Day trip Cappadocia: Güzleyurt, Ihlara, Selime and Ağzıkarahan
We're standing in the entrance to the Güzleyurt Yeraltı Şehri, one of a network of so-called underground cities that thread their way through the soil of Cappadocia, and our guide is running through what little is known about them. Then the group is off, squeezing its way down a chute that leads from the upper to the lower level of this one, the only one in which archeologists have been able to identify a toilet, despite the fact that people may have spent weeks if not months at a time hiding inside these man-made underground cave labyrinths.
Lovely Güzelyurt lies on the less-visited western side of Cappadocia and it's the first main stop on one of the day tours from Göreme. As we approach the underground city, the road winds down into a beautiful wooded valley, great splashes of greenery contrasting beautifully with the honey-colored stone of the mainly abandoned houses of old Gelveri, the largely Greek town that existed here before the Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1923.
A path trails from the entrance of the underground city to the local mosque, a grand building in a walled garden that started life as a church built beside an ayazma, or sacred spring, still accessible today down a steep flight of stairs. The original church on the site dated back to 385 when it was commissioned by the Emperor Theodosius and named after Gregory of Nazianus (329-90), a local boy who had risen to become the Archbishop of Constantinople and was later canonized. The church you see today, however, is a rebuild of 1835 that was turned into a mosque after the population exchange, with the addition of a minaret over the gate. Happily, although the walls were whitewashed to conceal their frescoes the old wooden iconostasis was reused to make an attractive surround for the new mihrab while the wooden pulpit donated by Tsar Nicholas II was left in its place on a pillar.
On a tour there's not enough time to look around the rest of Güzelyurt, but staying visitors will find that it's home to several rock-cut medieval churches as well as to a more unusual rock-cut mosque. On the outskirts, the 19th-century Yüksek Kilise (High Church) perches picturesquely on a rock overlooking a lake.
The church-mosque and underground city may be fascinating, but the central feature of this particular tour is a walk through the middle of the spectacular Ihlara Gorge, a 14-kilometer-long canyon carved out of the rocky landscape by the Melendiz Çayı, a river that still ripples along its bottom providing a wonderfully refreshing backdrop for the walk. You can walk the entire length of the gorge in a single day without any special training, but most tours stick with a more manageable abbreviated stroll of around four kilometers along a path that is clearly laid out and well labeled.
The 400-odd steps down from the main entrance deposited us near the colorful ninth or 10th-century Ağaçaltı Kilise (Under the Tree Church), which is particularly unusual in featuring a very battered fresco of Daniel in the Lion's Den in the apse where one might more normally expect to see a figure of the Pantocrator or of Mary with Jesus. It being August, groups were queuing up to follow us into the tiny cross-shaped church cut straight out of the rock, so off we hurried to begin out walk.
I've always loved Ihlara and even today when it is far more “discovered” than when I first saw it on my own in 1992, it still retains its charm. Reclining on cushions on a platform set up in the water, glass of freshly squeezed orange juice in hand, ducks swimming past in hope of scraps of gözleme, I felt myself in heaven, a feeling only slightly dented by the over-development around Belisirma village where everyone stops for a trout lunch beside the river.
After lunch our minivan picked us up to drive to the pinprick village of Selime at the far end of the gorge, which is dominated by one of Cappadocia's biggest and most impressive rock-cut monastic complexes (the trouble with walking the entire gorge alone is that you end up here, 14 kilometers away from your car, unless you can arrange for someone to pick you up later).
The monastery, too, is a great deal more discovered than it used to be, with a ticket booth greeting visitors, where in the past you were lucky even to find the custodian (the same ticket covers admission to both the Ihlara Gorge and the Selime Monastery -- most tour prices include entry fees). Still, this is a stunning, unforgettable place where it's hard to know which is the more memorable: the steep-sided rock-cut path wide enough only to put one foot in front of the other; the huge, soot-blackened kitchen with its soaring pyramidal chimney; the lovely carved lintel over the doorway leading into a church on two stories with Romanesque-style columns: or the so-called “cathedral,” its frescoed images of stories from the Bible so soot-blackened that unless urgent restoration is carried out they will soon be lost altogether.
Across the road from the huge rock cone of Selime is a cemetery dominated by one of the conical türbes (tombs) that are scattered across the Selçuk heartlands.
On the way back to Göreme we stopped off in the village of Ağzıkara, which is home to one of the finest of the great caravanserais built by the Selçuks right the way across Anatolia. These caravanserais were prototype hotels where traveling salesmen and their animals could put up for three days with the state bearing the cost of their accommodation. Most were built as far apart from one another as a camel could comfortably walk in a day, although the one at Ağzıkara is actually quite close to the newly restored caravanserai of Tepsidelik, now converted into a restaurant.
Ağzıkarahan is a fairly typical caravanserai, its austere, almost fortress-like outside walls cheered up only by an outburst of glorious carving around the main entrance. It was commissioned in 1231 when the great Selçuk leader Alaeddin Keykubad I was ruling from Konya and completed in 1239 by which time Giyaseddin Keyhüsrev had succeeded him.
Inside, the huge courtyard is broken up by a mescid (chapel) raised up on stone stilts, the steps leading up to it almost as elaborately carved as the entrance. On one side of the courtyard a vast, high-ceilinged stable to accommodate the camels in winter is fitted with stone ledges that could serve as beds but also made it easier to unload the animals. On the other side an open-sided arched area provided stabling in summer.
Fate has not been kind to Ağzıkarahan, which attracted quite a lot of tourists until four years ago when a bypass left it high and dry. Since then, the visitors have virtually dried up. Now it is being restored. Rumor has it that it, like Tepsidelik, will be turned into a restaurant afterwards.
On our way back to Göreme we made one last photostop in front of Uçhisar Kalesi, another soaring rock cone. Back at the travel agency, we downed a reviving drink and chatted over nibbles. It had been a long day but a thoroughly satisfactory one, of that fact we were all agreed.
Pat Yale was a guest of Heritage Travel (www.goreme.com, tel: 0384-271 2687) in Göreme.