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:
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.