Turkey of the regions (6): cave dwellings
Of course, cave dwelling was a feature of life for early man all over the world and, in Turkey, the cave at Karain near Antalya showcases the sort of natural cavity that served as a shelter for prehistoric man. Where the cave dwellings of Cappadocia are different is that they are largely man-made rather than natural. This makes them all the more interesting, especially since the same techniques that were used to carve out the houses were also used to create entire living environments complete with churches, underground “cities” and even the occasional mosque.
Cappadocia hosts the best-known collection of cave dwellings. However, there were other cave settlements in Anatolia reaching from as far west as the Phrygian Valley near Afyon to as far east as Ahlat on Lake Van, with another little offshoot up north at Seben, near Bolu.
CappadociaCovering what is basically an inverted triangle stretching from Aksaray in the west to Kayseri in the east, and then down to Niğde in the south, Cappadocia is one of Turkey's biggest tourism draw cards.
For cultural tourists, the biggest attraction tends to be the Göreme Open Air Museum, a collection of fantastic frescoed rock-cut churches and chapels in the outskirts of Göreme village. Strangely, not so much attention is generally paid to the extraordinary troglodytic lifestyle that used to be characteristic of this area and that left its mark on the landscape in the form of thousands of half-cave, half-stone-built houses.
Although there is some evidence to suggest that people were already living inside the caves in the early Christian era, the “houses” they lived in then would almost certainly have been very basic -- little more than holes burrowed into the rocks and fairy chimneys that are such a feature of the region. Only later did people start to tack more conventional houses onto the front of these caves. Once they did that, the tendency was to move forward to live in the stone-built parts of the houses, leaving the caves at the back to serve as storage.
By the 19th century, the cave houses of Cappadocia had evolved into often beautiful structures with elaborately carved gateways and paired windows topped off with pretty stone patterns. The larger houses of the more prosperous came with separate selamlık rooms for visitors and haremlik rooms for the family, sometimes separated by graceful divanhanes, arched upstairs terraces where the family could take in air in the heat of summer. In the wealthier settlements of Avanos, Ürgüp and Mustafapaşa, the external decoration of the houses grew extraordinarily flamboyant, with layer upon layer of deep carvings.
As in southeastern Turkey, the houses were sometimes hidden from public gaze behind high walls. Behind the walls, however, they were perfectly designed to cope with a lifestyle that modernization has more or less killed off. Some features of the cave houses mimicked those of the more familiar Turkish houses of wood and stone with built-in sedirs (bench seats) running around the walls, with niches carved into them to store bedding and floor-level tables. Sometime, these niches came with carved wooden doors; often they were merely curtained from view. Simple bathrooms were also hidden in cupboards inside the walls.
But the soft natural rock that formed the basis of these houses was also carved out to serve a multitude of other uses. Tandır ovens were carved into the floor, for example, with air being pumped along channels from outside with bellows to fan flames that were then used for cooking. On winter evenings, families would erect frames around their tandırs, cover them with quilts, and sleep with their feet pointed towards them for warmth.
Huge niches were also carved out of the walls for treading the grapes that grew so well in the volcanic soil. Local Christians used the grapes for making wine, with the liquid draining into ceramic storage pots through a hole cut into the side of the niche. Even today, a few locals still tread grapes in these niches and use the liquid to make pekmez, the much-loved local sweetener.
Most of the cave houses were also designed with an open-fronted çardak (shelter) where in autumn local women would sit at low tables to make enough yufka (flat bread) to see them through the winter. The paper-thin products were then passed to a matron sitting beside another tandır oven to be baked.
Most cave houses lacked much in the way of internal decoration, although the built-on sections often featured either fine stone kemer (arch) ceilings or flat wooden ceilings supported by hezens (hewn tree trunks). In the finest houses of Ürgüp, Avanos and Mustafapaşa, however, secular frescoes were painted on the walls. In Christian homes, these often featured people, while in Muslim homes landscapes and still-lifes were preferred.
Many cave house features are also on display in the underground cities, a network of tunnels and rooms cut deep into the soil and probably dating back in part to Hittite times. Some of these “cities” feature the same sort of rock-cut tables and benches as can be seen in the many rock-cut monasteries, as well as rock-cut mangers for animals -- of the sort that can be seen in the cave houses too. Such claustrophobia-inducing settlements would only ever have been occupied for short periods at a time, mainly as refuges in the period when the Arabs came rampaging across Cappadocia in the early Middle Ages.
The troglodytic lifestyle is no longer attractive to locals, not least because of the cost of converting a cave house for modern living. The abandoned settlement of Zelve is now an open-air museum, but there are many other villages such as Akköy, Sulusaray and Sofular that are either ghost settlements or sit beside replacement modern villages.
Cappadocia now has so many rock-cut boutique hotels that it's hard to know which to recommend. However, two particularly interesting recent projects involve efforts to effectively rebuild entire troglodytic mahalles (neighborhoods), complete with communal fountains, etc. In Uçhisar, Argos in Cappadocia (tel: 0384-219 3130) is one such project. In Ürgüp, the brand-new Kapakapı Premium Caves (tel: 0384-341 8877) is another. None of the cave houses are formally open to the public at the moment, although a fairy chimney is slated to be turned into a museum as part of the Argos project.
Beautiful doorways of Mustafapaşa
Frescoed Mehmet Paşa Konağı in Göreme
Frescoes in Old Greek House, Musafapaşa
AyaziniAnyone arriving in the small village of Ayazini, in the Phrygian Valley north of Afyon, could be forgiven for thinking that they had somehow strayed into Cappadocia. Here too, fairy chimneys and other rock formations have been adapted to serve as houses and storage areas, although here there are none of the fine, carved door and window frames. Instead, you will notice a distinctive style of wooden gate presumably carved by a single firm of local carpenters.
HasankeyfThe lovely small town of Hasankeyf on the banks of the Tigris River east of Diyarbakır has become a cause célèbre as the Ilısu Dam threatens to drown not just a local beauty spot but also a collection of superb medieval monuments. But this too was once a place of cave-dwellers, with the plug of rock above the river hollowed out with caves and Göreme-style cave houses clustered together around the Ulu Cami on the summit. Today, only one man continues to live in the caves but, even after the water levels rise, most of the cave houses will probably survive.
AhlatOn the northern shore of Lake Van, Ahlat is best known for a so-called Selçuk cemetery of lichen-spattered tombstones and for a fine local stone that is being used to build new houses in a development that deserves to be much better known. On the quiet, though, medieval Ahlat was also a settlement of cave-dwellers, and if you cross the cemetery and walk downhill behind it you will come to another wall of rock carved out with cave homes, none of them currently lived in.
TaşkaleIn Karaman province and just beyond the boundaries of Cappadocia, the small settlement of Taşkale was also created with its back against a solid wall of rock into which even the mosque was cut (it's still in use today). Simple houses hover beneath the rock overhang, which is completely carved out with very picturesque rock-cut storage units, each with a neat wooden door.
SebenNear Seben, south of Bolu, the Phrygians also carved cave houses out of steep-sided rock faces that are not at all easy to approach. Look out for signs to the Muslar Kaya Evleri and make sure you wear sturdy shoes when you visit.