adventure travel, Anatolia, Asia Minor, Cappadocia, caves, Christianity, early church, fairy chimneys, grapes, Guzelyurt, hiking, hoodoos, Ihlara Valley, Melendiz River, Saint Basil, Saint Gregory, Silk Road, tufa, Turkey, vitaculture, wine
Like an exotic tapestry, the history of Turkish wine is interwoven with fairy chimneys, spice markets, underground cities, love, hate, religion and war.
We set out to discover the wine of Turkey, grappling with new varietal names like Emir, Narince, Öküzgözü and Bo€azkere. Along the way we experience the romance of the Silk Road, its caravansaries and the mystic ritual of whirling dervishes. Our geographic focus, an area called Cappadocia in the wine region of Anatolia.
It is May, our second trip to Turkey, and we pass into another reality. The most otherworldly towers, tufts, hoodoos and goblin shapes, surround us. The interspersed vineyards become secondary to this “other-world”. Welcome to the incredible geology and geography of Anatolia. We have decided against guided tours and will miss some of the best examples of church art because we are staying away from the crowds. Instead we choose to find those spots off the beaten track and to do a lot of hiking…something industrial tourism isn’t into.
Whole cliff sides are pocked with niches, holes and caves. To our delight, each towering “fairy chimney”, as the guidebook calls them, seems to be hollowed out. Like children drawn to secret places, we peek in to see what is hidden. We are staring at and into caves where men hid and lived over the centuries. Wondering at thousands of stone chapels, monasteries and cathedrals where later men meditated, taught and prayed as Christianity took root.
Our first evening in Guzelyurt, we study maps and consult a local guide named Ahmed. Turkey is part of Asia Minor, a rich and beautiful area of mountains, fertile plains and watered valleys. Cappadocia lies in central Turkey on the Anatolian Plain. Ahmed suggests a hike along the Melendiz River in the Ihlara Canyon where we will find cave churches. The next morning, he drives us to the entry point and we look over the side into a deep valley. It is about 300 feet into a narrow cleft in the plain we have just crossed. Ahmed leads us to a stairway and sends us on our way and back in time.
We descend more than 350 steps into a cool river valley and onto a footpath worn deep in the soil. On both sides, tiny hand-tilled fields, vineyards and orchards are tucked among the rocks. High on the canyon walls erosion has exposed rooms carved in the stone. They are the remains of ancient refuges. The builders used vertical shafts and retractable ladders to reach them. My guidebook says there are hundreds of caves here. Only an experienced climber could manage the toe and hand holds to explore them.
The valley must have attracted inhabitants because it has water, fertile soil and because it was defensible. In places the canyon walls are more than 600 feet high. Giant old birches line the riverbanks and screen cave entrances. In places rockslides have exposed large rooms and opened hidden chapels. The oldest cave churches in the valley date back to the fourth century. We peek in; shine our light on the walls. To our astonishment, they are filled with beautiful frescoes.
Both Saint Basil and Saint Gregory founded churches here. Protected by the geography and geology, their churches were able to grow in peace. Looking at the hundreds of openings, it is apparent many peoples have sheltered and prayed here. As my feet stir the dust, I think of them. How they walked here, drove their animals along this river, bathed in it and drank its water. The twisted old vines make me wonder if these are descendants of the wine grapes used in the first communions shared here. In the dwelling caves I touch the tiny shelves that held linseed oil lamps. In the highest caves, I imagine families fleeing from invaders and hiding from persecution. There is both a feeling of beauty and terror in this lush valley.