Underground in Cappadocia

Those of you who are not quite as brave as Martyn Farr, or who do not have enough time to go on caving expeditions, may be relieved to know that a respectable number of underground sites may be visited in Turkey by the most squeamish of cavers on a fortnights holiday. We know because we were those cavers.

The strangest area is Cappadocia in the centre of Turkey. Several million years ago when the world was young, 3 volcanoes; Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz Daglari, erupted in this region covering a huge area of land with a layer of tuff (compressed volcanic ash) overlain with lava. This layer was at least 100 metres deep and covered an area some 20 miles square. As the lava cooled, cracks appeared allowing the wind and rain (of which I am assured there is plenty, although we saw precious little) to erode the tuff into a surreal landscape.

In some areas the hillsides have been sculpted into what closely resembles a huge pink and white meringue, while in other areas hundreds of 'fairy chimneys' have been created. These chimneys are cones of tuff that were baked by the sun and vary in shape from a sort of pixie hat to something rather more phallic. The latter is especially effective owing to the fact that a darker basalt cap tops many chimneys (let us avoid other headwear analogies). Never ones to miss out on an opportunity, the early settlers in this region discovered that the softness of the tuff enabled them to hollow out rooms and stairways in the chimneys. Almost all of them have now been converted into desirable 3 storey residences, with a few well-decorated churches for good measure.

The majority of these chimneys lie within the triangle bordered by the 3 towns of Nevsehir, Urgup and Kayseri. We stayed in the village of Goreme, at the centre of the triangle, where many of the chimneys are still used as houses and pensions and it is possible to stay in a rather pleasant cave with ensuite bathroom. Since the early 1980s, laws have been in place to ensure that the chimneys are not destroyed or developed (our host had paid for his improvements with a 4 month stretch). Currently there is a petition in place to try to persuade the Turkish government to restore the village according to tradition and to prevent further commercialism such as the subtle Flintstones night-club.

Goreme is the sort of place where the hippy inside you demands a few days to relax and mellow out. However, at the end of the day when you have a few beers inside you, small wizened men in woolly hats are wandering between the chimneys and 5 different muezzins are chanting the call to prayer, the strange feeling that you have walked into a Gong album (early 70s Anglo-French psychedelic jazz for the uneducated) can make you wonder if you haven't relaxed a bit too far!

South of the triangle, where there are no more chimneys, the people who lived in Cappadocia were still able to exploit the properties of tuff by digging huge underground towns where they could barricade themselves against invading armies. These towns are thought to date back to about 1900 BC. In times of peace these towns were used for storing food and wine, but when war threatened, up to 30,000 people could survive underground in one town for a month. The entrance tunnels could be blocked by massive stone wheels, which were rolled into place from within. Pouring boiling oil through little holes in the middle of the stone discouraged attacks upon these 'gates'. It can only be a matter of time before this idea is taken up by people who have those little spy holes in their front doors and feel threatened by double glazing salesmen.

All of the tunnels were purposely made to be very low and narrow so that it would be impossible for two people to pass each other. In Kaymakli, the town we visited, five levels have been dug out so far and it is believed that there are about another 6 levels to go. Seven towns out of a known 40 have been opened to the public and it is believed that many more remain undiscovered. When questioned, our guide told us that exploration had ceased because the Turkish government are "resting" and he didn't want to talk about it any more.

Although the rooms and passages are small and low (and full of tourists) the air is surprisingly fresh. This is due to the massive ventilation shafts which were built first. These shafts have a square cross section with each side about a metre long. To avoid detection the people who lived in these towns cooked and ate communally so that there would just be one chimney and less chance of the smoke being noticed. Strangely our guide informed us that they never defecated within the underground town. We were unsure whether this was a translation error or mass anal retention but it brings a certain poignancy to the misery of a long drawn out seige. We were also informed that there was no fornication because people were too busy digging - probably to take their minds off the lack of sanitary facilities.

Cappadocia's 'piece de resistance' however is the region surrounding the village of Selime for this was where part of Star Wars was filmed. Goodness only knows what the locals thought of their American invaders, but it's nice to imagine that somewhere at home Harrison Ford must have a couple of kilims, a fake brass genie lamp and a comedy fairy chimney T-shirt.

Whether you are in the mood for a relaxing holiday or want to spend an action-packed few days laying siege to an area that is geologically stunning, Cappadocia is a brilliant place to go.

Vicky Stratton