Saving Cappadocia

Like many regions that have witnessed a tourism boom, Cappadocia walks a tightrope between hanging onto its authentic soul (which attracted travellers here in the first place) and responding to the push for progress. The showstopping landscapes and ancient rock-cut shelters have transformed this area's economy from subsistence agriculture to one of the world's most unique tourism destinations.

Its burgeoning popularity with travellers, though, has not been without problems. The hot air–ballooning industry's rush to cater for increasing numbers has led to the bulldozing of sections of valley to make way for multiple take-off sites. The popularity of jeep and ATV tours into the valleys has caused needless erosion. Hotel construction has boomed – with a handful of entrepreneurs more interested in cashing in than in preserving Cappadocia's rich natural heritage.

In recent years though, the tide has started turning. Laws have banned ATVs and jeeps from going into some valley areas and limited the number of balloon companies. Even more encouragingly, locals led the way in protesting against an inappropriate hotel development in Uçhisar. Unfortunately, despite succeeding in getting a court order to stop construction, the building work ultimately went ahead but the fact that many involved in the protests were part of the local tourism industry shows that the Cappadocian community know the inherent value of their gorgeous region and are willing to stick their necks on the line to help preserve it.

Going Underground

Thought to have been first carved out by the Hittites, the vast network of underground cities in this region was first mentioned by the ancient Greek historian Xenophon in his Anabasis (written in the 4th century BC).

During the 6th and 7th centuries, Byzantine Christians extended the cities and used them as a means by which to escape persecution. If Persian or Arab armies were approaching, a series of beacons would be lit in warning – the message could travel from Jerusalem to Constantinople in hours. When it reached Cappadocia, the Christians would relocate to the underground cities, hiding in the subterranean vaults for months at a time.

One of the defense mechanisms developed by the cities' inhabitants was to disguise the air shafts as wells. Attackers might throw poison into these 'wells', thinking they were contaminating the water supply. Smoke from residents' fires was absorbed by the soft tuff rock and dispersed in the shafts – leaving the prowling attackers none the wiser.

The shafts, which descend almost 100m in some of the cities, also served another purpose. As new rooms were constructed, debris would be excavated into the shafts, which would then be cleared and deepened so work could begin on the next floor. Some of the cities are remarkable in scale – it is thought that Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı housed about 10,000 and 3000 people respectively.

Around 37 underground cities have already been opened. There are at least 100 more, though the full extent of these subterranean refuges may never be known. A newly discovered one, currently being excavated in Nevşehir, may be about to flip the commonly accepted theory of how the cities were used on its head, as archaeologists say there is evidence that city was used as a permanent habitation rather than a temporary shelter.

Touring the cities is like tackling an assault course for history buffs. Narrow walkways lead you into the depths of the earth, through stables with handles used to tether animals, churches with altars and baptism pools, granaries with grindstones, and blackened kitchens with ovens. While it's a fascinating experience, be prepared for unpleasantly crowded and sometimes claustrophobic passages. Avoid visiting on weekends, when busloads of domestic tourists descend.

Below are four of the most interesting to visit but there are others, including the underground cities in the village of Güzelyurt, and at Özkonak near Avanos.

Kaymaklı Underground City Kaymaklı underground city features a maze of tunnels and rooms carved eight levels deep into the earth (only four are open). As this is the most popular of the underground cities, you should aim to get here early in July and August to beat the tour groups, or from about 12.30pm to 1.30pm, when they tend to be having lunch.

Derinkuyu Underground City Located 10km south of Kaymaklı, this underground city has large, cavernous rooms arrayed on seven levels. When you get all the way to the bottom, look up the ventilation shaft to see just how far down you are – claustrophobes, beware!

Gaziemir Underground City Some 18km east of Güzelyurt, just off the road to Derinkuyu, is Gaziemir underground city. Churches, a winery with wine barrels, food depots, hamams and tandır (clay-oven) fireplaces can be seen. Camel bones and loopholes in the rock for tethering animals suggest that it also served as a subterranean caravanserai.

Özlüce Underground City Turn right as you enter Kaymaklı village from the north and you'll be heading for the small village of Özlüce, 7km further away. More modest than the caves of Kaymaklı or Derinkuyu, this underground city is also much less developed and less crowded.

Getting There & Away

Although you can visit one of the cities as part of a day tour, it's also easy to see them on your own. From Nevşehir, Derinkuyu Koop runs dolmuşes (minibuses) to Derinkuyu (₺5, 45 minutes, every 30 minutes between 9am and 6.30pm), which also stop in Kaymaklı (₺3, 30 minutes). There are also separate Kaymaklı dolmuşes every 30 minutes. All leave from the central bus stand on Osmanlı Caddesi.

You'll need a taxi or a hire car to take you to Özlüce from Kaymaklı or to visit Gaziemir.

How To Make A Fairy Chimney Landscape

The peribacalar (fairy chimneys) that have made Cappadocia so famous began their life when a series of megalithic volcanic eruptions was unleashed over this region about 12 million years ago. A common misconception is that the culprits for this reign of fire were the now-dormant volcanic peaks of Erciyes Dağı (Mt Erciyes) and Hasan Dağı (Mt Hasan) that still lord it over Cappadocia's landscape. These volcanoes were formed much later, however. The true perpetrators have long since been levelled by erosion, leaving only slight evidence of their once mighty power.

During this active volcanic period – which lasted several million years – violent eruptions occurred across the region, spewing volcanic ash that hardened into multiple layers of rock geologically known as tuff (consolidated volcanic ash). These layers were then slowly but surely whittled away by the grinding effects of wind, water and ice.

This natural erosion is the sculptor responsible for the weird and wacky Cappadocian landscape. Where areas of a harder rock layer sit above a softer rock layer, the soft rock directly underneath is protected while the rest gets winnowed away, creating the bizarre isolated pinnacles nicknamed 'fairy chimneys'. Depending on your perspective, they look like giant phalluses or outsized mushrooms. The villagers call them simply kalelar (castles).

Land Of The Beautiful Horses...Or Not

Everybody knows Cappadocia is a derivative of its ancient name Katpatukya, which means 'land of the beautiful horses' in Persian, right? Well, it turns out that the byname that launched Cappadocia onto the tourism stage could be just a rather brilliant myth.

So the story goes, in the early '80s, with nationalism running high, Turkey's military leaders got upset about the local word 'Cappadocia' being used in a tourism presentation, as they presumed it must be the area's old Greek name. The presentation's creator, Turkish photographer Ozan Sağdıç, assured them the name was more ancient than that and, put under pressure from the authorities to provide an explanation, he sort of, well, had to make one up on the spot. Afterwards, the 'land of the beautiful horses' label took on a life of its own, repeated by everyone from local businesses and tour guides to national tourism promotions, and in guidebooks (yes, we fell for it too).

There were reasons behind his explanation though. In Iran's Persepolis palace, among the reliefs depicting delegates from Persia's subject states, visitors from Katpatukya are pictured with equine offerings. But there's no evidence that Katpatukya was a Persian name or that the Persians were particularly enamoured with their horses.

So where does the name Cappadocia come from? Experts theorise that Katputukya could possibly stem from ancient Anatolia's great sun-goddess Khepat (also known as 'hepat'), but there is no academic consensus for this theory.

Even if the Persians didn't name it the 'land of the beautiful horses', it's true that horses have long played a role in the region and continue to do so today. And exploring Cappadocia's countryside on horseback is one of the great joys of a journey here. You can saddle up and do just that at:

Dalton Brothers

Cemal Ranch

Kirkit Voyage