My Incomplete List of Books Concerning Turkey

During my time in Istanbul I read several books all related to Turkey in some way. Some books I managed to finish reading. Others not. This list reflects my own wandering idiosyncratic interests.

Orhan Pamuk – The Big Guy. Numero Uno. World-Renowned. Nobel-Prize Winner. Many years ago I read The Black Book. I found it difficult to like. It seemed to wander endlessly with little payoff. It concerns a man in love with his cousin but this cousin is in a relationship with another cousin, who is a columnist for a newspaper. After the columnist and his love disappear, the narrator assumes his cousin’s role at the newspaper. Stories about Istanbul are spun out that I think you have to have lived here and be Turkish to appreciate. And some weirdness. Maybe I’ll try again, now that I’ve lived here. Probably not.

I read The Museum of Innocence after I had visited the actual namesake museum. I would have titled the book, Museum of Misery. A shlub from a wealthy, secular, proud Istanbul family is engaged to smart, beautiful, wealthy woman. But then he meets a cousin and develops an obsession with her that leads to an affair which has all kinds of tragic consequences. He ends up destroying this woman’s life, and by extension, her. And then he creates a museum dedicated to his love for her consisting of 4000 cigarette butts and hundreds of other objects she touched that he stole from her family’s apartment. His obsession is aided and abetted by her parents. Hundreds of pages go back and forth ad nauseum about how “When I was with Fusun I was so happy even though I couldn’t touch her. When I was not with Fusun I was so depressed.” Over and over and over and over and over. “Oh and there was a coup and a curfew imposed but that just made it harder to see Fusun.” I can’t remember hating a book so much. I wouldn’t hate it so much except I’m completely baffled at people believing it to be not just a good book but a great book, one that deserves the bizarre museum that shares its name. Fusun herself is not much of a character, a woman whose few words and being are nearly suffocated under the weight of the overbearingly whiny narrator. But then, she’s merely a beautiful object for a man to obsess over and unthinkingly destroy. Maybe there are several layers of Turkish culture I as yet need to learn in order to understand this novel and all the fuss.

My Name is Red is a murder mystery set amid the miniaturists who worked for the Sultan in the 16th century. It’s about art, love, integrity, tradition, religious faith, and so much more. Told from multiple points of view, including the killer’s, it’s funny, sad, ridiculous, and grim. Of course, Black, the man whose task it is to solve the murder, is in love with his cousin Shekure. If you haven’t yet read anything by Pamuk this is the book I would recommend.

Pamuk would be a better storyteller if wasn’t such a windbag. A friend reminded me that Pamuk was trained as an architect, which he says explains Pamuk’s inability to be concise about anything. And what’s with all the first cousins gettin’ busy in his books?

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak. This novel was the subject of a well-known trial in Turkey. The author was accused of insulting Turkishness. Yes, insulting Turkishness is against the law. Freedom of speech isn’t much of an ideal in Turkey, what with all the journalists in jail, people being fined or threatened with imprisonment for being an atheist. A humorous but ultimately tragic book that jumps right into the taboo topic here of the Armenian Genocide by looking at the story of two families, one Turkish, one Armenian, over several generations, on two different continents, and how they’re lives are intertwined.

Tales from the Expat Harem. This collection of essays from expat women living in (or having lived in) Turkey was published in 2006. Like any collection, some of the essays are excellent and some just ho-hum. For me, in 2014, some of these essays display a Turkey that is hard to fathom still exists (women melting lead and pouring it to dispel perceived bad luck), others show how funny and uncomfortable things can be when an independent Western woman inadvertently collides with deeply held beliefs. My favorites are by a hotel owner, a reporter who covered the war agains the Kurds in the early 1990’s, and a young woman who bemoans the confusion she and her girlfriends experience in dating Turkish men. All offer an interesting look at Turkey during different decades, from the 60’s to the early aughts.

Perking the Pansies by Jack Scott. Jack and his partner decide to leave England (cold and damp with spots of sun) for Bodrum (sun, warmth, and great food). Hilarity, frustration, and confusion ensue. What began as a blog, became a book. You can still read his adventures (he’s back in England now) over at Perking the Pansies.

Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Montague was the wife of a British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Her letters cover their travels across the European continent to Constantinople and her time spent in the Ottoman capital. Interesting read from the perspective of a sympathetic Western woman, and her account of the lives of the Ottoman women she befriended.

A Memento for Istanbul by Ahmet Umit. This book was a gift from our tour guide in Kusadasi. It starts with a murder and then travels through this seductive city’s history as the bodies pile up. It’s a good, entertaining read, even if I find the narrator to be wholly unbelievable as an Istanbul police officer given what I’ve seen of Turkish riot police and their attitudes toward protestors and murdered transgender sex workers.

