Slow travel: unfold the mystery of Cappadocia

The relationship between man and nature is, by default, a story of imbalance. While nature in general remains indifferent to human presence, people constantly try to manipulate it, changing the existing structures according to their needs. Although not entirely unalike, this relationship has been taking a slightly different course in the Anatolian region of Cappadocia. In a post-volcanic landscape resistant to human influence, nomadic tribes from thousands years ago would still find reason to settle in the area. Today, that mysterious attraction is what brings travelers from around the world.  

While signs of the past preserved in the region provide invaluable information about those who came before us, contemporary products of Anatolia are also a form of heritage preservation. A contemporary kilim woven today still displays centuries-old, traditional motifs. Udo Hirsch, a boutique winemaker in Güzelyurt, still uses techniques invented thousands of years ago to create his drinks. Even clay pots and pans, so commonly used in the area, are still made by hand.

Knowing all of this, there was no better location in all of Turkey for our first multi-disciplinary, creative project. The result of our journey isn’t just verbal or visual, but comes in many shapes and forms that you can touch, smell, and more importantly, take home as a reminder of your explorations. Our aim here is not to pepper you with information, but to pique your curiosity and encourage you to explore on your own.

Explore the secret places of Cappadocia

There are some places in Cappadocia where your internet-based navigation system just won’t do. Once that happens, you have to rely on the knowledge of locals, and what you’ll often hear as an answer to your cry for directions is simply to “follow the mountain.” When approaching Aksaray, “the mountain” stands for Hasandağı (Mount Hasan), while around Kayseri, it’s Mount Erciyes. Together, these mountains make up the two highest points of central Anatolia. The eruptions of those currently inactive volcanic cones (among others that may not exist in modern days), gave birth to Cappadocia’s iconic landscape as we know it.

In ancient-times, the area of Cappadocia sprawled between the eastern parts of Ankara, southern parts of Yozgat and Sivas, and northern part of Adana. Today’s much smaller region, comprised of the provinces of Aksaray, Kayseri, Nevşehir and Niğde, still has many undiscovered corners situated off the beaten touristic path. If you’re traveling around by car, there is nothing easier than to take one of the turns off the highway to find yourself in a completely different world. Every single one of the picturesque valleys stands out in its own way, with a variety of shapes, colors and sizes formed by the area’s unique topographic conditions. Badlands are best to be explored on horseback or on foot to closely observe the stunning details of thin volcanic layers.

Best kept secrets

As if some of the first travel writers, such as Herodotus and Strabo, wanted to keep Cappadocia’s landscape a secret, they did not talk about its uniqueness in any of their early works. Even though we learn about the life of locals and their culture, the first mentions of beauty of the valleys or the pinnacles of rock begin to appear as late as in post-renaissance sources.  

This secrecy seems to be a part of Cappadocia’s historical DNA. Cave shelters, built by the first settlers who dug into the soft layers of rock formations to create houses, did not protect them enough from the eyes of other people. Therefore with time, many larger settlements were sculpted entirely underground. The complexity of underground cities such as Derinkuyu or Kaymakli might surprise modern day visitors. Nearly impossible to spot above ground, the hidden labyrinths have advanced ventilation systems, stables, kitchens and food storage spaces enough for as many as 20,000 people.

argos in Cappadocia

Ihlara Vadisi (valley), currently a major tourist attraction of the Aksaray province, is another example of a well kept secret: it’s easy not to be aware of its existence until you approach the edge of the cliff! During the Roman and early Byzantine times when Christian practices used to be prosecuted, the 14 kilometer-long valley carved by the Melendiz river, used to serve as the ultimate shelter and secluded place of worship. The area is home to 17 cave churches. However, the biggest cathedral is located a short drive from the valley, in Selime. The area also offers truly breathtaking sunset views. When the day comes to an end, one can follow local shepherds taking their flocks back home, to find out which secret location they currently settle in.

Ihlara Vadisi

Putting nature to work

On the other end of picturesque Ihlara, one finds a “beautiful homeland,” the town of Güzelyurt, as the name literally translates to. Authentic is one way to describe it, but the adjective doesn’t do the place justice. In the narrow passages that separate the stone houses, time seems to have stopped at the right moment, before any modern development invaded the precious space. Taking advantage of the unique setting is Udo Hirsch, who not only brought back to life the nearly extinct local grape Keten Gömlek, but also found a culturally significant way of putting it to work by making all-natural wine. “The grape adapted very well although the conditions aren’t easy,” says Prof Dr Turgut Cabaroğlu from Çukurova University in Adana, who works with Hirsch on a comparative research about the use of technology in winemaking. “The area around Mount Hasan has the elevation of approximately 1,400 metres and high temperature amplitudes.”

