First posted 28 December 2017 (updated 13 July 2019)
I ARRIVED in Turkey for the second time in my life toward the end of 2017, landing at Istanbul. Almost immediately, I could see that a lot had changed. The prosperous and secular country I visited last time was in a slump. Islamic headscarves, previously rare, were also common.
A combination of terrorist attacks and political upheaval had slashed tourism numbers and thrown the wider economy into a tailspin. Just before I arrived, the news media announced that visas would no longer be given to US visitors. This was because the USA was harbouring the cleric Fethulla Gülen, who the government of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan regarded as a coup plotter.
Luckily, I had a New Zealand passport, so I was alright. There are a lot of advantages to travelling on the passport of a country that hardly ever makes it into the news.
Here are some pictures I took in Istanbul. I’m going to write about Istanbul at more length in another blog. The rest of this blog, however, will be about a different topic: my experiences in Cappadocia.
I caught a long-distance coach from from Istanbul to the city of Nevşehir, a major centre in Cappadocia. The bus took all day to get there, and many people catch the overnight bus to save on accommodation. But I took the daytime bus because I wanted to see the scenery on the way, and it was well worth it.
I caught a local bus to my accommodation at a place called the Caravanserai, which I booked online. In the dining area, Caravanserai had a photograph of the Turkish national hero Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the most important founder of the modern, secular republic, in a place of honour.
There weren’t many tourists there because it was in the October off-season, after the summer and about two weeks before the snow arrived on the local skifields. I got a very reasonably priced room with an ensuite, and it was very warm.
I decided that I didn’t want to do a group tour, and just do my own thing instead. I went out to a local restaurant and got a meal for the equivalent of US$5. I met a young guy from Colombia called Andrés Walker, who told me he’d been robbed of 300 Euros in Istanbul, and I commiserated with him. But we had a good laugh over the fact that our last names were identical and that we both liked walking.
He introduced me to a woman named Lütfiye who also ran a really beautiful cave hotel and who used to take in couch surfers on Couchsurfing.com as well. Andrés had made friends with her on Couchsurfing and was meeting contacts he had made, even though he didn’t want to couch surf. It’s interesting how Couchsurfing was actually working as a sort of social network in that sense.
Andrés and I decided that we would hire a car together and go and see all the attractions of the surrounding region of Cappadocia. For some reason the guy in charge of the hire company only agreed to let Andrés drive.
Cappadocia is a very popular tourist region in central Anatolia: the great peninsula between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The region’s name is spelt Kapadokya in Turkish. Westerners always use the ‘C’ spelling which is closer to the way it was spelt in Roman and Greek times. I will stick to that convention.
As the Turkish spelling indicates, the first C is hard. The second c is officially hard as well but is often pronounced like a ch, or even locally like a ‘p’.
Cappadocia (or Kapadokya) is one of the most bizarre places on earth. The landscape is mostly made up of a thick layer of pumice-like volcanic ash built up over millions of years.
Two prominent volcanoes, Erciyes Dağı and Hasan Dağı, stand guard over the region today. ‘X Dağı’ means the same thing as ‘Mount X’ in English. Hasan Dağı, Mount Hasan, also appears on maps as Hasandağ, although Erciyes Dağı doesn’t seem to get run together in the same way.
(Pronouncing words written in modern Turkish letters — introduced in the twentieth century to replace a form of writing that was more like Arabic — is easy even if you don’t know any Turkish. I’ve written a short guide, and you can go to it here.)
The ash emitted by the volcanoes of Cappadocia has hardened into a material resembling pumice or porous concrete. By the same token, it erodes easily. Local rivers have sculpted it into deep valleys. It has also eroded into cones known as fairy chimneys in English.
These are the most distinctive features of the Cappadocian landscape. Every fairy chimney forms under a layer of harder material or even an individual boulder of more solid rock, which can sometimes still be seen perched on top.
Here’s a couple of short videos I made, in which Andrés and I travel about in the vicinity of Ürgüp and Göreme, and wonder about the shortage of water for vineyards in one of the valleys!
Ürgüp and Hasan Dağı
A dry valley near Göreme
For perhaps ten thousand or so years, people have hollowed out the solidified ash to create dwellings inside the fairy chimneys and cliff-faces, in the ground, and above ground in houses cut from blocks of ash. I talk about this in the next video, as I ramble through the Zelve Valley.