Leila and Majnun by Nizami. The Persian poet Nizami wrote this tale of love and madness centuries ago. Majnun is literally Arabic for “madman” or “the possessed.” It’s a story well-known throughout the Middle East and is often alluded to by writers.

Procopius. In his Histories, he documented first-hand the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and how General Belisaurius reconquered Rome and re-expanded the Roman empire. In his Secret History, published posthumously, he documented how Belisaurius’ wife screwed every man not named Belisaurius including her own slaves and then had one put to death, and how Justinian was a corrupt idiot and his wife a scandalous nymph. The Secret History is the more interesting read due to its salacious content. I never did finish the Histories. My bad. Shows you what interests me more.

Ataturk: The Biography of the founder of Modern Turkey by Andrew Mango. I tried reading this biography four years ago. It’s considered the best in English but I put it down after 200 pages or so. At the time I found it dull Or maybe I should have pushed through. I pushed through with The Museum of Innocence and look what that did for me.

Bliss by O.Z. Livaneli. The story follows Meryem, a teenage girl from a village in Eastern Turkey. She is raped by her uncle and is then condemned to death. Since she won’t hang herself, her cousin is ordered to take her to Istanbul and kill her there. Their path eventually crosses with Irfan, a middle-age professor who’s having a major mid-life crisis. One day Irfan leaves his wife and job as a professor, rents a boat and sales along the Aegean Coast. What happens when the three meet is a clash of cultures within Turkey. A tense, illuminating read.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Technically not a Turkish book. But I happened to be reading it during our move last year and was pleasantly surprised at the major plot twist that transforms Orlando in Constantinople. So I include it here. It was made into a well-known movie starring Tilda Swinton, which I have yet to watch.

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Trabzon Day 2: Sumela Monastery

On Wednesday we visited Trabzon’s main attraction: Sumela Monastery. Without a guide because there are no English-speaking guides to be found in Trabzon during the tourist off-season.

We were picked up at 9:45am by a well-dressed, handsome young man in a small hatchback car and taken to the office of the tour company where we boarded the van. This was as the tourist agency had arranged for us. The bus wound its way through the winding, hilly, narrow, cobblestone streets of Trabzon picking up people here and there and then headed out of the city…until it reached our hotel at 10:30am. Where we picked up a young couple (who we found out later were from Dubai).

That’s right, we could have simply waited at the hotel to be picked up for the half-day excursion, and saved us and the young man some time and gas.

The former Greek Orthodox monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary is perched on the side of a mountain in what is now a national park. The road to the monastery is winding and steep. I told my wife, “See, we could have easily rented a car and done this ourselves.”

“Yeah, right.”

Judging by the number of cars with license plates that read “Touring and Automobile Club of the Islamic Republic of Iran” making their way up to the monastery, I’d say it was doable. There were many tourists from Iran making the trip to the monastery.

The toddler in the front row of the van puked once on the ride up to the monastery and once on the way down from the monastery. The driver had to make an unexpected stop on the way up as the father of the puking toddler had to dump the plastic bag filled with puke into a garbage bin outside a small shop.

On the way up the mountain we stopped next to a waterfall where we took several pictures. Here’s Henry and me.

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From there we could just barely see the monastery way up on the mountain side.

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Then we stopped at a point that provides a good view of the monastery as it clings to the mountain side.

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The small parking lot for the monastery is a 300 meter hike from the monastery entrance. It’s a path that’s, thankfully, fenced and rises up and down several times and is overgrown with tree roots in some spots. The kids liked climbing those.

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The monastery is a wonder of beauty and engineering. The frescoes inside the chapel are in excellent condition. If you look closely you can see where the current frescoes were put on plaster placed over even older frescoes. This is one of those cases where I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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There are the usual gouged-eyes when the people came in and freaked out over all the eyes. So there plenty of eyeless apostles, saints, and whatnot. (You can never underestimate the power of human superstition, whether it’s the belief that depicting human eyes is evil or that vaccines cause autism.)

The kids did some goofing around.

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Stephanie posed with the enormous landscape behind her.

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When we had finished exploring the monastery we went to the gift shop. We bought ice cream for the kids and tea for myself. We sat at a table and enjoyed the view over-looking the valley below.

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Back at the hotel, when we asked the kids what their favorite part of the day was, both Henry and Meredith said eating ice cream at the monastery. Yes, ice cream. We take them to the Black Sea coast, show them the beautiful countryside, take them to one of the most unique monasteries in the world, and their favorite thing was ice cream.

