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  • This is the last installment of memoirs from Turkey, the previous one being Expectant Air. It brings us full circle from my first trip in 1996 to this summer's brief vacation in central Anatolia.

    Chasing the sun, the Turkish Airlines Airbus arced westward, loafing toward our final destination 6,000 miles ahead. French pop music played on my earphones, muffling the big engines' drone. We were leaving Turkish airspace, crossing East European provinces the Ottomans had conquered a thousand years ago. Nestling in, I considered the contradictions we had witnessed. In a few days, we had fast-forwarded through some 40 centuries of Turkish history. It's like that there: cave dwellings with contemporary furnishings and Wi-Fi; rock concerts in Roman amphitheaters; donkey carts passing Porsche dealerships; peasants hawking knock-off DVDs from ragged tents at bazaars.

    Yet, as did the Airbus, the contradictions somehow ride easy, and the contrasts make sense, more than they do in America with its 500 years of civilization. Turkey and its neighbors have 5000 years of it under their belts. Only days earlier, we had crossed the Taurus Mountains through a pass that Alexander the great had taken to occupy towns along the Mediterranean coast. We stopped in Konya, capital of the Anatolian heartland, to visit the tomb of the 13th-century poet Rumi. In intense summer heat our compact Fiat SUV passed through endless extents of wheat and potato fields, until the land finally began to rise again and dormant volcanoes loomed on the horizon. Eleven hours after setting off from Antalya, we reached our destination.

    Following ancient routes now perfectly paved divided highways, our car passed several hans, medieval inns that sheltered travelers and caravans, with their watch towers and courtyards. We saw the occasional çeşme, small masonry kiosks with spigots gushing spring or well water for the refreshment of locals and travelers alike. We had come to the province of Nevşehir, where Silk Road expeditions had stopped to marvel at strange and beautiful rock formation in twisting valleys eroded from petrified lava and compacted volcanic ash called Tufa. Most of the rivers that engineered that landscape barely trickle now, though come winter they will revive some.
  • More than four millennia ago, wanderers—probably Hittites—entered these valleys with their steep cliffs and conical stone spires we call fairy chimneys, an almost lunar landscape so unlike the soft rolling topography they were used to. Some stayed, at first dwelling in caves, but then commenced to carve homes from the soft volcanic tufa formations. Their numbers and settlements multiplied until they had hollowed out thousands of apartments, temples, storehouses and stables. When Byzantines showed up, they converted inhabitants to Christianity. Yielding to axe and chisel, sides of cliffs were fashioned into inside-out monasteries, complete with kitchens, storerooms, dining rooms with stone benches and sleeping chambers for the living and the deceased.

    Hundreds of churches, with naves, asps, alters, and domes, were hollowed out and decorated with cryptic semaphores and colorful frescoes depicting the life and death of Jesus. Many of the cliff-side chapels were located near communal dwellings, sometimes in large numbers. Terraces were excavated and planted with crops. Noticing that scattering bird droppings improved their gardens' yield, residents carved dovecotes into cliffs, attracting local pigeons for food and fertilizer.

    Then, around 1500 years ago, after two and a half centuries of Byzantine habitation, the communities were abandoned as Islam overtook the region. While the new rulers taxed, but did not persecute Christians, the religious orders chose to migrate elsewhere, leaving their domiciles and shrines intact. When modern archeologists excavated the rubble those spaces had accumulated, they marveled at the extent of the underground architecture and at how nicely preserved the iconographic images were. The people were gone, but their saints still hung out.
  • Many of these wonders are situated in the town of Göreme, where tourists like us flock to experience them. There, residents still occupy some of the conical fairy chimneys and ancient caves. Other caves have been converted to luxury boutique hotels, like the one we stayed at. A masonry wall with windows and a door that opened to a terrace overlooking the town fronted our suite. Its rounded rock walls were plastered white and electrified. It came with a mini-bar and Wi-Fi, and the hollowed-out bathroom featured a Jacuzzi.

    Awaking at dawn each day, I went out to the terrace and looked up. Dozens of hot air balloons drifted over the valley in the glinting light, emitting flashes of light and puffs of sound as their burners fired, lifting basketfuls of tourists over the chimneys and buildings. Soft breezes nudged and leisurely scattered the craft, some passing close enough to toss objects between them. Eventually the balloons descend randomly to land in empty lots, parking areas, or parks at the mercy of air currents. Vans show up to unload passengers and truck them back to their hotels.

    Besides the cave dwellings, the region has at least 200 "underground cities," amazing ancient networks of tunnels and chambers carved out of solid volcanic rock, starting 4,000 years ago and continuously expanded over centuries. Some have eight or nine levels that slope down 180 feet or more and mile-long escape tunnels. Residents of towns excavated these artificial caves to protect themselves from invaders and marauders. They house stables, wineries, and kitchens, as well as sleeping chambers. Eventually Christian chapels were added. These civic catacombs were abandoned only after Islam had brought peace to the land. In Nevşehir, we toured one that was said to have been home to more than 10,000 occupants. On the outskirts of the town sits a tall earthen mound we were told contains much of the rock from those early excavations. Even though they are electrified, without our guide we could easily have panicked and become lost in the countless twisting and branching passageways as low as four feet high.

    Our jet landed safely and on time in Boston. We were happy to be home, but the trip had been too short. I'm not as much of a travelin' man as I once was, but some places are so special I would certainly regret missing experiencing them. I am very indebted to my lovely wife Aygül for prodding me to go and for making the arrangements that accommodated us so well.

    @image 1: View of the carved massive in Ürgüp, Cappadocia. Photo by Geoff
    @image 2: Fairy chimneys in Göreme valley, Cappadocia. Photo from Wikimedia, released into the public domain by its author, Brinerustle
    @image 3: View of Göreme from our hotel terrace. Photo by Geoff
    @image 4: Exiting a passageway in the Nevşehir underground city, 20 meters down. Photo taken by our guide.

    See other dramatic pictures of Cappadocia on Wikimedia
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