Seen either in the midday sun, in the late afternoon, or by the light of a rising moon, the cliffs, cones and chimneys of the Göreme valley have an eerie, compelling beauty. (photo: William Tracy, Aramco)
In the Apple Church, portraits of saints adorn the arches while prophets decorate the areas between. (photo: William Tracy, Aramco)
In the cluster of cave-churches at the head of the deeply eroded valley, colorful frescoes cover entire walls and ceilings with such scenes as the Emperor Constantine and the Empress Helena holding the cross, or St George slaying the dragon. (photo: William Tracy, Aramco)
Portraits were often full-length; the anonymous artists used more freedom than was customary in Byzantine work; and sometimes achieved a sense of pathos, as a result. (photo: William Tracy, Aramco)
The tortured look of the valley of Göreme by moonlight might well have been scratched out by the devil, but the wondrous frescoed caves which honeycomb the steep ravines are surely the inspiration of God.
Turkey abounds in geological phenomena, but none is more curious than the massively eroded plateau of fragile volcanic tuff in Cappadocia some 200 miles southeast of Ankara.
In Cappadocia, not far from the market town of Nevshir, wind and water have carved pyramids, chimneys, columns and cones, and ones imagination can easily pick out the tusks, fins and spines of primeval creatures crouching among the cliffs. But in addition to this compelling natural beauty, there are hollowed-out caves and chapels unique in the world.
Some of these caves, located in a handful of villages scattered around the Göreme valley Urgup, Avcilar, Uchisar, Ortahisar are homes which the brochures call troglodyte dwellings. Others are cool cellars in which farmers store the grapes and fruit which they coax out of the white, powdery soil in the ravines. The farmers hew new caves, too, for stables, and dovecotes in rocky aeries high above the house.
But the most interesting of the caves are the chapels and cells which early communities of hermits and Christian monks carved into the soft rock. In imitation of the Byzantine architecture, the chapels are shaped like crosses and have columns, arches, vaults and domes, all sculpted from the rock, but sometimes slightly askew since they are part of the mountain itself and serve no weight-bearing architectural function.
Along the walls of their cells the monks carved tables, benches, cupboards, ovens and sometimes graves. To reach many of the rooms they cut deep passageways into the rock, devising hidden ventilation shafts and great flat round stones which one man could roll across a door but a squadron couldnt budge from without. Here they waited, hidden, through long silent days of siege, or retreated from passing marauders.
The chapels were decorated by the monks in brilliant and durable colors. Some are primitive geometric patterns in red ocher; later frescoes are done with powdered pigments. The monks covered every inch of walls and ceilings with iconographs of saints, Bible stories and scenes from the life of Jesus.
Cappadocia and the monks at Göreme flourished through the 13th century and then gradually declined, but their work, combined with the equally wondrous works of prehistoric natural forces, endures.
William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World. Reprinted from Aramco World Magazine, May-June 1971.