Were fairy chimneys built by fairies? Do people live in fairy chimneys? Are they amazing to see? No, yes, and yes! Fairy chimneys are fascinating pillars of rock standing as tall as 130 feet in the desert landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey. The appearance of these formations have long held such enchantment that they became known as fairy chimneys, but alas, they were not built by fairies. People have actually lived in caves built into these formations for thousands of years and some still do, with surprising modern conveniences. The most striking way to view thousands of fairy chimneys is from a hot air balloon launching just before sunrise - an experience I will never forget.
So magical pixie dust aside, how did these unique formations come to be? Millions of years ago in this area volcanic eruptions spewed ash across the land. The ash hardened into tuff, a porous rock that was then covered by basalt, a hard igneous rock formed from molten lava. As erosion occurred over millenia, the softer tuff eroded away creating the pillars and the hard basalt formed a protective mushroom-like cap over the top, giving these formations their distinctive shape.
The soft tuff could relatively easily be excavated to build dwellings into the chimneys where they became homes to ancient families and during the Roman period, even churches for Christians fleeing persecution. Today, a handful of these chimney complexes have even been creatively transitioned into unique boutique hotels.
For many, however, these ancient dwellings continue to be a family home that has been passed through generations. Having the chance to see a typical modern home in a fairy chimney and meet the couple who had raised their children there gave me a glimpse into how “typical” a family could be in such a unique environment.
The charming couple who opened their home to us were gracious and delightful. This fairy chimney had been home to their family for over 400 years. The walls, floors, and ceilings were rock. The living area was accessed by one exterior cave door and the bedrooms another. Ornate Turkish rugs, handwoven by the woman, her mother, and her mother’s mother before that, covered the floors and decorated the walls. Couches covered with print textiles gave comfortable seating for watching their color television. Electrical conduit ran along the walls, providing power for modern amenities. A framed-in doorway with a contemporary wooden door separated the living room from the kitchen. A gas cook stove and modern refrigerator decorated with refrigerator magnets occupied the kitchen along with glass fronted cabinets built into the cave walls. The gentleman was an engineer for a utility company and the lovely woman hand-crafted intricate scarves and crocheted jewelry (and yes, I indulged myself and brought home some of both!).
The son and daughter in the family were both away at university and the parents shared with us that this generational home was likely not to continue into the next generation. Both of the children plan to expand their life adventures and will not be returning to claim their own fairy chimneys.
Traveling about Cappadocia was like being immersed in some abstract art filled with varying sizes, shapes, and shades of formations filling the valleys and rising to the mountains. Roadside markets were filled with colorful Turkish made delights and trees were adorned with bright blue evil eyes, once used to ward off evil.
Entering the Goreme valley, a Unesco World Heritage site, we witnessed a location that was central between rival empires and was inhabited as far back as 1200 BC. Locals tunneled into the soft rock to create homes and refuges that could be protected from invaders. In the Roman era, the area became home to Christians fleeing Rome, and hundreds of Christian churches were excavated into the caves. The cave interior of many of these churches were painted with colorful art, including symbolic Byzantine frescos, much of which still retain the vivid colors in the relative dark of the caves. To my disappointment, photography is strictly prohibited inside the churches in Goreme, so I have no photos of these striking cave interiors to look back on.
A unique aspect to the cave architecture in this area were the dovecotes (pigeon holes) carved into the soft volcanic tuff. Although not a part of life there now, pigeons were important in ancient times for food and fertilizer for the infertile soil.
Continuing on to Ozkonak, we crawled into one of the 200 or so “underground cities”. These ancient subterranean settlements served as shelter and protection from enemy raids. These underground cities were connected to many houses by hidden passageways and contained communal kitchens, wineries, and stables. Some of these cities could accommodate 30,000 people while others were “underground villages”. From the ground view, you would never know what existed below.
Finally to bid farewell to the fairy chimneys, we climbed aboard our hot air balloon just before first light, the gas jets swooshing to feed the flame that lifted us above the valley in the early morning chill. Soaring amongst dozens of huge brightly colored balloons, we had a view like nothing I’ve ever seen.
The dark night sky shifted to morning blue and fog streamed along the mountains as the desolate landscape revealed rock formations and the magical fairy chimneys. Farewell to this land of enchantment.
Enchanting, magical Cappadocia