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Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

Places to visit in Cappadocia

Places to visit in Cappadocia, Ihlara Valley, Cappadocia Underground Cities, Goreme Open Air Museum, Cappadocia Fairy Chimneys, Zelve, and Monks Valley.

Cappadocia History

Although never a distinct nation like Lydia or Phrygia, Cappadocia was known as a kingdom as early as 600 BC- it was probably really a loose confederacy of towns or tribes United to keep the Persians out, which didn’t always work. Usually reduced to a tributary state of the Persian Empire, Cappadocia’s rough terrain helped it survive with a modicum of independence into Roman times. Under the Romans it was still a client state, with kings named either Ariarathres or Arioobranzes, ruling first at Nyssa (the modern Nevşehir), and later at Mazaca (today’s Kayseri).

In AD 17, Emperor Tiberius’ legions invited themselves in, and Cappadocia became a Roman province. Stil a backwater, it never did receive its share of theatres or aqueducts; in fact, its only discernible benefit from joining the Mediterranean community was a visit from St. Paul, who corralled the inhabitants for Christianity with ease. St. Paul never had to rebuke the Cappadocians as he did the Galatians. So fervently did they take to the new creed that Cappadocians as he did the Galatians? So fervently did they take to the new creed that Cappadocia replaced Africa as the great stronghold of Christian monasticism? St. Basil, the 4th-century prelate who laid down the rules for Orthodox monks, as St Benedict was later to do for the Christians of the West, was bishop of Caesarea (Kayseri’s name in Roman times); monks following his rule made the region’s peculiar millennium. Generation after generation, they hollowed out the easily-worked tufa of Cappadocia’s cliffs and canyons to make cave sanctuaries, and often entire churches complete with columns and domes – in all, Cappadocia has over a thousand rock-cut churches and chapels. In the 7th and 8th centuries, the monks survived the recurring attacks of Arab armies by squirreling themselves deeper away in their mountain fastnesses. The monasteries, though much reduced, survived for over eight centuries under Turkish rule, up until the Exchange of populations of 1923. Most known places to visit in Cappadocia as below.

Places to visit in Cappadocia. Goreme open air museum
Cappadocia Rock Formations

Ihlara Valley

Ihlara Valley is one of the most enjoyable places to visit in Cappadocia. On the lowest slopes of Hasan Dağı, one of the region’s extinct volcanoes, the Valley of Ihlara has another entire complex of churches, many with excellent frescoes, in a steep and picturesque valley. No public transportation runs here (except minibusses from Aksaray, the nearest city), and it’s 52 km west of Derinkuyu on a back road, the most distant and hardest to reach of all the sights of Cappadocia. Nevertheless, it’s worth a visit for the natural beauty of its red clay cliffs, and its relative isolation; if you’re around in July or August and the churches of Göreme are full of Germans videotaping the frescoes, Ihlara is the place to go.

The sights lie in a six-mile (10km) stretch to the Melendiz river valley, in a rugged canyon between the villages of Ihlara and Belisırma (from Peristrema, the old Greek name for the valley); exploring them will be a day’s work, but a day you won’t regret. Really, you may walk in from anywhere, but the main entrance is off the road between the villages, at the center of the old monastic community. Near this entrance are a number of churches, including the Snake Church (Yılanlı Kilise), where the paintings show the Last Judgement and some interesting tortures of the damned. To the north, towards Belisırma, you will find the Church of St George (also called Kırk Damali Kilise, the ‘church with 40 roofs’), with familiar scenes of the dragon-killer, and Greek inscriptions to the glory of the medieval Selcuk emirs; and the Columned Church (Direk Kilise), one of the prettiest in the valley, with more frescoes of St George, and the Virgin and Child. South of the entrance, the Church under the Tree (Ağaçaltı Kilise) has scenes of the Three Kings, and Daniel in the lions’den, while more well preserved New Testament vignettes can be seen in the Fragrant Church (Kokar Kilise), halfway to Ihlara.

Near Ihlara, a side road leads off to the town of Güzelyurt, built over and below a cliff full of caves, with another 19th– century Greek Church and some houses decorated in the same style as in Ürgüp. North of Belisırma, Selime is one of the most charming and totally unspoiled villages of Cappadocia, surrounded by fairy chimneys and other weird formations; many of its people still live in houses partially cut out of the rock, or in old monastic cells.

Places to visit in Cappadocia. Ihlara Valley in Cappadocia
Places to visit in Cappadocia, Ihlara Valley of Aksaray Province in Cappadocia.

Cappadocia Underground Cities

Underground cities are must-see places to visit in Cappadocia. Thirty – six underground cities have been discovered so far, and eight have been excavated and lit for visitors, at least for a small part of their total extent. Each of them was capable of accommodating several thousand inhabitants, supplied with water by underground springs and air through elaborate ventilation systems.

