Friday, November 2, 2012

Avanos and Ancient Churches

View of Ortahisar from a high point in the Balkan Valley.

Evelien is a walking tour guide. She has clients who come here, mostly from the Netherlands, to hike around in this glorious landscape, which she knows quite well. She finds accommodations for them, plots out routes for them to hike as well as guiding them herself. her website is: Desert Tracks

On Tuesday she needed to go to Avanos so I tagged along and took the bus back. Avanos is a good-sized city, larger than Urgup, which, according to its sign, has almost 30,000 people. The commerce is pottery and weaving, fruit storage (in many caves), plus agriculture and tourism. While there is not much to see in Avanos itself, there are hotels and tour companies based there, and maybe some night life as well. Very nearby is Zelve, an open air museum consisting of town ruins and several wonderful churches carved from the tuff, and Pasabagi with yet more ruins, vast numbers of fairy chimneys, and tourist traps.

I wandered about in Avanos, up a steep hill to a hotel perched high with large views of the river valley. The Mosque is a large one with two minarets, and sits on the banks of the river where a suspension foot bridge sways and bounces gently above the water. On the other side, a large public park with several boat concessions. One features Gondola rides, just like the ones in Italy, but nothing was open on a Tuesday afternoon.

In town there are a few rug and pottery shops. The potteries, where the beautiful dishes are made, are on the outskirts of town. We passed several on the way in. One will let you “paint your own dish”, a sign said in English. The rug shops have woven kilims and densely knotted rugs from Pakistan, Iran, and India. The rugs alone made me want to own a house here and furnish it in tribal colors!

Inside a church in Zelve.
Thursday, after figuring out how the buses run, I returned to Zelve for an afternoon exploration of the cave city and churches. Zelve was built and lived in for several centuries from about 800 to 1200AD. It was finally abandoned because of erosion. In the last 800 years, many of the cliffs containing cave homes have collapsed and subsequently been washed down the canyons. Clearly, in many places just the back wall of the last cave is all that is now exposed to sunlight. Several churches have bits intact, some are only half there, but a couple are in fairly good shape with clear crosses and symbols carved in the ceiling and walls, and a few frescos.

Zelve has a tunnel for about 50 meters through the rock allowing quick access from one valley to the next. It was closed or I would have used the flashlight on my little Turkish cell phone to go through it. Deep in the upper reaches of the third valley, several homes are quite intact, much as they might have been so long ago, with several rooms going deep into the hillside. But across the valley, where the sun is probably brighter, or perhaps it gets more runoff from the hills above, there are great scallops of rock missing, exposing the interior staircases that people once used inside to access upper rooms.

Tuff with sedimentary rock above in Zelve
The geology of this part of Cappadocia is fascinating. For some reason, I had thought the pyroclastic flows were fairly recent, maybe a couple million years old. But in Zelve, the rock that is clearly above the tuff is sedimentary and very thick, indicating that this part at least, was laid down much further back in history, then covered for eons with a lake or sea. The tuff has hunks of basalt embedded in it that were blasted out of the earth with the original pyroclastic flow. Basalt is very hard and difficult to carve, so in places, inside the caves, when a piece of basalt was too large to take out, they simply left it. In one cave there was a grape stomping pit built into the wall with a small hole in the corner for the juice to run out into containers. At the bottom of it there was a large hunk of basalt sticking up which I imagine they stomped around!

Each valley had it’s own wheat grinding stone, driven by donkeys, to serve that village. At the bottom of the three valleys, where their respective streambeds merge, the land flattens out into the river’s flood plain making a rich farmland for these villages. In one church there are paintings of grapes and fish, indicating not only religious connections, but celebrating their primary food sources as well.

Balkan Valley church details
In Ortahisar where I am house-sitting, there is a side canyon called the Balkan Valley that also has some impressive ruins of churches and homes. The first week I was here, I ran into three French people who stiffened up when the dogs approached and then made comments on how they didn’t like nasty filthy dogs. They asked where the churches were and I told them I didn’t think there were any up that valley, which was the truth at the time. Not sure what I’d tell them today…..

The neighbor, Jim, and I hiked into the Balkan Valley and went through all the ruins. One church is nothing more than a small piece of its original self, the rest has caved away and disappeared, but on the ceiling of the alcove are frescos with designs that look almost as fresh as the day they were painted. Other parts of the same church complex are in better shape but there are no frescos to speak of. Some of the carved designs in the walls and ceilings are in great shape. The valley is so isolated and infrequently visited, there’s been very little vandalism or graffiti.

With over 3000 years of continuous human occupation, it’s no wonder these valley walls look like Swiss Cheese. Each little cave, each carved church has a story to tell, but the echos of the stories can barely be heard down the long tunnel of time.

Portions of the village homes in Zelve.

All that is left of an entire church
in the Balkan Valley

Fresco painting on the ceiling in the tiny bit of church
left in the Balkan Valley

Inside the larger church in the Balkan Valley.

Medallions on the walls in Zelve

Nichos inside on of many Zelve churches.

Looking down on Avanos from Zelve

View from deep inside a cave home in Zelve

Large portions of cliff have eroded
leaving the staircase that people once
used inside the home.