This technology-free, chemical-free wine is not the only treasure of Güzelyurt. Hacer Özkaya, the other half of Hirsch’s Gelveri manufacture, is located in the quiet corners of their home (known as Taş Mahal) and makes traditional küp peynir. This aging cheese delicacy rests in clay pots in Taş Mahal’s basement next to the wine and is already a minor legend in the area. While we tasted as many samples as possible in Güzelyurt, it turned out that some of the best Turkish chefs have already pre-ordered the product, and the waiting list for purchase extends not months but… years.

Insider tips

Traveling around Cappadocia

Car travel is the most convenient way to visit remote locations in central Anatolia. If you’re going off-road through villages, good tires and solid car suspension are a must. It might happen that along the way, you won’t come across a restaurant or a well-stocked grocery store for miles, so make sure to plan ahead and equip yourself as well as possible. If you rely on an internet-based navigation system, don’t be surprised to find many spots where neither the service nor cell reception work.

Your peaceful escape itinerary

Driving east on Konya-Nevşehir highway, avoid the city center and instead “follow the mountain” towards Ihlara Vadisi. Selime, Güzelyurt and the Neolithic archaeological site of Aşıklı Höyük in Gülağaç are all in that area. Alternatively, if you follow the signs, you will get from Aksaray to Ihlara in less than an hour. Although the less traveled routes are well-maintained, driving after dark might be difficult.

Get lost to find yourself

While the most popular sightseeing locations in Cappadocia are clearly marked and explained in various languages, signs on the less traveled routes can mislead you. If you like your journey to include all points on a to-do list, you might find navigating the area quite frustrating. However, if you’re a discoverer in search for interesting experiences, you’ll find it amusing that the roads that are supposed to take you to an ancient site, often lead to a different – yet still fascinating – place. Moreover, the distraction-free, quiet land of central Anatolia is ideal for mindfulness practice.

Recharge your batteries

Cappadocia is known to be one of the world’s natural spiritual energy sources. While believing in such theories is entirely up to you, being out in the nature in general is scientifically-backed cure for better sleep and vision, and improvement in psychological health. All you have to do is arrive.

argos in Cappadocia

Outdoor events

  • Cappadox (May) is a multi-disciplinary festival embracing music, art exhibitions and performances, social responsibility projects, local crafts workshops and cuisine.
  • Runfire Cappadocia Ultra Marathon (July) takes the participants through the areas of historical Cappadocia region, from Urgup through Ihlara to the Salt Lake. The week-long racing event takes place during the hottest days of the year. 
  • Salomon Cappadocia Ultra-Trail (October) is part of the official Ultra-Trail World Tour racing calendar. The races take place within the borders of Goreme National Park, passing through Uçhisar, Ortahisar, Ibrahimpaşa and Ürgüp, with highest elevation points of approximately 1600m. Participants can sign up for one of the three distance options: 30k, 60k and 110k. 

Care for the local community

Visiting places in order to become a part of the local community is not just another travel trend. Whether you choose to participate by volunteering, passing the story along, or simply spending time with local residents, the experience will change your life in one way or another.

During the first century, Saint Basil of Caesarea (Hagios Basileios) knew the importance of social action and community, and emphasized the positive impact of group work among the hermits living in Cappadocia. Convincing them to give up a life entirely dependent on other people’s offerings, Basil established the local monastery system, where communities produced for their own needs. It’s hard to say how much this story influences the modern-day saints. However it reminds us that passive observation is not enough to call oneself a true explorer.

Little Prince Academy Göreme

Kadıneli

Aiming at local women empowerment and their contribution to the community, Kadıneli operates as a restaurant and shop, both located in the buildings formerly occupied by a school in Uçhisar. The menu features delicious, daily prepared dishes of regional cuisine, such as erişte with pumpkin seeds, stuffed pumpkin flowers, and manti. In the little store downstairs one can purchase freshly roasted pumpkin seeds (you might have already figured out that Cappadocia is the land of pumpkin), or local snackkavurgamade of various roasted seeds. Belediye Meydanı, Uçhisar; T: (0384) 219 20 10

Kadıneli

Little Prince Academy Göreme

Little Prince Academy Göreme is a place worth visiting for a number of reasons. Established as a recreational center for children with special needs, the project brought together local craftsmanship and manpower to create a kids-friendly miniature of the region’s natural setting. Activities take places in modern cave rooms, which were adapted to offer a safe space for their special needs. Volunteers from Turkey and abroad dedicate their time to music and dance classes, art workshops and helping children reconnect with nature. This initiative of the local businessman Hasan Kalcı and French art therapist Leonie Zikos, it is the first of its kind in the area, and serves Cappadocia’s children free of charge.

