On belief, and life at high altitude, or how it looks

Moving even one dusty foot towards describing Cappadocia, I feel myself passing already into a world of words too often repeated to say anything original, no newborn portrayals to unearth. I will say, however, that in the ravines of Cappadocia my voice found no echo. And the first sight of the place is instantly a flash of defiance—go on, believe it, this place exists and you are here—so that I think already of how I’ll possibly remember it all.

If one begins in an earlier age, some fiery Precambrian heaven of devastation and birth and anemones with sentient fronds, likely the story would drown or learn to breathe in an ocean which did not subsist long enough to bear a name; that’s why there are those rippling canyons, the fluidity of the almost-pure white stone. And later the volcanoes must have risen and with feral flames destroyed themselves, leaving those outrageous columns and precarious pillars looming overhead as do toadstools in a dream soon to break.

But on and on and anon as time does—and here the monumental disbelief, because here is the city that Cappadocia once was.

Everywhere: the houses everywhere, with a number of architectural architectonic histories: as if emerging from the rock through some natural process unclassified amidst the geology’s sedimentary catalogue, or eroded out of windstorms with artistic impulses, or as the burrows of creatures with lissome skeletons of sand. Historically speaking, in terms of arbitrary months and the appearance of ominous comets, the cave-houses (and this is an awkward hyphenate unsuitable for the radiance of the place) are the monastic complexes of a reclusive commune of early Christians hunted as religious prey, hounded by nightmares of coliseums and their own circular hell. But I admit I don’t know enough about them, precise years or pious belief, so I’m discussing facts the way I interpret abstract art: don’t you see the breasts in that mauve spatter? The triangle represents pancakes; the gargoyle is everything we have ever hoped.

It’s enough for me just trying to imagine the life, wandering into the valleys under the wary gaze of windows hewn from rockface, a doorway twenty meters overhead leading to a black sanctuary and exiting to an unreal spiral stair. It’s enough trying to comprehend how the people got where-they-were-going, what eerily electric those caves must have first inspired, how cool those hollows at the summer solstice and how the hearths of winter and of flatbread left those illegible charcoal autographs. What kind of spirituality develops at a backbreaking height—do angels evolve additional wings to rescue you from a fall? How do you pass scripture from hand to tentative hand? Do you see heaven drifting down and up beyond the whittled window, and what in the world do you do if you are afraid of heights?

Note: David was so worried-for-you-my-love pissed when I crawled along this bluff, but that’s his right and anyhow I found a private room which may or may not (probably the latter) been a broom closet.


See? I’m the little lump sort of to the right.

They’re everywhere! and in solitary morn we climb from a shroud of wildflowers, woven gold and violet buds and violent poppies, into a cavity that once was a chapel, and cannot kneel but only crawl through a window into one nave and another, and soon enough in hints of heat we’re tracing a conundrum of narrow paths to so many chambers that comprehension fails; it was a hundred, I will later think, a number equal to all the possible filaments of a feather. We discover frescoesand hear the laments of images gone too long unseen.

In each I inhale a tincture of centuries and damp, spirits and traces of forbidden pee, and am revived and drugged by the dying scent of petals crush. We’re peering through deliberate holes and accidental windows, believing for a moment that these are the first gasps and footsteps to sound here in a millennium. But when I shout from a fair precipice there is no echo, and the swallows have other, higher affairs in mind.

Note: David masterfully enraged a mother swallow guarding her muddy nest, and an astute swoop might have shattered his lens but the photographs are really quite excellent.

Oh goodness! now we are up a canyon, tangled in a vineyard’s unripe claws, and climbing into a cavern lined with niches. A thousand years ago, I suppose, these whispered with the glimmer of bitter tallow candles, or bore sacred toys or jars of shrilly tart spices never to be tasted again. I’d keep books here! I decide, but in this ruin somebody has strung a whorled clothesline, left a coat slung over the wall. In another cave a sofa, where shepherds likely unwind wool and muscle before a bonfire each night, or where illicit lovers lie under Anatolian galaxies and ponder the grace of decay.

They’re everywhere: such a crisis of archaeology that the residents of scattered villages don’t treat them with the same, well, shit-eating grins like mine, don’t need to lift the garden of a headscarf or pause to flip through a brochure with a dumb expression and shoddy pronunciation. There are houses, hotels, hip cafes in the caves, field furrowing their brows around the famous sites; the bread is rising, there’s an engine to be fixed, a song you want to hear and a mandolin you want to play, headlines change and stone remains, this is a good book you are reading and the ruins have forever been within your childhood remembrances, and any day now a child will be born. This is life.

On sleeping inside a panorama at a haggled-down rate, or, our campground

We’re set up in our hippies’ manor-house in the Panorama campground, and it actually isn’t one of those fabricated names like Secluded Grove where through caravan windows one can see the neighbors make drugs in the portable toilet, or Safe and Sound Meadows surrounded by a pack of ravening dogs.

