In Turkey’s Goreme Valley, remnants of a vanished society lure cultural and religious scholars, art historians, and geologists. It is rare to find such a harmonic convergence of so many facets of human civilization in one place. But the province of Cappadocia is a rare place, where cave dwellers lived in a vast complex of rock-hewn chambers and underground tunnels that still captivate the imagination.
The story of the Goreme Valley’s underground cities began millions of years ago when Mount Erciyes showered ash and lava on the Anatolian plains. The soft rock of this geological region gave easily to erosion from wind and water. Over the intervening millennia, countless totems of soft rock were left behind, forming an otherworldly terrain of hundreds of fairy chimneys.
Meanwhile, Christianity was on the rise. It was the fourth century AD and the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil the Great among them—were spreading The Word. Central Turkey was a hotbed of early Christian theology; even Paul preached here. The theology gained sway, with Basil preaching its spiritual benefits with the most passion. It didn’t take long until people who had once embraced the more reasoned philosophies of Plato and Aristotle turned their attention to their union with God—and so monasticism took hold.
In these contemplative monastic cultures, monks secluded themselves from the material world, often by adopting a prayerful life in tiny rooms within churches. In the third century, Anatolian monks carved out their rooms in the soft tufa rock of the fairy chimneys. And so the first Cappadocian cave dwellings were born and they grew larger with each generation. Perhaps because they were carved into the earth rather than quarried from it—thereby maintaining the god-given beauty of the landscape—these monasteries drew followers of Basil, transforming the valley into a monastic center that endured from 300 to 1200 AD. More than 30 of those first monasteries remain.
During that period, living in caves became fairly typical—it was in the people’s blood—and entire subterranean cities were burrowed into the earth, complete with underground churches. The devout sculpted crosses from stone and depicted the life of Christ on walls and domed ceilings in rich and colorful frescoes, paintings that are treasured today as priceless examples of Byzantine art.
What’s remarkable about these sanctuaries is their sophistication; they are not crude attempts to duplicate above-ground cathedrals. Quite the contrary: Vaulted ceilings, apses, chapels, and crypts were all carved out with great care. The dwellings carried an added benefit: When Arab invaders arrived, residents banded together in their underground tunnels and cities to seek refuge.
The tunnels of Kaymakli continue to play a part in a vibrant and working community; alcoves and chambers are still used to as storage rooms, stables, and cellars. Other rooms are preserved to evoke what life must have been like for this lost civilization. Perhaps the most interesting observation you’ll make is the huge amount of space that had been reserved to store goods, suggesting that the population in this particular community was quite large. Even above ground, many houses have been built into the tufa caves so they appear to be protruding out of the rock.
If these subterranean walls could talk, they would no doubt provide an astonishing glimpse of life underground, and insight into the earliest days of Christianity.