Why are we dragging our children all over Turkey?

Where Is the Islamic Art Museum?

Our trip to Edirne this past weekend also included our attempts on Sunday to visit the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum. It’s supposed to be close to the Selimiye Mosque. We thought it would be very nice to see considering that the Islamic Art Museum in Istanbul is closed for renovations and there’s no sign that it’s going to re-open anytime soon.

After a late breakfast and a morning spent being lazy in our very nice hotel, we checked out, left our bags at the reception desk and headed into town. According to our map the museum was right behind the Selimiye Mosque. My wife and I asked Henry if he wanted to go inside, since he hadn’t wanted to take a look yesterday. He still said no.

We went to the other side of the mosque and saw no sign of the museum. I asked a man selling candy and he pointed in the direction of the mosque. So we walked in that direction. We did see a museum; the Edirne Museum. Stephanie went inside and asked the staff where the Turkish and Islamic Art museum was located. They said on the other side of Selimiye Mosque. We walked back to the other side and still couldn’t find it.

It’s possible we passed right by it. Or maybe it’s closed, or was moved. Who knows?

After our unsuccessful attempts at finding the museum we gave up and focused on seeing one of the other highlights of the town: the Health Museum. We hailed a taxi and the driver took us just outside the town to the front entrance to the museum. Then he offered to wait for us and take us back into town. I paid him the fair up to that point and told him we’d need about 40 minutes.

The museum is in the Complex of Sultan Beyazid II. There is a mosque next to the former hospital and medical school. It was notable as a place where those suffering not just from physical ailments but mental illness as well were treated using music and the medicines of the day for several hundred years, up until the early 20th Century.

As you can see the sky was overcast, giving everything a gray pallor.

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There was a model of the buildings in one of the rooms formerly used for out-patient services.

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The hospital building was shaped like a hexagon with a fountain in the center.

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On each side of the hexagon were the rooms. In one side was the place for the musicians to play.

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One room was for occupational therapy.

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Next to this room was the pharmacy.

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When we were done, we crossed the street to the snack stand and bought the kids some ice cream. After several minutes the taxi pulled up. I thanked the driver, and he drive us to our hotel, where we got our bags and headed to the bus station to return to Istanbul.

Istanbul Archeological Museums

This past Saturday we took the tram to Gülhane Park to see the Archaeology Museum. Technically there are three museums in the complex: the Archaeology Museum, the Ancient Orient Museum, and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. One ticket gets you into all three.

We only had time to enter the Archeology Museum. The kids were interested for a little while and then they became hungry. But we did get to see many interesting sarcophagi and statues.

Afterwards we ate lunch at a nearby restaurant. Since the kids were disappointed the restaurant was out of dondurma (ice cream) for dessert, we walked across the street to a small shop. Lo and behold they had ice cream. And there was much rejoicing.

We strolled through Gülhane Park with the rest of the Turks and tourists, while the kids enjoyed their ice cream. It was a mostly sunny day. We wandered and found a different entrance from the one we entered and emerged near the Sirkeci train station. The station has a stop on the newly-fabled Marmaray, the subway line that goes under the Bosphorus. We have yet to take a ride on it. We need to do that before we leave just to say we did it. The funny things is, we have to go out of our way to do it because the four stations currently open on that line are far from where we live.

My wife and I will return some time soon on a weekday, without the kids, so we can wander some more. Also, it won’t cost us anything. Because one other thing I did was get my Müzekart. I got my Müzekart because I’m a legal resident of Turkey. For 50 lira I can now enter many museums throughout Turkey as often as I like for the next year. Not a bad deal, eh?

Here are some of things we saw.

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Alexander Sarcophagus (no, Alexander the Great was not put in that sarcophagus)

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Sidamara Sarcophagus

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Detail of a Roman floor mosaic

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Detail of a sarcophagus

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Alexander the Great

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Hermaphroditus

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Caryatid

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Sappho

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Marcus Aurelius

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Cornelia Antonia

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Bell from Galata Tower

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Gülhane Park

Cappadocia – Fairy Chimneys, Zelve, Göreme, and Churches With Eye-Less Figures

During the two days we rode on tours through Cappadocia, we saw a lot of churches. Many had frescoes that were in remarkable condition for being over 1000 years old. One thing they all had in common was this: many of the people depicted in the paintings were missing their eyes.

I took to calling them names such as the “Church of the Eye-Less Mother,” or “Church of the Eye-Less Saints,” or “Church of the Eye-Less Jesus.”

