It’s enough, in both archaeological splendors and in dystopian dictatorships where shoes are banned, to know one is watched from above, from the sunken souls we are supposed to find in the eyes of windows or a devious stranger. But in Cappadocia—and how is it, I ask myself, that this place exists? nobody answers—we are regarded not nearly from above, but from below. That’s right, a brochure can read. Those zany monks didn’t stop at the ancestor of the skyscraper, no way no how. They had to go underground too, those nuts.

Because in Cappadocia, one must decide whether to walk softly, gentle enough to leave nothing but a toeprint and an indignant ant, or to stomp to make one’s presence known in minor earthquakes, because there exist the cities underground as well. This is the sort of instance in which 1) fiction has knowingly or without awareness mimicked a hidden history, or 2) the past-not-yet-passed-away has learnt all the elements of fantasy and crafts of them a structure. I mean, seriously: what sort of darkly fanciful civilization delineates its boundaries beneath soil and the pensive worms? Cappadocia, again, sows and feeds and fails to prune my sense of boundless daydream.

Beyond cavern, beyond covert, the underground cities just go down and down and down, perhaps in some sort of hint that one ought delve deeper into one’s own purported self, unearthing the painted artifacts of a memory purposefully obscured. David and I arrive so early to the site at Derinkuyu—the largest one, and thus according to the human Law of Bigness most important (which renders me irrelevant)—that we’re the ones to flick on the string of dusky yellow lights, and down we go, down and down and down.

I’ve got to immediately suppress my impulse to practice the art of deliberate bemusement and lose myself in the intricate and empty filigrees of passageways, nary a footprint on cold stone or a trail of breadcrumbs to find a way back. Wisely and warily David reminds me of a number of horror movies involving the tastiness of people-flesh, but he’s flashing with brilliance just as much as his camera while I crawl into a portal, which would have formed for me a particularly apt dark-age throne.

I suppose, in its halcyon day, or glory night, that hole must have housed a lambent flame, a barrel of onions from the World Above, an infant whose first word is moon in spite of never having glimpsed it. And, in all chronographic fact, the city must have been yet another refuge for a Paleolith hiding from the sabretooths, the Hittites hiding from another Fertile Crescent tribe and its scythes, and the Cappadocian Christians making finger-crosses against a Roman sword. But oh, man! I gasp to David. This was a true thriving place! Here is the school, its benches cruciform, and here an altar gone frigid and candles absentee, and here a chapel and here a cell of meditation or abstinence or ritual movements of knees and sacrifice nobody has practiced for fifteen hundred years. A winery, a storehouse, rooms upon rooms upon rooms—staircases of dire ascent or wondrous descending, the skylight and the well leading to a hidden sea. I’m sure the actual factoids have their banalities (what do they do with their poo?), but in such a subterranean place I can’t think of that; I’m searching for the last undiscovered corridor, or an echo which has taken millennia to return the murmur of a hymn. There have to be ghosts here, the last remnants of their species, and from above—somewhere, a legendary place which likely does not exist, where would dwell the fictions of sunlight, of explosive stars, of trees and mammals and wildflowers with bumblebee hearts.

But of course these have no reality, so let us not be absurd.

Oh, yes, here’s a map again. Note that David and I cannot be located but may be somewhere on the third level; note also the little goblin picking its nose to the far right.

Originally written for Decoherence

Once again, a thank-you to David for his incredible photography! ALL his!

posts by Erzsebet Gilbert