March 20, 2015
We were up before 5 am to go on an early-morning balloon ride, only to find that it was cancelled because of the weather. Oh well, back to bed we went for a couple of hours. And then up again at 8 am to have breakfast and to organize our stuff for our day tour. The tour we had signed up for would take us on a large loop around the area, visiting several places which we couldn’t easily get to on our own. The van arrived promptly at 9:30 am, and off we went. We were assuming that we would stop at other hotels and pick up other customers, but no, once again we had a private tour. That was nice for us, but surely the company must be losing money today.
First stop of the day was the Göreme overlook, where our guide explained the geology of the area. The fairy chimneys were mostly caused by volcanic ash being deposited in layers of varying hardness and then being eroded is the simplified summary. Then we carried on through the town of Uçhisar, where there had been snow rather than rain last night, and across agricultural landscapes for an hour until we reached Güzelyurt.
This is the start of “Monastery Valley”, where there are churches and monasteries cut into the rock all over the place. We climbed up through the snow to one rock-cut monastery, which is part of an underground city which is spread over several levels. We clambered through a few rooms and then went out and along a short distance to the Church of St. Gregory of Nazianus, which was built in 385 AD. It was restored in 1835 and was in use up to 1924 when the Cappadocian Greeks were sent off to Greece. So there were Byzantine paintings of the usual topics, including St. George and the dragon, but there were also modern Greek graffiti.
Back down the hill was a mosque which had been the active Greek church until 1924. Undoubtedly there would be Byzantine murals under the whitewash on its walls. It is little used now because there are not many people living in the area, but we met the imam as he was arriving for the Friday midday prayer. It was interesting to hear our guide tell us about Islam. He explained the call to prayer, and how it would vary between early and late prayers, and he also explained the prayer beads which we had noticed inside the mosque.
Next stop was the Ihlara Valley. We had particularly wanted to go here because it was a scenic walk, and also because of all the rock churches along the valley walls. However we would also be walking a short portion of it, in order to fit in as many sights as possible into the tour. We started from the village and climbed down 360 steps to the valley bottom, and then walked 3 km to Belisırma. The river was fast-flowing and the water level was high, but not covering the trail.
As we walked along we could frequently hear wrens chattering in the bushes by the water. We only stopped at one of the rock churches, the St. George’s or Kırkdamaltı church. After we climbed the 150 steps to reach the church the view along the valley was very good. This church had some quite good frescoes despite the graffiti and vandalism.
At Belisırma we had lunch in one of the cafés beside the river, where the food wasn’t bad. Then after lunch we got back into the van to drive to the Selime monastery, at the far end of the valley. Since it wasn’t a church, most of the rooms weren’t painted with religious iconography. But it was quite amazing. Climbing up to it was steep but easy to do, and watching your footing was essential as there were some places where you could fall a long way. We looked into several rooms where monks would have lived. Some were built into the fairy chimneys and others into the cliff side. There were chapels, kitchens, and stables, with narrow low-ceilinged tunnels connecting them. We were told that other tunnels were vertical and had only small footholds, but we didn’t get to see those. It was surprising to think that people inhabited them until 1995!
The final stop was at the Ağzıkarahan Caravanserai, which was built in the 13th century as a rest stop for merchants travelling on the Silk Road. It was a big square block with Islamic decorations, from the outside, and on the inside there would have been rooms for the merchants, stables for their camels, and a masjid for prayers. By itself it wasn’t that exciting, but there were several caravanserais still standing along Highway D300 which were all built about the same time. The merchants paid a fee to stay in them, and in return if their goods were stolen or damaged then they could claim compensation. Sort of an early insurance scheme.
Back at the hotel we got the key for our new room, where we would be staying for the next four nights. It was smaller (and cheaper) than the previous room, but it had a nice view. The one weird aspect was that the front door opened directly into the bathroom, from where there was a large step up to the bedroom. The bedroom had a wooden ceiling and the walls were stone blocks with decorative niches—very cozy!
Because we’d had lunch at the café in Belisırma, neither of us was very hungry. So we decided to go to the hotel restaurant and just have salads, although even those were quite large. After dinner we tried to make plans for what we would do for the next few days, although rain and snow were in the forecast.
Next: Walk in the Snow