Living in the rock ?

Turkey, august 2014

At first sight, Ushisar, where we set foot one morning in July, is a Turkish city which is no different from any other… Except for a huge castle sculpted directly in the rocks stands over the city and on its foot we discover a first valley of troglodyte houses. We enjoy going through those impressing dwellings… empty, though. At sunset, we climb up to the top of the castle to discover the expanse of the Göreme natural park we are going to visit for the next three weeks or so. Wherever we look, we can see landscapes which are either like the moon or like a fairy tale. Welcome to Cappadocia !

Here, nature has made full use of its imagination: both wind and rain have been digging the tufa rock (a soft rock originating from volcanic debris) for thousands of years. Men’s ingenuity has taken advantage of this rock which is “easy” to dig into and created extraordinary dwellings of any kind of shape and size. Hittites (1,500 BC), the first Christians, Byzantines, Turks lived in them. What is happening to those dwellings today ? Is it still possible to live in them ?


Meeting the Teke family : disillusioned with concrete

Prior to reaching them, we contacted several inhabitants via couch surfing and are pleasantly surprised to find out that most of them are either tourist guides or fly hot air balloons (something which is a must in this area). Some of them offer their help to rent scooters, quads, discover the blue circuit, the red circuit… Yet, when we arrive at Khamil’s -our host for about ten days- we understand, at our expense, that the presence of guides in this network is not quite disinterested.

We decide to keep away from tourist circuits and guides and let our feet take us over the paths to discover the region. And soon we reach the “pigeon valley”, one of the many valleys of the national park, green and shady. Here, some tufa rock colons have been dug by Men to turn them into pigeon holes. The farmers in this valley have been making use for hundreds of year of the pigeon droppings as natural fertiliser for their vegetable gardens. Indeed pesticides and fertilisers have gradually taken over, yet some pigeon holes seem to be used still.

As we walk along, we are becoming aware of some hammering and it is not long before an elderly man calls us “Merhaba! Come and have some tea!” As we are curious (yet we cannot avoid thinking that he is going to try and sell us something) we go up to join him. Not only Mehmet offers us some tea, but he also makes us taste some of the vegetables from his garden….fertilised with pigeon droppings, of course. Mehmet methodically digs the rock at the bottom of the pigeon hole with clubs and huge nails. Although tufa rock is rather crumbly rock, it is nevertheless not an easy job and we are quite impressed with his courage. Olivier takes over from him for a little time and does the hard work! In spite of the language barrier, we understand that he drives a coach for tourists and he comes here to work with his wife, in the cool air of the late afternoon.

As a pleasant closeness sets in, we come back twice to give him a hand. We try to take our camera out, but we feel he is not really at ease with that… On the third day, Mehmet calls his son, Kadir, so he can meet us. He is the manager of a hotel in Göreme and he is also a tourist guide. In perfect English, he tells us a little bit of his parents’ story… « When I was a child, my family used to live in a troglodyte house in the centre of Göreme. There was hardly any comfort, but life was good! Since my parents did not have the money to refurbish the house, they had to sell it and settle in a traditional concrete house. A wealthy hotelier has completely changed the troglodyte house. He even fitted a jacuzzi and he now rents out the rooms at no less than euro 200 the night minimum!»

We now understand why they did not really like to be filmed : « my parents want to build a small bed and breakfast house at the foot of the pigeon hole. But, to be honest, with the UNESCO’s protection policy, they are forbidden to do so. In theory this is a good law to protect our natural heritage. But there are double standards. For those people who do not have a great deal of money, those rules are extremely strict. Sometimes, for instance, it takes six to seven months to get connected to the water network and get the necessary permits. Yet, the wealthy hoteliers, whether Turkish or foreign, who are building swimming pools and lifts in those houses are never ever being bothered. The government thinks that, since they are creating jobs and bring in money, they can do what they like… According to me, the UNESCO rules are a good thing, they could even go further… but they have to apply to each and every one.»

