For more than 4,000 years the people of Cappadocia, central Turkey, have lived in caves. The soft volcanic tufa was first excavated by the Hattis, who made homes in cliffs and phallic columns of rock called fairy chimneys. But, over the millennia, a number of different ethnic and religious groups have followed suit. Chipping away at the porous, pale solidified lava with bronze tools, they have carved out storage areas, animal mangers, niches for oil lamps, chambers for pressing grapes, tandoor ovens and sunken work areas for weavers.
Although many of the cave houses are no longer homes – the government has pushed to move residents into modern apartments and some are now being turned into characterful boutique hotels – some traditional residences can still be found.
Hasan Sari and his wife, Ayse, live with their children, Fatma, 13, and Ahmet, 12, in a house built into the cliff of a narrow valley in Ayvali. “About a hundred people here still live in houses with cave rooms,” Sari tells me through my guide and translator, Remzi Kaya of Cappadocia Tours. The family’s hallway, kitchen, storage rooms and barns for livestock are all in caves, carved out as long ago as the 10th century, when the valley was the site of a Christian cave monastery. Adjoining these is a plain, white-washed extension built in the 19th century, with large windows and a flat, concrete roof; it used to be two separate houses but now provides the family with an extra two rooms.
Past the wooden gate that serves as a front door, the peeling, white-painted cave entrance, where hats and handbags hang, is also the site of the home’s only water supply – a single, cold tap. (A stream outside provides water for vineyards and orchards.) To the right is a series of three caves, their free-form ceilings blackened with soot from centuries-old cooking fires. Today, the family stores apples, grapes and apricots in the cool, dry space. On one wall is a sickle for cutting grass and, as well as sacks of flour and a supply of twig brooms, there is a vacuum cleaner and piles of clothes. The scene is lit with bare electric bulbs.
Ayse shows me into her kitchen, which is also carved from the rock but with squared-off walls and ceiling. Although there is no running water, the family has a large and modern electric-powered refrigerator and two gas-burning rings. On a low wooden shelf are recycled plastic containers full of provisions – lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds and cheese.
Ahmet shows me the bedroom he shares with his sister, a small room with poplar wood rafters and two mattresses. Adjoining this, but with an entrance from the small hallway, is a living room with a vaulted stone ceiling, typical of Ottoman houses from the 1800s, and a wood-burning stove. “This room heats up very quickly because of the thick walls and cave floor,” says Hasan. But there are modern touches too. On the floor is a machine-made carpet and sitting atop a display cabinet full of crocheted doilies and glassware is a television linked to a satellite dish on the roof. This room also doubles as Hasan and Ayse’s bedroom; at night, they roll mattresses out on to the floor.
There are more cave rooms on a lower level, where potatoes and pumpkins are stored. But most of this space is given over to the family’s flock of 23 fat-tailed sheep, which sleep on the straw-covered floor and are kept for wool and meat. When the Saris count them during my visit, they realise that one – a young lamb – is missing. But they seem only mildly concerned, explaining that the animal is most likely with another family’s flock, perhaps in a cave nearby. “Do you sometimes end up with one too many?” I ask.
Hasan nods and smiles.
The Gamirasu Hotel has an untouched 8th-century cave church including original frescoes, and views across to abandoned cave homes and the village of Ayvali, a 1,000-person community 15 minutes’ drive from Urgup. Tel: +90 384-341 7485; www.gamirasu.com