Friday, October 19, 2012

Magical Mushroom Land
What a long, strange trip it's been ..

Over the hills and far away, down through the rabbit hole of imaginings I encountered a supernatural kingdom where dreams and nightmares come to life in a fantasy landscape that towers and looms above as so many enchanted mushrooms grown out of proportion to reality. These massive monoliths with their slightly vulgar yet majestic appearance stand proudly in the dry and sun baked garden of delights that is buried deep in the heart of the nation, the inner world where few dare to travel, a land called Cappadocia.

After traversing the high Taurus Mountains and crossing the 200 kilometre expanse of flatland that separates one realm of nature from the other, these giant cave dwellings rise from the floor of a hidden valley like so many fairytale chimneys.
 Stacked and layered across the vast gorges and canyons of this obscure territory these strangely shaped rock formations with their pointed heads and long stems or squat bulbous domes on thick shafts of softer stone were created by seismic and volcanic activity combined with the erosion of the wind over millions of years of geologic history.

From Konya to Nevşehir, or new city, I drove along the ancient Silk Road used for centuries by the caravans that traded between the Far East and Europe.

In 1271 Marco Polo used this safe and relatively quick road to travel from Venice to Mongolia and China. Making the trip several times he accompanied traders on the route and stayed at some of the marvellous caravanserai during the long journey, traversing an Asia at peace thanks to the unification of warring tribes by the Khan dynasty.

Legend has it that Alexander the Great first established this road network that cuts through mountains and across the flat land of inner Anatolia, and as trade follows conquest the merchants soon followed his lead. The Romans, Byzantines and Seljuks all used this road, making improvements, building the inns, or caravanserai, that eventually developed into small towns to cater for travellers carrying valuable commodities such as luxurious silks from China, spices and nuts from India, and inventions that soon changed the world; along with an exchange of information and culture.

First settled in the Roman era, the town of Göreme, situated in the valley and partially carved from the rock into cave homes, has around 2,500 permanent inhabitants. It was a favourite place for ascetics during the Byzantine period when monasticism balanced the authority of the church with hermetic principles based on mystic austerity.

Though there are remains of traditional dwellings dating back to the fourth century, troglodyte villages and underground towns are more prevalent due to the ease of carving through the stone rather than shaping it for block structures. The Hittites established nearby ‘cities’ 3 millennia ago, however there is archaeological evidence of settlements in the area going back an incredible 7500 years.
Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea (Kayseri) from 370 to 379 CE, instructed anchorite communities to inhabit these ‘cells’ dug into the rock formations. Groups of hermits excavated a network of caves to serve as storage, refuges, residences, and even churches.

It was Basil who instituted reforms in the monastic life of those who had fled from society after the Romans absorbed Christianity and assimilated the clergy into the accepted fold of spiritual communities, making it a state sponsored religion.

Basil created a special class of monk; effectively under the control of the Church they guided the principles of the community of believers through abstinence and charitable works. The great cathedral in central Moscow is named after him, and looking at thess particular rock formation in the Göreme Valley of Cappadocia it is easy to see where the architects derived their inspiration for those colourful ‘onion-domes' and other subsequent basilicas.

During the iconoclast period (725-842) the decoration of these sanctuaries was held to the strict minimum of symbols, but after 842 until the end of the 12th to beginning of the 13th centuries many rupestral churches were created in these bizarre hoodoos, evidence of which can still be seen inside several of the large caves – though photographs of the paintings are not permitted.
A hoodoo is a tall, thin spire of rock protruding from the bottom of a barren drainage basin or region of badlands. The hoodoos consist of relatively soft rock capped by harder, less easily eroded stone that protects each column from nature’s forces. They typically form within sedimentary rock and volcanic rock formations. Nearby Erciyas volcano, a prominent and distinctly isolated peak that dominates the horizon at 3,916 metres (12,848 ft), is still active with occasional minor eruptions, and contributed to the gradual formation of this fantastic moonscape.

