Our first stop in Ürgüp was in Devrent Valley – Imagination Valley. Our guide for the day, Murat Ateş, gave us an introduction to the history of the landscape, it’s geology and formation and it’s cultural value as one of Cappadocia’s endearing cultural experiences. It’s incredibly difficult to put into words how beautiful, serene and sublime this landscape really is. After the intense urbanity of Istanbul, these landscapes were a welcome relief.
We spent part of the morning wandering the valley, stopping to sketch (although a lovely change from the city and from drawing mosques, cityscapes, byzantine and roman monuments – THIS stuff was hard to draw). Students dispersed like mice in a suddenly lit room and I could see them perched on rocks in the distance, climbing caves and lookouts, sitting and sketching, just looking out into the distance.
We popped into the Zelve Open Air Museum – a cluster of carved rock dwellings that were home for many years to persecuted Christians during the early centuries after Christ. The site – until relatively recently – was also home to a particularly mixed and religiously diverse group of people – including Muslims and Jews. We couldn’t have asked for better weather, and the fact that Zelve is less frequented by tourists made the experience that much better. There were ancient cave homes, cave-stables – a complete monastery even – a mosque, tunnels.
One of our last stops during our landscape blitz was the Göreme Open Air Museum, a short ride outside of Ürgüp. The museum is an enormous monastic complex – consisting of several spectacular rock-cut churches – many with incredible frescoes from the 10th-12th centuries. Photography was prohibited in the churches themselves, but the spaces and frescos (in the Dark Church and the Buckle Church especially) were amazing. The Turkish writer and novelist Orhan Pamuk wrote in his book “The Museum of Innocence” that “Museums are where Time is transformed into Space.” This is particularly true at Göreme, where time is space and space is time. The inter-relatedness of these two is palpable here – indeed throughout Cappadocia, but especially at Zelve and Göreme. It helps, too, when the crowds have thinned – much of this landscape is serenely contemplative. (Note to future self: come to the museum at about 3:45pm. Most of the horde disappear by 4, and you get the entire grounds almost to yourself.) Not to be outdone by this sublime landscape, some of out students opted -on the way out -for a camel ride afterward. Alas, I do not have images, but did learn that one camel salesmen offered his camel as a marriage dowry in exchange for the hand of one of our students. Thankfully, I did not have to officiate as the offer was (appropriately, but I’m sure, graciously), declined.
Next day, first stop: a balloon ride over the Cappadocian landscape. Yes, a hot-air balloon. Channeling our inner Anatolian James and the Giant Peachness, some of us eagerly took this opportunity… the 5:15 am departure time, however, not so much. An auspicious beginning – as the balloon inflated, it lifted to reveal a group of horses in a field beyond, the almost 60 other balloons lifting into the sky. We spent over an hour between 300 and 1500 feet over this incredible landscape. Being able to see the Cappadocia this way was a gift. Experiencing it in situ is remarkable enough in and of itself; seeing it, almost in visual totality was breathtaking. Broken up occasionally by the hiss of the balloon flame – the silence above is indescribably lovely. It really (teachable moment) underscored – for me, at least – how important it is to change-up and switch-up your frame of reference when trying to figure something out, when trying to maximize an experience of understanding. Seeing it from the ground, from the bus, from walking, climbing, from the air (and as you’ll see – from below) was a great lesson in how complicated, rich and varied our landscapes really are – cities, people, landscape, topography, morphology, animals, air, water. It was, I have to say, a bucket-list kind of moment. We saw the sun-rise over Cappadocia – with views out to Nevşehir, Uçhisar (“First Castle), to the snow capped peak of Erciyes Dağı (Mount Erciyes – the highest mountain in Central Anatolia – it’s over 12,000 foot hight second in Turkey only to Mount Ararat).
These rock formations – known as the Family (a Father, mother and child) are the emblematic symbols of Cappadocia. They stand in a valley not far from Ürgüp and we reached them just as the sun was setting. The pillars – known as Fairy Chimneys – were formed through the compaction of layers of Tufa stone over the geologic ages, through wind and water erosion, and by the capping with a basalt rock layer.
A few of us decided to take the afternoon (after the Balloon Ride) to try going – vertically – in the other direction. We visited the underground cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymakli – trying to understand the architectural section of this new dimension to the landscape. Kaymakli in particular was fascinating. Both these underground cities were enormous (Derinkuyu could house over 20,000 people AND their livestock) and were connected to each other, sometimes with tunnels as long as 5 miles underground). We descended to almost 300 feet below ground and spent a few hours exploring these labyrinthine passages and spaces – former wine cellars, stables, prisons, wealthy “homes,” churches, a baptismal pool. Cue the requisite exploring (some of it off the beaten path), hiding in darkened spaces, leaping out and scaring colleagues. I’m impressed too, at the preparedness of our students. I think Hannah had two flashlights with her.
