I stayed in Cappadocia for just over a week in June 2010. There really are no words that adequately describe the place. I have not met anyone who was not stunned by the natural beauty of this place together with what many call the heavenly beauty of the centuries of Devotional practices that took place inside the fairy chimneys and caves and underground cities.
I could spend a long time in Cappadocia which should not really be surprising as for centuries that’s what those with spiritual inclinations did. They retreated from the world to Cappadocia. It is sometimes called the cradle of history and the cradle of Christianity, especially monasticism.
The region was formed from deposits erupted from ancient volcanoes approximately 9 to 3 million years ago. The literature says that lava from the volcanoes of Erciyes to the East and Hasan to the west covered the region to form Cappadocia. I hired a car and drove to Ericyes contrary to advice as some of the villages up that way are not friendly. The car didn’t break down so it was fine but I do understand why it is not good idea so I do not recommend it. For me Ericyes rivals Shasta and Lassen. These volcanoes are the northern plateaus of the Taurus Mountains and I so love those mountains. They are very special in the sense of land energies.
The rocks of Cappadocia near Goreme eroded into spectacular pillars and minaret-like forms, known as fairy chimneys. These soft rocks were used to carve out houses, churches and monasteries. Initially a hiding place for persecuted Christians during the early period of Christianity and from around 300 AD, becoming a monastic centre.
Everywhere I looked I was amazed and enthralled. Walking amongst the incredible landscapes is nothing less than inspirational. It is endlessly magnificent. The land energies defy description. I constantly wondered if it is the land energies* that pulled the monastics to that particular place.
The area boasts of 10,000 year old Neolithic settlements and more from settlements around 3500 BC. Hittite settlements have been found throughout this area. The Ancient Greeks were there and Alexander the Great occupied the southern part in 333 BC. Then came the Romans and then the Christian cults. It is said that the development of church and monastic buildings began here and I get that. Looking at the land formations makes me wonder if the church spire was inspired from Cappadocia. Maybe you will see that from pictures of fairy chimneys.
They say there are over 400 churches, chapels and hermitages dug into this area. Seems like more to me, they are everywhere you go. Even when not looking for them, you wander into a valley and see some cliff dugouts and look up and there is another chapel or church.
I landed in a wonderful location because a friend of a friend referred me to a hotel in the village of Cauvsin. Everyone in Turkey has a friend with a hotel or a carpet shop. After a while I got to understand better how Turkish networking works and it’s a combination of etheric and astral know-how. Very clever. The best place to see the Turkish network in operation is in Istanbul’s Grand Bizarre.
The hotel owner and staff were very friendly and there were many attempts to get me to smoke the water pipe and drink local wine. All of which the owner and his staff all did all night long. I did try the water pipe when a Dervish that came to meet me at the hotel, offered me his pipe. It tastes good but I am done with smoking. The tobacco is flavoured with various fruits. The boys at the hotel kept insisting that they only smoked tobacco but I seriously doubt that.
Marijuana is relatively freely available in Cappadocia and has quite a history with certain Sufi sects, especially the Bektashi Order (1) who are linked to Alevi Muslims and have a somewhat different interpretation of the Qur’an. For example they are said to conduct their religious practices without the usual Muslim separation of men and women. The tomb of a founder of the Bektashi Order, Hajji Bektashi, is located in the northern part of Cappadocia, Hajibektas. There are all kinds of stories about the Bektashi using substances to enhance their spiritual practices. They were quite a political force during the period of the Ottoman Empire and they were sometimes referred to as libertine dervishes.
I was introduced to a local Dervish by the friend of a friend, who referred me to the hotel in Cavusin. We arranged to meet me there later to discuss Sufism and specifically how I might learn more about Sufism while visiting Turkey. Unfortunately my friend’s friend forgot that I don’t speak Turkish and the Dervish did not speak English. He showed up for the meeting and we were able to say very little for over 30 minutes. His interpreter didn’t show up and we were going to try to meet again with the hotel owner as interpreter. I thought it best to let it pass by as despite the best intentions of the Dervish, the language barrier was very awkward and I suspect the hotel owner would not have been the ideal interpreter. So the Dervish smoked the water pipe and I smoked a little and there was not much else to say about the experience except he had a lovely presence.