A few days later, we meet Kadir again in his hotel, who agreed to answer our questions while sharing tea « In Göreme, 70% of such dwellings are today lived in by tourists. But in those small villages away from the tourist places, most troglodyte houses are still lived in by local people because they are perfectly well adapted to the climate of the region. The rock keeps a constant temperature of around 15° all the year round. In summer, when the temperature reaches 40°C, there is no need for any air conditioning; in winter, even if it goes down to – 20°C, they use up to three times less heating than in a standard house.». And all that because they have been built (or rather dug) from local material, and therefore those houses are energy saving and so less costly.

As we talk with Kadir, he expresses a certain emotion, his impressions on the impact of tourism here. « Although I work in this field and although we have a far more comfortable life style because of tourism, I realise the price we have to pay for it all. Before, we were much closer to our families and friends. Today, everybody wants to make more money, but that crave is a non-ending race! And since we are always trying to get more money, we have no time for our families. Worse even, we are competing against each other. I have practically no contact any longer with my uncles, for instance. (…) The modern houses have also changed our way of living. When I was a child, we used to play in the pigeon valley with our friends. Our challenge was to climb in the pigeon holes and bring back an egg in pristine condition. Now, in the new house, my son only plays by himself on his computer… We are gradually losing our culture. » After a sip of tea, he adds « It is all very complex since we also need the tourists to live. In theory I am not against the tourists, I want the people to discover this magnificent area… But not that way. »

Tourism at any cost

During that time there are many couchsurfers staying at Khamil’s: Russian, Georgians, Italians, Americans, French… Most of those tourists only stay in Cappadocia for a few days. This is indeed long enough to enjoy the beauty of the landscapes…but it certainly limits the contacts.

Since we are enjoying the luxury of not being pressed by time, we travel thumbing a lift. And it works very well indeed, so much so that sometimes we have not even really put our hands out that already a car has stopped. Most drivers work in tourism, one way or another. With those who speak English, we take the opportunity to understand this phenomenon a little bit more in depth. A hotelier tells us « Nationalities and sociology of the tourists are changing. With the crisis, we have less and less Europeans. But there are more and more Brazilians, Russians and Asians… There is nothing to worry about, there are people almost all the year round here ! ». Carlos, a Belgian carpet trader adds « most tourists travel with tour operators and stay no more than four days. Some, like the Asians, work like mad for thirty years to be able to afford a tour of Europe in three weeks. It is the trip of their life. Except that they have no time to actually understand where they are. Can you imagine the cultural shock for them ? » and he adds « That type of tourism has nothing but advantages for us, carpet traders. I sell about twenty of them to a bus of fifty people! But that destroys the balance of the area completely…»

Strolling through Göreme, the main city in the natural park, we become aware of the impact of that mass tourism. Most houses have been bought up and transformed into « hotel caves ». Some have been refurbished and renovated as the original houses and others in styles which no longer correspond to the troglodyte houses. The rest of the city is but souvenir shops, restaurants, places where quads may be rented and other agencies to fly in hot air balloons.

Ushisar, the neighbouring city, is following suit as to the transformation/gentrification but a few years later. In the historic centre, most houses ae up for sale or being worked on to become wealthy « hotels with shops » since the city decided to go for luxury tourism. A whole side of the Ushisar hill has been bought up by a promoter who turned the small streets into an open air hotel. In spite of the full season, the city seems to be a dead place. Because the houses are being worked on, but also because, as a young receptionist tells us « the wealthy tourists do not go out: they can enjoy everything in the hotel itself: bar, swimming pool, etc. During the day, they go on tours in the valleys. So those tourists’ money does not really go to the small shops owed by the original inhabitants…»

The impact of tourism is such that, as Kadir tells us, « the inhabitants of certain villages around are jealously protecting the beauty of their villages and keep it to themselves. Despite the easy money that tourism could bring in, they bluntly reject the idea that the place where they live becomes another Göreme.»

Mazi : on the surface and underground, a city being transformed

We can also feel the imminent transformations when we arrive in Mazi, a small town, to visit an underground town. These towns are the second tourist attraction in Cappadocia. Just like the troglodyte houses, they have been shaped by digging in the rock and they have been used for centuries by different populations, like the first Christians in Turkey, persecuted by the Romans.

Mazi, the underground town, discovered a few years ago and still being renovated, is less famous than Derinkuy and Kaymakli, which attract hundreds of tourists a day. To go there, there is no public transport, only taxis or thumbing a lift. At the entrance, a small sign indicates the entry to the tunnel. We find Isan there, who leads the few visitors against some money on the side. With another man from the village, he takes us through this maize.

