After spending the night in Ankara and visiting the beautiful mausoleum and memorial to Ataturk and a wonderful museum of ancient archeological finds dating from the preliterate or paleolithic periods through the Hittites and up to the Ottoman Empire we traveled on to an area in central Turkey, Cappadocia at 3,000 feet was our next stop. As we traveled from Ankara toward the Cappadocia region, we passed shepherds with large flocks. These are businessmen who collect sheep and goats, marked with colors by individual owners in town, and each day these shepherds take all of the animals to graze and return them in the evening. The Kengal dog with the flock, a breed considered the best sheep dog in the world, wears a collar with sharp sticks projecting out to protect him from wild animals.
We stopped at Aksaray on the edge of Nevshir for lunch at Agacli, one of the top ten roadside cafeterias in Turkey. We had meatloaf and potatoes, rice stuffed chicken, and tomato soup. Food in Turkey is not very spicy but very delicious. Afterwards we went next door to Mado to have ice cream of goat milk, which was delicious.
Throughout the day we passed in the distance three of the volcanic mountains about 9,000 feet high, whose eruptions spread a layer of volcanic ash over parts of the region forming the plateaus from which wind and rain erosion produced capped columns, pyramids, and conical formations now called fairy chimneys.
We toured the tunnels and caves of the underground city Kamaylakla, a World Heritage Site, eight stories deep, dug into the layer of volcanic lava where over 2,000 Christians hid for long periods of time over the course more than a century. Their ventilation and communication system was a brilliant innovation. The men could go out at night for food supplies or by day for war, but they left through tunnels, which emerged miles away so the underground city was never discovered. The top level was for their animals. The second level served as school and church. The third level maintained a 65 degree temperature, which is perfect for grain and vegetable storage. The fourth level was for wine making and storage. The lower levels were for sleeping and the bottom level was used as a prison and burial place. We could not imagine 1,000 kids living in these cramped quarters for a year with no TV or toys.
For hundreds of years this area of Cappadocia has been the center of the famous Turkish ceramics and for Turkish hand-knotted rugs. Today 44,000 families in 300 square miles make their living creating rugs and beautiful pottery, and the art forms are taught by parents to their children. This is also a farming region with underground springs and the longest river in Turkey. We could also see the volcanic mountain Argis, which stands over 12,000 feet high and is a popular ski area.
We went for ceramic-making demonstrations to Avanos Tile Factory. Red clay, typical of ancient Hittite pottery, is from the Halys River (Red River) here, and white clay is from nearby mountains. After watching the craftsmen throw the pottery on both a kick wheel and an electric one, we bought pieces in the vast showroom, which had new pieces and also some valuable collectable pieces.
After leaving the Avanos Tile Factory we went to our hotel, the Peri Tower, a 4-star rambling hotel with the look of a Mexican hacienda, and each room is unique in this strangely designed hotel. Our room was a small twin with a huge, bare balcony. Others had a big room and small balcony. Some of our group got up at 5 A.M. for a thrilling Hot Air Balloon ride over the picturesque and unusual landscape. Our buffet dinner was delicious. Our room was comfortable and clean, though it is showing its age, even though it attempts to be ultra modern.
We set out the next morning from our hotel around 9 am after those who had gone on the early morning balloon ride had returned. As we drove through the surrounding hills we saw groves of apricot, apple, and almond trees. We stopped first on an overlook that gave us a view of the cave houses carved into these limestone hills where there were family dwellings until the 1950’s. The formations with the cave houses truly had the look of a fairy village. Grape vineyards are also around the area with 7,000 different varieties for dry red and white wines. And a camel to ride!
In the afternoon our SmarTours coach took us to another Unesco World Heritage Site where the natural formations looked like a village of Fairy (Peri) Chimneys for gnomes. The locals believe that when fairies left here they left their spirits to the pigeons, so they celebrate a Pigeon Festival each May. Pigeon holes in all the natural castles look like mail boxes. People collect dung from these holes and mix it with 6 parts water for fertilizer, which lasts for two years.