The village where I stayed, Cavusin, is pronounced chawvushin. It is hardly mentioned on the guide books and internet info sites but it is a perfect base for getting around the must see locations in Cappadocia. But it is also somewhat sad. Its perfect because its smack in the middle of the Cappadocia triangle and some of the best hikes start at this village. The dugout cliff that is the centre of attraction was still occupied until the 1960s when there was a big collapse and people died. Its obvious that the village has about halved in activity since then. Lots of abandoned shops and pensions although maybe some of that is just due to the many recessions Turkey has had over past decades. That’s the sad part.
Cavusin is very poor here compared to the alternative places to stay such as Goreme (the party town) or Urgup (the trendy town) which are within a 10 km radius, but maybe there is a revival going on in Cavusin because there are many tour buses that arrive each day to see the cliff. Turkey is also the land of buses. At times it seems like there are more buses than cars on the road.
The day I arrived at Cavusin, I took one of the famous walks here to the Rose Garden (Turkey has roses everywhere during the warmer months) and quickly found my first church dugout. It wasn’t marked as many are not. It just showed itself. The cave had been painted with beautiful icon frescos there but they had been mostly ruined by vandals. Perhaps because this was my first dugout chapel and because it had good frescoes – it was a deeply moving space. There was no doubt for me that it was a place of very beautiful worship during its time.
My guess from the style of icon frescoes is that they were around 10-12th century AD. Most of the good frescoes found in Cappadocia are from this period. The main reason that dugout church frescoes have not been preserved from much before that time is the iconoclastic periods when frescoes were destroyed by the Christians because the worship of those images was outlawed. The first period was 730-787 and the second 814-842. A unimaginable number of icons and frescoes were destroyed during those periods. However some early church dugout frescoes do seem to have survived but they are rare. By contrast, the frescoes from the iconoclastic periods are obvious. They were typically red painted geometric symbols. (2)
The aspiration of the early Christian cults is profound at times in the less accessible valleys but not always. Sometimes the spaces are not good at all. Quite some distance away from the centre of Cappadoccia to the south is the Ilhara Valley and very much out of the way of everything. The terrain is very different. There were early Coptic dugout churches and monasteries in this area and those were the most profound spaces I encountered. I have some weird photos from there. Lots of different energies showing up. You could say the images were not focused but I saw this kind of image often enough and it comes from very unique spaces not bad photography. (3)
Descriptions of historical Christian locations always referred to Christianity as a cult in Turkey and in Cappadocia that really works. These communities were from the beginnings of Christianity (second century AD) and monasticism and yes they definitely feel like cults when you go from one church/chapel to another. Many different orders striving for something unique in their Devotion. There was something of a revival of monasticism around 11th C AD and again they headed for Cappadocia.
Regarding the fresco’s that can be found in dugouts – Turks have the most annoying thing going on about the evil eye. It seems to be one reason why so many of the dugout church fresco icons have been vandalised. The evil eye repellents are everywhere - in the streets and cafés and are favourite souvenirs. The Greeks have them too but I don’t think with the same kind of fervour. There are just a few things that really annoy me about Turkey and this is one of them.
It appeared to me that many frescoes had been shot at, especially aiming at the faces and the eyes and especially the icons of women. In a few churches, evil eye repellents have been painted into structures surrounding the icons and over icons. Sometimes it is done with great care and other times just ham fisted. Sometimes it appears that the icons are shot at and other times icons are randomly defaced probably with something sharp. So its not always about the evil eye. At first I wondered why the icons were not just painted over instead of painting on evil eye repellents.
Later I came across a beautiful Turkish novel “Birds without Wings” (4) which describes, among other things, the relationships between Muslims and Christians during the Ottoman period and it seemed that Muslims respected the icon images and often requested their Christian friends to light a candle for them in the church when they were experiencing difficulties in their lives. So perhaps that is why iconic images were not completely destroyed. Also the Ottoman Empire which conquered the Byzantine Empire and preceded the Turkish Republic, was generally considered religiously tolerant.
The fresco below has carefully painted evil eye repellents along the borders of the fresco and columns taking what seems great care to not harm the frescoes. The evil eyes are on both sides of the fresco and below it. This dugout basilica had perhaps the best of all frescoes in the Goreme open air museum, although the lighting was such that it is difficult to see just how fantastic they were from photos. Mostly it was not permitted to use camera flash inside dugouts. This dugout was very special and apparently appreciated by whoever painted on the evil eyes here.
