Before signs were posted to lure visitors in, most people would have whisked straight past the entrance, never guessing what they were missing. Today a cobbled track runs off the road and comes to a stop just beside a çeşme (fountain) and a pond that looks as if it’s strayed from England. Here we’re greeted by Cabir Coşkuner, the jovial caretaker, and his wife and mother, who tend the garden in between welcoming visitors.
Since this is a part of Cappadocia little served by public transport, I’ve come to Keşlik on a Cappadocia Undiscovered tour out of Göreme, and our guide, Fatih, is soon showing us the soot-blackened heart of the monastery, the church of St. Michael, a structure that, more than most of the Cappadocian churches, makes do with what nature gave it. A double-apse at the far end is clearly man-made. Otherwise the 13th and 14th-century frescoes have been painted straight onto rough-hewn cave walls and ceilings rather as they are at the back of Sümela Monastery, near Trabzon. After the population exchange of 1924 the church was clearly used for other purposes, and Fatih uses a flashlight (torch) to help us pick out the paintings through the thick layer of soot from cooking stoves that now completely covers them. At the back of the church a low door leads into what seems to have been an early version of a panic room. Here, he tells us, the monks would have been able to hole up behind a huge stone rolled across the entrance and spy on encroaching enemies through a hole in its center.
St. Michael’s is the largest of three churches on the site. To find the other two he directs us along a path that wends its way through the garden, bypassing rock-cut homesteads, equipped in at least one case with a fireplace as solid as anything you’d find in a Göreme cave-house. A line of blind arcading on its facade gives away the location of the second church; inside, it drops away steeply to the floor below. Round a bend St. Stephen’s is more obviously church like, its walls and ceiling squared off to provide flat canvases for geometric designs thought to date back to the Iconoclastic period, making them several hundred years older than those in St. Michael’s.
Keşlik holds one more ace up its sleeve and that is a long, thin refectory divided into two parts by a stone screen. To the left of the screen the rock-cut dining table and bench seats survive in superb condition while to the right the table has been worn almost flat, probably because locals reused the room to stable their animals whose mangers line the walls.
St. Michael’s frescoes
The frescoes of St. Michael’s are not only soot-blackened but also disfigured by graffiti. By the light of Fatih’s torch we can see that many of the names etched into the walls are those of Greeks who visited in the late 19th century, a time when nearby Mustafapaşa was something of a boom town. Much of the town’s Greek population relocated to İstanbul, where they made their fortunes and then sent money back to beautify their home town with grand mansions whose elaborate stonework still has a jaw-dropping beauty today. Fatih has already showed us the splendid entrance to the medrese opposite the main mosque and explained how, when it was built in 1900, Mustafapaşa (then Sinasos) had two Greek Orthodox schools but none serving the minority Turkish Muslim population. Sadly, the new school had only been receiving pupils for 14 years when war broke out and it was requisitioned as an ammunition store. Today, happily, it’s back in the business of education, hosting the local vocational high school.
In the town center we paused to admire the colorful stone grapevine running round the entrance to the newly re-consecrated church of St. Helena and Constantine, dating, in its current incarnation, back to 1850. Next, we headed to Keşlik, which is near the village of Cemil, which was apparently named Zelil, meaning “despicable,” until the locals petitioned the sultan to be allowed to change its name. South of Keşlik the road cuts through Taşkınpaşa where, to the left of the road, we glimpse the grand entrance of a medrese dating back to Selçuk times. It then heads on to Şahinefendi, a village grown so fat on the proceeds of potato farming that the locals have been able to build modern mansions to match in size anything Mustafapaşa has to offer.
In 2002 treasure-hunters working the fields around Şahinefendi uncovered the first signs of what turned out to be the Roman city of Sobesos, Cappadocia’s main archaeological site. Here we gaze down on the remains of a Roman bathhouse with much of its hypocaust (in-floor heating system) still in place. A corrugated-iron roof protects a series of mosaic pavements with geometric patterns on top of which the Byzantines built a small Basilican church.
But it is the Soğanlı Valley that is the main focus of our trip. The “Onion Valley” actually consists of a pair of gullies approached via a stretch of road lined with hundreds of extraordinary abandoned pigeon-houses, their entrances outlined in white -- the better to attract the birds, supposedly -- that give them the vaguely unsettling appearance of a vast outdoor shooting range. Fatih explains how, following an earthquake in 1992, those villagers still living in Eski (Old) Soğanlı were obliged to move into new houses; today their old homes provide an attractive vista of honey-colored cubes scattered across the hillside. The only inhabitants are two elderly shepherd-brothers who fell out with the rest of their family and moved back into their old homes.
Soğanlı’s Yılanlı Kilise
Like Keşlik, Soğanlı is home to a number of frescoed churches in varying states of repair. We start our visit in the barrel-vaulted Yılanlı Kilise (Church With a Snake) that probably took its name from a representation of “St. George and the Dragon” just inside the door. Like at Keşlik, the frescoes are soot-blackened although here the images are much easier to make out with the naked eye.
Afterwards we follow Fatih along a hillside track that leads to two of Cappadocia’s most unusual churches. Cut completely clear of the rock, both once boasted neat little domes, although one has since been virtually worn away. The views out over the old village and the poplar-lined valley road are breathtaking.
We stop for a simple but tasty lunch and good conversation in Soğanlı where we could (but most of us don’t) buy one of the locally made dolls as a souvenir. Afterwards the minibus returns to the village of Güzelöz and then veers off left across a stretch of plain to Derinkuyu, home to the deepest of Cappadocia’s many underground cities. Although it may have been the Hittites who first started to carve a network of tunnels into the earth, it’s generally thought that the lower levels of Derinkuyu (Deep Well) were dug out by Christians seeking shelter from Arab invaders pressing up from the Middle East in the early Middle Ages. Deep beneath the earth they recreated many of the same structures -- stables, wine-presses, a school -- that they needed when living more normally above ground.
Actually, “city” is something of a misnomer since it would have been very hard for people to have spent long in the dank, dark tunnels and underground chambers lit only by guttering candlelight. Even today with clearly marked routes and a back-up generator to ensure that the lights never go out, some of our group found the tunnels unbearably claustrophobic. Others, though, just loved the mystery and excitement of it all.
This article was sponsored by Turkish Heritage Travel in Göreme. (Tel.: 0 (384) 271 26 87, www.goreme.com)