The tectonic plates, which carry Turkey and the neighboring Caucasian republics, are some of the most restless in the world and have been so for millions of years. The region has been chronically shaken by earthquakes. If that wasn’t enough, in the dying years of the Mesozoic around 66 million years ago, northern Africa crashed beneath southern Eurasia to form the Taurus Mountain ranges in Turkey. The fracturing enabled subsurface magma to climb up, resulting in the creation of several active volcanoes parallel to the mountain complex. The same geological dynamics also gave rise to the Himalayas and the Alps.
Due to constant seismic activity, Mounts Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz subjected the region to volcanic eruptions for millions of years. Successive lava flows formed layers of soft and hard rocks including basalt, ash, clay and sandstone. Over thousands of years, the ash solidified into a plateau consisting of a rock type called tufa. Over the course of time wind erosion, rivers, snow and rainfall created a geological wonder unparalleled in the world. Heating allowed the rocks to expand and low temperatures caused them to break up, creating the singularly beautiful landscape of Cappadocia, with its famous mountain ridges, steep river valleys and hills. It also resulted in some odd-shaped rock formations and pinnacles of various sizes including spires and cones called ‘fairy chimneys’.
Early human settlers soon found that the tufa was soft and could be easily broken through. They hollowed out the rocks to make cave dwellings with multiple rooms and windows creating what are called troglodyte villages. They soon found that the earth was soft as well so they started digging. They went deeper and deeper and fanned out underneath, carving tunnels, storage chambers and curving staircases. The result was a subterranean network of entire cities. There are said to be more than a hundred underground settlements in the region, out of which only 6 are open to visitors.
The cities are thought to have been settled since the Bronze Age, which began in the region in the fourth millennium B.C. Caves have always sheltered humans from wild animals and natural elements, but with their unique insulation properties the tufa caves proved to be more comfortable both during the summers and winters. But the troglodyte villages and underground settlements were particularly useful to hide from marauding armies. Ancient Anatolia, and the region around it, was the bridge between Europe and Asia. What’s more the houses above the surface were connected to the underground villages through a series of staircases and meandering labyrinths, so people could switch to subterranean living in times of danger.
Of course, the subterranean quarters were not ‘cities’ in the conventional sense, but the ancient Cappadocians took urban civilization to new ‘depths’. Ventilation shafts or ‘chimneys’, up to a depth of 80 meters, were dug into all cities at various places. The chimneys also served the purpose of rainwater harvesting; the people also tapped into underground streams and stored the water. Subterranean Cappadocia soon had community kitchens, wine houses, communal logistics and places for social gatherings. Many rooms and chambers in these cities had locking stones, which allowed the doors to be opened and closed only from the inside. A pretty reassuring measure, especially when Croesus was enslaving the citizens of nearby Pteria in his fight against Cyrus the Great, or when Genghis Khan was mass murdering civilians of captured territories on his way to empire.
Today, the place is preserved as the Goreme National Park and The Rock Sites of Cappadocia. It came under the protection of the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1985 due to its natural uniqueness and for its outstanding examples of Byzantine art. Especially valuable are the images of post-iconoclastic Christianity, when aspects of it could be depicted artistically and ornately.
If homes and commercial establishments can be carved out of rock, would religious institutions be far behind? In the 4th century A.D., Saint Basil of Caesarea asked Christian ascetics to make churches and monasteries in some of the over-ground caves. The anchorite community took to the task with zeal. Using existing caves and carving out new ones, they built innumerable refectory monasteries side-by-side. Each monastery has its own church with colourful frescoes, sculptures and other works of art. Many of the frescoes have faded but their aesthetics are still evident. Of course, the refectories and churches now lie vacant, but as the Goreme Open-Air Museum, they are the focus of the Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia. Goreme lies at the heart of Cappadocia.