These towns are several floors high underground and they could host tens of thousands of people for several months. Everything was ready inside: stables for the animals, warehouse for the food stocks, dining room, toilets, wine cellar, wells of impressing depth… We are absolutely fascinated by the various engineers specialists of air ventilation, communication and defence of such genuine fortresses. Stone doors weighing several tons block the entrances to the tunnels with in the centre a hole to let the spears through and harass the potential attackers. Above, pipes have been dug to spill water or boiling oil. I?an tells us that tens of towns like that are supposed to exist in the area and would still remain unknown. Seeing such ingenuity and complexity, some people (including himself) think that they may not be only the work of Men and that supernatural beings would have a hand in them…

Upon leaving Isan, we wonder how his job will develop when the renovation of the site is over « I would like to be one of the official guides, but I have no illusions whatsoever. It is hard to become a guide and the jobs are for those who have good contacts in the government. But it does not matter. If the worse comes to the worse, I will open a souvenir shop in the village… »

When we come out of the visit, the huge tank of a lorry is at full work. Workmen are hurrying around to pour the concrete slab, watched by a group of villagers pondering over it all. Are they thinking about the imminent transformation of their own town? Mazi is much poorer than the cities in the natural park we have seen so far. As we are thumbing a lift back, we walk by a collective oven and a man offers us a hot bread just out of the oven. Will this oven still be there in a few years’ time ?

Safeguard engagement

In the enchanting « red valley », we meet several people shooting a film, and amongst them Gaetano, an Italian photographer. He is part of a huge programme from the university of Tuscia working on saving the heritage of Cappadocia. For several years, a team of researchers have been coming regularly to list each and every troglodyte house, church or remarkable place in order to create an interactive museum over the internet, more specifically. Such researchers are working in close collaboration with the government and the Cappadocia area which commissioned them… But Gaetano regrets there is not enough money for Research « we are going on because we are in passion with what we are doing, but it is a very precarious situation. We have to keep looking for more money as the project moves forward… In fact, we should find other private sponsors…»


A few days later, via the internet, we get in touch with the « Cappadocia History Culture Research & Protection » association. Mukreim sets an appointment with us for the following day for an interview, in the lovely city of Avanos, in Venessa Pension. The place we discover is much more than a hotel. In one of the cellars, this fan has set up a contemporary pottery gallery, the city of Avenos specialises in. On the first floor, he created a museum to emphasize and give value to old daily items he collected. But the key of the visit is the underground city he discovered under his hotel a few years ago and that he is busy refurbishing whenever he has some time. « Muko » does everything by himself, with the help of a few other members of the association he has set up : « the government only does very little to save this heritage. Worse even, sometimes it takes part in its destruction. So, with other citizens, we get mobilised. We organise conferences, demonstrations, communiqués. These days, we have heard some good news: we have managed to get a help to renovate a 14th century chapel.»

Muko’s commitment to citizenship is not so far from political activism. Several times he went to demonstrate in Taksim Square in Istanbul to participate in the huge protest movement Turkey experienced in 2013 to defend public space and claim more democracy. Jokingly he points at the tear bomb hanging from the ceiling « I have exhibited here with the other items in the museum since it is part and parcel of History ». A little later, without pondering on it, he will refer to the year he spent in prison when he was younger because of his political opinions and ideas.

Just like Kadir, Muko grew up in Cappadocia, in a troglodyte house. He has always had a fascination for such houses. « Each one is unique. For me, today’s standardised houses limit imagination. The rooms are the same size and inside, one can find the same furniture coming from the same shops… I think it is difficult to imagine another world when living in a formatted, even sterile, environment. Look at the hill over there, it is a district which has just been built massively in concrete by one and the same promoter… »

After this investigation in Cappadocia, we take to the road again, on our way east. On the parking place of the bus station in Nev?ehir, we get to know a nice family. Chloé asks one of the girls to teach her how to put on a head scarf. She laughs and shows her with a great deal of dexterity. In a few days, we will be in Iran…

More that this article, watch our filmed letter about cave houses adressed to the school’s project partner