Valley of the Fairy Kingdom


Zelve, Cappadocia, Turkey, July 23--I'm dangling my feet out of a window about a hundred feet above the ground. It opens into an enormous hole that might properly be called a cave, except that it is man-made--hewn out of the cliff-side by some eighth century hermits. My window probably served the original owners as a door: notches have been cut in the rock face leading up to it. But I came in the back way, and wandered through dark and clammy passageways that occasionally opened into dark and clammy rooms, until I saw a patch of light up ahead. Careful not to bump my head, I approached it, drawn as a moth to a flame. When I got here, I sat down and waited for my eyes to adjust.

There's another perforated cliff-face opposite. A colossal truncated hemisphere, hollowed out like the apse of a cathedral, stands directly across from me. Windows have been cut in it and painted around the edges. There's a balcony in the middle. High up in the distance are smoothly shaped cones of rock, like so many magicians' caps.

Far below me now, a stubby, grey-haired Turkish lady is crouching on her hands and knees, faced towards Mecca.

CAPPADOCIA LIES IN the center of the Anatolian peninsula on a plateau bounded by Ankara, the Turkish capital, Kayseri, the one-time capital of Cappadocia, and Konya, home of the thirteenth century mystic Mevlani and his whirling dervishes. I came to Cappadocia by bus. The Turks probably have the best buses in the world--cheap, abundant, luxurious (plush seats, stewards, T.V., etc.). And fast, Perhaps too fast--Turkey has the highest per-vehicle accident rate in the world.

I stayed in Urgup, a sprawling, wind-blown town. In its center stands a massive hill, hollowed out in the Middle Ages as a place of refuge. The hill is now crowned by a huge neon likeness of Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey. Surprisingly elegant houses--all with brown Venetian facades--line the hillside.


The next morning I caught a dolmus, or communal taxicab (the word literally means 'stuffed') as far as Nevshehir, the bustling center of Cappadocia, and decided to hitch to some of the clusters of rock dwellings--Zelve, Cavus In, Goreme, Ortahisar and others--scattered around the valley.

What geologists call an erosion basin, the Turks call the Valley of the Fairy Kingdom. Along its broad, dusty floor, the roseate hues of the Arizona desert blend into the yellows of Cape Cod dunes. Great shafts of rock are everywhere--cones, needles, slender ridges, pyramids, columns. Some of the cones are capped by tremendous boulders perched so delicately it seems one shake would topple them.

How did the boulders get up there? That's the key to this mysterious valley. Geologists explain that the place is made of tufa, a soft rock deposited by the nearby volcano Ercyas Dagi. Harder rocks were interspersed with the soft tufa, protecting what lay beneath them from the rainwater that eroded the rest of the valley. As the land level declined, these peculiar shapes of tufa with boulders on top of them were left behind. In most cases the tufa columns wore away so much that their rock capitals eventually fell off; these columns have since sharpened to a fine point.

Attracted by this bizarre landscape, some of the first Christians in Anatolia came here to practice their religion in seclusion. They must have been gratified by the ease with which the soft stone could be hollowed out, for they fashioned homes for themselves in the rocks. Later, in the seventh and eighth centuries, they were joined by great numbers of Byzantines seeking refuge from their Arab brethren. Invasions were nothing new to Anatolia. From the days of the Hittites, Hurrites, and Assyrians, its history is a colorful, if rather repetitive, tale of conquerors surging from west to east, and from east to west.

Not all of these rock dwellings are above ground. On the perimeter of the valley, at Denikulu and Kaymakli, the Byzantines tunnelled down into the soft tufa and constructed underground cities eight levels deep and a mile wide, fit to house 10,000 people, their animals and their stores. The inhabitants cooked and ate communally. Special chimney systems were designed to conceal the smoke; ventilation shafts provided air. The various rooms are all connected by a labyrinthine network of stairs and corridors. These troglodytes wheeled mammoth stones across the entrance and holed themselves up for six months at a time.

WITH THEIR cold, gray interiors, these underground cities are dreary places to visit, once the initial thrill of exploring an enormous Swiss cheese has worn off. But the rock dwellings above ground have gaily colored Byzantine churches in their midst. Whole monasteries are carved out of the rock, complete with refectories and chapels.

The chapels are lovely. They were built in the Byzantine style, with barrel-vaulted naves and horseshoe-arched apses. Unencumbered by the structural requirements of free-standing buildings, the Cappadocian builders developed some unique architectural features, such as unusually broad naves, in their little churches. Some chapels also contain such non-Byzantine elements as conical roofs--typical of Armenian architecture--instead of the more conventional hemispheres.

THE EARLIEST CHURCHES in Cappadocia were built in the Iconoclastic period, when representational artwork was forbidden, and are decorated with giddy geometrical designs, all in red: interlocking triangles, spirals, and checker-boards. After the restoration of images in 842, wall painting became iconographic. Later churches are resplendent with brightly colored (the colors being derived from herbs, roots, and the like) frescoes of Byzantine heroes: St. George lancing the dragon, St. Christopher, and the Byzantine Emperor Constantine and his Empress, Helena.

Most of the paintings have been horribly scratched by graffiti artists. Not all of them are twentieth century pranksters. Some were Byzantines themselves, airing their peeves about monastic life. This ancient writing, in fact, is of particular interest to Byzantine scholars for the peculiar contractions and, occasionally, outright slang that it employs.

Uchisar, Cappadocia, July 24--A darling kitten with a black nose is rubbing himself on my ankles as I write. I'm lunching in the kitchen of the local cafe. Not much of a kitchen really--it has only a sink, a gas kahve cooker [the so-called Turkish coffee which the Turks generally forego in favor of tea], and an impish and affectionate Turk to go with it, four cracked plaster walls, and a swarm of flies. But boy, am I happy. [The kitten with the black nose is now pulling at my sandal strap.] I came here absolutely famished after exploring a slab of rock that once supported a Byzantine castle, which was hell to find. I had a frightfully meager breakfast at the youth hostel this morning at eight. It's now three. There were no restaurants anywhere, so I came here, looked around hungrily and said "Restauranta?" A young man who spoke French came to my aid. He explained that this wasn't a restaurant, only a cafe. But he took me down to a tiny store that sold a little bit of everything--groceries, hardware, newspapers, tobacco. [The kitten is now on my knee, and advancing.] I bought eagerly: tomatoes, bread, cheese, a small tin bucket of yogurt, and a spoon to eat it all with. I took my spoils back to the cafe. The proprietor greeted me joyously, spread a newspaper out on the grimy kitchen table and bade me sit and eat. Then, kindly, he left me to enjoy my meal in peace while he tended to brewing kahves one demitasse-full at a time. [A boy just came up to ask for "bonbons." I indicated, as best I could, that I had none. He withdrew, taking the kitten with him--by the ears.]

Later that afternoon I hitched a ride on a tractor back to Urgup, gathered up my things from the youth hostel, bought a pair of outrageously colored mittens for my sister, and caught the 6:00 bus to Konya.