We also visited another fascinating place that has been since 1885 a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was an area that was once occupied as an ancient early Christian monastery, dating from the 4th Century. Just as our native American cliff dwellings these early Christians had dug out caves in the volcanic pumice cliffs, creating sanctuaries and living quarters for the monks. Today we can still see many of the churches, used by the community of about 5,000 men and women , which were carved out within the caves, creating the domed shape of Greek Orthodox sanctuaries today, the walls and ceilings also being completely covered in colored frescos illustrating Bible stories to teach illiterate people about Christ. The most beautiful and well preserved frescoes are in the Tokali church from 1000 – 1100 A.D. and is the first church in the shape of a cross in the world. Some of the walls had much earlier rust colored primitive paintings by very early Christians. We were in awe of these beautiful colors and art works, which have survived for centuries. In the 11th Century 365 churches existed here, one for each day of the year. We were able to go into four of the over 200 remaining ones. To preserve the art works that have survived defacing by the Arab invaders, photos inside these cave churches are prohibited. It is amazing how much was preserved. Before 1054 AD and the division of the Christian church into Roman and Greek Orthodox all Christianity many Christian priests were trained here.
We visited Carpetium Carpet Manufacturing, a rug factory specializing in Hereke rugs, which are modeled after the Persian designs used in the rugs made for the Sultans with a minimum of 88×88 double Gordion knots per square inch. These are considered some the finest rugs in the world and are made of silk or wool. The thickness of the fiber determines the number of knots possible in the space. Some girls work in the factory here, and we were able to watch them select their colors, tie knots, and beat the threads down. Others work in their homes. The value of a rug is determined by the number of knots, and secondly by material and pattern style. We were also shown how silk is produced from the silk worms. We all entered the factory determined not to buy, before viewing the scores of beautiful rugs thrown on the floor in front of us as we ate a pizza lunch and drinks the owner provided. Although no one pressured us, we all were sold on the works of art after learning the way the rugs are made and seeing demonstrations. Nearly everyone on our tour purchased one.
On our way back to the hotel that afternoon we stopped at the town of Goreme where we walked among the giant mushroom rock formations of limestone tent shapes with hard rocks capping them to create really unusual formations for great pictures. At Camel Rock some of the group climbed the mountain, and Bonnie rode a real camel.
In this region, known as the Konya Basin, we learned that in the 13th Century the Seljuk Turks heard of Rumi, an Arab mystic who started the philosophy of Sufism, which stood against the abuse of Moslem men. He was invited to live in this region where he was accepted, and here he taught and wrote poetry about the mystical love of Allah (God), and the respect and balance of all nature as well as the need for all to be kind to all people. A young boy, Shams, from Baghdad heard about Rumi and came to Konya to meet him and they became very close. Shams wanted to feel the direct love of God so he began the practice of whirling in order to have an out-of-body experience of meeting God.
We had the privilege of going to an ancient and authentic Caravanserai, which was an inn for Bedouins where they and their camels could rest overnight safely when traveling on what was known as the Silk Road. These travelers carried valuable loads and needed this protection where they slept with their camels. It was in this very building that we watched the nightly ritual of the Whirling Dervishes. We arrived at the Caravanserai after dark and were escorted to the central part of the building that had a stage that was encircled on four sides with seating for the audience. We were informed before hand by Matin our guide and tour director that this is a very solemn religious practice, not a show.
Once the audience was seated a small group of musicians came out dressed in long black cloaks and white conical hats. Each instrument stood for some aspect of the universe: the zither, ney, and flute blow the soul breath of God into man; the drum and tambourine give the rhythm of life; the music becomes symbolic of the harmony of the universe. The musicians played for a few minutes before the five practitioners in long black cloaks filed in and took their places. After the head practitioner sang a series of musical chants the other practitioners removed their black cloaks, representing leaving worldly desires behind and whirled in their white robes and conical hats to the accompaniment of the musicians for 25 minutes under the silent direction of one man who remained dressed in a black cloak and moved among the whirling practitioners. The hats represented tombstones and the white robes purity and innocence, flowing out as they whirled. The audience nearly fell into a trance while silently watching.
Most important to the ritual is bodily unfolding, symbolic of rebirth, new beginning. The men hold their right hand open to the sky, left open to earth, taking from God to give to people. Whirling in the direction of Universe means they see God everywhere while stomping a foot to crush earthly desire. After 25 minutes they stop to symbolize death of the body to unite with God. Finally the leader reads verses from the Quran, then prays; then whirlers greet each other before they leave the stage. This Society of Whirlers has continued for 8 centuries since Rumi.
In the 1st Century A.D. St. Paul passed through this area on his first missionary journey that took him on to what is present day Ankara. The name Christians was first used in Antioch, and the members of this forbidden movement escaped to Cappadocia and hid, living in caves which they dug in the lava ash of these volcanic mountains. In the 3rd Century Theodocius declared the Christians could be free of persecution. Finally in 367 A.D. the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.