Refuge in Rock

In the mid-1700’s to the mid-1800’s, European explorers first came to Cappadocia.    In 1744, Paul Lucas of France, declared that he had seen pyramid-formed strange houses that had charming doors, stairs and large windows to illuminate the rooms.  The fairy chimneys reminded him of hooded priests and the rocks over them resembled the Virgin Mary  holding the baby Christ.  Perhaps he had seen one of Raphael’s triangular paintings showing Mary with the babies Jesus and John the Baptist, such as Madonna of the Goldfinch painted in 1505.

C. Texier stated that “nature had never showed itself to a foreigner’s eyes so extraordinarily.”  Ainsworth said in 1837, “turning up a glen which led from the river inland, we found ourselves suddenly lost in a forest of cones of pillars and rock that rose around us in interminable confusion, like the ruins of some great and ancient city.”

The numerous attacks and changes in empire across the centuries would have made innocent victims of ordinary citizens, except that they were able to hide themselves:

12th – 6th C. BCE:  Hittites
6th – 4th C. BCE:  Persians
322 BCE:  Hellenistic (Alexander the Great)
1st to 12th C. AD:  Romans/Byzantines
13th C. AD:  Ottoman
1923:  Locals, mainly of Greek ancestry Greek dating back to the Hellenistic Period, were expelled to Greece in the Great Exchange instituted by Ataturk.

In the earliest times, several underground cities were created deep in the stone to hide and protect during attack.  We visited one of the underground cities today, Kaymakli.

During the Roman Empire, this region became a famous underground (literally and figuratively) refuge where early Christians hid from persecution by the Romans.  This continued through the Byzantine era when icons were banned, and later, Christians continued to practice their faith beyond the sight of the Ottoman Empire.  St. Basil also used the area to bring many people in the hermitical practice together in apparent opposition to the concept – encouraging them to live their solitary lives within a supportive community.

It was in the first millennium AD that an extraordinary number of churches, monasteries and chapels were carved into the caves and rock beyond the reach of persecutors, and we were heading to the Zelve and Goreme open air museums to explore this unique culture.


Up to 5,000 people at one time lived in these massive underground caves to avoid attack for months at a time.  The caves go down as far as 50 metres below the surface; we reached 30 metres below.  There was ventilation, food storage, a winery and wine storage, extensive kitchens.  Large stones were carved to cover openings to prevent detection and avoid arrows or spears.  I could imagine the fear, the hope, the silence, the sounds overhead and the praying.  There were humble sleeping rooms (once lined with straw) and more expansive homes for the well-to-do; we saw one with a living room, dining room, separate bedrooms for adults and children, and a place to hang a cradle.   The cities were interconnected by miles of tunnels.  There were still Cappadocian Christians using these hideouts in the early 1900’s, to evade the Ottoman.

Pigeon Valley

We stopped off here for a photo of this town built into a hillside.


At this open air museum, we were able to explore some of the churches and homes of Christians hidden in these mountains.  Some decorations survive.

Goreme – “Painted Churches”

This alien, bewildering landscape not only offered shelter but also mystified; it attracted those who were seeking a safe place in which they could express their faith and explore the nature of life.   The community grew – eventually, there were 16 churches, monasteries and chapels here.  I would see three of the most beautiful today, but there were more open to the public I didn’t get to.  No photography was allowed inside the churches, but I have downloaded images of some of the murals.

St. Barbara Chapel

Elmali Kilise/Apple Church

Tokali Kilise/Buckle Church

Thought to be the oldest rock-cut church in the region, this church contains the most beautiful frescoes, telling the story of Jesus’ life.

We had another lovely dinner back at the hotel, our pretty courtyard beckoned for a cool glass of white wine and we ate outside tonite, a traditional baked white bean dish served in its red clay baking dish.  We called it an early night because it had been a long day and we were hitting the road again in the morning.



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