07 April 2015

‘Fairy castles’ from a lost
civilisation in Cappadocia

The ‘fairy castles’ or ‘fairy chimneys’ of Cappadocia look like a scene from another world (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

They look like a set for an episode in or a destination for a school outing from Hogwarts. Certainly the fairy castles of any Disney set have nothing comparable. They might even be on another planet … they are here, yet somehow they appear not to belong here.

I walked around Göreme yesterday in awe and wonder, for the “fairy castles” or “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia are beyond anything I have seen before, and beyond my imagination. They are part of a spectacular landscape, but they could be the backdrop for a science fiction movie with their clusters, their shapes, their beauty, their colours and their surprises.

At every twist and turn in each and every back street in Göreme, there is yet another spectacular and surrealist view of these strange geological formations that have often been the homes over the centuries to churches or families and now to hotels, bars and restaurants.

How did they come to be?

And why are they so unique to Cappadocia?

These strange formations date back millions of years (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The formation of this strange landscape started during the third geological period, some 65 million to 2 million years ago, when three volcanoes on the edges of the region began erupting frequently. The deposited ash, lava and basalt that laid the foundations for the landscape that is now fascinating me as I look down onto Göreme from the balcony of the Maccan Cave Hotel.

Earthquakes and the effects of persistent erosion have helped to form the valleys and the “fairy chimneys” that I am enthralled by this week.

As the rock below the top layer of basalt is extremely soft, it can easily be carved. People took advantage of this attribute to make their homes in the rock pillars and underground. Today, these examples of homes, churches and whole cities abound throughout Cappadocia.

These geological formations might be one of the unnumbered wonders of the world. Of course, wind, climate, weathering, rain, snow and rivers caused the erosion that gives Cappadocia its unusual rock formations.

The Cappadocian climate, with sharp changes of temperature, heavy rains, and melting snow in the spring, plays an important role in the formation of the landscape. The “fairy chimneys” were formed when lava covering the tuff or consolidated volcanic ash gave way along pre-existing cracks of sloping areas and became isolated pinnacles.

They can reach heights of up to 40 meters, have conical shapes and consist of caps of harder rock resting on pillars of softer rock. A “fairy chimney” exists until the neck of the cone erodes and its protective cap falls off. The remaining pinnacle then continues to disintegrate until it is completely levelled down.

The fairy chimneys may have inspired some of the legends in Greek mythology (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

There may be a link between the Greek legend of Typhon and Zeus and the volcanoes of Cappadocia. According to the legend, Typhon was an enormous monster with horrible dragon heads, countless coiled serpents for legs and arms, and a mouth that spewed out flaming rocks.

Volcanic eruptions were said to be the battle between Typhon and Zeus, the only god who stood firm against the monster from Cilicia, which included Cappadocia.

Troglodyte villages and subterranean cities were carved out in the rock formations, making it one of the most striking and largest cave-dwelling complexes in the world. People of the region carved distinctive houses, churches and monasteries in the tuffs, and some of these date back to the Roman Empire. Many were decorated inside with colourful frescoes.

The Christians who took shelter in the Göreme valley because of the Arab attacks gave it the name of Göreme which means “you cannot see here.” Later on, this name was Korama and today it is Göreme.

The surviving dwellings, villages, convents and churches retain the fossilised image of a province of the Byzantine Empire between the 4th century and the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in 1071. They are, essentially, the surviving relics of a civilisation that has long disappeared but that has left behind this spectacular landscape.

Today, Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia are a World Heritage Site and a National Park.

A spectacular landscape is a surviving relic of a long-disappeared civilisation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)