In Cappadocia, I went underground with New Goreme Tours.
Cappadocia is renowned for its surreal, at times even psychedelic landscape. The wind and the rain have for millennia shaped the contours of this land into an hallucinogenic, other worldly spectacle, while the human inhabitants have for centuries carved their homes from the soft rock, and have even burrowed deep below the surface to sculpt entire cities underground.
I was in Goreme, a small town in the Cappadocian heartland that has steadily grown into the region’s exploration base. I’d been kindly invited to stay in the rather luxurious Ottoman Cave Suites by a local, home grown tour company, New Goreme Tours, who took it upon themselves to demonstrate Turkey’s famed hospitality and to show me the best sights in the area.
The hotel was carved from the rock of Goreme itself. Old cave dwellings, a feature common across Cappadocia, had been renovated and extended to provide top quality accommodation. It was the most opulent cave I have ever stayed in. Not that I get too many chances to spend the night in a cave.
Cave dwellings are an ancient feature of Cappadocia, a feature now being utilised to give visitors to Goreme a unique place to bed down, to eat out and even to shop in. All available caves have, in the ancient spirit of entrepreneurship, been turned into businesses around here.
Ibrahim, New Goreme Tour’s manager, a Goreme local carrying on his family’s business in what he described as a turbulent time for the Turkish tourism industry, invited me to join The Underground City Tour of Cappadocia.
I set out with the small group. Visitor numbers to Turkey, to the distress of small businesses all over the country have seen a sharp decline in recent times, although in regions such as Cappadocia, you are in my opinion as safe as anywhere in the West, if not safer than in most major cities. Just look at Paris, and now Brussels. The fact that it was still not summer didn’t help the numbers either, but this just made the tour more personable, and the sights quieter.
Mesut, our guide for the day, hails from Trabzon on the Black Sea, but he was incredibly knowledgeable about the local area, and the day was filled with intriguing snippets of history and geology to compliment the natural and man made marvels we saw on the trip.
The first stop was Urgup, to gaze in bewilderment at The Three Beauties, a natural rock formation that protrudes from the sandy ground of Cappaodocia, shaped over time by the winds and rain. Mesut informed us that local legend has it that these are the remains of three sisters who tried to run away from home to meet their lovers in the next village. As punishment for this they were turned to stone, a horrible warning for anyone else attempting to escape the old custom of arranged marriage in times long past, and a custom that Mesut felt the need to stress was of course not still enforced in Turkey!
Down the road from Urgup we stopped to explore Mustafapasha, an old town with a more disturbing recent history. This was for centuries a Greek populated town, known as Sinasos, but after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the Treaty of Lausanne, in 1923 hundreds of thousands of people in Greece and Turkey were forced into a population exchange. The Christian Greeks of Sinasos became refugees and left their town for unknown lands, and in their place, Turkish Muslims moved into Mustafapasha.
The town still bears remains of the Greek period. Houses show the blue and white of the Greek colours, while churches were simply renovated into Mosques, but still show the crosses and writing of the Orthodox faith.
While fate was cruel to the Greeks here, the current inhabitants are trying their best to jump on the tourist trade, much as Goreme has so successfully achieved. Caves were being turned into hotels, and Mesut theorised that you could buy an entire cave for around 1 million Turkish Lira, about £250,000. Tourism might have dropped in the short term, but it is big business here still. Cappadocia saw over 4 million visitors on average in previous years, and given that the population of Goreme is only around 2000, there’s definitely money to still be had.
We left Mustafapasha for the Cappadocian countryside. Surrounded by high valleys, there were caves carved out of every crevice in the rock, most now empty, but a few still lived in by an older generation.
Christianity took hold here earlier than most other parts of the world, and the caves were the perfect place to hide from the persecutions that almost destroyed the new religion in its formative days. In the Soganli Valley we were in, some of these caves had been chiselled into churches.
In the dubiously named ‘Snake Church’, there are early Christian frescos, somewhat crude looking in comparison to the mighty frescoes of the Vatican, but much earthlier in their depictions of an early Christianity. The Snake Church is named for a mural of St George, and shows him slaying the dragon, which was mistaken for a snake by many of the villagers around here. Although realistically, it probably makes more sense for it to actually have been a snake, I don’t really want to be starting a theological debate here.
Around the church itself, a whole complex of caves had been tunnelled out, providing living quarters, kitchens and even escape tunnels for those that lived and prayed here. And across the valley, we hiked to even more rustic churches, testament to the number of Christians who have called the valleys home.
The inhabitants of Cappadocia used the caves not only to live in, but for defence in times of strife. Under the surface there’s a labyrinth of hidden tunnels and passageways- entire cities have been built underground, and many were hidden for centuries. Locals continually unearth new underground communities, and the size of some are beyond the reach of an above ground imagination.
We visited Derinkuyu, one of the largest cities to be found yet. It was rediscovered in 1963 when a local farmer tried to extend his house, and instead broke through to a huge and intricate system of tunnels. I suppose he got a bigger extension than he could really make use of, and the complex was opened to visitors a few years later, although only 8 of the 18 levels are accessible.
Not much was found in the city, not much was left behind by the people who built it and extended it, but it’s estimated that it could date back as far as the 7th or 8th Century BC, to the Phrygian people who carved rock caves from the land here, or even earlier, to the Hittites who inhabited the land as far back as the 12th Century BC.
As the centuries passed, different peoples added to the levels and extended the cities, and the Christians added churches and carved them to their current reach. The Derinkuyu city could have had room to sustain almost 20,000 people during times of war, at the peak of its size.
The entrances to the city were concealed, and only a narrow passageway- which has since been enlarged to allow big folk like myself in easily- let people in or out. Huge stones could be rolled across these hidden entrances, and each level could be individually sealed off.
The corridors were narrow, any attackers would have to move in single file, or even crawl, to get anywhere, while the maze of rooms and connecting tunnels would leave anyone confused and dazed in the darkness.
The staggering fact is that Derinkuyu, although the deepest city at 60 metres, is just one of over 30 multi level cities that have been discovered underground in Cappadocia. It’s even thought that many of them were connected by long tunnels, stretching for kilometres beneath the surface.
There are doubtless more cities just waiting to be discovered, and indeed, according to R. M. Dawkins, a Cambridge researcher, the old Greek population continued to make use of the underground cave system right up until the 1920s, before they were deported. It’s anyone’s guess how many caves they left behind.
Underground it was claustrophobic. Even with the enlarged tunnels. The air is supplied by ventilation shafts which reach the bottom levels, but the further you are from the surface, the harder it gets to breathe in the constricted spaces. If it wasn’t for Mesut, a seasoned underground guide, there’s no way I would have made it back to the surface. Even with a few modern signs and arrows, the city is a veritable maze of dimly lit chambers and tight passageways.
When we were led back to the surface, it took a while to adjust to the bright light outside. Luckily, there was some wine tasting lined up. Local Cappadocian wine as well.
And some food tasting.
Then we hit the last spot of the day, a beautiful scenic spot overlooking the Pigeon Valley near to Goreme. It was a fantastic panorama of Cappadocia, and a fitting display of just why this region is truly one of the most remarkable places to visit in Turkey.
Thanks to Ibrahim, Mesut and the rest of the team at New Goreme Tour and Ottoman Cave Suites for hosting me during my stay in Cappadocia! The accommodation and tour were complimentary, however the opinions formed for this article are my own!
You can find New Goreme Tour’s website HERE!