Western Turkey - Personal Journal
- Thursday, 9 April 1998
Avanos is home to Galipe, a fifth generation potter in the same
rock-carved shop. Meli had arranged for him to show us how the oddly shaped
little pots found in ancient sites might have been made. Under his deft hands,
the lump of clay took shape and became art, in a way that pots have been
created by Anatolians for centuries - on a foot-powered potter's wheel.
We made another purchase here. Two small cups with saucers,
decorated with tulips, seemed small enough to carry. If weight was not a
problem, we would have carried away more of the beautiful plates, pitchers, and
pots. Some of the other tour members did.
It was a pleasure to walk around the village, take the unsteady
suspension bridge across the Red River and see in the daylight the restaurant
where we ate on our first night in Cappadocia. Donkey carts, brightly painted
trailers pulled by farm tractors, and the ancient buildings of the town meant
endless fascination for our eyes. Hard working farmers and their wives,
laughing little boys, sweet little girls were constant photographic
temptations, calling for more film in the camera.
Always too soon, comes the time to move on. The underground city
of Kaymakli awaits.
The underground "cities" are an amazing feature of Cappadocia; one
writer refers to them as the 8th wonder of the world. They have certainly been
a well-hidden secret. Only small portions of the approximately 40 discovered
underground cities have been excavated, and an even smaller portion is
available for public viewing. There are probably more cities that have not been
found. Meli took us to one of the best, of which 10% has been excavated, and we
will see 3%. The first three levels are probably from the Hittite days, and
were used for animal shelter and food storage. During the persecutions, it grew
to nine levels. Meli wanted us to think of why these cities exist, and stressed
the point that these cities are not like the catacombs. "Catacombs were for the
dead," she said. "This place was for the living." They had a graveyard here,
but it was incidental, as a village has a graveyard.
We entered the cavity in the earth, and Jim Drahovzal the
geologist was immediately checking the rock wall, wearing his headlamp. We got
a great laugh at his expense, but it was joyous laughter. We referred to Jim as
"our" geologist, and some of us constantly bombarded him with questions about
the terrain. He was a very good sport and a great teacher, willingly answering
with as much knowledge as he had, which was considerable. He had studied the
region ahead of time, and knew what to look for.
Meli quickly led us deeper into the tunnels, lecturing at each
stop along the way. She pointed out the lack of soot on the ceilings in what
was probably sleeping quarters for a family, indicating that the people lived
in near-total darkness. Candles or torches would have consumed too much of the
precious oxygen. Soot was found on the ceiling in the birthing area where light
would have been a necessity for cutting the umbilical cord. To keep the mother
and the newborn baby warm, sheep would have been brought in, and the warmth of
their bodies would have helped to heat the room. A cross on the wall may have
been there as a symbol to give them strength and courage. Childbirth often
happens spontaneously when stressful situations such as war or natural
There were storage areas for food and for wine. The kitchen was
located beside the well and just at water level, so that it would have been
easy to draw water for cooking and drinking. Bulgur, sundried meat, apples,
apricots, oranges and grapes could all have been stored in these rooms, and
been available in good times or in bad. It seemed that people did not only come
here to hide for a few days; but 1100 people could have lived here for up to a
month easily, as they hid from their enemies.
The presence of a church suggests that it might have been used not
only as an escape during times of war, but also as a secret place to practice
Christianity during ongoing times of persecution. The church is marked with a
cross on the wall, and in the center is a a chunk of stone left standing as
they carved the room out of the rock, probably a communion table. The early
church had very few rituals, and sharing bread and wine in memory of Jesus was
one of the most significant. Meli suggested that wine services would have a
sedative effect, a desirable state for people forced to hide here for long
The entrances to these cities were well hidden. Some of the
underground cities are built under villages, with exits from inside the homes
directly into the earth beneath. Round stone doors could be rolled into place
behind them, and could be opened again only from the inside. Some had zigzag
escape tunnels, so that the people could have come out on the other side of the
hill and slipped away, unseen by the attackers. Some had tunnels connecting one
city to another. Ventilation shafts were well placed and well designed.
The Christian community that was cradled here in the early
centuries was nurtured and grew in these rocky undergrounds and in the rock
churches we saw aboveground. Christian theology books refer to the Cappadocian
Fathers, including three Christian leaders of the fourth century who were
vitally important in protecting the true doctrines against heretical beliefs
that so readily sprang up. St. Basel, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Gregory of
Nazianzus were the defenders of the concept of God as "three persons in one
substance" or as we sing in American churches today, "God in three persons,
blessed Trinity." Basel and the two Gregories are the ones whose images we
first encountered at Chora Church in Istanbul.
But all of that is history, and Islam has replaced Christianity in
Anatolia. The churches and the underground cities are empty museums; prayers to
God have been replaced by prayers to Allah, and the Bible has been replaced by
the Qur'an. Instead of the teachings of Jesus and Paul, the people listen to
the teachings of Mohammed and Rumi.
While we were underground, Meli spied a young just-married Muslim
couple. The lovely young lady was gracious to show us her traditional gold
necklace, hiding beneath her scarf. The tradition is that the young man gives a
necklace of gold coins to the bride. It is her security, in the event the
marriage fails or something happens to him. In reality, it is often a fallback
for the family to use in difficult times. The glow of the gold coins and the
happy glow in the bride's face were a wonderful contrast to the gloomy darkness
of this underground hiding place.