None has been completely explored – they haven’t even found the bottom of one yet. The best known, at Derinkuyu, goes down at least 15 floors, with air shafts as deep as 400ft. At Özkonak, the top levels cover some 3 ½ square miles. Strangest of all, these cities are all interconnected by a network of tunnels, some as much as six miles (9,5km) long. No one knows who built them. Medieval Christians certainly occupied them, but a Roman tomb has also been found on the seventh level of one, and a Hittite-style grain mill and Hittite seals deep in another. Except for one brief mention in Xenophon, ancient and medieval authors ignore them entirely. They must have taken centuries to create; all the tunnels and corridors are narrow, and only one man at a time could have worked at digging them. It’s likely that the cities were never continuously occupied, but rather served the inhabitants of the region as refuges in times of trouble.

The history of warfare has shown that there is no such thing as an invulnerable fortress, but these may be the exception. Storming them would be quite impossible; at all the entrances, and even at many points within the cities, great round ‘blocking stones’ were set that could seal off the passages in a minute, with no room for the enemy to work at moving them, and with plenty of slits in the walls through which the defenders could thrust in their spears. Secret entrances and hundreds of airshaft openings are scattered over miles of difficult terrain; it would be impossible for an enemy to find them all, and wonderfully easy for the people inside to send out forces to harry the attackers, or restock their supplies.

Whoever was responsible for all this, something in it smacks of a bad case of paranoia. Even if built over a period of centuries, the effort to create such prodigies of mole-work could only come from a slave empire with a large economic surplus- of which there is no record here – or an obsession on the part of some petty rulers. There were never many big towns in this part of Anatolia, and it is highly unlikely that any enemy could have been so terrible to country people as to drive them to such extremes.

Of the underground cities that have been excavated, the most extensive are at Özkonak, on a dirt road 13 miles (21 km) north of Avanos; and Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu (both open daily 8 – 5, until 7 in summer), 12 miles (20km) and 18 miles (30 km) south of Nevşehir respectively. None of the three has any special features peculiar to itself; the cities are strictly utilitarian, with no embellishment. All have ‘blocking stones’ and other defensive features, and churches, common dining halls, and even tombs marked out in them. All three will wear you out as you climb back up from the lower levels, but the air is surprisingly fresh, and the temperature always cool.

At Derinkuyu, a fascinating separate underground city has been discovered. It’s connected to the main one by a mile-long (1,5 km) tunnel, now collapsed; at its center is a kind of ‘temple’ with a grand hall supported by sixteen columns. In Derinkuyu you can also visit the unusual Greek Church of the 19th century, with blind arcades and lovely carvings of birds, vines and floral crosses that hint at an Armenian influence. Locked up since 1923, it has recently been restored to cash in on the boom in religious tourism occasioned by the year 2000. Inside are frescoes and carved wood details (if the guardian is not around, try asking at the village hall for the keys). Among the other underground cities that have been found are those at Tatlarin, west of Nevşehir (see above), at Çardak, south of Nevşehir (ask at the village hall for the keys). Among the other underground cities that have been found are those at Tatlarin, west of Nevşehir (see above), at Çardak, south of Nevşehir (ask at the village hall for a tour), at Acıgöl, near the village of Karacören, east of Ürgüp, and at Gülşehir; the latter two are not open to visitors.

Places to visit in Cappadocia. Kaymakli underground city in Cappadocia
Places to visit in Cappadocia, Cappadocia Underground Cities


Göreme is one of the places to visit in Cappadocia, the real center of Cappadocia, the village closest to the heart of the area. It’s commercialized out of all recognition, boiling with small hotels and carpet shops- yet somehow it’s still fun. It isn’t very big, thank goodness, and you can still walk a few minutes outside town and be lost among the marvels and jests of nature.

The attractions are a short walk away in the Valley of Göreme, which goes on and on, the scenes changing continuously; many visitors become entranced and spend days wandering along its quiet paths. If you haven’t the time, at least visit the Göreme open-air museum (open daily 8.30-5, until 7 in summer) where over two dozen churches, some with beautifully painted frescoes, make up the largest monastic complex in the region, all hewn out of the cliffs and crags and joined by stairs, paths, and tunnels. Two very distinct styles of Byzantine painting explain between them something of the Iconoclastic conflict of the 8th and 9th centuries, the bitter struggle over images (and church politics) that sent so many refugees into Cappadocia. Those painted just after the downfall of the Iconoclasts are awkward, almost primitive geometric patterns and symbols- the Greeks had forgotten how to draw. By the 10thcentury, however, in the surprisingly quick renaissance of art that followed, the monks of Cappadocia contributed some fine work: nothing really special, but a good indicator of the artistic trends of the day.