When hard rock, such as limestone or basalt covers a softer rock like sandstone or tuff (volcanic ash) and then becomes exposed to an erosive power, water or wind, cracks in the resistant rock allow shaping of the softer stone underneath and with small chunks of the protective layer left hoodoos can begin to form.

One can see a similar type of hoodoo in ‘the Badlands’ of South Dakota, as well as the related formations of ‘buttes’, which can also be seen in nearby Utah and Wyoming.

When erosion wears away the softer rock the stratified layers become visible, and one can see stripes of colour as the different minerals are exposed to the elements to create vibrant colourfully banded mountains, just like those in the ‘Painted Desert’ of New Mexico near the Petrified Forest and not far from that other great gorge, the Grand Canyon. In the Southwestern states, the Anaasází, or ancient Pueblo Indians, created cliff houses cut into the rock and used ladders to gain entry to provide safety from enemies.

Naturally, these similarly fashioned regions throughout the world contain geological histories that have unlocked many ancient mysteries, including providing fossil clues to the composition of the earth and the lives of dinosaurs as well as ancient communities of monks and nomadic humans; as both the American west and Cappodocia were frequented by volcanic eruptions and trapped many remains of these prehistoric creatures in the sedimentary rock.

As the effects of erosion from wind and occasional hard rain expose the alternating layers of hard and soft stone beneath the cap unusual shapes and patterns develop that are further affected by attrition, thus forming these spires and pillars, the various magical mushroom shapes and bulbous onion domes, the columns and obelisks, the thick, squat pyramids and incredible corrugated towers that reach heights of forty metres.

Nowadays, the town of Göreme is frequented by busloads of Chinese tourists (those that can get time off from their busy work schedules according to several I met over the few days I was there) and American backpacker types looking to follow the hippy trail across Europe and Asia.

While the Chinese sit comfortably on their tour buses and photograph the sights, the Americans congregate around the souvenir stands and lounge on beanbags and cushioned sofas drinking beer and discussing the merits of various places they’ve visited, eschewing the convenience of the modern for the rougher, less accessible locations as though parleying for status.

Dressed in shorts and t-shirts with slogans designed to express their uniqueness or in absurdly tie-dyed ‘hippy’ clothes that are really designer imitations of the standard wear for many of the traditional women who come to the markets from poorer towns in the mountains, staring with large sad eyes at these wealthy foreigners who seem to mock their poverty with those wooden beaded necklaces and ready cash pulled from colourfully fringed handbags.

These poeticly romantic but often overzealous travellers proclaim in their loud twanging accents over bean burgers and margaritas the wonderful harmony of their eco-friendly lifestyle and desire to commune with nature and the local customs (though the nachos at Fat Boys were a welcome treat, and the Australian owner was a genuinely nice guy).

I too have to answer for my touristic ventures and am ready to acknowledge that this global industry tears away at the fabric of these natural wonders. However, many of the people in the area have profited greatly from the influx of annual visitors to these parts, opening their traditional cave homes to tourists seeking an authentic experience, and many restaurants and shops that service the needs of the holiday-makers have done quite well from the continued trade.

Sure, the industry is overcrowded with gap-year students who think they know better than others how to participate in environmental tourism, and dominated by companies that provide packaged holidays for those too afraid to meet others unlike themselves, but overall the desire to see these marvellous sights is understandable, and with correct management everyone can benefit from measured acculturation and shared wealth of knowledge as well as assets.

I love visiting new places and seeing these unique wonders of the world, and personally waited over twenty years to visit this spectacular volcanic basin, ever since I first learned of the Christian communities that sprung up in these caves during the early monastic period. It was a trip well worth the wait, and everyone should have the opportunity to visit natural marvels such as these fairy mountains in Cappadocia to see the power of nature and the work of hands inspired by the enduring creative and resourceful human spirit.
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