Little Prince Academy Göreme

The relationship of rivers and clay in Avanos

Browsing through the plethora of Avanos-made pottery, at some point you’ll begin to wonder if all of the offerings are simply for the benefit of touristic consumption. However, pottery making is deeply built into the town culture, and manufacturing methods remain close to their ancient Hittite roots.

The ease of navigation around a town divided by a river makes visitors adapt to the new location much faster. They quickly learn distinctive markers of each bank, finding the best spots preferred by locals and making them their own. This is the case of Kızılırmak, Turkey’s longest river running entirely within the borders of the country, and which splits the Cappadocian town of Avanos into two sides. It is on the banks of the river where the town’s social life blooms, but its meaning goes beyond the atmosphere of the walking paths, lively cafes and cozy waterfront benches. The locals’ relationship with Kızılırmak dates back to the Bronze Age, when the Hittite Empire occupied the areas directly surrounding the watershed, using its natural resources in many different ways. In Avanos, it was all about pottery.

Although the contemporary approach to the local manufacturing industry, with advertising signs and performances for tourists, might seem like just another way to make a quick buck, archaeological excavations in Cappadocia prove that the tradition in the region is as old as its first Hittite settlements. The long history resulted with a truly unique know-how passed onto the next generations that is currently utilized by the local craftsmen in their daily work.  

Utilizing earth, sun, and fire

Clay used to make pottery is a mixture of hard clay resources found in the mountains surrounding Avanos, and the softer ones taken directly from the Kızılırmak riverbed. Since it is not possible to produce quality pottery using only one type of clay (as it would crumble during the process), a special red paste that takes its color from local soil, is made using both.

The paste is kneaded by hand to remove lumps and, once soft, left to rest for a day. The next day, using a foot-driven wheel, the craftsmen shape their clay into various objects, which then are left for a short rest in the sun. Only then, if the design requires, are handles added. If the initial object is left in the sun for too long, there is a chance the handles might not adhere.  

Next, the surface of some of the objects is painted. Traditionally, natural red dye (yoşa) is used in this process. The objects are left to dry in a special room within the workshop (yanalak), where the firing kilns (pottery furnaces) are also located. Objects to be fired are first exposed to sunlight in order to increase their temperature before placing them in kiln for fumigation and burning.

The last part of manufacturing process takes more than a day in the summer, but in winter the waiting time extends to more than a week. For pottery burning, the kiln temperature should be at exactly 1,200 degrees Celsius, otherwise the clay begins to break. The final step is a 12-hour cooling, moistening and polishing of the objects. These handmade objects will then serve you for many years.

Pottery shopping in Avanos

Native to Avanos, Galip Körükçü is a sixth generation pottery-maker. Together with his wife Lillian, they work on traditional and contemporary pottery and ceramics. Chez Galip, Hasan Kalesi Mevkii No.3, Avanos; T: (0384) 511 45 77

Due to their functionality, there are several types of traditional pottery objects produced in Avanos today, and used in contemporary households:

  • Üzlük: a small bowl, often used as part of breakfast table setup to carry pekmez, olives, jams or honey.
  • Küp: medium-sized bowl without handles used to make Avanos küp peyniri. Once the curd is ready, the top of the bowl is covered with clay and buried in the sand. 
  • Testi: a vessel holding water. The clay paste used to produce this type of object is mixed with salt to enhance its cooling properties.
  • Güveç: popular type of small bowl used for oven-baked dishes.  

Carpets and kilims of central Anatolia

Although the flatweave technique used to create rugs has been cultivated in many locations around the world, most of those practices originate in Central and Western Asia. A great number of nomadic Turkic tribes passed through Anatolia, leaving elements of cultural heritage and know-how behind, but the tradition of textile weaving might be the one that directly takes us on a journey through their time.

