I explored the UNESCO open air museum of Goreme which sports an astonishing array of churches from the 10th to 12th centuries.  Saying good bye to Cappadocia.

I hiked up the 2 km from Goreme to the UNESCO open air museum and when I passed the parking lot with over 20 huge tour buses lining up at 9:30 AM already, I knew I would be in good company.  There were Germans, Italians, Spaniards, and loads of Japanese and Koreans.  All were lead by guides with silly little flags and lined up in front of the most famous churches for their turns.  Some of these churches are so small that barely one group fits in.  In order to get some space for myself I started backwards and I took my time.   I also did not just visit the important places, but spent time in the little caves that often did not even have a name.  It paid to be patient, as indeed between tour groups and certainly around mid-day, the throngs of people lightened up and more often than not, I was able to catch at least a moment to enjoy these remarkable spaces by myself.

Once again I had to surrender my mono-pod.  Photography indoors was strictly forbidden and enforced by plain-cloth guards and the tour group leaders.  But they can’t always look everywhere and there are moments between one group leaving and one group coming in…  And so I got a few, if blurry shots.  At the end of the day I was so focused on getting some ice cream that I forgot to retrieve my monopod.  I had to take a taxi back from town to catch it 2 minutes before closing or it would have been gone as I am leaving town early tomorrow morning.  That was a close call.

UNESCO sites by definition are jaw dropping, but I have to admit that I was not even aware of the artistic wealth of this region which rivals in many ways the Byzantine churches of Ravenna and the early Renaissance churches of Giotto and Duccio in Italy if for nothing than diligence.  One difference is that we don’t know the names of any of these artists.  Not all of them were masters.  Some were quite 3rd rate but still prolific and charming in their own ways.   Christ Pantocrator, who was found in almost all the churches had at times an awfully round face in which his beard seemed to function as a disguise for his double-chin, or his fingers were less than elegantly either overstretched or painted a bit short and over-fed.   But among all the first rate art, these slips were actually quite refreshing.

A curious mix of asceticism, monasticism and community-oriented Christianity was practiced in these mountains.  There were plenty of caves in the area for anyone who would wish to withdraw.  But there was a local Saint Basel from Kayseri, who seemed to have gone around telling those hermits that Christ would have appreciated a bit more community service…  So they carved monasteries which really were places were the sick would be cared for, meals would be provided for the needy and the locals could come to worship.  At the antechambers of many of the churches there were burial grounds which attest to their varied clientele as there were many childrens’ graves as well.   These monasteries also provided protection in case of external threats and like I had seen in the underground cities, there were supposedly tunnels and areas with stone locks – not accessible for visitors, though.

The oldest churches dated back to the 9th century; the later ones to the 11th.  Three artistic styles could be distinguished.  In the aftermath of iconoclastic movements of the 7th and 8th century, there were churches with simple geometric ornamentation applied in ocher tones directly onto the rough-cut stone.  When the tolerance towards figurative paintings increased, stucco was applied to the walls and they were painted with biblical scenes and saints.  This is referred to as fresco secco and is not strictly speaking a fresco technique, as the walls were dry when paint was applied.  In those murals you see paint flaking.  And then there was the true fresco which to this day looks remarkable and fresh.  But there also have been some recent renovations by national and international teams to preserve the murals, so it is not always clear which is which in the case of the two fresco techniques.

What I heard from one of the German-speaking guides is that people have been struggling with the preservation of these sites.  What I mentioned when I did my treacherous hike a couple of days is that it surprised me that the mere touch of some of these mountains removes material.  This means that any sand storm, any heavy rain, any walking, etc. will seriously erode these mountains.  Looking at Cappadocia as a whole – all these chimneys and mountains are results of erosion.  The volcano most have likely deposited an even layer of pumice and basalt.  It’s the cracks, the rain, the rivers, the wind, the animals, and the people which over time have created this bizarre landscape.  And we are not done.  Nothing can stop this process.  The guide mentioned that a compound had been sprayed over some of the churches to stop erosion.  It did not work.  Cement was mixed in to stop some cracks.  It did not work.  Stone covers have been built over some natural mountains.  Some of that at least stabilizes certain shapes, but it does not stop erosion either.  I guess, the fact is that a couple of thousand years from now Cappadocia won’t exist the way we know it today.  This process might be universal, but I have rarely seen any place that was just this fragile.

One of the churches is located outside of the big open air museum, one kilometer downhill and 1.5 km into the valley.  No tour bus can get there.  You have to hike on a dirt road or take a small car.  I went and was welcomed by the guide who works there for the 10 or 20 visitors who wander out there now and the 100-200 who make it in high season.  Compared with the 5-6000 that make it to the big museum that is not much.  He was very personable.  And he had a very friendly pet dog at the site as well.  After he showed me around, he invited me to a cup of tea.  I sat on one of the mountains right next to a cone that from the outside looked just like one of those hundred other chimney cones, yet this one, on the inside, hid a remarkable treasure.  It actually contains the oldest paintings of all of the churches in Goreme and one of my favorite motifs:  Constantine and his mother Helena holding the true cross they claimed to have discovered.

And as I looked down into the valley that was lit by the late afternoon sun and all those chimneys and mountains which turned white, beige, golden and even red in some areas, I realized how much I would miss this place.  It is so unique.  I have taken quite a liking to it.  I appreciate its complexity from my climb a couple of days ago.  I marvel at its hidden treasures after exploring just a few of them, and I love its colors and the quietude and monumentality it radiates.  This world has some darn fine places!

Good night.

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  1. I tried sending a note on Cappadocia a week or so ago but for some reason, our Norton virus protector would not let it go through so I will try again. The landscape is so unbelievably breath-taking and how we wish that we could see it and walk among its chimneys with you. What a treat for you to see it as it is today and appreciate it so even though it will be gone some day. I felt that way when I saw the crumbling Colosseum in Rome – so lucky to seize the moment.