Fast forward a day. After an insanely long bus-ride through the Anatolian Plateau, we made it to Kuşadası. I’m skipping a fair amount of stuff here: We stopped, albeit briefly, in Konya to see the tomb and museum complex of the mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi and although tempting, we couldn’t make it to Çatalhöyük). We arrived late – around midnight, and checked into our hotel above the city. Kuşadası was our home base for seeing Ephesus – one of the most impressive Greek and Roman landscapes of the ancient world – and originally one of the 12 cities of the Ionian league. It had, at its height, between 450 and 500,000 people and was one of the most important cities of the Mediterranean world. The Temple of Artemis – of which not much remains – was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – and both Constantine and Theodosius rebuilt large swaths of the city. It’s Biblical history is quite impressive as well; Ephesus is considered one of the Seven Churches of Asia and some claim that the Gospel of John was written here; the house were Mary retired at the end of her life is close by (visited by Pope Benedict in 2006), as is the Cave of the Seven Sleepers – mentioned in Christian as well as Islamic texts. It’s history pre-dates the Greeks by some time – settlement here is recorded as early as the Bronze Age. The remaining fragments (approximately 20% of Ephesus is excavated) are impressive – a massive theatre (considered the largest of the Ancient World), carved into the side of the hill, the famed library of Celsus, the Temple and Gate of Hadrian, the Temple of Domitian, The Odeon, the Tomb of John the Apostle at the Basilica of St. John… Ephesus was pretty spectacular, but it was also blisteringly hot. Our first stop was not the Theatre or the Church of Mary, but the tchotchke sellers before the entry gate to buy ice-cream (of course), water and hats – mostly practical, but some ludicrously funny. (I’ll try to post an image of Haydar with his cranial accoutrement – we started calling him the Phoenician Jack Sparrow). We spent the morning roaming, drawing, listening to annoying tourists “test” the so-called “perfect” acoustics of the theatre by belting out refrains from Gilbert and Sullivan and repeatedly saying “God Save the Queen, but NOT the Governor General!” It’s a little difficult to draw with someone warbling “I am the very model of a modern Major-General // I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral // I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical // From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical!” Thankfully, the heat gets the best of all, and students and tourists alike move off to seek shade and cool spaces.
A must see at Ephesus are the in-progress excavations of the Roman Terrace Housing, adjacent to the Library of Celsus and opposite the Temple of Hadrian. A joint project with the Turkish Government with Austrian Archeological Institute – these houses “Terrace Housing 2” are one of the best preserved and maintained records of Roman material and architectural culture of the period. The structure that covers the excavation site is pretty impressive as well – a very deftly designed insertion of metal and glass walkways (all braced with neoprene gaskets, barely touching any excavation surfaces) and a porous wall and roof system that allows wind to move through the terraced structure – keeping it really cool – a nice respite from the scorching sun outside. This is where the wealthy lived – and you can see it in the architecture – mosaics and frescos, enormous atria, some pretty smart plumbing, fountains – the whole shebang. Pretty sweet digs, I have to say. If it weren’t for those darned Goths… Justinian too, had a hand in the Byzantine re-building that followed, but the eventual siltation of the harbor (now over 5 km inland) was considered to be the death-blow for the city. It’s connection to the Aegean now gone, most of the settlement in the area drifted elsewhere.
We took the next day (after an the morning at Ephesus and afternoon at leisure) to drive back to Istanbul. Because we couldn’t resist, we stopped at Izmir on the way back. Known locally as “The Beautiful City,” Izmir is on the Aegean city and is, to this day, an important commercial and shipping port as well. Until relatively recently in the 20th century, Izmir was known as Smyrna – and was an important city of call for Alexander the Great, among others. We stopped in briefly to take in the Konak and Kemeraltı districts on the waterfront – and started our brief İzmir expedition at the Konak Saatkulesi – a beautiful 19th century clock-tower on waterfront.
Students dispersed to take in the sites (and the food – “Iskender Kebap, only 5 Lira!”) and I wandered around the quiet city to try and find the Hisar Cami – the Fort Mosque – a beautiful late 16th century mosque embedded in the loopy urban fabric around İzmir itself.
It was a good trip – not long enough, but enough to know that Turkey has so much more to offer. It was a good break from Istanbul and a good boost for student batteries heading into the final stretch here in Old ‘Stamboul. Not that the ride home was uneventful and as a reminder of city-life, we ran into the ferry wall at Topçular, just missing the boats docked at the pier. We waited in a parking lot for over an hour, then drove onto our waiting ferry, first in line, Istanbul beckoning in the distance.