Day trip Cappadocia: Gülşehir, Hacıbektaş, Özkonak and Paşabağ
We were standing in front of the grand entrance leading into the shrine of Hacı Bektaş Veli, an Islamic mystic who is particularly revered by the Alevis and the Bektaşı sect. As our guide Fırat talked to us so he pointed to the bottom of the doorframe and there, sure enough, amid the otherwise stereotypically geometric carvings I saw two tiny carved fish, symbolizing in stone this rather wonderful story.
Until recently Hacıbektaş has been something of a touristic also-ran, hunkered down on the northern outskirts of Cappadocia, rarely visited by foreign visitors except during the annual three-day festival in August when the town breaks out in song and dance and informal trips from Göreme are sometimes organized. Now all that is about to change with the introduction of a new day trip that takes visitors to the shrine. It's a particularly welcome development given that the museum associated with it has recently been given a complete make-over and now offers an intriguing insight into aspects of Turkish culture that rarely get a look-in in mainstream coverage.
Hacı Bektaş Veli was a mystic who is believed to have arrived in Central Anatolia from Horasan on the borders of what are now Iran and Afghanistan some time in the 13th century when this part of the world was under the control of the Selçuks, governing from Konya. In some versions of his life story he is said to have been carried here by pigeons and so on the insides of that same elaborate doorframe leading into his shrine the custodian pointed out small carvings that she insisted were stylized birds.
The Bektaşı order of dervishes was founded either by Veli or by Balım Sultan who is buried in a separate building across the garden from the main shrine. It became highly influential in Ottoman times mainly because most members of the powerful Janissary military corps signed up to its beliefs. That influence was largely lost in 1826 when Sultan Mahmud II overthrew the Janissaries. Such latent power as they retained was completely vanquished in 1925 when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk abolished all Turkey's remaining dervish orders. Today, Hacı Bektaş Veli remains hugely important to the Alevis and is revered by many Sunni worshippers, too.
The tiny fish and stylized pigeons aside, the shrine is full of symbols, including lions and double-pointed swords that represent the fourth caliph Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed. Much of the symbolism is hard for outsiders to understand although everyone will quickly grasp the significance of the number 12; like the Shiites, Alevis revere the 12 imams who are descended from Ali. Set into the walls of the shrine you will see small 12-pointed stones called teslimtası, while the museum showcases contain elaborately decorated palenktaşı, pennants that used to be worn by the dervishes. Most strikingly, in the museum you will see examples of the Hüseyin-i taç, a high 12-sided felt hat worn by the dervishes that is also reproduced in stone on the top of their tombstones in the graveyard outside.
The Açık Saray and St John's Church, GülşehirThe new tour kicks off with a visit to another under-visited site just north of Nevşehir. The so-called Açık Saray (Open Palace) was not actually a palace at all. Instead, it was the setting for a series of what are thought to have been sixth or seventh-century rock-cut monasteries, all of them long since collapsed although their facades, inset with horseshoe-arch-shaped blind arcading, clearly reveal their locations.
The monasteries are set in a quiet valley full of silvery poplars that is also home to one of the more bizarre of the rock formations created over time by the wind and rain eating away at volcanic deposits. The Mantarkaya (Mushroom Rock) is indeed shaped like a giant frilly-edged toadstool from beside which you get a fine view out over the valley.
But the real gem of Gülşehir is the hidden church of St John (also known as the St Jean Church or the Karşı Kilise). Today modern housing on the road leading to the church somewhat detracts from its setting, but once you arrive you're in for a wonderful surprise. Externally there's nothing to suggest what you will find when you step across the threshold of a seemingly small and unexciting conical rock formation. Once inside, however, your eyes are drawn immediately to what was once the upper floor of a small church, its walls and ceiling completely covered with vividly colored frescoes.
These are some of the finest frescoes to be seen in Cappadocia, a region that is justly renowned for its medieval artworks. Our guide runs through the various Bible stories to be seen on the walls, and draws our attention to the image of St George, the patron saint of Cappadocia, battling his dragon above the window. But perhaps the single most interesting image he points out to us is the large one of the Last Judgment with angels weighing souls, then assigning the dead to heaven or hell that sits just beneath it. This is a common image in English churches, but in Cappadocia this is the only example that has ever been discovered.
Unusually, a surviving inscription means that the frescoes in the church can be dated with precision to the year 1212. The portrait of a female donor can be seen in all her Byzantine finery just to the right of the Last Judgment scene.
ÖzkonakOn the way back from Hacıbektaş our tour takes us to Özkonak, a dusty, small settlement near the pottery-making town of Avanos, which is home to one of the more than 30 “underground cities” currently open to the public across Cappadocia. The story of its discovery is worth recalling. Apparently an imam was out tending his garden when all of a sudden a hole opened up in the ground and he found himself staring down into an underground cave labyrinth complete with narrow tunnels and huge rolling stones that could be used to close them off from intruders.
Cappadocia's underground cities are one of its most attractive features as far as visitors of a non-claustrophobic disposition are concerned. Oddly, though, very little can be said about them with any certainty given the absence of written records. It's thought that some at least date back to Hittite times although all were probably expanded in the early Middle Ages during the years when the newly invigorated Arabs were riding north from their homeland and the early Christian residents of Cappadocia felt the need to hide underground for months at a time to protect themselves.
Özkonak is not as large a complex as the better known ones at Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı. Once underground, however, it's virtually impossible to get any sense of how far down into the earth you have gone, so for most people it will serve as a perfect introduction, not too cramped, not too crowded and not taking too long to visit so that there's still time left in the day to see other things, too.
Wild fairy chimneys, Paşabağ
PaşabağFrom Özkonak our tour brought us home again across Turkey's longest river, the Kızılırmak, in Avanos before concluding with a quick look at Paşabağ, home to some of Cappadocia's most striking fairy-chimney rock formations including the three-headed ones that always remind me of bunches of asparagus spears. It was a scene that offered the perfect ending for a tour that had taken us just far enough off the beaten track to make us feel like real Cappadocian explorers.
Pat Yale's tour was sponsored by Heritage Travel in Göreme (www.goreme.com; tel: 0384-271 2687)
Lion fountain at shrine of Hacıbektaş
Museum at Hacıbektaş
Museum at Hacıbektaş