Another odd thing is the absence of Christian graves. They are nowhere to be found. I found it puzzling until later reading ‘Birds without Wings” I discovered that both the Muslims and the Greeks went to great lengths to destroy graves during the long period of war that preceded the Turkish Republic. The only Christian graves I have seen in Turkey were dug outs and emptied but still feel like graves and at times held profound spaces and at other times very unpleasant spaces. It seems you can remove the bones but in the rock something of the grave remains.
Goreme was the short bus ride from where I stayed and is probably the most popular destination in Cappadocia. Goreme has a famous valley (the Goreme open air museum) that reminded me of Atlantean Secrets (5) because of its seemingly endless number of churches and chapels devoted to various saints and donors and built into a single valley complex. It was a network of dug out chapels and living and working quarters inside a wide valley. The dug outs seemed to be mostly from 10C AD and with some earlier, however at least half were closed to the public. Goreme is very special but still just one of many of this kind of religious settlement in Cappadocia. Valleys with many dugout churches and living quarters seem to found all over Cappadocia.
At a relatively small monastic complex of about 10 dugouts including a church, a chapel, study rooms, kitchen and wine and grain making. The space was overwhelmingly peaceful and I could sense the centuries of monks going about their daily business and it felt good.
In addition to the valleys, there are underground cities that seem to predate Christianity and one is still in use today for storage by locals. Cappadocia has something like 40 underground cities in the area. Mostly the underground cities were used to hide from a constant flow of invaders over many centuries. The fairy chimney and cliff dugouts were also hideouts from invaders but I wonder if there was more to it. You can always see where the dugouts are even if they are hard to get to. The entrances to the underground cities were also not difficult to find.
I like to think that the dugouts were chosen because of a certain space from the land energies. People visiting Cappadocia who have no references for land energies talk about them constantly without realizing it.
The retreat of St Symeon the Stylite was in the next valley from the village where I stayed, the Pasabag area. St Symeon had a chapel and retreat there in 2 separate fairy chimneys facing one another. Apparently he lived there for 30 years as a recluse. He obviously wasn’t hiding from invaders all that time and there was not a big monastic community in Pasabagli. But there was a huge community 3 km away in Zelve. So why did he choose Pasabagli? Maybe because of the land energies*?
The hike from Cavusin to Pasabagli where St Symeon’s retreat was located was the most thrilling of all the hikes I took in Cappadocia. It was about 5 km of goat track on the cliffside. There were times I wondered if I was nuts trying that hike alone as I inched along very very narrow tracks with sheer drop down one side. My anxiety was there only for the odd moment. Mostly my mouth just gapped open at the sights that opened up with every turn I took on the goat track.
Going in other direction to the south and outside the popular triangle, at the end of the Ihlara Valley, there was a monastery is a place called Selime that also had my jaw dropping. The best way to get there was to hire a car and driver. The drive was much too complicated for a visitor and the tours (known as the Green Tours) of the area were consistently bagged by people I talked with and I was very happy that I decided to hire the car and driver and it was just a little more in cost than the tour.
Selime Cathedral is found in a massive monastery (Kale Monastery) which is cut into an equally massive cliff with massive forces holding it. The frescoes had not been cut out or slashed as they often are but instead burnt in what seemed to be a raid of the location. The imprint violence was tangible but the centuries of monastic living was more apparent. It was a beautifully complex monastery with a huge dugout cathedral. There is a hint of the energies that remained in the cathedral photo. It was very still and much remained there to tune into.
Sometimes as I looked at so many damaged and beautiful frescoes I wondered if some could be restored then on my last day I visited an old Greek village called Mustafapasa and formerly Sinasos. When Turkey became a republic in the 1930s there was population exchange between Greece and Turkey so most of the Greeks were sent back to Greece and in this case most of the village was sent back to Greece. Outside of town was the church of St Basil that the guide books say is interesting. After visiting this church, I have to say that the guide books were being polite because the frescoes were blah. It was a dugout which went a whole level down into the rock and was supported by 4 columns. Sometime around the 1800’s or early 1900’s the walls were whitewashed and new frescoes painted and they simply don’t work. Maybe because they tried to impose a different style on the church. It was obvious to me then that you cant restore the ancient frescoes despite the best of intentions. They are part of history and should remain so.
* Land energies is a term used by Samuel Sagan of the Clairvision School, to describe how a location feels. www.clairvision.org
(4) Louis de Bernieres, “Birds without Wings”. Vintage Books, London. 2004
(5) Samuel Sagan, “Atlantean Secrets ” Vols 1-3. www.clairvision.org