“You’re so irreverent,” said my wife.

“Hey, I’m not the one who gouged out the eyes of Jesus or Saint George. I bet Mary is crying RIGHT NOW!” I said, channeling the Catholic Guilt of youth.

Our excellent tour guide Didem, who led us around on the second day of our tour through the area, explained that the reason so many of the eyes had been scratched out was that when the Muslims took over they had rules forbidding the depiction of the human form and were fearful of the “evil eye.” Hence the eyes were scratched out whenever possible.

Our second day of touring brought us into contact with the legendary Fairy Chimneys. First in the Devrent Imagination valley.

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Next near the Church of Saint Simon.

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This is the church of Saint Simon.

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I managed to climb up to the second floor. It was not easy. I made us of the fence-climbing skills I’d developed in my youth in order to get into forbidden places….

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Along with the tourists, there were some pheasants walking around.

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In the Zelve Open Air Museum we saw more cave dwellings.

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And a church that was converted into a mosque.

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Next we went to the town of Avanos where we watched a pottery demonstration. Here, within a few minutes, the man made a handled jug out of red clay.

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The place offered many beautiful pieces of high-quality, hand-made pottery, all at high-quality, hand-made prices. We did not buy anything. The kids were wound-up and bored, and began wrestling with each other, so we had to shuffle them out before they broke anything and forced us to make a premature withdrawal from their college fund.

Lunch was at a nearby restaurant. Once again, the kids were not interested in soup, fish, chicken kebabs, salad, or baklava. (Actually, Meredith can’t eat baklava since she’s allergic to walnuts.) So we ordered them some plain spaghetti. The lunch was leisurely-paced, so Steph and I were able to talk with an older couple from Australia who were sitting next us. The husband was a retired magistrate. They were spending a month traveling around Turkey before heading to Bali for a few days before returning to their home in Darwin.

After lunch we boarded the bus and rode to the Göreme Open Air Museum. Göreme has many churches with frescoes in good condition but we were forbidden from taking photos, even without a flash. So no photos of the frescoes of the chapel of St. Catherine, the Apple Church, the Sandals Church (not to be confused with Sandals Resorts), or the chapel of Saint Barbara. All I can offer is a sample of photos of the open air park itself.

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We left the park, made a short stop at Esenteppe to take a few panoramic photos of the Göreme valley,

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before making our final stop of the day, at the very tall Uçhisar Castle.

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After two full, exciting days we were actually glad we did not have any tours scheduled for the next day, Tuesday, or last day in Cappadocia.

Cappadocia – Sinasos, Sobessos, Soganli, and Kaymakli

Our first day in Cappadocia was spent in the town of Ürgüp. We arrived in the morning, left our bags at the hotel, headed into town to explore a bit and eat an early lunch. Afterwards, we returned to our hotel, where we hoped the kids might nap. No such luck, though my wife had a nice nap.

A fantastic travel agent, who was recommended by the local Fulbright office, got us our flights, our hotel, our transportation from the Kayseri airport to and from the hotel, and the two day-long tours. We were lucky to have all of this put together less than two weeks out because we booked our travel during the week of Kurban Bayram, when pretty much the entire country of Turkey goes on vacation to celebrate the Feast (aka Eid).

The next day, Sunday, the tour bus picked the four of us up from our hotel at 9:30am. Our tour guide, Özay, was wonderful, providing clear explanations throughout the day of what we were seeing and their importance both culturally and historically. There was so much information that I know I’ve forgotten much of it.

Did I mention our kids were the only kids on the tour? This proved to be the case both of the days we did tours. We saw very few children on tours in Cappadocia. This confirms the belief my wife and I share that the two of us are not the most sane people.

I mean, who the hell brings their kids with them while mom is on a Fulbright Fellowship? We are the only Fulbrighters in Turkey who have brought their children with them. The other scholars on Fulbright Fellowships either don’t have children or have children who are college age or older. And then my wife and I wonder why our kids sometimes act like spazzed-out goofballs….

There was a young couple from Taiwan, a global expat couple who were originally from Morocco, and a couple from Chicago (all hetero). There were ten of us in total in what is called a “dolmus” here; the kind of small bus (larger than a van) the kids ride back and forth to school.

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Our first stop was in the town of Mustafapaşa, This town was Greek until the “exchange” following the aftermath of the Greco-Turkish War from 1919-1922. There are many things in Turkey called the “Greek [something]” be it a school, mansion, church, town, whatever. I attended part of the Istanbul Biennial in a former Greek school.

