The Weird World of Cappadocia

David Whitley

David Whitley is a freelance travel writer who will happily use any excuse going to return to Australia. He writes a column for National Geographic Traveller UK and contributes regularly to newspapers in four countries.

Follow him: @MrDavidWhitley

Date (08/June/2016)


From 800 metres up, the landscape doesn’t seem quite so furiously sun-baked. When brushing against the early morning clouds with nothing but a chunky basket to protect you from the elements, there’s a bit of shivering to go along with the quivering. The temperatures momentarily distract from the frankly terrifying height, the fiery blast into the balloon’s envelope providing a welcome toasting for any nearby faces.

Hot air balloon flying over the landscape surrounding Cappadocia, Turkey
Image courtesy: David Whitley

Ahead the sky is filled with a flock of brightly-coloured orbs. Cappadocia is one of the world’s hot air ballooning capitals, largely due to its stable, predictable weather. And the number of balloons launching across the bizarre Swiss cheese-scape every morning is measured in the dozens. Several companies compete to provide the region’s most inevitably bucket-listed experience.

Floating into the clouds is very much stunt piloting, but once the balloon descends to a mere couple of hundred metres, the region’s baffling jigsaw of geological weirdness unfolds with much more clarity.  Some rocks look so smooth, they may as well have been taken to with a sander. Stout-based formations covering all the colours of the sunset peel off the main hillsides. Red oxidised iron and yellow oxidised sulphur are more pronounced after overnight rains. Thin ridges wriggle out from flat-topped mountains that, upon closer inspection of the rock strata, seem to be part of the same plateau.

“Once the balloon descends to a mere couple of hundred metres, the region’s baffling jigsaw of geological weirdness unfolds with much more clarity”

But hogging the limelight are Cappadocia’s most famous formations – the ‘fairy chimneys’ that nobble and bobble upwards, seemingly free-standing in familial clusters. They look more than a little phallic, but they haven’t grown from the ground – they have been slowly cut from the plateau.

The chimneys have been created by erosion, with wind and rain cutting away mercilessly at the weaker chunks of rock until only the stronger chunks remain. Eventually the bulging heads will topple as the necks are worn away too thin and gravity takes over. But until then, a comical rock army stands guard over the rugged central Turkish terrain, the scene gentrified by only a few apricot trees and grape vines.

Image of the geological formations in Cappadocia, Turkey

Image courtesy: David Whitley

It is the bombardment of surreal detail that makes Cappadocia, and that applies from the ground as much as in the air. It’s not just wind and rain that have cut away at the rock here – humans have been at it too. That leaves valleys lined with curious letter box-esque slots carved into the flanking walls. They’re not windows, but pigeon roosts. Traditionally, the pigeon dung that collected inside would be scooped up a couple of times a year, then used as fertiliser.

Elsewhere, the holes carved into the rock faces and fairy chimneys are windows and doors – for centuries of overlapping civilisations it has been seen as easier to carve out rather than build from scratch. Nowhere is this more true than the Goreme Open Air Museum, which is a terrifically dull name for something really rather jaw-dropping. It appears like a collection of dirty-skinned cartoon ghosts, all wobbly attempted cones with black mouth and eye holes. But the absurd spectacle houses a complex network of rooms and chapels.

Between the 5th and 12th centuries, it was used mainly as a monastery, but calling it that massively undersells the scale. It was a spiritual centre, kept separate from the day-to-day world, but hosting all manner of pilgrims and functioning as both a school and refuge.

“It’s not just wind and rain that have cut away at the rock here – humans have been at it too”

One monolith has a refectory, classrooms and a dormitory for nuns spread over five floors. Other, smaller formations show clear signs of being used as kitchens, with tandoor-esque fireplaces and ventilation holes.

The numerous churches and chapels still bear the marks of the past, with most covered in remarkably well preserved paintings. Most tell stirring tales of marvellous saintliness. Local boy St George is depicted on his white horse, crudely-drawn sword in hand, while St Onofrius – a hermit monk – has the curvy body of a woman and the white-bearded head of an old man. Onofrius, it seems, was a hermaphrodite.

These hollows, shelters and man-tamed monoliths are left in their most recently-used state. But Cappadocia’s history is notably layered, with Hittites, Romans, Greeks, Orthodox Christians and finally Turks forever adjusting their surroundings to their own needs. What was once a hermit’s cave can be transformed into somewhere to keep dogs, then upgraded again into a stable.

And not everything remains. At Uçhisar, bits of the ‘castle’ have fallen off over the years. What look like needlessly large windows were originally interior doorways, part of a spiralling maze that went from the ground level to the much harder to attack higher reaches.

“The Byzantines were nothing if not an adaptable bunch, and when there were no protruding weirdo-rocks to convert above ground, they went subterranean”

It is hardly a castle in the European sense of the word – more a tall rocky outcrop that has been squirrelled away at over the centuries, standing tall above the village like a jelly that has been overturned in its mould and is just about holding shape when released.

While Uçhisar goes for the sticking out like a sore, gnarled and knobbly thumb approach, Derinkuyu cowers underground. The Byzantines were nothing if not an adaptable bunch, and when there were no protruding weirdo-rocks to convert above ground, they went subterranean.

Only around 15% of Derinkuyu Underground City is accessible to visitors, but it is still a remarkable labyrinth of ever-increasing claustrophobia.

It works in almost the same way as Uçhisar Castle does, just in the opposite direction. The bigger rooms, used for stabling horses and storing provisions, are at the ground level, then things get smaller as you get further from the surface.

Tiny, cramped tunnels connect the levels in a way that would have surely been uncomfortable for the residents to navigate. But that’s not a design flaw – they were deliberately made that way as the underground city was never permanently inhabited.

Image from the underground city in Cappadocia, Turkey
Image courtesy: David Whitley

It was used as a safe place of retreat. Between the 5th and 10th centuries AD, Cappadocia was heavily fought over, with repeated attacks from Arab invaders. In times of need, the people of Derinkuyu would head for the lower levels of their underground fortress, then extinguish all the linseed oil lamps placed in niches to light the way.

As the invaders struggled, hunched and single file, through the tunnels, they’d then encounter heavy stone discs rolled across doorways. Alcoves on the other side of these stone discs show they could have been moved from the inside, but they were effectively immovable from the outside. What’s more, the discs had a small hole in the middle – just large enough to stab spears through should any unfortunate on the other side try moving them.

This ingeniousness is a theme that recurs time and time again while road-tripping through Cappadocia’s key sights. The region may look like an alien world, hand-sculpted by Dalí during a particularly heavy fever dream, but the oddities have been savvily harnessed for thousands of years. And what looks merely odd from the sky can be equal measures inspiring and intimidating up close. A hike through the Rose Valley near Goreme leads over the weirdly smoothed, vegetation-free surfaces, and sidles alongside those fairy chimneys. What seem daintily amusing from afar are towering and sturdy up close. Weaving through them reveals how closely related they are – they’re not individuals, just protrusions of the same barkingly strange whole.