Cappadocia occupies the centre of Turkey, the region between the Black Sea in the north and the Taurus Mountains, between the capital Ankara and the city of Malatya to the east. Famous for its spectacular natural rock formations and valleys, Goreme National Park, as it is known today, is strewn with underground cities, stone chapels, monasteries, and dwellings that were hewn out of the eroded volcanic rock as early as 400 BC.
Cappadocia in winter © Carlos Adampol Galindo
Thousands of years of wind and rain erosion on a landscape of soft, volcanic stone, topped with hardened larva caps has created a fascinating landscape of rock cones and pinnacles that are known as 'fairy chimneys'. The Valley of Fairy Chimneys is the most popular area, roughly within the triangle formed by the three main towns of the region, Avanos, Urgup, and the main transport hub of Nevsehir.
Outside the triangle to the south are the remarkable underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli, where layers of tunnels and an intricate system of caves hid generations of settlers and sheltered early Christians fleeing persecution. The Ilhara Canyon is another religious hideaway with more than 100 painted churches and about 4,000 dwellings carved into the rock walls or concealed within the cliffs; its river bed and lush vegetation stand in stark contrast to the dusty, seemingly barren land above.
Cave dwellings, ancient monasteries and painted chapels are well camouflaged, with entranceways that are barely noticeable among a landscape of perforated cliff walls and rock fissures. Houses of volcanic stone blend unobtrusively into the natural surroundings, pigmented in natural shades of ochre and yellow, to pinks, greys and greens, and many people still inhabit the cones and chimney formations. In tourist towns such as Goreme, delightful little hotels and pensions are built partially into the rock or are housed within a rock cone and offer cave-style rooms.
Goreme © Mr Hick 46
The small town of Goreme is situated in the middle of the Valley of Fairy Chimneys, surrounded by the eerie shapes and fantastic rock formations that have made the region famous. It is one of the few remaining villages where fairy chimneys and rock-hewn houses are still inhabited, and several restaurants and cafes are carved into the rock. Its biggest attraction is the Goreme Open-Air Museum with over 30 beautifully frescoed Byzantine rock churches. The town makes an excellent base from which to explore the surrounding rock formations, villages, and vineyards. For shoppers, carpets and kilims are plentiful.
Goreme Open Air Museum © Qudsiya
Goreme Open-Air MuseumThe Goreme Open-Air Museum is the most visited of the monastic communities in Cappadocia and is one of the most famous sites in central Turkey. It is a complex comprising more than 30 rock-hewn churches and chapels which contain some superb frescoes, dating from the 9th to the 11th centuries. Inconspicuous from the outside, the interiors are characteristically Byzantine with a central dome and a floor plan in the shape of a cross. The three columned churches, the Elmali, Karanlik, and Carikli churches are the best known, and are superbly painted. The largest and best preserved is the Tokali Church, its interior walls covered in some of the richest frescoes in the region, depicting scenes from the New Testament.
Address: Göreme Belediyesi/Nevşehir Merkez/Nevşehir, Turkey.; Post code: 50180; Telephone: +90 384 271 21 67
Underground City in Cappadocia © Helen Cook
Underground Cities of Cappadocia
Cappadocia was overlooked by most as a dusty and barren landscape, making it a perfect refuge for the Christians who established the first communities here. They carved chambers, vaults, and labyrinthine tunnels into the soft volcanic rock for use as churches, stables, and homes. Of the 40 underground settlements, Derinkuyu and Kaymakli are the biggest and most interesting, inhabited by Christians fleeing persecution in the 7th century from Arab invasions. These cities were well-hidden complexes, a safe and self-sufficient environment that could accommodate up to 30,000 people. The most thoroughly excavated is Derinkuyu, consisting of eight floors with stables, a school room and dining hall, churches, kitchens, living quarters, wine cellars, store rooms, and a dungeon. Original airshafts still function and the maze of tunnels and rooms are well lit.
Transport: The best way to see the cities is on a day tour or by renting a car, but dolmuses (minibuses) go from Goreme to Nevsehir, and from there to the cities.