The golden autumn grasslands looked benign enough in sunshine from our balloon flight at dawn today, but 600 kilometres into Asia Minor, and 1,600 years ago, life was hard here. So hard, in fact, that an entire civilisation went underground. Literally.
Cut up to 85 m deep in soft volcanic layers within Miocene to Holocene tuffs and ignimbrites, the underground cities of Cappadocia serve testament to how difficult life was for early Christians on these high and open plains.
Dangerous enough for whole communities of fifty thousand souls to seek refuge beneath the earth — at several places scattered around this part of northern central Turkey.
Avanos is a one horse town if ever I’ve seen one, and it’s clear the horse left quite some time ago.
It was still summer in Istanbul earlier this week, but as the late October afternoon begins to fade, it feels like winter is hanging low beneath the clouds.
It’s just a mile to reach the Red River, through quiet and empty streets. A half-deserted supermarket and a photocopy shop stand in the square before the bridge — the new town’s commercial heart in need of some defibrillation, clearly.
Across the river, the old town of Avanos stands dilapidated and neglected. There’s an unlikely kind of gritty charm in the seventies blocks beside the bridge and in the beaten-up cottages along the road rising beyond it to the west.
Higher up the hill, I climb steadily past derelict dwellings to reach a graveyard on the slopes above the edge of town. Row after row of memorials to generations who have lived a different life from mine.
The dusk is slowly falling by the time the call to evening prayer begins. As ever, it’s magnificent and mesmerising — there’s no better sound I know to define the pure translation and mystery of the East.
There’s a view from here across the wide plains of Asia Minor, while far below and beside the river, the streetlights are shining more brightly now against the autumn evening gloom.
Just ten minutes remain to relocate the shop for that perfect rug I failed to buy earlier on today. I put my head down and set tracks determinedly for the square. A short while later, I cross the Red River for one final time again.
It’s fully dark now, and the precious, secret parcel is safely wrapped and tucked beneath my arm — one small but magic carpet to transport us here to the plains of Cappadocia, over many years to come.
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161. Kenya 1: The road to Mombasa
235. Libya and the Arab Spring
102. Moroccan red – Marrakech
164. Kenya 2: The dusk behind the beach