Scanning the view from our foldy-chairs (as I call them) we can see beyond a hillside of roaming irises those everywhere caverns extending into a distance which convinces and reminds me all the world is full of holes, each angle a postcard opportunity. Plus, we are amiably guarded by Poki, namesake Pokemon, a mutt with enviable curls and a predilection for the same bread as me.

Ahmet, who runs the place, has for we two a deep and spontaneous kindness, helping me to hold down the sunshade when a freak horrific sandstorm nearly sweeps it, me, and my sundress into a thunderhead, and who at sunset call us to the tiptop of a concrete shed to glimpse the regular and yet flawless view. He brings us flowers, chats with us and teaches Turkish words I fail to recall, but in some ways I feel pity: he’ll have a baby soon in a bad economic season, so that all day he stands with the scenic espionage of his binoculars to glimpse in advance potential campers and dash to the roadside to wave them down. There below his sign he’s got an opulent crimson, a velour abnormality amidst so much sand. It’s as if luxuriance has fallen from the nocturnal blooms of a prickly pear, and always stops to help and say hello.

On speed and shame

We’re forced, oh, poor us! to rent a motorcycle just to visit the vast sprawl of everywhere caves. This means that with David as expert pilot and me as wheeee! double-visioned passenger, we’re zipping through adventurous wind. It’s foamy green, and I name it Donald. The sole disadvantage: the only rental helmet which fits my little head is a humiliating masked dome of dazzling pink, rendering me a superhero of Pepto-Bismol and other digestive aids.

On near-disaster in large baskets

Each dawn we awaken and drop those eye-boogers of bleariness into our coffee, in tune to the roaring alarm of hot air balloons. They inflate like multihued funguses capable of levitation, and rise with sluggish flames above village and archaeology. One flies so low I’m convinced I’ll soon see a touristic Hindenberg, oh, the humanity! but the passengers are safe and adrift, and we wave.

On wondrous things, or, my favorite neighbors

It’s not that we’re misanthropes, by any means, or that we have one of those soon-to-be-invented disorders which makes us incapable of conversation, but we just don’t socialize that much (and perhaps may have been an apt fit amidst the Cappadocian recluses). But I ‘m instantly enamored of the campers just next-automotive-door. It’s Eddie and Christine, two Welsh retirees, on extended trip from the whooshing Chunnel to their daughter’s Turkish apartment by the sea, but they’re so much more than that.

It’s in a rose cheeked dusk that we meet Eddie, dropping by with a merry chuckle, and he seems the quintessential Brit—that accent with its flawless grammar, flickering pace, dropped letters and whimsical pitch, and I want to adopt it after only a few phrases. He’s short yet full of happy magnetism, and as he speaks he stops to touch his mouth and look sidelong with bright eyes, as if remembering the punchline to a joke or ten thousand tales. And he really does have that many: we hear of the adventures of a wheelchaired adventurer named Tristan, who sails down the Danube with not a little bit of diplomatic trouble, what, stalled by gunboats, you know, and of a friend who crafted a failed submersible kept afloat by walls of lighter-than-water gasoline, and after near-wreck within a tempest made a fortune, you know, parking it before his petrol station and painting it yellow as our bus, and named it the Yellow Submarine. Everybody knows one, those characters, he laughs, and yes, oh, we do.

And the next day we encounter Christine over the clothesline, warmer than any hearth and clad in sweet lavender, and generous with stories of our own. She once taught nursery children, and I’m hooked when she recites—me instantly joining in—one of my beloved childhood rhymes from A.A. Milne:

James James Morrison Morrison

Though he was only three

James James said to his mother

Mother, he said, said he

You must never go down to the end of the town without consulting me!

How do you like Cappadocia? I ask. She smiles. It’s—what the phrase our children use?—oh, yes, it’s mind-boggling. But the postcards of Cappadocia, she mourns, aren’t quite what she’d hoped, and David with his unprompted, artless and so-artistic compassion gives them a drive full of his own photographs, and in return we receive newspaper clippings and a little German doll with skirt of thread, suddenly a precious artifact dangling from the rearview mirror to catch the light.

We talk into the dusk, the four of us in the miniature loveliness of their camper, and hear of how Eddie’s a handyman and built Christine a loom, fixed cars and watched others rust in lush salt air, give them advice upon Hungarian transit and discuss seasickness and how they miss their grandchildren in Wales. The grandchildren appear in early hours—can we have two pounds for the corner shop?—and Eddie turns to say Did we really move next door to be mugged in our bed? Watching their eyes I’m haloed in the love between them, and saying goodnight I cannot help but give them hugs.

Originally written for Decoherence

Note: ALL photographs are courtesy of David and his fantabulous expertise, and I must say so or otherwise be wholly immoral and predatory and pay unimaginable cosmic comeuppance.

posts by Erzsebet Gilbert