Permaculture, classically centered around the idea of constructing an agricultural system that integrates human activity with the local natural surroundings so as to create a highly efficient, self-sustaining ecosystem. But why restrict permaculture theory and methods to just agriculture? Why can’t we also use our natural surroundings as they are and use them to construct homes, storage spaces, maybe even centers of worship. One of the most destructive acts of mankind is the construction of civilization. The mass spread of our concrete jungles that corrode and dominate once pristine landscapes. How many ecosystems and habitats do we condemn by erecting skyscrapers and housing units? Too many. However, humans weren’t always clearing out the natural to meet their personal needs. For centuries tribes and ancient societies worked with the natural landscape to find and build shelters and living spaces. One group of these ancient peoples, Christians fleeing persecution in what is now central Turkey, used caves as shelters much like the native Americans, but expanded on this idea by widening and building into the caves themselves to create a new civilization. One that didn’t only stretch across the earth’s surface, but far below.
Goreme National park, in the volcanic zone between Hasan mountain and Erciyes mountain, sits in the center of Cappadocia, central Turkey. Here one will find a rough landscape that resembles the sandstone mesas of Arizona and New Mexico. These alien looking rock formations, known as fairy chimneys, have been sculpted by thousands and thousands of years of erosion, their tops sanded off into points. It looks like the fangs of some ragged beast are poking out just above the earth’s surface, needle sharp tips reaching towards the sky just waiting for some unlucky skydiver to miss their mark and get skewered. In some places the wind and rain has cut a perfect circle through the sharp cliffs, leaving picturesque peak holes for curious hikers to pose next to and photograph. However some of these holes don’t reach quite through to the other side of the rock formation, and instead of rock framed view holes the wind and rain has left small inlets and shallow caves. These shallow shelters, along with the soft malleable quality of the rock, are believed to have inspired ancient humans to widen and deepen these shelters in order to escape from wild animals and harsh winters. As the years passed and humans evolved, new groups of people came to occupy the area now known as Goreme. These people, mainly troglodytes and hermits at first, found these crude man made shelters honed into the rock and built on them, improving the infrastructure and adding resources needed for more advanced daily life like bathrooms and ovens with chimneys extending to the earth’s surface. During the 4th century another wave of visitors came to Goreme, Christians escaping Roman persecution. These people, known as the “fathers of Capadocia”, found these carved shelters to be the perfect hiding places from Roman soldiers, and expanded on them once again by adding multiple floors, churches, and indoor farming areas. They didn’t stop there. As their society grew and more Christians came to find safe shelter they began to dig deeper, carving out entire cities from the soft stone under the earth’s surface. Each outer home, the original caves once created by ancient people located in the outer rocky cliffs, were connected to the underground cities by labrinth like tunnels. Escape hatches, if you will, that allowed the Christians to retreat if danger in the form of violent soldiers should arrive. Each underground city had only one main entrance and exit that was made of large interlocking stones that could only be opened from the inside. These gateways blended into the sandy rock of the natural landscape, and made for the perfect defence against the Roman soldiers that often walked by none the wiser of the hidden civilizations existence.
These cities became safe havens for the Christian people, not only physically but religiously. Underground they were able to freely practice their faith. They carved churches into the rock by hand using rudimentary carving tools and decorated them with exquisite frescos using natural paints made from indigo and the red, iron rich soil on which they lived. Monasteries that housed nuns and priests were also constructed, some of which were as large as six to seven stories high. These frescos can still be seen today and are some of the best preserved examples of byzantine art in the post iconoclastic period. Due to the paintings hidden nature, they survived through a time of religious opposition when religious images and icons were not only forbidden to be painted or worshiped, but were also illegal to create by order of the imperial authorities within the eastern church and the temporal imperial hierarchy.
My visit to Goreme National Park and these ancient hidden cities left me in awe of the resilient nature of human beings. The power of these people’s belief in their faith was still palpable even now in the 21st century. What was also inspiring was their use of their natural surroundings. While it could be argued that carving a civilization into the natural rock formations is also harmful to the micro ecosystems located their, the fact that these people did not plow down forests or grasslands in order to build their society is quite refreshing. Yes, they may have done it out of necessity and the need for safety, but nonetheless they successfully created a home that would eventually melt back into the earth naturally, instead of destroying the original local ecosystem of the land that they built upon. Even today people continue to live in these cave like homes. Some remain to be crude shelters with not much more than an oil lamp for lighting while others have been retrofitted to include central heating and fully functioning electrical systems. The spaces under the earth are also being used for sustainable mass storage. Naturally these cavities hold a consistent temperature of about 13 celsius (55 Fahrenheit), which is perfect for storing organic produce such as potatoes, tomatoes, oranges, and other vegetables and fruits. Even Frito Lay potato chip company has bought into the natural and cheap storage units and has begun to store over 2000 tons of potatoes in the cavities. While some locals are sceptical of the landscapes new commercial use and worry that their way of life and communities may be at risk of being extorted, the new, yet old, storage spaces are bringing in a lot of new money and investments to the area, money which is much needed by these small communities.
Seeing examples of these ancient societies and their ability to coexist with their natural surroundings, I have to question when our mentality regarding the construction of our civilization and shelters changed. When did we begin to feel the need to create such concrete everlasting monuments that boasted of our existence. I found the natural form of the cave homes and cities in Goreme to be just as, if not more impressive then the castles and cathedrals found across the world. If you ever find yourself looking for a one of a kind destination in Turkey, Cappadocia and Goreme National Park is definitely that. The historically captivating and naturally mesmerizing landscape may even inspire you to move into a cave of your own.
Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whc.unesco.org/en/list/357.
“GOREME NATIONAL PARK AND THE ROCK SITES OF CAPPADOCIA.” National Parks of Turkey, National Parks of Turkey, nationalparksofturkey.com/goreme-national-park-and-the-rock-sites-of-cappadocia/.
Mahallesi, Kayakapi. “History of Cappadocia.” History of Cappadocia – Tourism in Cappadocia and Urgup | Kayakapi Premium Caves – Cappadocia | Premium Cave Boutique Hotel of Urgup / Cappadocia, Kayakapi, http://www.kayakapi.com/cappadocia.aspx.
Starr, Stephen. “How the Ancient Underground City of Cappadocia Became a Fruit Warehouse.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30 May 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2014/may/30/ancient-underground-city-cappadocia-fruit-produce-warehouse.
Strochlic, Nina. “The Secret Life of Cappadocia: Underground in the Turkish Rock Formations.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 22 Aug. 2013, http://www.thedailybeast.com/the-secret-life-of-cappadocia-underground-in-the-turkish-rock-formations.