations we marvel upon today are known as Fairy Chimneys, perhaps because it’s impossible to imagine that anyone but fairies could create something this enchanting. But, I believe in nature’s miracles more than I do in fairies.

In the ensuing thousands of years, winds and rains continually eroded the tufa layers, forming cracks and exposing the tougher basalt layers. Higher parts that escaped the wrath of nature’s elements were unaffected. Today, they stand out in rows, forming canyons of structures resembling cones with mushroom heads.

The first settlements in Cappadocia go back to the Paleolithic Age, 500,000 years ago, and bear testament to the existence of a Catholithic Age later between 500,000 and 300,000 B.C. These finds are displayed in the Nevsehir Museum.

During a 1991 excavation about 18 miles north of Avanos, evidence showed the presence of life during the Bronze Age (300,000-1,200 B.C.). Pre-Hittites and Hittites ruled and left their influence from 1,200 to 547 B.C., at which time Persians conquered the land. Later, in 333 B.C., led by Alexander the Great, Macedonians became the strongest force in Anatolia, and Ariarthes I served as king of Cappadocia. He was followed by his son, Ariarthes II, who continued to expand the borders of the Cappadocian kingdom and recognize a very high place for culture, the arts and science.

Alexander the Great had no heirs; thus, following his death, his generals became embroiled in wars over who would rule Anatolia, rendering the nation weak. Persians took over in 547 B.C., and under their dominion they created the mighty Persian Empire. Cappadocia then became one of 31 Persian states and started paying annual taxes to the kings in the form of live animals. It was during this time that Cappadocia was named Karpatuka, land of the beautiful horses.

Karpatuka was to become the 17th state of the Romans in 30 B.C., when Caesar ended the Hellenistic period. As history has shown too often, the Roman Empire was not immune to internal conflicts and was divided into the Eastern and Western Roman empires in 310 A.D. In Emperor Justinian’s hands, by 527 A.D., the Byzantine Empire began its golden age in Cappadocia with churches, painted frescoes, cave dwellings and lasting art. It became the center of monastic and religious studies and the home of St. Basil, founder of monastic life in Cappadocia. The second golden age for the Byzantines returned during the 9th to 12th centuries, during which time many beautiful churches were built and decorated with colorful frescoes obtained from natural dyes from plants and mineral-enhanced stones. Today, many of these churches and paintings remain to be viewed in awe by visitors to this surreal place.

Before the Ottomans’ conquest of Anatolia during the 15th century and their subsequent reign for the next 800 years, the Seljuk Turks who migrated from central Asia into eastern Anatolia during the 11th century had driven back the Byzantines, conquering Cappadocia in 1072.

The storied past of Cappadocia—that it was such an attractive land and that it attracted so many talented, intelligent and brave individuals to leave their legacy—may be one of the factors that make this place so magical. But I wanted to know what people who live there today think. I spoke about this with the lovely owner of a gift shop in Urgüp, since she sees so many tourists and locals alike daily.

“What gives this place its unparalleled magic and draws people in like a magnet?” I asked.

After thinking for a few seconds, Gül Hanim replied, “Kapadokya’s unbelievable atmosphere brings about a sense of serenity and inner peace. It’s also the center of many religious studies, scholars and artists of ancient civilizations. All that and the natural beauty, fairy chimneys, clean air [and] kindest people reassure one of the existence of a much bigger power who can bestow such beauty and blessings.”

How right she is! That sums up what I heard from everyone I asked, including the Hon. Muharrem Memis, deputy mayor of the town of Ortahisar. I suppose one can only describe magic just so much; beyond that, one has to live it.

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