Most of the churches are called after some feature of the paintings; the Church with the Apple (Elmalı Kilise), for example. Many of these small churches are carved with arches, pillars, vaults, and domes, distinguishable from an ordinary church only by a lack of windows. In the Church with the Apple, many of the frescoes have peeled away, revealing the simple post – Iconoclastic decoration underneath. Like many others, this one has been much defaced by graffiti, the oldest in Greek, and the most recent in Turkish, as high up as an adolescent can reach. Only recently has the government, along with private foundations and UNESCO, spent money to protect and restore them (the area is a United Nations World Heritage Site).

Among the other noteworthy churches nearby are the Church with the Buckle (Tokalı Kilise), with painted scenes from the life of St Basil; the Church of the Sandal (Çarıklı Kilise), where an imprint on the floor is said to be a cast of Jesus’s own footstep, brought from Jerusalem; and the Dark Church (Karanlık Kilise) with familiar New Testament scenes, some of the best work in Cappadocia, recently restored by UNESCO. The Church with the Snake (Yılanlı Kilise) shows St. George with his dragon and large figures of Helen and Constantine holding the True Cross. There is more fine work at the Hidden Church (Saklı Kilise), if you can find it. Further inside the complex the Jerphanion Church was discovered only in 1965 and named after Guillaume de Jerphanion, the French art historian who spent his life uncovering and cataloging the Göreme paintings; it has some of the most interesting primitive frescoes, sun symbols, and interlaced crosses.

Two large, self – contained monasteries can be seen near the valley, the Firkatan for men, and the Girls’ Monastery, accommodating some 300 nuns, a network of tunnels, cells, and churches on three floors, carved from a large crag (the Turks call it the ‘Virgins’ Castle’).

From here, several other attractions of the Göreme valley can be reached on foot, notably the village of Çavuşin, a rock – fortress similar to Üçhisar. Here though, half the original rock collapsed long ago, leaving the walls and corridors of the ancient rock town open to the sky; in places, the crag is so thin you can see through it. A stairway off the Avanos road, just north of the village, leads up into the Çavuşin Church, guarded by frescoes of the angels Michael and Gabriel which were exposed by the collapse; inside are more fine paintings, scenes from the life of Christ. Up in the hills nearby is another exceptional painted church, the Church of St. John the Baptist, with works from the 6th to 8th centuries.

Goreme Open Air Museum
Goreme Open Air Museum, Places to visit in Cappadocia.

Zelve and Monks Valley

There is yet another canyon full of churches, 3 ½ miles (6km) northeast of the Göreme museum at Zelve – a district where, in some spots, the fairy chimneys grow as thick as trees in a forest. Among the places to visit in Cappadocia, Zelve and Monks Valley have two old valleys converge at the site of the complex, eroded from the warm, tan rock with an outcrop shaped like a steamship between them. It is believed that St. Basil himself founded one of the first important Greek seminaries here. Among the many churches is another Church with the Grape (Üzümlü Kilise) which has some primitive paintings. Here, too, parts of the cliffs have collapsed, exposing, in one spot, a wall lined with neatly cut compartments in rows, like pigeonholes in a post office.

At the far end of the left-hand valley, you can pick your way through a narrow natural tunnel in the rocks and come out into a beautiful isolated canyon, full of wildflowers around a running stream. Cappadocia is full of surprises like this, both natural and man-made. As times grew worse in the latter days of the Byzantine Empire, when the monastic communities began to suffer from raids of marauding Turkish and Arab tribes, defense became a prime consideration. The best defense for the peaceful monks was concealment, and many of the monastic buildings are cleverly hidden in crevices in the cliff faces; undoubtedly some exist that are as yet undiscovered.

Places to visit in Cappadocia. Zelve open air museum in Cappadocia
Places to visit in Cappadocia, Zelve and Monks Valley.

Cappadocia Fairy Chimneys

The real history of Cappadocia begins some 30 million years ago. In the Cenozoic era Erciyes Dağı, Hasan Dağı, and Melendiz Dağı, the three tall peaks that dominate the region, were still active volcanoes. Over millions of years, their eruptions covered the land between them with thick layers of volcanic tufa, a stone made of compressed volcanic ash that is soft and easily worked. A few million more years of erosion turned Cappadocia into the dream landscape that attracted the hermits and monks and now entertains over 100,000 visitors each year.

Words fail the honest writer attempting to do justice to the Cappadocian landscape; landscape, in fact, does not even seem the right word, for no other corner of the earth can have anything like the twisted, billowing forms found in the rocks of Göreme or Ortahisar. What makes Cappadocia so exceedingly strange is the very domesticity of the place. When wandering through the valley of Göreme, you may run across a stack of tufa shaped like a banana sticking out of the ground, white as sugar, with a door and window cut at the base, hollowed out long ago by a hermit or just a local farmer. On the window is a potted geranium and on the doormat will be a sleeping cat.

Places to visit in Cappadocia. Cappadocia fairy chimneys
Cappadocia Fairy Chimneys, Places to visit in Cappadocia.

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