Editor’s note: This is the ninth story in a series of installments from photographer Dennis Jones, who is traveling in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Silk Road conjures images of caravans and exotic spices. The months long journey between China and Europe passed over a network with several branches focusing travel through the Anatolian Peninsula to Constantinople and the Black Sea and Aegean coasts.
During the Seljuk empire, 1077-1307 CE, 250 caravansaries were built to facilitate trade. For three days, travelers received free food, water, shelter and fodder. Built a day’s camel journey apart, some still exist and have been restored. The Sultanhan Aksaray, along the highway we’re traveling from the coastal city of Kusadasi to the other-worldly landscape of Cappodocia, is a beautiful example. Built in 1229, its imposing stone walls, elaborately decorated portal and massive gates would have signaled that within lay security and hospitality.
Caravansaries operated year-round. The interior courtyard and surrounding storerooms accommodated fair-weather travelers while the enormous enclosed space behind provided shelter for winter.
With humans and animals housed within, the stench must have been incredible. Still, it beat the open spaces of this high, windy plateau. On the day we visit, dust, blown by a strong, southerly wind, makes things a bit unpleasant.
Traveling farther east, the tawny plains give rise to rolling hills dominated by a snow-capped volcanic peak. This volcano is one source of the soft volcanic tuff that eroded into the other-worldly landscape for which Cappodocia is famous.
Strangers become friends
For thousands of years, people have carved their homes, stables and churches into the fantastic hills and canyons of the region. During the 9th century, they excavated entire underground cities, which could shelter as many as 50,000 people from the marauding armies of the time.
Our travels this day take us to the city of Nevsehir and into the unforeseen warmth and hospitality of a resident of the tiny village of Nar.
We planned to first wander the streets of this ancient village of cave houses and later to explore a valley near the famous outdoor museum of rock-hewn churches in Goreme.
As we walk the twisting lanes, people invariably greet us. A women sorting home-dried raisins offers us a handful. A man leaving a tiny mosque motions us to follow him, leading us to an opening and shows us an ancient mill where donkeys had driven the huge grinding stone for generations.
Leading further, he points out various things, but our non-existent Turkish inhibits understanding. Then, coming up the street, he introduces us to Mehmet, a colorfully dressed gentleman with salt and pepper hair and an infectious laugh. We quickly find we can communicate in German and our plans for the day evaporate.
Mehmet is a retired art teacher. Born in Nar, he returned after retirement, buying the cave house he grew up in to turn it into an artist’s retreat. He invites us to visit and without hesitation, we accept.
A labor of love
Entering a hand-carved wooden door reveals a series of hand-hewn caves set in the cliff. Some are ancient, others not. He has excavated 2,500 pickup loads of rock to date. There are multi-room caves, two-story caves with handmade wooden floors, stairs and cabinets. This is a labor of love.
Climbing the cliff reveals more caves, one half-filled with rubble yet to be hauled away and another former stable with stone feed troughs and hitches in tact. How many generations have lived here?
Mehmet entertains us with tea and homemade bread as we sit on his terrace overlooking the town. Here is a truly happy man, building his dream.
He invites us to go hiking. Soon we’re leaving the town behind, walking through a narrow valley of small farms. Purple blossoming almond trees shelter people planting potatoes while earlier crops poke through the ground.
Unprepared, after several miles, we’re thirsty, and hungry. There is no town or market.
Mehmet makes a call, leads us across a field and into a small dwelling where we’re greeted by his friends, a retired commissar and his wife.
She prepares tea and produces bowls of nuts, dried fruits and cookies. It’s difficult to communicate but there are thank you’s and smiles and they know we appreciate their hospitality.
A different way back leads over hills, through vineyards and past an old Ottoman cemetery. We say our goodbyes, thanking Mehmet for a memorable day, once again, blown away by the graciousness of Turks, a culture of hospitality that extends far back in time.
Dennis Jones is a local professional photographer and writer. He and Yolanda Marshall are traveling in the eastern Mediterranean. To see more photos, visit his blog at www.dreamcatcherimaging.com.