Cappadocia’s famous ‘fairy chimneys’, a surreal landscape of carved-out towering rock formations, change color with every sunset. But how did these strange natural growths emerge? We can take a look at the tale behind Turkey’s most majestic rocks.
Away from the towns and up high on the plains near Göreme, you’ll find the “fairy chimneys”, a freakish-looking geological work of art that baffled almost that ventured along the Old Silk Road trading route. Although they certainly aren’t the creations of sprites, pixies or demons, they are what you could call a collaboration between refugees and the volcanic landscape.
Millions of years ago, the region was home to far more volcanism than it experiences today. You can find plenty of shield volcanoes dotted around the country today; most are extinct, but a handful are expected to be dormant, if not active. What is now Cappadocia certainly saw its fair share of eruptions, with most of the activity taking place around 3 to 9 million years ago.
According to National Geographic, the thick ash from ancient volcanic eruptions in the region solidified into soft rock called tuft: “Wind and water went to work on this plateau, leaving only its harder elements behind to form a fairy tale landscape of cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms, and chimneys, which stretch as far as 130 feet (40 meters) into the sky.” Then, humans worked with Mother Nature’s creations to build caves. The tunnels were so complex that they actually formed entire underground towns.
This region, now known as Göreme National Park, was once the only land path between the Greek and Persian empires. Later, it bridged the gap between the Byzantine Greeks and their rivals in the Middle East. In other words, it was a place where your political and national affiliations could get you in big trouble, depending on what army happened to be marching through at the time. That’s where the caves come in — they made a great hiding spot for anyone who didn’t want to get involved in the bloody game of classical era politics. And as the years went on, those underground caves became more and more elaborate.
Staying in Cappadocia today doesn’t involve any hardship or subterranean chambers. Many cave dwellings and fairy-chimney chapels have been converted into boutique hotels, where you can try the troglodyte lifestyle in luxury. Features include cave hamams (Turkish baths), rock-cut arches, walls patterned with volcanic colour-banding and panoramic terraces surveying the valleys. You’ll quickly discover what the locals have known for centuries: the tuff rock keeps rooms cool in summer and warm in winter.
The allure of tourist dollars has tempted many Cappadocians away from agriculture. The pigeon houses riddling the rock faces – traditionally used to collect the birds’ droppings for use as fertiliser – mostly stand empty. Nonetheless, village life continues and vestiges of the fabulous past remain – including the local wine.
Cappadocia has one of the world’s oldest wine industries, which stretches back some 4000 years to the Hittites – the first to recognise the volcanic soil’s viticultural qualities, and to carve rock cellars. As you sample the Anatolian grape, there’s certainly a great deal of history to reflect on in this land of fairy chimneys and Byzantine remains.
THE DARKER SIDE
There is a slightly dark side to this story, however. All this volcanic ash contained a mineral group known as zeolites, and one member of this group, erionite, proved to be particularly dangerous to those living in the area.
This particular volcanic product is carcinogenic, and although this may be because it has an asbestos-like form, the jury’s still out on this one. A little while back, the inhalation of this mineral caused an unprecedented mesothelioma outbreak – cancer that develops in the thin layer of the tissue that covers, among other organs, the lungs and the chest wall. Remarkably, around 50 percent of all deaths in three villages could be blamed on this innocuous-looking mineral, and a rapid exodus for those still at risk had to be implemented.
Turkish Airlines flies from Istanbul to Nevşehir, Cappadocia. It also flies to nearby Kayseri from Istanbul, as does Anadolu Jet, while Pegasus Airlines flies from both Istanbul and Izmir and Sun Express flies from Germany. Daily buses from Istanbul take about 11 hours (normally overnight).
Although many questions remain, it’s probably safe for you to visit Cappadocia. It seems that erionite mostly triggers mesothelioma in those who are genetically predispositioned to cancers caused by mineral fibers, which incidentally you need to be exposed to in the long-term, not just during a short stay.
Volcanoes are often thought of as important during their eruptions. The fairy chimneys, and their darker recent history demonstrates that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Cappadocia kind of has a thing for hot air balloons. And they’re a great way to see how the landscape looks after a couple of eons of volcanos, winds, and human intervention. But if that’s the only way you visit the region, then you’ll miss out on a big part of the local flavor. Besides giving shelter to Cappadocian natives, the chimneys also attracted refugees — specifically, Christian refugees fleeing persecution in Rome. As thousands of people poured into Turkey, they dug out the caves to literally create giant underground cities such as Kaymakli and Derinkuyu.
These settlements might be subterranean but they’re home to some stunning works of art and architecture. You’ll find gorgeous, Byzantine-era chapels complete with elaborate religious reliefs and mosaics, lit by sunlight streaming in through the hand-cut windows. You might even find your hotel room in that underground labyrinth — many caves have been transformed into hotels for 21st-century cave living.