Hiking in the Ihlara Valley
One of my primary objectives in going to Cappadocia was to hike the Ihlara Valley. The steep cliffs of the gorge hide an almost lush river valley within. Ruins of many cave churches line either side of the valley. Ilhara has a reputation for being an area of special beauty, and being largely accessible only by hiking, it is generally given a pass by the tour bus crowd. The valley did not disappoint. Prior to entering the valley, however, we made a short detour to see the somewhat suggestively nick-named "Love Valley."
The town of Ihlara which sits above the southern end of the valley was to serve as our entry point. We stopped at the town square to purchase some water before descending to the river. While there, a small donkey, carrying a plumb grandmother and her 2-year old grandson in front, trotted briskly up to the store. The woman never dismounted, as the clerk began filling her order there on the sidewalk. Such a scene seems quaint and colorful to us, and might make for an amusing photo op or anecdote to tell back home.
But there is another side to Ihlara. A large number of new homes are going up on the outskirts of the town. They are all in the Turkish style, that is to say they are substantial homes, 2 to 3 stories, stuccoed, with tile roofs, painted in bright colors, with a stone wall around an expansive yard. The homes are set to the rear of the tracts, and in time orchards will fill the space between house and road. I noticed much the same thing going on in other parts of Cappadocia, as well. Similar homes, as well as many large apartment flats, are being constructed in Urgup, for example. By and large, these are second homes. This development speaks to the economic vitality of Turkey and its burgeoning middle class. These are not the homes of the country's old-money elite (for they would be on the coast), but rather of newly successful businesspeople, flexing their economic muscle in this pleasant corner of Turkey. In my view, that rather than the grandmother on the donkey, is the real story here.
The Betrayal of Jesus--Kokar Church
The valley made for a pleasant walk through the poplars and willows and small fields, and the trail was never far from the rushing river. We visited a number of cave churches along the way--Kokar Church, Purenli Sehir Church, Ayacalti Church, Simbulu Church, Yilanti Church and the Church of St. George. At Kokar, Turan and I began to interpret the frescoes surrounding us. I continued to be impressed with his skill in analyzing the scenes. He quickly identified one fresco as depicting the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden. It was not immediately apparent to me, but as I looked closer I saw a man (St. Peter) holding a knife to the ear of another man and next to them, a man (Judas) was kissing Jesus. This church also contained a beautiful cross on the ceiling, with a hand sign denoting the Holy Spirit in the center.
The frescoes at Purenli Sehir Church were in poor condition, but we were still able to appreciate one depicting Christ's baptism. Christ was naked in this scene (as was the case in most Cappadocian depictions of this event), but the Archangels Michael and Gabriel were standing to the side, holding a towel.
The Baptism of Jesus--Purenli Sehir Church
Ayacalti Church's icons were in somewhat better condition. I was particularly impressed by the depictions of the life of Mary, Daniel in the Lion's Den, and the Gift of the Magi. I found it interesting that the Magi were depicted as real Persians, not as they were imagined in all those Christmas manger scenes we all grew up with.
Daniel in the Lion's Den--Ayalcalti Church
Gift of the Magi--Ayacalti Church
Simbulu Church was noted more for its facade than its frescoes, but did provide a nice overview of the Ihlara Valley.
At Simbulu Church
Yilanti was one of the most interesting, and--as it was within walking distance of the village of Belisirma--it was also probably the most visited of the churches. What intrigued me here was its depiction of the Judgment. The panel covers an entire wall within the church, and includes Satan, an Angel holding a scale, sinners in Hell, sinners being devoured by serpents, etc. The most intriguing aspect, however, is on the right side of the fresco, where 4 naked women are being bitten by snakes: one on the ears, one on the mouth, one on the breasts and one all over. These judgment scenes have always stuck out in my mind--from the first time I saw the fresco of the "dancing demons" on the outside of Rila Monastery in Bulgaria. I suppose it is because these depictions are so at variance with the warm and fuzzy, feel-good public deism that typifies American religiosity.
The Last Judgment--Yilanti Church
The Last Judgment--Yilanti Church
After feasting on a lunch of trout by the riverside in Belisirma, we decided to take the car to the village of Zelime, at the northern end of the valley. The cliffs overlooking the present-day town are honeycombed with abandoned cave homes, tunnels and churches. The main attraction here is the Cathedral Church. Few, if any frescoes survive. This cave church is noted more for its spectacular architecture, complete with a full second story gallery. The church also contains a crude synthronum and a large baptistery. The chapel puts one in mind of Halls of Moria from the Lord of the Rings.
The Cathedral Church--Zelime