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Cappadocia: Turkey's land of fairy chimneys

15 Mayıs 2018 Travel

The area’s most extraordinary phase was during the medieval era, when the valleys were a refuge for Byzantine Christians. The religious troglodytes established monastic settlements, and their cave churches add a biblical solemnity to the Flintstones-like region. The Göreme Open-Air Museum, a World Heritage site, has the best collection of chapels and living quarters, most dating to around the 11th century. Here are some must-see and must-dos while you're in the area:

Byzantine frescoes

Despite centuries of weathering and vandalism, many of the frescoes (or more accurately seccos, painted on dry rather than wet plaster) are glorious, colourful sights. The Dark Church has the best examples: multicoloured angels cover the pillars and vaulted ceilings, along with scenes such as the birth of Jesus, with an ox and ass poking their noses into the manger. As the church’s name suggests, the lack of light has preserved the representations, which still look fresh and vivid after a millennium. Other monastic complexes nestle in the valleys, many recalling Star Wars backdrops (but don’t believe mischievous guides who claim Chewbacca was ever here). The most popular for a stroll is Ihlara Valley - filled with riverside greenery, birdsong and a string of churches cut into the base of towering cliffs.

Explore underground cities

The local Christians were persecuted, first by the Romans and then raiding Muslims, and they often had to hide from hostile forces. When they heard hoof beats, they would abandon the cave churches and go underground - quite literally. Beneath Cappadocia’s rock formations is a network of subterranean cities, which housed up to 10,000 people each. The largest discovered are almost ten levels deep, with narrow passages connecting the floors like hamster tunnels. Touring the cities, you pass stables with handles used to tether the animals, churches with altars and baptism pools, walls with air circulation holes, granaries with grindstones and blackened kitchens with ovens. The ventilation shafts were disguised as wells, and chunky rolling-stone doors served as last lines of defence. Not many artefacts remain - the inhabitants took their possessions when they returned to the surface - but the cities give a sense of life continuing in tough conditions.