Some of the most ancient evidence of habitation has been found at a Neolithic (late stone age) site called Aşıklı Höyük.
Those who felt insecure living above ground created entire, multi-level underground cities, as well as apartments carved into cliff faces, with smaller apertures for dovecotes.
Doves symbolise various spiritual and peaceful values in both Christianity and Islam. On a less exalted plane, dove manure was also used as a fertiliser for the soils of his rather barren landscape.
The scenic and ancient qualities of the Cappadocian landscape have also made it a hotspot for balloon flights.
In the more far-flung sites, such as the underground cities of Kaymaklı and Derinkuyu, the lights are turned out at night. The locals told me that this was for security. You have to go there in the day and can’t linger at night.
As a result of these continuities, even as late as the First World War, about a fifth of the population of Anatolia was made up of Christian ethnic minorities: mainly Greeks and Armenians.
These minorities were concentrated in a number of distinct areas. Greeks lived along the coast and in Istanbul; Armenians in the east; and a further population of Greeks in Cappadocia.
Cappadocia was especially important as a place of refuge for early Christians and as a place where early Christianity gelled.
In fact, many early saints lived in Cappadocia or came from the district. Even the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity was largely formulated by a group of thinkers known as the Cappadocian Fathers (the group was founded by a woman, but that’s par for the course).
In those days Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker also lived nearby, in the coastal region of Lycia. You might have heard of him as Santa Claus, which is what Saint Nicholas sounds like if said quickly. The connection comes about because the early, persecuted Christians continually gave each other gifts, in order to bind their community together.
Until the 1920s, Cappadocia remained a centre of Greek population and Greek-Orthodox religious culture.
The amazing underground chapel of St Basil, in Göreme
However, after all those millennia, Greek/Christian Cappadocia succumbed to a 20th-century calamity.
At the beginning of the 1800s, in the days of Napoleon, Turkey was an empire ruled by a sultan — the Ottoman Empire. The empire ruled much of the Middle East, parts of North Africa, and the south-eastern part of Europe, which the Turks called Rumelia, the land of the Romans. In those days, Ottoman Rumelia was as large as Anatolia; which means the land of the East.
Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. But it wasn’t called Istanbul yet. In Ottoman times, Istanbul was known by its old, Greek name of Constantinople, which the Turks pronounced Konstantiniyya.
Konstantiniyya, the empire’s glittering capital, lay between Rumelia and Anatolia like the body of a butterfly between two wings.
But in a series of episodes that began in the 1820s and ended just before World War One, Ottoman Turkey lost almost all of Rumelia to various rebel peoples such as the Greeks and the Serbs.
By the second decade of the twentieth century, Istanbul was close to becoming a border town. These losses led to the rise of a movement called the Young Turks, which took over the Empire just prior to World War One.
The Young Turks saw the Empire as decadent and weak and in need of modernisation. Some of the ideas that they had for reforming it were sound. For instance, the Young Turks recognised that high rates of illiteracy had to be brought down if the Empire was to prosper in the 20th century
On top of that, the Young Turks observed that their country had almost no modern industries.
It was no wonder that such a ramshackle empire had been kicked out of a modern, industrialising Europe.
But other ideas the Young Turks held were more sinister, including the idea that the Empire had to be made more explicitly Turkish in national terms. What did this mean for minorities like the Greeks and the Armenians?
Although the Albanians were mostly Muslim, all the other Balkan rebels were mostly Christian. Christians started to be seen as disloyal, and so for that matter did anyone who wasn’t ethnically Turkish.
The Young Turks were modernisers, and hostile to aspects of Islamic religiosity that they saw as anti-modern.
Yet at the same time as they wished to see the Middle East catch up with the West in technical and scientific terms, they were militantly anti-Western in other respects.
Specifically, they saw the relation between the Middle East and the West in warlike, zero-sum terms. The only way the Middle East could catch up was, supposedly, by fighting the Christian colonial powers and physically kicking them out.
A resurgent and purified Turkey (itself a colonial power) was to lead a struggle directed mainly against the French, the British, and also the Russians, who had driven Turkey out of the Crimea and the Caucasus.
Parallels have often been made between the Young Turks and the rulers of Japan between the 1860s and the 1940s. Both had sought to modernise their country for purposes that were in other respects still quite warlike and old-fashioned.