Traditional nomadic homes didn’t have furniture, which is supremely unportable. Instead, tenants would rest on carpet-covered floors against floor cushions and rolls of bedding. These textiles were meant to be practical as well as beautiful. In winter, the rugs were used to cover indoor spaces and insulate against the cold. In the summer, they could act as shade and protection from the heat. Kilims and fabrics were also a major part of wealth exchange, so weaving was an important skill for a woman to have – used as leisure activity rather than a full-time occupation.

There are two main types of rugs currently in production in various locations around central Anatolia. First, there is the kilim (a flat-woven carpet), the oldest of which is thought to have emerged in Çatalhöyük near Konya in 7,000 BC. The second type, halı (knotted rug), is believed to have been introduced by Turkic tribes sometime during the 8th or 9th century, and to have made their way to Anatolia during the 12th century. While kilims were used to make travel bags and floor cushions, halı were used to cover the walls and floors of stone houses, making them cozier, and more importantly – warmer.

Between the 12th and 19th centuries, village women wove carpets for private use, turning them into forms of self-expression. Working with their hands, they used high-quality natural materials like wool and silk, while design reflected symbols and motifs symbolizing their tribal heritage, hopes and dreams, as well as local superstitions. Today, handmade carpets remain in Turkish culture as art forms. Vintage carpets tend to be more pricey comparing to new ones due to the fact that wool used in past decades is considered higher quality compared to current-day materials. They might also be displaying symbols and patterns that are not used anymore, making the examples one-of-a-kind.

Production step by step

Silk is what makes the Anatolian region of Kayseri stand out amongst other locations known for rug production. This precious thread is used to make the most exclusive rugs, the purchase of which is considered a very serious investment. The long and complicated silk carpet weaving process starts with washing raw silk, delicately unwound from its cocoon, in hot soapy water. “A single thread extracted from a cocoon is approximately one kilometer long,” explains Harun Ceyhan from Matis Carpet Weaving Village in Ortahisar, where visitors can observe details of the process.

Once the thread is rinsed, the dye is added to the water. Color is a very important element of any carpet or kilim, often used to determine the origin of a particular item. While today chemical dyes are often used, in the past, the threads were colored entirely with dyes obtained from roots of various local plants. The recipes are personal. Therefore, use of the same material by different dyers result in unalike tones, which are also affected by other factors such as soil type or local microclimate.

Dyed thread is divided according to color palette and left to dry. Once the threads are ready, they are placed on looms, and warped according to the desired dimensions of the carpet. According to Ceyhan, due to the thread’s thickness, the weaving process might take anywhere from six months – for a small 30x40cm decorative pieces – to several years for carpets larger than two square meters.

As silk threads are smooth and shiny, pure silk and carpets woven on the weft (horizontal weave) using silk, cause an optical illusion of changing colors when rotated 180 degrees. The same pattern seen from different angles seems different. If the vertical threads (the warp) are thicker than the horizontal ones, it means two different materials have been used to make the carpet’s frame. A pure silk carpet is not only very thin but also very smooth, so you can easily slide and spin it on the floor (hence the majority of them are not meant to be walked on, but rather hung on walls or displayed in frames like paintings), while blends tend to be more spin-resistant. Thick, soft thread denote cotton, thick and itchy ones are pure wool.

Textile storytellers

The pattern is another important element of traditional carpet-making. While the designs of knotted rugs for a very long time were mostly based on Seljuk motifs, with medallion in the center and floral motifs composed in a border, the history behind kilim designs is much more complex.  As mentioned earlier, for centuries Anatolian women used traditional patterns, dyes and motifs to tell their personal stories, and make a mark on a product that was meant to be passed on for generations. Professional kilim-sellers, such as Erdoğan Akçil from Bazaar 54 in Avanos, are fluent in this traditional symbol-based language, and skillfully translate textiles into personal life stories. For example, if the carpet’s fringe is tied into single knots of two different colors, it means the carpet maker was married (and often more experienced). Double knots in more than two colors stand for the weaver having children, says Akçil.

Some of the most common kilim symbols and their interpretations

  • Bereket, or abundance, is a symbol of wealth and prosperity.
  • Elbelinde represents desire for the birth of child.
  • Koçboynuzu, or ram’s horn, stands for masculinity, male fertility and power.
  • Nazarlık protects from evil looks.
  • Yıldız, or star, stands for happiness.
  • Tarak, or comb, expresses the weaver’s wish to get married.
  • Hayat ağacı, or tree of life, is a symbol of immortality and hope for life after death.

Trusted addresses for carpet and kilim shopping in Cappadocia

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