In the shallow part of the late morning we pulled out of our hotel, setting out for the deeper parts of Cappadocia. The cities fell away, and the English road signs, the tour groups, the restaurants, the ATV rentals were all replaced by irrigated farmland.
Time passed like it does on long drives.
“Slow down,” the guy in the passenger seat said all of a sudden.
“What is it?” the driver asked. There were no other cars on the road.
“Slow down!” again, with more insistence, pointing ahead of us.
And then we saw it. A huge flock of sheep taking up both lanes of the otherwise empty road. We pulled over. Bringing up the front of the flock was a sheep dog, its tongue happily lolling out of its mouth. The sheep followed, their bells ringing with every trot, the full udders of the momma sheep swaying back and forth. Th shepherd brought up the rear, with his crook hitting the asphalt step by step. Following him was a second sheep dog, more dutifully drooping its muzzle to the ground, ready to urge on stragglers.
We descended into the underground city of Kaymakli, a complex cut eight floors deep into the soft volcanic rock. Once it could have been home to over three thousand people. Now the upper levels of this subterranean metropolis are used by locals for storage—a honeycombed ancient attic. A portion of the city has been made safe for tourists. The walls have been strung with lights, the sloping steps have been reinforced with concrete and steel, and almost every turn has been marked with helpful signs.
As soon as we went inside the heat of the day lifted, and we could smell damp stone. The hand-carved walls were uneven, branching off to various rooms like the arms of a tree. The corridors narrowed as they went deeper, until in some places you had to bend over to pass through them, or fall onto your hands and knees. Hollowed out into the soft rock were storage rooms, wine presses, a church, living rooms, graves, and a metallurgist.
Deeper into the city, we marveled at a huge ventilation shaft. It was about the size of a comfortable chair, and the left side of it was dotted with hand-and-footholds climbing all the way down. We turned the flashlight into to the darkness, but the light got lost in the depths. We had no idea how deep the shaft went, or how high.
And it stunned us to think that all of these sloping passageways and huge stone caverns were carved by people. That someone had not only climbed this vertiginous ventilation shaft but excavated it from the living stone. Ancient Christians had done the majority of the work here, retreating to the caves as a defense against persecution. But the Christians had only expanded and improved on cave structures which had existed long before them, going as far back as the Hittites. The caves were safe. They were a good place to hide from the shifting tides of empire.
Our next stop was the gorge of Ihlara, a broad tree-filled gash in the rock whose sides were speckled with windows and rooms that once were the seclusion of early Christians. Around eighty thousand people once lived here in lonesome safety, in four thousand houses carved into the sides of the rock, praying at over a hundred churches.
As we walked to the ticket office a large crowd of high-school girls burst through of the turnstiles. The first group was dressed modestly in headscarfs, clucking softly to themselves. One girl stopped at the gift shop and put on a cowboy hat over her hijab, laughing to her friends. The next wave of young women were dressed in western fashion—in camisoles, skinny jeans and shorts. I think they were from the same school, but they looked like they came from two different worlds.
We paid for our tickets and made our way down the three hundred steps to the bottom of the gorge. The whole sky was cloudy. The wind tasted of cloud, the far-off mountains behind us were capped by clouds, and the clear sunny heat we were used to was dulled by clouds.
We visited the Agacalti Church, which was caved into the cliff wall in the eleventh century, propped up with four arches, and decorated with a small dome. The walls were frescoed in white and orange paint, with the robes of the prophets drawn out in turquoise. Jesus loomed above us in the main dome, holding a blessing with one hand and a book in the other, surrounded by winged spirits who were perpetually dragging the resurrected messiah up to heaven. None of the figures had pupils in their eyes, and so they stare, empty, forlorn down onto us. The church showed its age. The paint was chipped in places, a passageway had fallen, the lower parts of the wall had been scratched with crude graffiti.
We followed the steps further down to the bottom, a long line of tourists ahead of us and behind. But when we reached the gorge the other tourists turned left to a nearby church, and we continued forwards, crossing the fast-flowing river. After a few minutes we could no longer hear the noise of the tour groups. Around us was the solitude of rocks and trees, of dust and bugs, the burble of water and the empty noise of wilderness.
We climbed up to another church carved into the farther cliff-face. This one was less well-preserved, more isolated, less protected. Three entrances with finely carved archways led into a darkened interior, the ceiling drooping with cobwebs. Passing the weak flashlight against the walls we could make out the remains of the white and orange paint that had once brightened the walls. A greek cross on a pillar. Geometric patterns crawling along a ceiling. As we went deeper into the ruin, the daylight was swallowed by the shadows, and we found the side-rooms and the small passageways completely dark. The flashlight tried in vain to illuminate these big empty rooms, and we stopped on the threshold, peering inside, wondering what had once been there, trying to imagine what the church might have looked like back when it was filled with the noise of living.
On our way out of Cappadocia we passed by another fairy chimney site. We stopped the car at an overlook and took pictures of the rock which fell like folds of fabric in an art-student’s texture study, honeycombed with floors, walls, windows, and doors.
It was amazing, but we had been looking at amazing things now for ten straight days, and in the late afternoon with four hours of driving ahead of us, we only enjoyed the scene briefly. We quickly folded ourselves back into the car, passed by a parking lot full of tourist buses, empty besides their drivers, who lay idle in their driver’s seats, either napping the afternoon away or texting, ignoring the ponderous photo-worthy spires rising into the air above them. They, too, were tired of beauty. We drove onwards to Konya, where we would spend the night.