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We Actually Lived in a Cave

by Diana McLeod

CAPPADOCIA, TURKEY: Imagine a rock valley, with little farms and apricot orchards nestled between colorful, sweeping cliffs. All over this valley, hundreds of strange conical stone shapes stick straight out of the sand. Some rise fifty to seventy feet tall. Most of them have doors, and windows, and balconies. Many of these cave homes are now abandoned to erosion, but others are still inhabited! At the top of this valley, there is a giant outcropping of rock that is virtually honeycombed with tunnels and dwellings, which, at one time, held at least seven levels of inhabitants. The world’'s first high rise apartment buildings! Now imagine a whole series of little valleys, each with its own geological wonders, housing more of these crazy dwellings. If you are now picturing something that looks like it was drawn by Dr Seuss, then you are getting the idea of just how bizarre the Cappadocian landscape truly is.

It was “so easy, a cave man could do it.” And they did, starting thousands of years ago. Actually, this story started long before that, when, sometime in the dawn of prehistory, volcanoes erupted in central Turkey, in an area that would come to be known as Cappadocia. For months, they spewed out a particular form of ash and lava that the geologists call tuff. This soft flaky ash covered the entire region. In some places it was hundreds of feet thick. Over the centuries, it hardened. Both man and nature have carved out spectacular formations in this rock. The result is a magical area of the world that is truly unique.

The most peculiar feature of this rock is its softness. It can be carved very easily. A single person, working with simple tools, can carve out a square meter per day. A small living space could be created in a month. Cave rooms are cool in the summer, and can be easily warmed by small fires in the winter. Prehistoric people found them to be safe, well insulated, and virtually maintenance free. “Additions” were easy;– an ambitious cave dweller could just dig deeper, or dig further back, or build stairs, and go up a level. You could “design” your own living space with built-in shelving, sleeping lofts, and storage bins. This work could be done in poor weather, when it was impossible to work outside.

The geology of the region makes these homes truly unique. Many of them are built into strange conical rock formations that the Turks call “fairy chimneys.” The rock is so soft that it erodes easily. Many areas are completely eroded away, leaving behind strange looking towers, which usually have darker, stronger rock on their tops. The stronger layer acts like an umbrella, protecting the softer rock below. Some of these formations are extraordinary. Some even look distinctly phallic (one valley is aptly named ‘"Love Valley’." (After you finish reading this, visit Dave'’s photo gallery to see why).

These valleys even housed underground churches! One wave of inhabitants, who lived here during the Middle Ages, were devoutly Christian. They built underground churches here –Over three thousand of them have been found throughout the area! We only had time to explore a few. They ranged from tiny chapels to magnificent arched and columned cathedrals. One church even had a second level for balcony seating! Many had brilliantly painted interiors.

CAVE HOTELS: The town of Goreme still has many inhabited cave dwellings. Our hotel was one of Goreme’'s famous cave hotels. We stayed at a place called the “Shoestring Cave Hotel,” which we thought was a good value, and a great place to meet people. Our room was built utilizing one of the old cave dwellings, which had been modernized for our comfort. Our cave had a hardwood floor, a full modern bathroom with hot water, and central heating. It was cozy and comfortable, although we used the shower sparingly to keep dampness from accumulating. The front of the cave had been walled off with cement blocks, with a curved “hobbit-hole” style window, curtains, and a wooden door. Despite the cement, you could still see evidence of the original arched shelves used by people long ago, and there were indentations in the sides of the walls that probably once held torches or oil lamps.

The Shoestring had its reception room in another cave, with a ladder up to a second story sleeping loft cave. If you went further in, there was the “high speed internet cave”, which was lined with carpets and Turkish style low divans with cushions. At the desk was a new computer system with a large flat screen monitor and rapid internet access, which was free for guests to use. I loved emailing home ("Dear Mom and Dad, I'’m emailing you from a cave..."). Another door opened into the dining room-backgammon cave, with tables for breakfast. (Guest houses in Turkey are traditionally bed and breakfast style. This one had a great breakfast menu, which was included in the price of the room).

Our cave hotel was a marvelously social place. We met a lively young couple from Quebec City, and a very charming Turkish man who was living in Germany, but who had come home to visit family and to do a little exploring of his native country. We spent several days together, exploring the area. We even visited a hammam, (a Turkish steam bath), but that'’s another story, which I will tell later.

“BETTER HOMES AND CAVERNS:” We were also fortunate enough to be invited into a local cave home. This one was built into a “fairy chimney”, and it had a nice patio outside, with colorful potted geraniums. Our hostess invited us into her kitchen. (She was hoping that we would purchase some of her homemade glass jewelry). The kitchen was well laid out, and nicely decorated, with a gas stove, plumbing, and electricity. Except for the unusual walls and ceiling, it looked quite modern, although the appliances looked like they had been purchased back in the 1960’'s.

We did not get to see the upstairs, but there must have been several bedrooms and a bath. One side of the “house” had a lovely second floor porch and balcony, and the other side had smaller windows. There was even a third level, but I suspect that that was used only to roost pigeons. And, of course, it wouldn’'t have been a proper modern Turkish house without the large satellite TV dish on one side!

Thanks for reading! Diana McLeod

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