Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Secrets and Mysteries of Cappadocia

The longer I am here, the more questions I have. But the answers, like everything else in this part of Turkey, come very slowly, or sometimes not at all. There are things about this ancient place that have been a mystery for a very long time. Some will remain so until, well, forever, or the end of time, which ever comes first. But some can and have been solved, maybe only momentarily, and then fall right back into the secret category.
One such secret was revealed to me today as I was assuming the role of “accidental tourist”. I have gotten into a pattern of not planning too far ahead around here. The only given is that every day I will hopefully fly the very big balloon, have breakfast, take a short nap, spend the rest of the day doing whatever, find something to eat for supper, and go to bed. And then repeat the next day. It’s that span of time called “doing whatever” that is usually taken up by spur of the moment whimsy. This morning for some reason I decided to drive the jeep to Cavusin, park it under some nice shade, and walk a part of Rose Valley I have not seen except from the air. The days are getting nicer now and it is possible to actually go trekking in the middle of the day. A week ago you would run the risk of heat stroke by venturing out between the hours of 10 am and 6pm. But now it is quite pleasant most all day, still a little hot in the direct sun, but find a little shade and it is automatically 10 degrees cooler. So off I go, camera, gps, and water bottle in tow.
After being here for three months, one of the mysteries is getting a little clearer. Rose Valley is really one of the five “fingers” of Red Valley. Red Valley, or Kiliclar Valley, is quite large and runs from the town of Goreme like a giant hand to the village of Cavusin. But within its’ boundaries there are at least five smaller valleys, or canyons really, that spread out like fingers from the palm end at Goreme, to the finger tip end at Cavusin. There are hundreds of hiking or trekking trails as they prefer to call it here, throughout the entire complex. And for the most part, all but a couple are not marked. Maybe a dab of red paint on a rock here and there, and sometimes an arrow pointing a particular direction, sometimes straight up. So it makes for a very confusing and mysterious place. Adding to the misery is the fact that no complete or comprehensive map exist of this wonderful place. Another secret I guess. Between you and me and the fence post, I think the reason is simple. The tour guide people want to take you on a trek and having a nice map available for individual trekking pleasure would be way too easy and cut into their booming business. But that’s just me talking.
While Joy was visiting we were on a quest to find as many cave churches as possible. Sounds simple enough. Not so. First there are the written “tourist guide books”. They do a very good job of telling you there are beautiful and exotic stuff to see just about everywhere. But the directions to get to these sites are horrendous! For example. We made no less than three attempts to find the “Madonna” Church. The book says, “If you follow the pathway split from the Tokali Church you can reach the Madonna Church. It is far from the main road around 250 meters. It is located to see the whole Kiliclar Valley. The Church is entered through a 5 meter long narrow passage.” No problem finding the Tokali Church because it is on the main road and, what a novel idea, it has a SIGN on it that tells you it is indeed the Tokali Church!!!! Not so for the lady Madonna. It is one of Cappadocia’s best kept secrets. No signs, no paint, no arrows and about a dozen “pathways split” in the vicinity of the Tokali. But I swear….I will find it before I leave here.
Today, I was not even looking for cave churches. I just wanted to take a nice long walk and enjoy the peace and quiet and solitude of the winding trail that found it’s way through the various shapes and sizes of unique rock formations. Just a simple walk….but I’ll be danged if I didn’t find not one, not two, but three cave churches!
The trail leading into Rose Valley canyon is very dusty. So dusty that at times it is like trying to walk on a very sandy beach. But it soon becomes more and more narrow and the dust gives way to rock which makes for a lot easier walking. The sun was shining in a blue cloudless sky, but the tall rock walls of the canyon shielded me from any direct sunlight. When I looked up, all I could see was blue, blue sky stretching from the top of one side of the canyon to the other like a tightly fitted veil. I could almost see the “tracks” left by the dozens of hot air balloons that had flown gently over and through the canyon that very morning just a few hours before. I knew they had been there, and of course it was just my imagination that made the tracts appear. For they had come and gone just like they do every day, invading the space between the rock walls of the canyon, leaving not a trace or clue they had been there. My imagination kicked in again and I could almost hear the silence of the little valley being abruptly awakened by the roar of the powerful burners bouncing off the rocks. But now the valley was silent. The birds, that had been frightened by the huge balloons, had now forgotten all about the monsters, and were settled into their daily routines. I watched them many times scatter as my very big balloon would sometimes slip silently into the valley, before a deafening blast from the burner was needed to break the descent and send them into a flurry in all directions. I tried vigilantly to see a fox on the trail or sunning on the high rocks. I’ve seen them many times from the balloon, but now without the advantage of height, they are nowhere to be found. But probably really close, very still, just waiting for me to pass on by.

