by Sandy Lai
The first thing most people think of when Turkey is mentioned is Istanbul. After all, it is its largest city and a treasure trove of culture and history from Byzantium to Constantinople to modern day Istanbul. I spent a few days here, visiting the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia, among many other things and admittedly, there is not enough time. But to spend my entire trip in Turkey without seeing other parts of the country would be a tragedy in its own right. I was itching to check out the other places which beckoned: Cappadocia, Pamukkale, Ephesus…Places filled with natural wonder, cave dwellings and remnants of abandoned cities. A second visit to Istanbul is in order, but for now, it is time to venture off for a different look at Turkey.
As I step off the bus in Cappadocia, I can no longer tell if I am still in Turkey or on another planet. It may be the first time my jaw has actually dropped open. Here, evidence of the Earth’s natural forces are everywhere. This region of the east Anatolian plateau is filled with spires of rock, carved out by erosion to form so-called “fairy chimneys”. Some of these rocky spires are rather phallic, while others take on more distinctive shapes. Walking among them, their appearances change according to my perspective, and trying to name them was like finding pictures in the clouds. I pass by one of a camel, and another that looks like the Little Mermaid when seen from the right angle. I hike through the valleys of Zelve, marveling at its beauty and occasionally spot a series of small holes high in the rocks, obviously cut by man. These are “pigeon houses” where droppings can be gathered to be used as fertilizer. Good to know they are good for something!
Other forms of human intervention dot the landscape: houses, churches, monasteries carved out of the soft rock. The Göreme Open Air Museum contains more than 30 carved chapels and churches, dating between the 9th and 11th centuries, some with preserved frescoes, safe from the damaging rays of the sun. While it is an interesting visit, I long to get my hands dirty and to truly explore the caves. In Çavuşin, I carefully trek through a few levels of houses cut into a large rock face. The number of homes is incredible. I wonder how people managed to carry water all the way to the top every day. Perhaps the most fascinating look at cave life comes from visiting one of the “underground cities”. Before their religion was accepted, Kaymaklı, one of the larger underground cities, was used by early Christians as hiding places. I am thankful that I am not claustrophobic as I walk through the narrow, dark, subterranean passages and its rolling stone doors, imagining what life would have been like. Somehow there is ventilation, and there are moments where I could see shafts of sunlight. Otherwise, dim lamps light the way through the various sleeping cells, mills, wineries, wells and burial chambers, all the things that may be needed if the people had to hide for months. Luckily, my cave hotel was a bit more furnished; a cozy place carved from rock to rest after all that exploring.
If I thought I was done gawking at what nature had to offer, I was wrong. Pamukkale, or the“cotton castle” is another such whimsical place. The name comes from the beautiful white travertine formations of the area, making it appears as if it were a castle made of cotton from afar. Hot springs spew forth waters that deposit calcium carbonate which eventually hardens into petrified waterfalls. Despite the chilly, rainy weather, my feet feel nice and warm in the waters. Due to the use of hot springs as spas, an ancient Greco-Roman city, Hieropolis was also built here, leaving behind a large necropolis and other ruins. I wander through the various hunks of stone before taking a dip among Roman ruins in the natural outdoor swimming pool at the top of Pamukkale.
A sucker for ruins, Hieropolis only prepared me to see more of them. Ephesus, or Efes in Turkish (yes, like the beer), was one of the twelve Ionian League cities in the Classical Greece era. It was also a great city under the Romans, where it was the second largest city in the empire after Rome. The ruins of one of the ancient wonders of the world are nearby, but the Temple of Artemis is a shadow of its former self. However, there is still plenty to see in Ephesus, the most incredible of which is the Library of Celsus. I happily spend the day contemplating life in this former great city. Towards the end of the day, I walk around the largest outdoor theatre of the ancient world, and look forward to dondurma (Turkish ice cream) somewhere along my return to Istanbul.