Millennia ago, volcanoes erupted here. When the sound and fury died, hot ash mixed with water to create a soft stone called ‘tuf, further evolving with the action of wind and water to fantastic formations. From the vantage point of our basket in a hot air balloon, a wondrous landscape floated before our awed eyes. From our aerial view, it surely seemed as if the spires, turrets and domes that feature in architecture are presaged in these monoliths of Cappadokia in Turkey. A cocktail of champagne and cherry juice celebrated our descent to a fragrant earth.
Later in the morning, these geological marvels were viewed from a ground level. They had a function beyond the visual- the soft stone was pliable to the tools of early civilization. A visit to the museum in Ankara had acquainted us with the achievements of the ancient Hittite civilization which had flourished in Anatolia. The Hittites were famed for breeding horses here, and appropriately Cappadokia derives its name from Greek words for the ‘land of beautiful horses’.This was also a place where the most exquisite pottery took shape. Ancient workmanship still survives in local pottery factories whose wares dazzle the eye in their glaze and interesting shapes. Pigeon Valleydescribes a place where pigeons were reared as winter food; in summer their droppings served as a natural fertilizer.
The town of Avanos took us to a later stage in cave dwellings. The Roman Empire held sway here- when Emperor Constantine introduced Christianity in his realm, the caves would be redefined because life here centered around the new faith. An entire community of Christians made their homes within the caves. Communal living is evidenced with a long natural stone table, and another arrangement for baking bread- a forerunner of the ‘Tandoor’ which originally hailed from these parts.
The caves included sacred places of worship. These cave churches have beautifully painted icons in varying stages of preservation. In many cases, there has been defacement owing to a movement called iconoclasm, which sought to do away with imagery in worship. The “SnakeChurch” has an interesting painting of St. George slaying the dragon, akin to a large snake. The “ Sandal’ Church is so called, because of the ancient practice of removing sandals during worship. Domes have been moulded into the ceiling of caves and adorned with paintings of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saints, Evangelists and Fathers of the Early Church.
Some distance away, we visited an interesting underground cave city which probably served as a hiding place from persecution for the early Christians. The engineering to provide utility within a natural structure was quite ingenious- stone doors easily closed by a single person from inside were inviolable to a mob outside. There were living quarters for families, places to thresh flour and bake bread, press and store wine.The caves are on different levels like a present day multi-storey complex- we descended to 4 levels from above, often in crouched position. I imagine a substantial portion lies unexplored below.
If volcanoes erupt, can thermal waters be far behind? Beautiful Pamukkale was the logical continuation of our journey.In ancient Roman times, the city of Hierapolis flourished around these springs. An important element of the city was a Necropolis, with elaborate tombs and burial chambers. A great Roman Bath with the name of Apollon serves as a natural swimming pool for tourists. An impressive theater and marketplace conjure up essential aspects of an ancient Roman city. Cats greeted us in various areas of these monuments.
Pamukkale however most enchants for its spectacular and singular natural beauty. In Turkish, its name translates to mean “ Cotton Candy Mountain.” Water from the clear springs flows down a series of calcium carbonate terraces called “ travertines” with the external appearance of ice and snow. This is probably a live process of marble formation, and not surprisingly, we would gasp at the beauty of innumerable marble sculptures at the neighboring ruins of the ancient cities of Aphrodisias and Ephesus.
Water in these rock pools reflects the shade of the sky in surreal beauty. A tender blue during our visit, it can equally reflect the orange or crimson of a sunset and the inky blackness of night.
Some hotels in the area have been built around a natural hot spring, and the PAM spa where we stayed was one such. Luxuriating in that natural heat seemed to chase all cares away. The mineral rich mud that we daubed ourselves with was delightfully therapeutic.For a while, we spread ourselves on warm rocks as hot streams gushed under us and steam rose to the night sky. Music drifted to us from the open air restaurant below. From above, we were bathed by the mellow light of moon and stars. Poised between the serene sky and the turbulent dramas of the earth’s underbelly, it was a rare moment of magic and mystery.
My poem “ The Path of the Volcano” in an earlier book “ Aerial Roots” carries the line “ The volcano will gain its devotees.” The natural legacies of volcanic eruption are phenomena to marvel at in the awesome artistry of these cave cities and calcium terraces. I hadn’t known about these amazing places at the time of writing, but enthralled visits to Cappadokia and Pamukkale, the offspring of volcanoes, validate the imagined truth of that line.