After walking for about a half an hour the little trail split off in two different directions, one straight ahead, and the other a hard left and going almost straight up. Much to my surprise, there was not one, but two signs directing the way to continue the Rose Valley route and the way to the Hacli Kilise, or Hacli Church. I could hardly believe it. An actual navigation aid directing me to one of the hundreds of cave churches in Cappadocia. Another mystery…why this one? Of course the trail that went left and up was the one to follow to get to the church. Up and left I went, almost giggling that I had found the way to go. The “up” was not too bad, but I had to be very careful while on these trails when there is any kind of incline or decline. The rock is very soft and tends to crumble very easily and all the crumbled rock pool together and it is like trying to walk on ball bearings! You can lose you footing in the blink of an eye. Which reminds me of something I have been wanting to mention since I got here. There is no OSHA here in Turkey. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not exist here. You are on your own my friend. No handrails, no warning signs, no nice steps, no nothing. You can kill yourself here in a heartbeat by taking one wrong step and nobody will give a flip. You should have been watching where you were going buddy boy!!!. Just thought I’d warn you.
Not far up the trail I found the Hacli Church. I know that’s what it was because it had two big signs that said so. I also found a Turkish man selling souvenirs and freshly squeezed orange juice. Go figure. I was in no need of any souvenirs but the orange juice was pretty good. The church was much like a lot of the others I have visited. Domed ceiling, a couple of little side room cubby holes and some fairly nice frescoes or paintings. The paintings were done by monks in the 10th and 11th century time frame and depict various scenes from the life of Jesus. Some are somewhat crude, while others are just spectacular with detail. All are amazing. Looking at them conjures up all kinds of emotions of different sorts for different people. For me it is just overwhelming to be standing in such an ancient and sacred place.
I was pleased to have found the church, and I wasn’t even looking for it. I still wonder why this one as so well marked? Secrets and mysteries abound here. I left the Hacli Kilise and headed on down the trail while trying to figure out just how I could make it back to the jeep without doubling back. I had left the main trail when I turned left and started climbing up and so now I was above the valley floor. Just needed to find a way down to hopefully hit the main trail that would take me back to the jeep.
I continued to follow the trail and eventually I could see the main trail down below. I slowly began to pick my way down when low and behold, another church appeared. It was very recognizable as being a church, but alas, no name, no sign, nothing. I stepped inside and was treated to a much smaller version of the Halci Church. Fewer frescoes, and not as well preserved. Bonus, two churches in one day. Now I could go home and write about my good fortune. Little did I know, the best was yet to come.
I worked my way on down and finally made it to the valley floor and the main trail without the ball bearings having their way with my backside. Quite an accomplishment in itself. The trail was a little wider now and led to a small stand of what looked like very tall aspen trees. I stopped under the trees to take a break and have some water and enjoy the slight breeze that was sneaking through the leaves. As I rested, I saw three people coming up the trail from the opposite direction. As they approached I greeted them with a “hello”. That’s my super sneaky way of finding out if folks can speak English or not. Sure enough, I got three hellos back. I then engaged them further and found out the couple were from Australia and they were being guided by a Turkish man. (They couldn’t find a map either.) The guide’s name was Necip. Out to the blue he asked me, “did you see the church just down the trail?”. Hmm, I thought to myself. Was this a trick? I did not see any church just down the trail. If there had been one I would have seen it, because today I have been very lucky with church finding. I relented and said no I had not. He replied, with, “please come with us, and I will show you the best church in all of Cappadocia”. Just like that. Not even a blink. Now I was very suspicious, but even more curious and fell in behind the three of them, heading back up the trail from where I had just come.
We only walked 25 yards before Necip stopped and pointing to his left, exclaimed quite calmly, “there it is.” I quickly looked in the direction he was pointing and what I saw was nothing. Well, not nothing, but it sure was not a dang cave church. What I saw was a solid flat rock wall 100 ft across and just as high with a few pigeon holes in it and one small opening on the far end. No signs, or any thing else to indicate that this was anything at all, let alone the “best church in all of Cappadocia!” What has this guy been smoking? I could see him smiling at my distrust as he motioned us to follow him. My God, where is OSHA when you need ‘em. We shimmed on our butts down a ravine and then climbed up the ravine on the other side using steps, more like handholds, carved out of the rock. This put us on a ledge that varied in width from 6 to 12 inches wide. On one side of the ledge, solid rock wall. On the other side, nothing but air. No handrails, no handholds, no nothing. We followed him along the ledge to the far end until we finally reached the little opening we had seen from across the ravine. Necip disappeared inside the hole and we followed. Halleluiah and revelations! Another Cappadocia secret revealed! What we saw was breathtaking. No, really…simply breathtaking. Like something right out of an Indiana Jones movie, the small hole we crawled through opened up into a huge cathedral style room with an arched ceiling 30 feet high and 30 feet wide with giant columns going from the floor to the ceiling. Nobody said a word. I couldn’t if I had wanted to. It was truly unlike anything I had seen or visited before. The columns were massive. There were cross pieces spanning the width carved from the solid rock. The arched ceiling had a column running the length of the room at the top center. There were side rooms. There were grave sites. It was the biggest cave church I had seen in all of Cappadocia. And apparently, a secret to all but a few. Why? Why keep this a secret? Why not let folks know it’s there and God forbid, tell them how to get to it. No signs, No arrows pointing the way. So obscure a rat would have trouble finding it if it was full of cheese. But here we were, standing in a place built in the tenth century that rivals any modern day architectual feat.
I finally found my voice and thanked Necip for his kindness. He did not have to invite me along. He wasn’t going to get paid any more. But out of pure human kindness, he said “come, let me show you”. Maybe it was Turkish pride. Maybe he is just one more example of the kind of people I have met in Turkey. There are many more secrets and mysteries we can talk about, maybe later. But for today I discovered a few answers to just a few of the mysteries. I have lots more questions about the secrets and mysteries of Cappadocia. However, thanks to my new friend Necip, there is no question or mystery remaining in my mind about the pride, compassion, and kindness that can be found in the hearts of the people of Cappadocia.

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