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Volume 22, Number 3May/June 1971

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The Caves of Cappadocia

Written and photographed by William Tracy

The tortured moonscape of the valley of Goreme might well have been scratched out by the devil, but the wondrous frescoed caves which honeycomb the steep ravines are surely the inspiration of God.

Turkey abounds in geological phenomena (Aramco World , March-April, 1970), but none is more curious than the massively eroded plateau of fragile volcanic tuff in Cappadocia some 200 miles southeast of Ankara.

In Cappadocia, not far from the market town of Nevshir, wind and water have carved pyramids, chimneys, columns and cones, and one's imagination can easily pick out the tusks, fins and spines of primeval creatures crouching among the cliffs. But in addition to this compelling natural beauty, there are hollowed-out caves and chapels unique in the world.

Some of these caves, located in a handful of villages scattered around the Goreme valley—Urgup,
Avcilar, Uchisar, Ortahisar—are homes which the brochures call "troglodyte dwellings." Others are cool
cellars in which farmers store the grapes and fruit which they coax out of the white, powdery soil in
the ravines. The farmers hew new caves too, for stables, and dovecotes in rocky aeries high above
the house.

But the most interesting of the caves are the chapels and cells which early communities of hermits and Christian monks carved into the soft rock. In imitation of the Byzantine architecture, the chapels are shaped like crosses and have columns, arches, vaults and domes, all sculpted from the rock but sometimes slightly askew since they are part of the mountain itself and serve no weight-bearing architectural function.

Along the walls of their cells the monks carved tables, benches, cupboards, ovens—and sometimes graves. To reach many of -the rooms they cut deep passageways into the rock, devising hidden ventilation shafts and great flat round stones which one man inside could roll across a door but a squadron couldn't budge from without. Here they waited, hidden, through long silent days of siege, or retreated from passing marauders.

The chapels were decorated by the monks in brilliant—and durable—colors. Some are primitive geometric patterns in red ocher; later frescoes are done with powdered pigments. The monks covered every inch of walls and ceilings with iconographs of saints, Bible stories and scenes from the life of Jesus.

Cappadocia and the monks at Goreme flourished through the 13th century and then gradually declined, but their work, combined with the equally wondrous works of prehistoric natural forces, endures.

William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World Magazine.

This article appeared on pages 32-36 of the May/June 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1971 images.