We saw the remains of a church that was given the blessing of the Sultan. Here is the plaque on the outside of the church,

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and its translation.

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I thought I had taken a picture of the church itself, but apparently I didn’t. You can go here to see what the church looks like. I think I was listening to our guide talk about the church.

Keslik Monastery

Afterwards, we saw the Keslik monastery. There are frescoes inside which are roughly 1000 years old.

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Our kids liked that they were the only ones who didn’t have to crouch down to go inside the winery.

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Sobessos

Next we visited a recently uncovered ruins of the Roman Era town called Sobessos. We saw the bath,

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and the church. The floor mosaics were in remarkable condition.

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Soganli

The bus dropped us off and our guide Özay led us on a walk through the Soganli Valley, providing us with grand views of the countryside and closeup looks at a few of the small churches that dot the hills.

This is the Domed Church, named because its top was shaped like a dome.

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Below is a section of the path on which we walked.

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After our walk through the hills and valley in Soganli, we ate lunch (also included with the tour). Though we had to order french fries for our kids because they wouldn’t eat the salad, the freshly baked bread, the lentil soup, the delicious local stew, the fresh honeydew, or the yogurt with honey. Their loss.

Kaymakli

After lunch we rode the tour bus to Kaymakli Underground City. This was the highlight of the two days. Henry and Meredith both said it was there favorite. The passageways seemed endless. There were also several places where us adults had to scrunch down while our kids simply walked through.

Özay grew up in the town where the Kaymakli underground city was located. He said he’d been giving tours of the underground city since he was 13 years old. He also said he and his friends used to play hide and seek in the caves. Someone from our group asked him if he’d ever gotten lost in the caves and he said, yes, just once.

The passageways were narrow.

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There were places for living, sleeping, their animals, and food storage. They even had a place to grind spices.

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A church.

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The spaces kept expanding, winding, and going deeper just when you thought there couldn’t be more to it.

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The wheel here was used in case they were attacked. The people retreated to the caves and used a lever to move the stone wheel and clock the passageway. There were many of these wheels placed near the entrances to the cave and even some well within, in case invaders managed to get inside.

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After being underground for an hour in the dark and dimly-lit rooms of Kaymakli, it was good to top off the day with a visit to a view overlooking Pigeon Valley.

Pigeons have played an important role in the region of Cappadocia for thousands of years. If you notice in some of the pictures I’ve posted these past few days, above many of the cave dwellings you’ll see small holes marked with white. These are pigeon houses. The people who lived in the region fed the pigeons and collected their poop (called “guano”) to use as fertilizer for their crops.

Next to the overlook is the Turkish Cappadocia Naturel Viagra Market. No, I did not buy anything there before we headed back to our hotel.

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The Cave Cities of Cappadocia Were Carved by Hand

“Cappadocia” is not a town or a county or a state. It is an old name for an area of central Turkey, an area that has an unique landscape. We just returned from a few, fantastic, information-packed days there.

We stayed in Ürgüp, a small town about an hour from the city of Kayseri that is in Cappadocia and very close to all the major tourist sites. There is a small museum in the town (next to the Tourist Information center in a park) that contains items found in the area. The collection is small. Some might easily call it insignificant. I thought it provided a good idea of the history of the area since it contains everything from marine fossils to Greek pottery, to Roman coins, to Ottoman clothing and weaponry. Entrance is free.

The Hittites were the first known settlers in the area. They were also the first to start carving the cave dwellings. Persians came later and gave the area the name for which it is known today, which means “land of beautiful horses.”

During the Roman Era, early Christians came to the area and began carving out much larger and more elaborate cities, building churches into the hillsides. The area proved to be an excellent place to hide from persecution. Once Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, the people came out of hiding. But they still lived in the caves. The caves remained an excellent place to live. They were cool in the hot dry summers and warm in the cold winters.

How were the people able to carve such dwellings? It goes back to the area’s particular geology.

Erciyes (“ehr-jee-yes”), the now dormant volcano that dominates the landscape near Kayseri, once spewed ash repeatedly over the course of millions of years. This gave the land very fertile soil. It also made it possible to make the underground cities. People would dig into the hillsides and removed the soft stone. Once exposed to air the stone hardened.

The work was done by hand by the people in the community, first using obsidian and then, later, metal tools. It’s staggering the amount of time it must have taken to carve out cities large enough for thousands of people to live in.

People were still living in some of the caves up until the 1950’s when the government forced them out. The caves had been slowly collapsing over time and were less safe to live in.

I’ll have more about some of the individual sites we visited in the coming days. In the meantime, enjoy a few photos.

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