Caves for sale. This is a common sign in many streets in the villages in Cappadocia in central Turkey.
Caves are used as homes, mansions, shops, hotels, storerooms, businesses, restaurants, churches, mosques … and even a police station.
Even the hundreds of thousands of pigeons, which are regarded as a sign of wealth, have their own small cave homes dug high in the mountains.
The landscape of Cappadocia is dotted with cave entrances and carved pigeon houses in every mountain, every rock formation and hillock, however high or low, small or big.
These caves reflect the history, culture and traditions of this region and form part of the unspoiled charm of the countryside, very different from the cosmopolitan Istanbul which is but a two-hour flight away.
They reflect modern and ancient life of the region and are a valuable insight into the lives of their occupants dating back to the Bronze Age.
The caves still have pre-historic cave drawings and beautiful, detailed frescoes depicting Jesus Christ and his disciples.
These, dotted around the countryside, side by side to the renowned “fairy chimneys” are typical of the area.
Entire communities’ dwellings were dug into the volcanic mountains with interlinked caves and tunnels, and were often used as monasteries.
If you want to experience life in the caves, the Argos boutique hotel, which used to be a monastery, is the place to stay. Set overlooking majestic Mount Erciyes and the Pigeon Valley, and high above the unspoiled village of Uchisat, the caves have been converted into luxury rooms. Some have their own private heated pool in an adjoining cave.
The hotel has underground tunnels which can be explored, as well as a three-storey deep wine cellar.
The Cappadocia region is the setting of one nature’s most bizarre wonders. The villages scattered around the area are rural, traditional, unspoiled and steeped in history.
The region incorporates the provinces of Aksaray, Nesehir, Nigde, Kayserie and Kirsheir.
The landscape is peculiar to Turkey and results from volcanic eruptions 70 million years ago. The huge quantities of lava which spilled from the volcanoes built up several hundred metres high, filling lakes and valleys. A harder rock formed above the lava. In the course of the years, erosion has taken place, eating the soft volcanic rock away, but leaving the harder rock to form a cap-like protection.
Nature continues taking its course and today, many of these chimneys are still cracking and collapsing as their base gets eroded by wind and water.
The Cappadocia region has been inhabited since prehistoric times.
It was on an important trade route and, during the early Bronze Age, it fell under the influence of the Assyrian civilisation because of this extensive trade. The Hattis, Hittites, Phrygians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans all occupied the region at certain stages.
Because of the lucrative trade route, especially silk, the area was frequently invaded raided and looted.
To protect themselves, local inhabitants carved their homes out of the volcanic mountains where they could hide and conceal their entrances.
As added protection, they started digging deep into the ground, forming entire subterranean cities where up to 15 000 people lived for six months at a time .
These cities had proper ventilation shafts, chimneys, and toilet facilities into the underground river, as well as wineries, cooking, eating and communal facilities and places of worship.
In the early years of the first millennium, groups of Christians fleeing from Roman persecution began moving into these inaccessible wilds of Cappadocia seeking refuge and creating chapels and churches and whole monasteries.
There are several places where visitors can visit these underground cities, which are very basic, dug-out shelters.
There are believed to be about 200 such “cities” scattered around the area, many still undiscovered to this day. Some are open to visitors. Here you can shut your eyes and imagine people stumbling over the rough floors in virtual darkness, living, cooking, eating and worshipping, being confined for up to six months at a time.
There are also open-air museums showing how people lived in caves above the ground. At Goreme, a monastery where St Basil the Great was born, there are well-preserved frescoes of Jesus and his disciples beautifully painted on the rough ceilings. There are 30 ancient churches here, all dug into the mountains.
Besides visits to the ruins, there are bicycle tours and walking tours, but the area is famous for its hot-air balloon tours. Any given morning, about 80 dot the sky going where the wind takes them.
From there you can see the breathtaking views of the fairy chimneys and other unusual rock formations. The balloons drop as low as possible for people to view the unusual rock formations and traditional villages close up.
All the villages have small markets selling traditional goods.
Although the country is today 98 percent Muslim, the Turks pride themselves in being tolerant of all religions and cultures.
Ibrahim Ozdemir from Turkish Airlines, who accompanied us, said this stems back to thousands of years of living with, and protecting, strangers and travellers within their country: “We welcome anyone to our country with open arms. We are called the lazy Muslims. We are not fundamentalists and consider ourselves to be modern Turks,” he said. Ozdemir said Turkey was one of the most significant places for the spreading of Christianity because worshippers had places suitable for hiding in the caves and underground cities.
The food in Turkey is very middle Eastern with meze-like starters with almost every meal. This includes stuffed vine leaves, hummus, stuffed cabbage leaves and peppers, a spicy salsa among others, and their traditional flat bread.
Kebabs are a favourite second course as are the stews baked long in pots which traditionally are cracked open before eating.
From Cappadocia, a two-hour flight takes you to bustling Istanbul – a city which never sleeps.
This truly cosmopolitan city is divided into an Asian and a European half. There is friendly rivalry between the inhabitants about which side is better to live in.
There are many sights and antiquities to visit. We visited Topkapi Palace, the official residence of the city for the Ottoman sultans for 400 of their 624-year reign from 1465 to 1856. Hippodrome Square was built by the Romans in about 200AD and used for chariot racing. It was the centre of Byzantine Constantinople for about 1000 years.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is another must-see attraction.
Close by is the Hagia Sofia. Construction started in 1609 as a church and it was later converted into a mosque. It is now a museum. It is an important monument both for the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
The Spice Market is a shoppers’ delight. Every possible variety of Turkish delight, invented in the later 18th century, is available – in a selection of colours, flavours and fillings. An array of spices of every kind is available.
A cruise on the Bosphorous is essential to get an overview of the city. A one-hour boat trip shows some of the sights of Istanbul from the sea.
The Bosphorous, also known as the Istanbul Straits, forms the boundary between Europe and Asia.
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world covering 58 streets with over 1 200 shops specialising in clothing, handicrafts, jewellery, souvenirs and clothing.
Hotels are plentiful in Istanbul, from low budget to five-star ones.
If You Go..
Getting there: Turkish Airlines: 011 578 800 www.turkishairlines.com
Weather:Turkey is located in a moderate climate belt. The coastal regions have the same climate as the Mediterranean countries with hot and dry summers and mild and rainy winters. In the central and eastern regions, summers are cool and the winters are very cold.
Currency: Either euros or dollars are accepted. Costs are reasonable compared with other European cities and compare favourably with SA prices.
The monetary unit is the Turkish Lira abbreviated as TL. - Saturday Star