Stone monasteries and underground cities, exploring Cappadocia’s Ilhara Valley

The first panorama we stopped to gape at on our way to the Ilhara Valley

The first panorama we stopped to gape at on our way to the Ilhara Valley

After our short and wet stay in Kayseri, we were off to Göreme, to explore the heart of Cappadocia, looking forward to enjoying live all the natural landscapes we had seen pictured in books and brochures.

It was cold and raining in Kayseri when we left, plus we had been visiting the city wearing too light clothes and were all cold and sneezing. Since this was our very first day, we didn’t want to risk a flu nor waste time, so we decided to take a taxi to reach our hotel in Göreme without mishaps. Easier said than done: we did travel cozy and warm, but not only could the driver not find our hotel (one of the most popular in Göreme) straight away, he couldn’t even find Göreme itself. For a local, professional taxi driver living 80 km away from the most touristy village of a very touristy area, this kind of surprised me. But it didn’t manage to spoil our evening, that was spent sampling as many local specialties as possible with the background of exquisitely picturesque Göreme lit up for night.

The beginning of our route at the Ilhara Valley

The beginning of our route at the Ilhara Valley

For the day after, as suggested by the friendly staff of our Star Cave Hotel (a lovely one that I recommend and no, this is not a sponsored post and the guys at the hotel don’t even know I’m mentioning them), we booked ourselves down for the “Red Tour” along the gorgeous Ilhara Valley, one of the many valleys, and I would say one of the biggest, if not the biggest, that form Cappadocia’s amazing landscape.

Descending toward the gorge of the Ilhara Valley

Descending toward the gorge of the Ilhara Valley

Soon after we departed from Göreme, we made a strategic stop to admire the view, a sort of starter to foretaste the main course. Ilhara Valley, as our guide explained to us, stems from the lovely collaboration of volcanic activities and tectonic movements that together have created the natural wonders we can gape at today. When the basalt and andesite lava from Hasandagi cooled down, cracks, subsidence and structural failure gave space to water streams, among which the Melendiz creek, ancient Potamus Kapadokus, that has eroded the bottom of the valley creating what we see now.

In the gorge of the Ilhara Valley, starting our journey for way less than its entire 14km length

In the gorge of the Ilhara Valley, starting our journey for way less than its entire 14km length

For 14 km nonetheless, the Ilhara Valley hosts hundreds, if not thousands, of churches and monasteries, including beautiful Selime, situated at its very edge, where we ended our tour.

All along our walk, from the 400-something steps to go down the valley, we were confronted by natural beauty on both sides, with 100-150-meter-high rock formations and countless churches embellished by beautiful frescoes ruined only by the iconoclast wave and muslim invasions, graves and holy places of the Christians inhabiting the region and hiding there from different invasions.

Facade of Jacinth monastery inside the Ilhara Valley

Facade of Jacinth monastery inside the Ilhara Valley

Churches are all early-Christian style, early Byzantine we might say, the Eastern Roman Empire that started around the end of the fourth century, when it separated itself from the Western Roman Empire that had Rome as capital. A central nave, simple columns, arches, vaults and domes form these primordial christian worship places. We visited some of them, and the most remarkable within the gorge of the Ilhara Valley was Sümbüllü (Jacinth) Church, a monastery where we could see both the sacred area and where bishop and monks lived.

Frescoes inside the church of Jacinth monastery

Frescoes inside the church of Jacinth monastery

Frescoes inside the church of Jacinth monastery

Frescoes inside the church of Jacinth monastery

Frescoes inside the church of Jacinth monastery - The two madonnas

Frescoes inside the church of Jacinth monastery – The two madonnas

More frescoes inside the church of Jacinth monastery

More frescoes inside the church of Jacinth monastery

Leaving the valley, we stopped at Selime monastery, entirely carved out of tuff hills, with different areas being employed for different purposes, so apart from the main church, we also visited students’ rooms and refectories. Selime monastery was so beautiful and picturesque that I’ll be devoting my next post entirely to it in a photo essay, because I think including its pictures here together with the rest of the collection would risk to make its charm go unnoticed.