There was one key difference. Unlike Japan, which was ethnically homogeneous and insular, Turkey was heir to a succession of cosmopolitan empires. Even Anatolia, the modern Turkish heartland, was full of minorities who didn’t fit into an extreme nationalist scheme. To repeat, what was to become of them?
Things really got bad for these minorities after the outbreak of World War I.
The Armenians, suspected of being sympathetic to Russia, were nearly exterminated, and a large proportion of the Empire’s Greeks and Assyrians were killed as well.
Many journalists, academics and foreign governments have thus taken the view that events in World War One-era Turkey closely foreshadowed the Nazi Holocaust. Officially, any such parallel is still denied by the Turkish government, but the denial is wearing thin.
During World War One, Turkey had been on the side of Germany and Austria. Turkey’s rulers hoped that if France, Britain and Russia were defeated, a new and more vigorous Turkish empire might regain territories lost to the Russians and Balkan rebels, and possibly even extend itself into central Asia.
Unfortunately for the Young Turks, they found themselves on the losing side in 1918. In another parallel with later events, some Turkish leaders were then prosecuted and in some cases executed for ‘crimes against humanity’: a phrase that first entered the lexicon at that time and in that context.
The treaty that ended Turkey’s war with the Western Allies was also, itself, a punishment. In addition to losing its Arab possessions, the Ottoman Empire was forced to cede some Greek-speaking parts of Anatolia to Greece, which had joined the war on the side of the allies in 1917.
Naively, the Greek Army crossed the Aegean to garrison its new empire.
At this point the Turks went to war again. Turkey might have just been defeated, disarmed, shorn of its possessions and internationally shamed in a similar fashion to the way Germany and Japan would be a generation later. But it still packed enough of a punch to defeat little Greece.
Greece had assumed that its former World War One allies were going to pitch in and help it set up camp in Anatolia.
But the Americans had gone home. Russia had morphed into a Soviet Union that viewed Turkey as a possible ally. And the British Empire and the French, traumatised by the Gallipoli campaign, weren’t too keen on going another round in that part of the world either.
Greece’s over-reaching was the final nail in the coffin of Greek culture in Anatolia. After Turkey succeeded in driving out the Greek army, the two countries agreed to a population exchange that foreshadowed the later partition of India. One and a half million Greeks were expelled westward from Turkey and at the same time, half a million Turks were expelled eastward from Greece.
After the expulsion of the Greeks, ethnic Turks moved into Cappadocia and the towns and villages were given new, Turkish names. The region continued to be known by its old name, however.
Half a century after the Greeks were thrown out of Cappadocia, the Turkish government began to realise that the region had tourism potential. It was a landscape full of natural wonders and abundant physical remains of Greek Christian culture, such as old churches and religious wall-paintings.
In the 1970s, the main champion of tourism in Cappadocia was a photographer named Ozan Sağdiç, who had been taking pictures of the region’s marvels for years. Here are some more from my recent trip, by the way:
A video of Kaymaklı Underground City
In the Ihlara Valley Restaurant
While Sağdiç was promoting Cappadocia as a tourism destination, Turkey was ruled by a right-wing military junta full of ideological heirs to the old aggressive nationalism. In 1981, the junta demanded that broadcasters and promoters stop using the ancient name of Cappadocia and its Turkish equivalent Kapadokya on the grounds that they both sounded Greek. The junta wanted to replace Cappadocia/Kapadokiya with a more unambiguously Turkish name, which would have sounded more patriotic, but also unfamiliar to anyone who wasn’t Turkish and probably to most Turks as well.
This was obviously a potential marketing disaster. Quick as a flash, Sağdiç told one of the members of the junta that the name Cappadocia “could be Persian.”
Although it sounded like a Greek name, nobody knew for a fact what Cappadocia meant or what language it came from. Sağdiç suggested that it came from the Persian word Katpatukya, which meant the land of beautiful horses. The Hittites, who had inhabited the area before it was settled by Greeks, had been experts at breeding horses. That was a fact, even if the rest was speculation.
Heck, the theory was as good as any . . . and it mollified the generals and admirals enough for Cappadocia to keep its old name, whether it sounded Greek or not.
Postscript: The story about Sağdiç is told in Hürriyet Daily News, Does Cappadocia mean ‘the land of beautiful horses’?, 1 September 2015. Ironically enough, the name favoured by the junta, Göreme, which is already the name of a part of Cappadocia, is known to be a Turkish adaptation of an older Greek place name.
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