Gülşehir the Black Vizier’s playground
Very few people ever pause on the way through (and to be fair, the flight times hardly encourage it). So what would you find if you did decide to break your journey?
Gülşehir is a small place, with a population only just topping 8,000, and you get the impression that it's fallen on hard times since its late 18th century heyday when one Seyyit Mehmetpaşa Silahtar (1735-81) ruled the roost around here. Also known as Karavezir (or the Black Vizier), Mehmet was a local boy who had traveled to İstanbul in an attempt to get on in the world. That he certainly succeeded in doing so is clear from the buildings he bestowed on his home town, most conspicuously the huge central mosque that bears his name, the Karavezir Cami. This was erected in 1778 in a style best described as Ottoman Baroque. A large domed building with eight mini domes and a single soaring minaret, the Karavezir Cami is built from the striking sandy-colored local stone. The grand entrance is surrounded by stone painted to look like marble although the smaller doors on either side of it look as if they could have been filched from one of the local houses.
Across the road a low building with multiple domes was constructed in 1780 to serve as a medrese (school). Almost unbelievably it was used as a prison from 1933 to 1962, when good sense prevailed and it was converted into a library, now long overdue an injection of cash. The third building that Mehmetpaşa gave to the town was a small hamam. Built in 1777, this still offers bathing services to men on a daily basis, and to women on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
You're unlikely to want to linger in modern Gülşehir, although the Kızılırmak (Red River) skirts the town on its way to Avanos. There are also just enough crumbling stone houses left in the Cumhuriyet Mahallesi to give you an idea how much prettier a place it must have been in the years before the 1923 Greco-Turkish population exchange. The same mahalle is dominated by a chalky-white ridge of rock completely pierced with caves. On top of it perches the only decent hotel this side of Nevşehir, the Bilasa Castle Country Hotel, with its strangely toy-town crenellations.
But before you start complaining that it wasn't worth coming here after all, remember that Gülşehir's two finest monuments are not in the town center at all but out on the road to Nevşehir. Of the two, the most amazing is the Church of St. John (or the Karşı Kilisesi) which is down a short track immediately on the right as you leave town. This is a church which deserves to be as well-known as the Karanlık Kilisesi (Dark Church) and Tokalı Kilisesi (Buckle Church) inside the Göreme Open-Air Museum. Presumably it owes its relative anonymity to the fact that, until 1995, its amazing frescoes were completely concealed by soot. In that year, however, Professor Rıdvan İşler started the painstaking task of cleaning and restoring them. Today their colors are quite astonishingly vivid.
The church lurks behind a relatively nondescript entrance, but as soon as you cross the threshold you feel your jaw dropping because this is a church on two levels -- and even from the ground floor you can see that the paintings on the second level are exceptional. The ground floor itself makes do with simple red crosses and stylized plant designs. On one side a dark and narrow tunnel leads off to a dormitory, on the other there is a cave room with a wine-pressing niche. Against the west wall there are still signs of the original rock-cut staircase. Fortunately for visitors the restoration work included the installation of a spiral stairway to bring people safely up to the level of the paintings.
It would be hard to say which of the images on the walls is the most striking. The figure of a podgy Jesus being baptized by St. John? The Dormition of the Virgin with the soul of the dead St. Mary held up so that it looks like her reflection in a mirror? The two warrior saints on the west wall whose horses ride high above the coiled dragons snapping at their ankles? The white-haired, white-bearded figures of the patriarchs clasping souls to their bosoms? Everyone will have their own personal favorite, although it's worth noting that the image of the Last Judgment, with the Angel Gabriel weighing human souls ready for consignment to heaven or hell, appears only rarely elsewhere in Cappadocia.
Once you can drag yourself away from the paintings, continue for another couple of kilometers along the road towards Nevşehir until, on the right-hand side, you will see the so-called Açık Saray, which is not actually an Open Palace at all but a group of rock-cut monasteries and churches dating back to the sixth or seventh century. This is a site which children should enjoy, with lots of hills to scramble up and caves to delve into. However, although a car park and ticket booth have recently been installed, there is, as yet, no information. Hunt about and you are likely to count at least three monasteries whose facades are decorated with key-shaped arches and enlivened with splashes of red paint designed to look like flames, chequerboards and even the odd arrow pointing heavenwards. However, some commentators prefer to believe that the buildings served as accommodation on Cappadocia's main north-south road.
Continuing towards Nevşehir, you will pass a sign on the right that points towards the Çat Vadısı, a minor Cappadocian gem that deserves to be much better known. Here in a secluded valley a whole wall of rock is pierced with the sort of pigeon houses that are a leitmotif of the area (pigeon guano used to be the manure of choice until the coming of chemical fertilizers). What makes these particular pigeon houses so special, though, is that they are decorated with an extraordinary array of folk art -- look out in particular for images of dancers and of a man smoking a nargile.
Finally, you will arrive in Nevşehir, a town which has little to commend it as far as most tourists are concerned. Still, with an hour to spare you might want to take a look at the Damat İbrahim Paşa mosque complex which dates back to 1726 when the eponymous İbrahim was grand vizier to Sultan Ahmet III. İbrahim (?-1730) became the son-in-law of the sultan (hence his nickname "Damat") and used his wealth to create Nevşehir (New City) on the site of his birth village of Muşkara. His period of ascendancy coincided with the Tulip Age. Is it too fanciful to image Mehmetpaşa hearing about İbrahim, building a mosque complex in imitation of him, and then renaming the small settlement of Arapsun Gülşehir in memory of his own particular favorite flower?
WHERE TO STAY
Most people will want to base themselves in the cave hotels of Göreme, Uçhisar, Ürgüp or Avanos. Bilasa Castle Country Hotel, Gülşehir Tel.: (384) 411 4202
HOW TO GET THERE
Turkish Airlines (THY) offers flights from İstanbul to Nevşehir/Tuzköy. Regular buses link Gülşehir with Nevşehir, passing the Açık Saray and the Church of St. John.