Resuming our journey along th Melendiz creek

Resuming our journey along th Melendiz creek

The very first settlements in this area of Central Anatolia appear to be from the Assyrian civilization, becoming next the center of Hittite control in the region, followed by the Phrygians, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Seljuk and finally the Ottomans.

Apart from hosting monks and related monasteries, Cappadocia was also a glorious stop of the Silk Road, the legendary trading route where cultures, philosophies and goods were exchanged by traders from the Far East on their way to Europe. Some people just went past, others settled, like the Christians who left Jerusalem in the second century and established their new life in Central Anatolia, around Derinkuyu, today a fascinating underground city.

One more view from the gorge

One more view from the gorge

While the Ilhara Valley, the lovely area of Belisirma and the big rock monastery complex of Selime had predominantly a religious function, scattered around the territory are subterranean dwellings. Our last stop before heading back to Göreme was precisely Derinkuyu, the biggest underground city of the area. At its very entrance, I had the impression of being motioning towards the Underworld, and to some extent we were, an underworld where the region’s former inhabitants had built all needed comforts. Well, sort of.

Surrounded by rocky views

Surrounded by rocky views

Deep holes were dug in order to ensure air would be channelled down, wells to provide dwellers with water, cisterns, rooms, kitchens, food storage, even wineries and the unmissable church were built, in a nutshell the essentials to best reproduce a normal life, as possible as it could be twenty meters beneath the earth’s surface. The soft rock sure allowed an easier digging, but the efficient ventilation techniques, air movement channels, safety and security measures, wells and even garbage collection systems never fail to impress its visitors.

Approaching the end of our journey along the Melendiz creek surrounded by gorgeous vegetation

Approaching the end of our journey along the Melendiz creek surrounded by gorgeous vegetation

More trees

More trees

More rocky views

More rocky views

No better way to round off a long but rewarding trek with a local veggie-based dish enriched by the typical delicious bulgur

No better way to round off a long but rewarding trek with a local veggie-based dish enriched by the typical delicious bulgur

Tired and happy, around 6pm we headed back to our hotel, ready for another dinner out, this time at the lovely Kale Terrasse restaurant opposite the bus station to tuck into more local delicacies and prepare for another excursion for the the following day to keep exploring the beauty of Turkey’s Cappadocia.

Stay tuned for new posts and photos, after weeks of sporadic blogging due to a very busy schedule, I’m back, alive, kicking and writing!

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22 Comments
  1. Oh là là, c’est beau!

  2. Che paesaggi strani, mi ricordano un pò la Barbagia!
    Sicuramente da vedere!

  3. I have been to Cappadocia three times and I must say it doesnt get old. So awesome. I highly recommend getting up at 5:30 am and going to the area where all the balloons launch from for some great sunrise with balloon photos.

  4. I secretly have always wanted to stay a few days in a cave. With all the hiking and exploring involved, this place is really looking like a great destination. I especially love the history behind it. You always find the most interesting places.

  5. Great tour you had — glad I came along on the virtual tour. :) Cappadocia has been on my list for all of the beautiful scenery I’ve seen, but I don’t think I ever saw the churches carved in the hills. And the frescoes are amazing!

    • Some frescoes were ruined by time and invasions, but those that survived were really great, given they are so ancient. If you have the occasion by all means go to Cappadocia, it’s a wonderful region!

  6. One word… MASSIVE!

  7. I booked the red tour as well and our guide rushed us through the valley. Felt like I ran through it. Seems you were given ample time to appreciate the surroundings

    • The actual tour gave us plenty of time to enjoy and take photos, the only thing, our guide spoke only in Turkish because the majority of the tourists were Turkish! He only translated very little for us and obviously replied to our questions when we had some.. I think this was a pity as what he said was certainly very interesting.

  8. Breathtaking shots. I love monasteries. One of my favorites so far has been the Rila monastery in Bulgaria, but these shots are impressive. The valley looks like something straight out of a fantasy movie…absolutely amazing. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Reply
    The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen) May 8, 2013 at 5:37 am

    This looks amazing. I’m glad you’re sharing about your cappadocia trip. It’s been my dream to visit there — and anywhere in Turkey — for a long time. Looking forward to reading more!

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