The Subterranean World of Cappadocia

by Rosemarie John on January 26, 2013

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If the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia weren’t fascinating enough, a visit to the Göreme Open Air Museum and the troglodyte cave-cities of Kaymakli are sure to intrigue. Located in the Nevşehir Province in Central Anatolia, the museum and the underground city are two of the most interesting stops in your tour around Turkey.

Mostly everything ancient about Cappadocia revolves around the early Christians who under persecution turned single-family dwellings into the region’s famed underground city and converted tufa formed fairy chimneys into rock-cut churches and homes.

Kaymakli Underground City

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As we listened to our tour guide give us the history of the region, did we realise how Cappadocia is full of religious importance. It was hard to visualise how people could live in these formations and dwellings and yet be grounded in their beliefs despite being oppressed.

As we walked (or rather crouched and crawled) around the rock-cut homes, it was amazing to learn several facts about the advantages of such dwellings.

  • Even though the seasons of the region vary from snowy winters to scorching summers, the temperatures inside the breathable tufa are regulated, hovering at a constant 15 degrees Celsius. The underground dwellings were accessed by camouflaged entrances and had waste and air shafts, wells, stables, schools and houses all connected by subterranean passages.
  • Inhabited as early as the Hittite era, circa 1800 to 1200 B.C. and basically a location positioned right in the midst of rival empires like the Greeks, Persians and later the Byzantine Greeks, this precarious political position needed to secure itself.
  • As the formations were camouflaged from potential enemies, these homes and churches were ideal in a defensive point of view. The technique of advanced tunnelling carved through the dwellings would force invaders to fall into a single-file slow crawl succumbing them to easy attack.
  • As Christianity came into the region through the missionary of St. Paul the Apostle, it was the teachings of locally born St. Basil who helped to cement their faith despite respite from religious persecutions of the Byzantines in the 4th and 5th centuries and Arab invaders during the 7th and 8th centuries.
  • The region’s fames underground city of multi-storey complexes sheltered up to 20,000 people.
Narrow passage ways...

Narrow passage ways…

Visitors have to crouch to get through most passage ways in order to get to another room/stable/ktichen etc

Visitors have to crouch to get through most passage ways in order to get to another room/stable/kitchen etc

The kitchen in the Kaymakli Underground City

The kitchen in the Kaymakli Underground City

A circular door used as a defending means....

A circular door used as a defending means….

Göreme Open Air Museum

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The rock cut churches of Göreme group together in the center of the museum complex offering a stunning display of man’s perseverance. It was truly amazing to enter each church and learn about the story behind each structure. All churches have their own independent entrance and unique design.

Around the beginning of the 7th century, monks that resided in Göreme excavated monasteries and created Byzantine frescoed paintings in cave chapels which endure in well-preserved isolation to this day. There are about 10 different churches within the Göreme Open Air Museum worth exploring. However, sadly, photography inside the churches is forbidden.

Carikli (Sandals) Church

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This two-columned church is cross vaulted and has three apses and four domes. The well preserved frescoes show the life of Jesus, hospitality of Abraham and images of the saints and the donors of the church. The scenes of the Way of the Cross and the Descent from the Cross make this church very different from the others within the museum. The figures are generally large. The footprints under the Ascension scene give the church its name, which means “with sandal”. The church dates back to the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries. The center dome houses a picture of Jesus the Pantocrator with the busts of angels in the insets. On the central apse is Deesis, on the north apse Mary and the Baby Jesus, and on the south apse, a picture of St Michael.

Nunnery

The 6-7 storey rock mass to the left of the museum entrance is known as “the Nunnery”. The dining hall, kitchen and some rooms on the first floor, together with the ruined chapel on the second level, can still be visited. The church on the third storey, which can be reached through a tunnel, has a cruciform plan, a dome with four columns and three apses. The different levels of the monastery are connected by tunnels, and “millstone doors”, such as those found in the underground cities, and were used to close off these tunnels in times of danger.

Dark Church (Karanlik Kilise)

The entrance to this church is from the north through a winding tunnel which opens into a barrel-vaulted narthex. In the south of the narthex there are three graves. The church has a cross plan, the arms of the cross having a diagonal vault. The templon of the main apse has been destroyed. This Church dates to the end of the 12th century. Some of the scenes on the walls are Deesis, Annunciation, Journey to Bethlehem, Nativity, Baptism, Raising of Lazarus, Transfiguration, Entry into Jerusalem, Last Supper, Betrayal of Judas, the Crucifixion and Anastasis. An extra admission fee is required to enter this church.

Larder-Kitchen-Refectory

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These 3 areas lie side by side and are connected by passageways. The first section was used as a larder, with recesses hollowed from the rock being used as storage spaces. In the kitchen there is a “tandir”, a type of oven still found in local village houses. The final section was the refectory.  A long table carved from the rock extends from the left of the entrance. This would have seated 40-50 people. To the right of the table is a winery hollowed in the floor used for squashing grapes.

In Pictures…

Multi-storey rock-cut churches

Multi-storey rock-cut churches

Landscape of Göreme

Landscape of Göreme

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Intriguing rock cut formations

Our Turkish experience began when our tour guide picked us up from our hotel in Istanbul. We spent several days in this amazing country mesmerized by its history, culture, food, art and its people. We were greatly saddened when we had to leave its shores and promised to come back again for more. The articles that would follow are memories that would last us for a lifetime.

The cave dwellings and rock cut churches make the plains of Cappadocia truly otherworldly and unique. Turkey is the only country that lies on two continents. It is seeped with rich history, tales of conquerors, inspired poets and writers over many generations, vibrant culture and a centre for two of the world major religions. It will continue to inspire current and future generations for many more aeons to come.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Visiting Wanderer January 28, 2013 at 2:14 am

Hi Rose 🙂

Loved the rich history and achievements you wrote about. The photos were excellent. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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Rosemarie John January 28, 2013 at 2:19 am

Thanks Nathan! It was very hard to take more photos inside the underground city as I was always having to walk through passage ways crouched! And there is not much space to wait at to take a decent photo because you have to keep the place free so more people can come through.. which is fair… 🙂 It was the most memorable experience of all my travels so far!

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