Cappadocia's fairy chimneys, pristine snow beckons winter tourists

Cappadocia offers intrepid tourists and art lovers alike plenty to do and see during the winter months.

al-monitor Hot air balloons fly over the snowcapped peaks of Cappadocia's famed rock formations, Cappadocia, Turkey. Posted Dec. 20, 2019. Photo by Twitter/@Justin_A_Miles.

Dec 29, 2019

“There is no scene in the world as stunning as Cappadocia under snow,” said Ruth Lockwood, a businesswoman and textile expert who has lived in this central Anatolian region for 30 years. In this part of Turkey, wide plains abruptly descend into valleys teeming with fantastically shaped rock formations called “peri bacasi,” Turkish for “fairy chimney.” As Lockwood noted, “Days can be clear and sunny, and with the snow covering the fairy chimneys, it’s spectacular.”

When snow whitewashes the Cappadocian landscape, it evokes the lava belched from the region's three extinct volcanoes millions of years ago, inundating more than 1,500 square miles of the region. When the volcanic ash cooled, it formed tufa or tuff, a soft rock strikingly shaped and sculpted over time that over time by wind and natural erosion. Tufa is soft enough to carve, but hardens after exposure to air.

The history of Cappadocia is long and impressive. Tolga Uyar, an expert in medieval art, told Al-Monitor that people have inhabited the region for thousands of years, starting with “kingdoms or principalities in the [Early] Bronze Age in Anatolia around 2000 BC, when the Hittites and then the Assyrians came for commercial purposes.” The unique characteristics of the tufa allowed these early inhabitants to fashion dwellings in the fairy chimneys. They were followed by a long line of refugees, invaders and conquerors, from the Persians to the Ottomans. It was the Byzantine Christians, however, who left the most prominent legacy in the area. 

Uyar explained how the Christian presence in Cappadocia stemmed from religious conversions by early disciples throughout Asia Minor in the late Roman period, during the 1st and 2nd centuries. Monks chiseled out monastic cells; villagers created accommodations for cooking and sleeping, and farmers made livestock pens and pigeon coops. In the 7th century, the Islamic Empire extended to the Cappadocian frontier, subjecting the area to frequent Muslim incursions. For the next 200 years, whenever Arab invaders arrived, the Christians headed underground. Kaymakli and Derinkuyu are two of the most accessible underground cities where locals sought shelter.

The best way to see the underground cities is with a guided tour. Both Lockwood and Kadir Akin, a travel consultant and guide based in Urgup, one of the best-known tourist towns in Cappodocia, favor Kaymakli for visitors seeking an experience that is not too physically challenging. According to Akin, its churches, stables, gravesites, wine presses and water channels make it easy for visitors to imagine what life would have been like in the early Byzantine era, during the 5th-7th centuries. He told Al-Monitor that Derinkuyu, the deepest of the underground cities, is equally fascinating but advised that with eight floors descending 100 meters, visitors to it should be suitably fit.

Above ground there are more than 1,000 rock-carved churches. The most important among them are in the UNESCO-listed Goreme National Park. Tokali Kilise, decorated with frescoes of more than 90 scenes from the life of Christ, including the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Descent into Hell, is one of them. Uyar said that the extremely well preserved church is “the rarest example of … mid-10th century monumental, imperial art.” Another church, Karanlik Kilise, also known as the Dark Church, “is one of the greatest examples of 11th-century Constantinopolitan art in the province.” No churches survive with this style of art intact in present-day Istanbul, formerly the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, making the Dark Church especially significant.

Hiking paths during the Cappadocian winter cut through a pristine landscapes mantled with snow. The most popular tracks go through the Love, Pigeon and Rose (Red) valleys. They weave past the fairy chimneys standing sentry to history, leading trekkers to a hidden Cappadocia inaccessible by Jeep safaris or quad bikes. The only sound one hears amid the silence is the squeak of fresh white snow being flattened under foot and one's own breathing.

The Zelve Open Air Museum, Uyar told Al-Monitor, “is a great example of what we used to have in medieval times in Cappadocia, real communities living next to religious communities like monasteries and so on.” Well-signed paths make Zelve easy to explore and to get a feel for everyday rural life. Unlike Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, which only provided temporary refuge, Zelve was continuously inhabited from the 6th century until the mid-20th century, when the decision was made to leave the town, which was threatened by erosion, and found a new community, aptly called New Zelve.

Viticulture in the rich volcanic soil of Cappadocia dates back centuries. Local vineyards cultivate a number of Turkish grape varieties, including Okuzgozu, Bogazkere and Emir (native to the region), along with merlot and cabernet sauvignon. Urgup is home to several wineries.

When seen from the basket of a hot air balloon, weather permitting, the valleys look like an enormous patchwork quilt. “Ballooning is recommended [in winter], as the air is colder and heavier which makes the flights safer and … gentle[r],” Akin said.

After a full day of walking, exploring, eating and learning in Cappadocia, being able to return to nice accommodations is important. Many former monasteries and fairy chimney homes have been converted into hotels. Akin remarked, “Your room, or the cave, could have been used by a monk, a pilgrim or can even be a chapel used by a small group of people.”

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings