Central Turkey

In central Turkey, we folk-dance through tea-soaked and hospitable ancient villages, seeing geological wonders, cliff dwellings, and the red pottery kilns of Avanos. Leaving the camel rides and carpets behind, we arrive at the modern city of Ankara to learn about Ataturk — the “father of the Turks” — who led this sultans’ empire through to the 20th century.


Hi, I’m Rick Steves, your globe-trotting guinea pig with a world of travel thrills to share with you. Thanks for joining us as we continue our tour of the best of offbeat Europe. This time we’ve left Europe for the exotic charms of Turkey.

In this show we’ll experience both the traditional and the modern in Central Turkey. We’ll marvel at the fantastic landscape of Cappadocia, explore subterranean towns where early Christians hid out, ride a camel, do some traditional dancing, visit a town where monks carved their monastery right into the cliffs, have a sit-on-the-floor meal with a Turkish family, and finish in Turkey’s modern capital, Ankara.

In the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey links Europe with the Middle East and Asia. We start in the region of Cappadocia where we visit Zelve, and Güzelyurt, before traveling to Turkey’s modern capital of Ankara.

We’re traveling with my favorite Turkish tour guide, Mehlika Seval.

Cappadocia is rightly famous as the most bizarre and fascinating bit of central Turkey that accepts bank cards.

And Cappadocia is a place where you’re likely to stumble into the traditional culture in action — like this elaborate village festival to celebrate an important event in this three-year-old’s life — his circumcision.

At least for all the relatives it’s one of the most joyous events in his young life. The whole village turns out — and it becomes a wonderful celebration for everyone.

The local Turks call it a “wedding without the in-laws.”

The customs, though ancient, are not as ancient as the landscape in which they’re played out. Cappadocia is noted for its strange looking terrain, including these rock formations called “fairy chimneys.” Centuries of volcanic eruptions left huge boulders imbedded in the volcanic ash, or tuff. As the softer tuff eroded, these volcanic boulders were left precariously exposed. [B: I’m sure Rick said “tufa,” but it’s an inaccuracy we’ve been trying to fix in the books; in this case I think it’s better if the transcript has the right word even though Rick said the wrong one.]

This part of Cappadocia seems made to order as a perfect hide out, and that’s how early Christians used it during second-century Roman persecutions and during 7th-century Arab invasions.

After the persecutions, generations of Turks made these cliff-side caves their permanent homes. This valley of Zelve was a thriving community of 5,000 people, and was one of scores of similar cave villages in the area.

Imagine, entire families lived up here. This was a complete neighborhood. Little kids running up and down these treacherous stairways. Neighbors borrowing sugar from each other. View property!

Cleverly, they wrung subsistence out of this parched land. Every resource was used to the maximum — even the lowly pigeon. The birds provided food, fertilizer, and entertainment. This huge stone was used for grinding grain for bread. Meli is demonstrating how donkey power turned the stone.

These caves were inhabited until the 1950s. As the caves became structurally unsound, the government forced residents to vacate. A number of caves are off limits, but some are still safe to explore.

These were complete communities and many of the surviving “caves” are churches carved into the rock. This church is 900 years old. Churches were carved to re-create features of free-standing Byzantine buildings.

A central dome, often surrounded by smaller, or half- domes, vaulted ceilings, pillars, and arches with no structural significance, provided the worshiper with much the same environment as city dwellers in more traditional churches.

The painted domes and walls also copy the elaborate mosaic decorations in Byzantine churches where the hierarchical order of the faith often is represented, with Christ occupying the most important position.

The early Christians, confronted by so many challenges, found strength in their faith and showed it in their beautifully decorated churches. This nearby, more humble church is a thousand years old.

Imagine the enormous effort to carve these elaborate structures with a simple hammer and chisel. Surely, by any measure this was a monumental act of faith. Notice that Maltese cross, a symbol of early Christianity. The early Christians, for safety, communicated with codes and symbols.

Meli: “Jesus, Christ, God, Son, Savior,” in Greek is, “Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter.” When you stack these letters on top of each other you have Iesous Christos Theou Yios and Soter.

Just close the ends and you have a Maltese cross. You find this cross all over the ancient Christian world. Crusaders went into war with this symbol of Jesus on their shields.

One of the pleasures of travel in Cappadocia is the discovery of how little life has changed over the centuries. Locals still appreciate the advantage of cave dwelling. A cave is cool in the summer, warm in the winter, inexpensive, peaceful, and you never have to paint or re-roof.

Meli: Ten years ago when they needed a house they carved it out, but, they left the holes which used to be the pigeon holes. They worked on it for about five, six years, and these beautiful carpets — that one is her dowry carpet. She did it before she got married.

This bedroom could be right out of “Better Homes and Caves.”

While the cliff side caves we just toured were for permanent residences, nearby, at Kaymaklı, we find a different kind of cave. When invading armies passed through the area, entire communities lived in underground hideouts like these for months at a time.

This is a remarkable example of their determination to live free and true to their faith. Networks of streets and plazas, kitchens, small living spaces, and ventilation ducts were carved into seven underground stories to give as many as 2,000 people refuge.

And to conserve oxygen, candlelight was kept to a minimum. It must have been a long, dark wait.

But for us, back to the fresh air and sunshine, and we’re on our way again!

Cappadocia is fairly touristy and there are plenty of tourist class hotels. But anyone wanting to go local certainly can.

We’re staying in the family-run Green Motel. It’s small and friendly with comfortable, clean rooms and it’s just outside of Avanos. Let’s head into town.

We’re taking the footbridge across the river. The red soil along the banks gives this river and the valley its name — the Red River Valley. And the clay that colors the river has for centuries been worked into distinctive pottery.

Potters still use many techniques dating back thousands of years to Hittite artisans. The pieces they produce are known all over Turkey and the pottery workshops are the focal point of much tourist interest in Avanos.

Aaah! Another perfect teapot from Galip the potter.

In addition to checking out the pottery, tourists are tempted to ride a camel. Why not? How many times will you get this chance? By bargaining, Jack, our producer, was able to cut the cost of this camel ride in half.

Although this is strictly touristy stuff, camels have been trekking the deserts of this land since before the time of Marco Polo.

It’s not as smooth a ride as a horse, but Jack and Colleen are experiencing a piece of Turkish history aboard the ship of the desert.

Another nearly unavoidable but enjoyable tourist pastime in Turkey is carpet shopping. Located close to Avanos, Bazaar 54, owned by the Turkish Tour Guide Co-op, is a regular stop on the tour bus circuit.

Carpet weavers are on hand to demonstrate how a Turkish carpet is woven. It’s fun to find out as much as you can about where the carpet was made, whether there’s any special meaning to the designs, and the time-honored production techniques.

Those in the know can identify exactly where a carpet was made by its design — right down to the village or valley. You can find cheaper carpets in the countryside by buying directly from the weavers, but there are advantages at a place like Bazaar 54.

Salesman: We do home delivery to United States. Then the price of the rug 10 percent is shipment charge, 10 or 12 percent, depending to size of the carpet.

You pay top dollar here, but there’s a good selection, you’re assured of high quality, and they make payment and shipping almost too easy.

Turkey’s carpets are great, but it’s important to understand that the guide who meets your ship at the cruise port doesn’t get paid. Guides actually pay the tour companies for the opportunity to take you shopping. They make their money back with the commissions on the carpets you buy — usually 20 percent.

Tomorrow morning we’ll be headed off the beaten path again, but tonight we’re trying one more touristy thing that can be fun. With the tourists come special shows to entertain them. Every night in the tourist season big hotels fill their prefab caves with traditional Turkish folk music and dancing… and this is the last time I’ll volunteer to participate.

Well, we survived last night’s tourist show, and this morning we’re heading deeper into Cappadocia — away from the main tourist route. The gateway to our next stop proudly reads “Güzelyurt, beautiful land.” Time has stood still in this small city where monks carved monasteries out of the cliff side over 1,600 years ago.

This is the kind of discovery I love to feature in my guidebooks. This town is a perfect “back door.” Absolutely no tourism; purely Turkish. It’s best known in Turkey as a place where historically conflicting religions and races live together peacefully.

“Çok Güzel.” That means “very beautiful” and Güzelyurt means “beautiful land.” Since 340 A.D., Christians have worshipped in Güzelyurt. When the Muslims came, life, from the ecumenical church-mosque, to the communal ovens, was shared. Even today, villagers bake bread together sharing 400-year-old street-corner ovens. .

. . And reminders are found everywhere of ecumenical cooperation.

Meli: Notice this gate. It has a Christian cross with a Muslim phrase, “maşallah,” in Greek letters. “Maşallah” is how we Muslims say “May God’s (Allah’s) blessings be on you.”

This building, originally the church of St. Gregory, built in 385 A.D., wasn’t just any old church. This was the birthplace of the texts which became Gregorian chants.

Today its single minaret indicates that it’s a mosque in a valley where the people call god “Allah.”

The sounds of the community are timeless. This scene has changed little over the centuries. Above that 1600-year-old church are Selçuk arches, Ottoman facades, and on the horizon gleams the tin dome of the modern mosque. Its two minarets give a constant visual call to prayer.

Meli: When the Imam calls the people to pray, he’s saying “God is great. There is one God and Muhammad is his prophet.”

Think how this global wave of praise races as fast as the sun five times a day across Islam, from Malaysia to Morocco and beyond. Throughout Islam, fundamentalism is on the rise. Many Turks see this as a threat to their modern democracy. The government wants to preserve the separation of mosque and state.

Sitting gingerly between a tumultuous Middle East and a powerful united Europe, which it would like join, Turkey is working to maintain a fragile balance between East and West.

Over a cup of tea the imam explained that while 98 percent of the country is Muslim, most want to remain a secular nation.

Turkey is a friendly culture — often offering strangers a wonderful, tea-soaked hospitality. Even before I knew Meli, when I was fumbling around Turkey on my own, people routinely invited me into their homes. I’ve discovered that we’re as interesting to those we visit as they are to us.

Meeting with the Turks often leads to eating with the Turks. And that may mean local style, on the floor. Our menu includes fresh bread with feta cheese, honey, tomatoes, olives, and lots of tea, or chai.

No Turkish gathering is complete without dancing, and anyone who can snap fingers and swing a hula hoop can join in.

But unfortunately, it’s time to leave for Ankara. Following a Turkish custom, the gang from our hotel is pouring water to wish us safe travels and a speedy return. There are lots of ways to get around in this country. This sign identifies one.

We’ll rendezvous with the rest of our crew later, but I wanted to show you how most travelers get around Turkey: by bus.

The buses in Turkey are great. Big and little buses connect every major town, with departures nearly all the time. The conductor even helps you freshen up. It takes about 30 hours to drive across Turkey from west to east.

This bus will go all the way to Ankara, and just like the camel caravans in the Silk Road days, it makes a stop at this caravansarai.

In the days of Marco Polo, merchants stopped at caravansarai for the night as they worked their way slowly across Anatolia and Asia. They’d park their camels here and spend fire lit evenings gathered together telling stories, sharing information, and creating an oral tradition which helped shape the Anatolian and Turkish character.

But Anatolian civilization has roots that go back long before caravans and sultans. Paradoxically, to look at prehistoric Anatolia we must travel to Turkey’s most modern city: the capital, Ankara.

Ankara’s been an important road stop throughout the ages. This building was actually an old caravansarai. Now it’s the archaeological museum. Full of artifacts dating as far back as the Neolithic period, it also contains reconstructions of entire rooms.

The one-room houses of Çatalhöyük take us back to one of the world’s earliest known cities — 7,000 B.C. The small structures were accessed by a ladder from an opening in the rooftop. They were filled with idols. Like many ancient peoples, Anatolians worshipped mother goddesses. This fertility statue is about 9,000 years old.

Meli: In Turkish, there are two words for mother — anne and ana. Anne is a biological mother. Ana is any mother with the features of a good mother — loving, caring, nourishing. Ana-tolia means “full of mothers.”

Ankara was founded by the Hittites 2,000 years ago. Occupying a secondary position to Constantinople during the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, it’s now come into its own.

This is the Mausoleum of Atatürk, the man who turned this city into the capital of modern Turkey. The Turkish Republic of today was established in 1923. That’s when Mustafa Kemal, hero of the First World War, led the resistance that drove out the Allied occupation forces and overthrew the Ottoman Sultan.

A grateful nation re-named him Atatürk, or “Father of the Turks.” As the first president of the Republic, he built the foundation of a modern democracy on the ruins of a corrupt empire.

Atatürk separated mosque and state, emancipated women, replaced the Arabic script with Europe’s alphabet, promoted national pride, introduced western-style education, and legislated equality for all citizens.

An honorary guard still protects his tomb. A small provincial town in 1925, Ankara, now with over two million people, is the capitol city of a modern nation.

A visit here reminds us that Turkey is much more than donkey carts, caves, and carpet weavers. It is also a nation of modern technology, malls, and fashion. Old and new live side by side.

We’ve enjoyed our stay, but it’s time to leave Ankara and head to Istanbul where we can continue our exploration of the rest of Turkey and the best of Europe.

During a busy trip, maximizing your nights on a train makes sense. Every night spent on a train costs you a little scenery but you more than make up for that by gaining an extra day of sightseeing.

While you can try to sleep in the regular train seats, a bed or couchette is worth a few extra dollars for the comfort as well as the safety from theft in your own private and locked compartment.

We can relax over dinner and then get a good night’s sleep. Traveling this way maximizes your time in order for you to get the absolute most out of your next destination.

Until then, I’m Rick Steves wishing you happy travels. Good night.