The Fairy Chimneys and Underground Cities of Cappadocia
The history of Cappadocia reads like the chapter page in an ancient history textbook. Through the ages, the Hittites, Persians, Alexander the Great, Rome, The Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and Turkey have all governed this region of Central Anatolia. In Herodotus’ time, Cappadocia was said to encompass the land between Mount Taurus and the Black Sea. Nowadays, most visitors recognize it as the Nevsehir Province of Turkey. The land itself is semi-arid, a badland. Standing 1,000 meters above sea level, the Cappadocian relief is a high plateau, pierced by volcanic peaks that create a visually stunning landscape — a landscape to which the human population has added many flourishes throughout the centuries.
Probably the best known feature of Cappadocia, found in its very heart, are the fairy chimneys of Goreme and its surrounding villages. Sedimentary rocks, formed from volcanic material between 9 and 3 million years ago, were eroded by wind and rain into minaret and pillar forms. From these the people of the region carved distinctive houses, churches and monasteries, some dating back to the Roman Empire. Many were decorated inside with colorful frescoes. Although they no longer function as places of worship, tourists can still walk through the churches and chapels at the Goreme Open Air Museum.
But the soil beneath Cappadocia hides other, equally intriguing sites: its ancient underground cities. The earliest beginnings of these tunnels and chambers are unknown, though some archaeologists believe they were started by the Hittites (c.1200 BC). Others date them back even further to a time predating metal, for it is believed the tunnels were hewn using stone, as opposed to metallic, tools. It is known that most of the levels were dug out by early Christians to provide them with refuge from persecution — first during Roman times, and later from invading Arabs.
Unwary soldiers could be caught in the many traps laid throughout the labyrinthine corridors, such as stones which could be rolled to block doorways, and holes in the ceiling through which spears could be dropped. Invaders were further outwitted by the Christian builders who made their tunnels narrow, forcing their enemies to fight, and be picked off, one by one.
If there’s one thing we know the ancient Cappadocians valued, it was their pigeons. Throughout Cappadocia, but especially in one particular valley (known, unsurprisingly, as ‘Pigeon Valley’), thousands of bird houses have been carved into the soft rock. Pigeons were prized both as a source of food and fertilizer, and even today, ground fertilized by pigeon droppings is said to be the most fertile soil of all. Many a proud Cappodocian farmer has asserted that their fruits are the sweetest in all Turkey thanks to their pigeons!