Sierra Magazine

Good Going

"To seventh-century Christians, it must have appeared a very rude landscape indeed. Could they really settle amid this geological orgy? They could and would."
—Jeremy Seal, A Fez of the Heart: Travels Around Turkey in Search of a Hat, 1995

Witty locals call this part of central Turkey the "Love Valley," but both its human and geologic history are fraught with violence. Volcanic eruptions millions of years ago covered much of the Cappadocia region with hot ash, which condensed into tufa, a soft and porous stone. The phantasmagoric shapes that the tufa now takes—variously described as phalli, minarets, witches’ hats, and fairy chimneys—actually have a more earthbound explanation.

As wind and rain wore away at much of the landscape over the millennia, areas where hard chunks of basalt had gotten caught in the tufa were protected from the elements. The tufa eroded everywhere except directly underneath the basalt, a process of differential erosion that formed the strange capped columns that early inhabitants and visitors thought must have been sculpted by gods or fairies.

It doesn’t take godlike strength to carve tufa. The stone can be worked quite easily, and Cappadocia’s rock formations are riddled with hollowed-out homes inhabited from the arrival of the Hittites some 4,000 years ago until the 1950s, when a government campaign began moving Cappadocians into more modern accommodations. Many ancient grottos now serve as pantries for the wheat, squash, wine grapes, and other crops grown in the region, or as roosts for large flocks of pigeons, whose droppings farmers use to fertilize the already mineral-rich soil.

Elaborate frescoes in other caves attest to the area’s importance as an oasis of early Christianity; refugees fleeing persecution in Jerusalem carved hundreds of small chapels in the area between the sixth and ninth centuries. Indeed, generations of Cappadocians periodically took refuge in the rock from marauding Romans, Assyrians, Persians, Seljuks, Mongols, and Ottomans. Thousands of people (and their animals) lived in dozens of multistory underground cities while the latest horde passed overhead. In the quiet valleys, amid the fairy chimneys and vineyards, their thundering footsteps echo still.
—Jennifer Hattam

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