Since When Do Fairies Have Chimneys and What’s a Phrygian?

There are a few places on earth that are like no other, and Turkey’s Cappadocia region is one of them. Tom and I have visited the Pinnacles in Western Australia, a picturesque sandy region along the Indian Ocean where bizarre limestone rock towers dot the landscape, but these formations are sedimentary trifles compared to the massive volcanic cones that speckle the central Anatolian plateau in Turkey. Described as “moonscape” by many writers, Cappadocia has a magical, otherworldly feel, like a setting from a Star Wars movie. Little surprise that over the years the cones have come to be known as fairy chimneys, two words that defy association but seem perfectly up to the task of describing these mystical geologic structures.

We were eager to explore the region, but after a night of grasping for sleep on an overnight bus, we were too groggy to think. We were hustled into a lovely VW VIP van arranged by our new friend from Magic Valley Tours in Istanbul, and whisked away to the Red Valley for a 4 kilometer hike through some of Cappadocia’s most impressive scenery. It had rained the night before so the sandy ground was slippery. We straggled behind our group, frustrating our guide, but negotiating steep, slick rockfaces and sand paths with miniature people is treacherous business. (Really, Tom just likes to straggle. That way he can pretend he’s not on a tour.) Thankfully, a French guy with a big camera and a desire to photograph everything he saw, including us, was even slower and kept us from getting in too much trouble with our lovely leader.

The kids running to catch up

In broken English, the guide explained how since the 12th century BC, local people had carved houses in the rock, which they inhabited intermittently depending on their farming schedules in the villages and the threat from invading enemies. Over and over the guide mentioned these mysterious enemies, since every element of the rocks’ residential design was predicated on warding them off–secret doors, hidden tunnels, elevated entrances. We tried to get more information about these nefarious enemies, but could get nothing more than “Arab traders.” Through the 14th century, the primary inhabitants were early Christians who carved almost as many churches as houses in the rock and necessarily would have feared Muslim incursions, but we knew there had to be more to it than that. The dialogue for the morning went something like this:

Tourist: “Why did they make those holes in the wall?”
Guide: “To protect them from the enemy.”

Tourist: “Why did they put the door on that side?”
Guide: “To protect them from the enemy.”

Tourist: “Why did they plant that tree there?”
Guide: “To protect them from the enemy.”

Tourist: “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
Guide: “To protect them from the enemy.”

We giggled about this consistency in answers and vowed to do more research once we got back to the hotel. As it turns out, one source told us that given the area’s central location “[a]ncient Anatolian tribes, Assyrians, Hittites, Phrygians, Turkic tribes from Central Asia, Mongols, Persians, Syrians, Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Slavs, Greeks, Romans and Western Europeans have all passed through…” Cappadocia. Without this basic knowledge, the underground city we visited later in the day was even more humorous.Yet again, the explanation for every nuance and answer to every question was, you guessed it, “to protect them from the enemy.” Although no one is sure who originally built the underground hideouts, scholars speculate that Hittites used them to hide from Phrygians around 1200 BC and Christians used them to hide from Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries. Their origin could be much older but remains one of the world’s great mysteries.

The cave castle in GoremeIMG_5293.JPGIMG_5227.JPG

Unfortunately, the guide explained, we would only be seeing certain parts of the city because others parts had recently collapsed. Hmmmm. And what’s to stop the remaining parts from collapsing? Luck, I think.
Our second day of touring took us to about 857 sites including my favorite, the Goreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a distinction my kids think is rubber stamped on most any historical venue. (They’re wondering when our subdivision in Atlanta will earn its title.) This place is heavily touristed but even so simply magical. The highlight for Tom was the “Dark Church” which he paid an extra 5 lira to visit and photograph. The 13th century frescos were impressive and he got a few moments of alone time deep in the recesses of the earth. I stayed outside most of the holes in the rock everyone else climbed into since the little kids, fueled by the rice pudding they had at lunch were running like chipmunks on speed all over the grounds. I sat and herded them with my voice….”Get down from there…Don’t stand on that….Jump over there, not in there. Asher, keep your shirt on.” I was secretly happy to stay outside since it enabled me to drink in the warmth of the sunshine, the beauty of the popcorn white apricot blossoms, and the majesty of the encircling fairy chimneys.

1 Popcorn popping on the Apricot tree13th century murals in the Dark Church

The kids’ favorite part of the 2-day tour was, as always, getting to know some of our fellow travelers. This particular group was distinguished by a nutty group of Vietnamese interior design students who are currently studying in London. They were constantly staging elaborate scenes for their designated photographer and laughing loudly while they did so. They deflected a lot of the usual heat we take for being slow and loud! Another quieter yet equally fascinating group was the Spanish and French men who had just left jobs in Kabul, Afghanistan and were traveling their way back to Europe. Kabul….wow! The most amusing member of the group was an old Irish woman who had a jet black bob haircut, wore makeup like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and stumbled around like she was drunk. She was ornery as was her companion. When Asher began kicking our male guide and one of the Vietnamese guys (they both had befriended her in the usual way and encouraged her roughhousing–an all too common problem for her exasperated parents), this lovely old lady stared our 3-foot tall little girl in the eye and cackled, “If you kick me, young lady, I’ll kick you back!” Little did she know, Asher has no interest in anyone who doesn’t approach her first.

Vietnamese posing for the cameraVietnamese kids taking great photos in Turkey

The kids were similarly amused by our guide, who over glasses of apple tea in a fairy chimney house explained the tradition of Turkish marriage proposals. I think I’ll leave that one for McKane to explain in a later post!

Asher drinking Apple Tea

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2 thoughts on “Since When Do Fairies Have Chimneys and What’s a Phrygian?

  1. Anne,
    If Asher had kicked the fat woman, would you have applauded her? I bet her siblings would have gotten a kick out of it (pun intended).

    I have a friend that just got back from Turkey yesterday. I think i might want to visit there someday. Hopefully the Lira doesn’t revert back to 10,000 to the dollar. :)

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