Güzelyurt: Cappadocia Without Tourists

Güzelyurt, Turkey
The ancient town of Güzelyurt has a perfect perch for taking in the countryside of Cappadocia.
By Rick Steves

Cappadocia is rightly famous as the most bizarre and fascinating bit of central Turkey that accepts credit cards. And one of my favorite discoveries there is a town on the edge of Cappadocia called Güzelyurt. About 35 miles from the regional capital of Nevşehir and a short bus ride from Aksaray, Güzelyurt sits at the edge of the Ihlara Valley, famous for its seven-mile hike amid poplar groves, eagles, vultures, and early Christian churches.

Güzelyurt means "beautiful land." It's best known in Turkey as the town where historic enemies — Greeks, Turks, Kurds, and Bulgarians — live in peace. The town is a harmony of cultures, history, architecture, and religions. Strolling streets that have changed little over millennia, I overhear neighbors chatting convivially. Scowling sheepdogs, caged behind 10-foot-high troglodyte rockeries, give the scene just enough tension.

The town's name is spelled proudly across its volcanic backdrop. The black bust of Atatürk seems to loom just as high over the small modern market square. The streets are alive with the relaxed click of victorious tavla (backgammon) pieces. The men of the town, who seem to be enjoying one eternal cigarette break, proudly make a point not to stare at the stare-worthy American visitors searching for postcards in a town with no tourism.

On each visit I make a point to walk to a viewpoint at the far side of town, toward the snowy slopes of the Fuji-like volcano that rules the horizon. From this perch, the vista extends out over a lush and living gorge. The cliff rising from the gorge is stacked with building styles: Upon a 1,600-year-old church sit troglodyte caves, Selçuk arches, and Ottoman facades. And on the horizon gleams the tin dome of a 20th-century mosque, with its twin minarets giving a constant visual call to prayer. The honey that holds this architectural baklava together is the people.

I put my camera away, close my mouth, and sit silently to take in the sounds of 1000 B.C. Children play, birds chirp, roosters crow, shepherds chase goats, and mothers cackle. (I ignore that distant motorbike.)

Below me, sleeping in the greens and wet browns of this tidepool of simple living, is the church of St. Gregorius. Built in 385, it's thought by Gregorian fans to be the birthplace of church music, specifically the Gregorian chant. Its single minaret indicates that it's preserved as a mosque today in a valley where people call God "Allah."

Who needs three-star sights and tourist information offices? Instead, I drop by the city hall. Excited by my visit, the mayor scampers across town to arrange a lunch in his home. He welcoms me as a Christian, explaining, "We believe in the four books" — the local way of saying, "It doesn't matter what you call Him, as long as you call Him." He shows me the names of his Greek Christian friends, kept as safe and sacred as good friends could be in his most precious and holy possession, the family Koran bag.

The lady of the house makes tea. Overlapping carpets give the place a cozy bug-in-a-rug feeling. As the lady cranks up the music, we all begin to dance like charmed snakes until our fingers can snap no more. A small girl shows me a handful of almonds and says what I first hear as "Buy dem." But badam is Turkish for almond, and this is her gift to me. Enjoying her munchies, I reciprocate with a handful of Pop Rocks. As the tiny candies exploded in her mouth, her surprised eyes become even more beautiful.