Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Walk to Urgup

Mt. Erciyes, about 12,800 feet in elevation
seen from Ortahisar in Cappadocia.

The plan for the day was to take one of the little buses that run between Urgup and Ortahisar to the “tourist landing”, a place where the tour buses pull off and hoards of tourists walk over the rocks on both sides of the road. The landing is on a ridge just before the road drops down into Urgup . The view must be spectacular. The  volcano, Mount Erciyes, looms up in the east and valleys spread north and south.

On the way to catch the bus, I saw Jim, the neighbor showing off his new motor scooter to Ali and some of the other men in town. I stopped to chat. When Jim left, Ali drew a map for me, showing me the trail to walk to Urgup. Along the way is a trinity of rock churches; part of an old monastery, very isolated. “Probably no one will be there”, he said. Then gave me a cold bottle of water and sent me on my way.

The road going east on the side of the city government building was paved with small interlocking bricks and made for smooth walking for a while. It led down to a carpet emporium, out by itself in the desert, obviously more of a warehouse for the many shops in town than a tourist draw. The road turned to dirt, then a trail.

Late October, the days can be quite warm, and the shadows cool and pleasant. I had my black sweater which promptly came off and was a pain to carry. Drapped over my shoulder bag, it picked up those chubby little ‘velcro’ stickers everywhere I walked. 

Always the poet, Ali told me that after the carpet store I would find the churches with my heart. Actually, I didn’t have to strain that hard. Off to the left was a large rock outcrop towering into the sky, with well-beaten paths leading up to it. I could  see square holes in the rock. The monastery’s location was hardly a mystery.

I was alone, out in the desert, now two kilometers from town. It was quiet. The churches were cut into the rock, deep rooms four and five meters high, with carved columns. Oddly, the roof wasn’t that fragile. In the largest church one of the four columns had crumbled leaving only portions hanging from the vaulted ceiling.

There were three separate churches sharing “walls” with each other, set into a U shape. On the right was the largest, filled with pigeons that roost in the lip of the round half dome and who have left an impressive ring of guano and feathers on the dirt floor directly under it.  The walls had faint remains of what must have been bright and beautiful frescos painted in the dome and other rounded walls.

The church in the middle had two rows of columns spaced closely together. It was deep, and dark towards the back. A few open windows let in light that filtered down through a thick haze of dust.
Look closely, you can see a man
emerging from the corner.

The church on the left was badly damaged with a giant hole in the roof with no evidence of paint or frescos left. However, it does have a unique little sculpture, totally unexpected and unconnected artistically with anything else, carved into the original rock high up at the corner of two walls. It’s a human figure emerging from the wall joint, left leg extended as if running, the right one missing. In one hand it has a spear, in the other appears the faint outline of a sword. There is no face, just a tilted head, but it gives the impression of a feisty warrior emerging from the rock. At the same time, it’s a bit cartoonish, the body is thick with a large belly, the arms and legs thin. What would possess someone to carve that into the walls of a church? And further, the Muslims didn’t destroy it early on. They abhor the idea of a human figure portrayed in a house of worship, lest someone think you are worshiping a human being rather than God. That is what Christians do, and these were Byzantine churches. But this figure bears no resemblance to Jesus or any other biblical personage. It’s an enigma.

After a thorough and silent exploration of the carved churches, I hiked on over the rocks, down ever-narrowing paths until I could see a short mesa in the distance. A car was parked on the top and there appeared to be a few trees, an orchard, or a garden.

A small Turkish man was working in the garden, planting bushes from pots that he had lined up in the shade of some trees. He spoke a smattering of English and invited me to come over and sit. I sized him up. It’s never a good idea to get chummy with some strange man out in the middle of nowhere. I was cautious but he was smaller than me and I probably outweighed him by forty pounds. I wasn’t worried about him as an individual, it’s just that he might think because I was unsupervised by a man, that I was free for the taking. Although he was given to touching me as he gave me grapes off his vines and asking pointed questions like “Where is your husband?” I didn’t get the impression he would do anything forceful. And he didn’t. He grabbed me and tried to kiss me when I was about to leave, and he didn’t intend it to be a peck on the cheek. I made it clear that I was not interested and marched off across the prickly mesa.

I could see the “tourist landing” in the distance. It took a while to get to it as I was high up with fairly steep cliffs all round. Circling south, I came across a scattering of broken beer and wine bottles. People don’t get drunk in places that are difficult to get to, so at the edge of the cliff there was a narrow path, almost a staircase, between rock faces. I sure didn’t want to go back to that man’s garden and go down the way I’d come up!

At the tourist landing, a man gives rides on his camel while his wife sells cheap trinkets and his children play together on the rocks behind the shop. Across the road, on the other side is a whole shopping center of little vendors with cold drinks, clothing, and food. Giant tour buses have a wide area to park in and the rocks were drizzled with tourists. I crossed the road to see what must be so wonderful.

To start with, the view is fantastic. Mt. Erciyes rises on the other side of the Urgup valley like a big pointed witch’s hat with snow. Small and large farms take up any flat land between the town and the mountain, and up close there were three enormous fairy chimney’s. In geologic terms they are called hoodoos. (Seriously!)

Formed when a thick hard layer or even a chunk of hard rock is above much softer rock, the hard rock weathers at a slower rate and the softer rock is protected. Around the hard rock the soft rock wears away entirely leaving a tower with the hard piece on top. This part of Cappadocia is littered with formations like these. In places there are entire forests of towers.

In this case, the hard rock is lava on top of the tuff laid down ages ago by eruptions from Mt. Erciyes. The lava came from the later eruptions of less bombastic volcanoes.  The three chimney’s at the tourist landing were tall, thick at the base and very dramatic. Further up the rocks were other interesting formations and differing views. 

Constitution Day in Turkey, Oct. 29
I caught a bus into Urgup and had lunch at a little restaurant that advertised stew in pots, baked in a tandoor oven with bread dough wrapped around to seal the pot. What I got was a passable meal, the pot had no bread around it, and the salad was fresh with just a squeeze of lemon instead of dressing. A basket of bread came with the meal instead.

Monday, October 29th was Constitution Day, a national holiday to celebrate Turkey’s becoming a Republic. A huge banner with Ataturk’s picture on it hung from the cliff, the red flags of Turkey waved everywhere and patriotic music blasted from the plaza across the street. School children were out in droves, an official band played while the director sang, and dogs snoozed anywhere people wouldn’t step on them.

The bus back to Ortahisar was packed with noisy teenagers taking advantage of the opportunity for accidental full-body contact as we jostled along the road.

Sunlit column in the least intact church.

The emerging man.