After duck-walking bent over through the tunnels, we were happy to
stand up straight in the sunshine again.
As we drove through the countryside, Meli pointed out how freshly
planted fields were marked by seven stones piled on top of each other. This is
a signal to the wandering shepherds with their flocks, so that the new growth
is not trampled. When the field has been harvested, the pile of rocks is
knocked down, and the animals are allowed to graze freely. There are no fences.
One or two shepherds, and two or three of the wonderful Turkish Shepherd dogs
accompanies the flocks that we see. The fierce-looking spiked collars worn by
the dogs is protection against attack by wolves.
Cappadocia seems a dry and dusty land, interspersed by small
trickles of streams, and the Red River is like a shining ribbon running through
it. The fields in April are still dormant, and dry brown grass is the forage
available for the herds. Two weeks earlier there was snow on the ground here.
In another month, it will probably look very different, green with spring
Meli talked about feudal and agricultural reform that is happening
here. Efforts are being made to teach the farmers progressive ways, and
cooperatives are being established. She told the story of a woman who decided
to try to market the delicious Cappadocian potatoes to the Germans. The
Germans, however, did not like the small, yellow, less-than-perfect potatoes.
They wanted the white American-style potatoes. Undeterred, the woman managed to
acquire some seed potatoes from America. Unfortunately, along with the potatoes
came the potato whitefly, previously unknown in Turkey. The struggle
(When we were in Samos, we had some of the best french fries we'd
ever eaten. We talked to the restaurant owner, and he told us of buying them
frozen in bulk from Holland. They are yellow potatoes, and make much better
french fries than the white ones. The lady in Anatolia needs to keep doing
research. With the persistent Turkish determination that we have seen in Meli,
I am sure she will eventually succeed. The Dutch apparently figured out if you
can't sell something one way, try another.)
In the distance, we saw the white peaks of Erciyes Mountain, which
is usually veiled with clouds. Meli was delighted. "Like a bride, she usually
hides her face. She is being bold for us," Meli said.
Our bus took us through more dramatic countryside, past more
crumbling rockhouse villages, and into the very poor village of Belisirma, on
the side of Melandis Mountain, where we ate lunch at a restaurant called the
"waist wrapped around with golden thread." Meli had mentioned it to us when we
were in Istanbul, when she talked about the "belted stone" neighborhood. Place
names are very colorfully descriptive in this country.
As our bus pulled into the little village, children came running
from all directions. They know Meli and were eager and happy to see her, and to
see us. Cameras came out, poses were struck and addresses were written. Little
Damla Gorur attached herself to me and followed me everywhere I went until we
were back on the bus again.
To get to the restaurant, we walked up and down the hilly streets
and across the Melandis River, which Damla told me, has fish. She also pointed
out the chicken with the baby chicks, and told me the Turkish words for each. I
later learned that she has a speech defect, and my trying to understand and
echo her Turkish was just impossible!
Meli told us that the food we ate at the open-air restaurant
beside the river, was the same as what the villagers would be eating that day.
A simple vegetarian meal of salad, fava beans and bulgur, it was delicious and
The village houses are made of stone and look very old. But on
many roofs satellite dishes point skyward, and perhaps poverty is only a
relative term. The children were all dressed in bright colorful new clothes.
Mahmut told us it is because of the holiday. Everyone gets new clothing for
When we left the restaurant, we had opportunities for burro rides,
and some of our less-than-healthy members were given rides back up to the top.
At one house we passed, Meli pointed out the sign above the door. There is a
Christian cross, a date written in Greek, and then in Turkish an Islamic
blessing "MASSALX" or "May God's blessings be on you."
We reconvened at a home, where we all were packed into a small
living room and tea was served. Damla eagerly helped. We were invited to ask
the family questions, and to learn about their lives in the village. The mother
of the home showed us some of the flat bread that they make in the fall and
stack up. Dry and hard, it does not decay and is made palatable by a bit of
water and warming on the stove. Samples were quickly passed out to us so we
could see that it was very good to eat. She also showed off her necklace of
gold coins, and even took it off for female tour members to wear briefly for
photo opportunities. As she readjusted her scarf, we caught a glimpse of her
hair, red with henna. We left this warm and gracious home with a sense of
reluctance - "a spoonful of honey in our mouths."
Our next stop was our hotel in Guzelyurt. A former monastery,
later a girls' school, it had an enormous auditorium where we gathered for a
glass of wine, Beethoven's Ninth and a Meli story. She had found this place was
quite by a serendipitous accident. She had a tour that could not get into the
underground city that we visited, and so she detoured to bring them to a
different underground city, near here. It was raining so she couldn't have her
planned picnic. Everything seemed to be going wrong. But Meli knew she would
find a way. She did. She was led to this place, and the resulting dinner was so
wonderful, each time she returns here is a solemn, emotional and almost sacred
occasion for her. Meli talked about how the people of this village lived
comfortably side by side, Muslim and Christian together as family. The
population swap dictated by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1927 ripped the community
apart and took the Christians all to Greece. Even today, there are Greek
Christians who tell their children who visit Guzelyurt, "Say hello to aunt
so-and-so." They were very close, like family, and differing religions did not
keep them from loving each other. With Meli, we drank a toast to peace.