The music is haunting: a solo flute plays a piercingly sweet melody supported by a soft steady drumbeat. An expectant hush falls on our audience as five men file into the circular arena and bow with arms crossed against their chests, to a “master” standing at one end. They then take their places in a circle. Clad in long flowing white gowns, brown caps on their heads, they begin to twirl, slowly at first and then gaining speed, their skirts fanning out, arms outstretched, eyes closed and heads angled to one side. They are the whirling dervishes of Turkey.
“Semâ” as this ceremony is known, dates back to the life of a 13th century Sufi mystic named Rumi, who held the belief that all existence is circular, from the protons and electrons revolving in an atom, to the orbit of celestial bodies in the firmament. The wheel of creation is the core of all being, and the act of whirling awakens a sense of divine one-ness with God.
The music grows softer, and the dervishes as they spin anti-clockwise seem to be in a spiritual trance, one outstretched palm held upwards to receive heaven’s beneficence, the other one turned downwards to transmit blessings to the earth. The notes die away, the men open their eyes and come to a halt; they bow once more and then file out to their cells for a period of meditation.
The ceremony is a fitting introduction to the area of Turkey we are about to explore. Cappadocia in the central Anatolia region, is Turkey’s jewel casket. It is a treasure trove of ancient sites, artistic marvels—and extraordinary scenery. As our tour group’s bus rounds a corner late one evening, there is a collective intake of breath. It’s as though a curtain has suddenly been drawn to reveal an eerie landscape of white-caped limestone peaks standing fold upon fold like an army of pale ghosts looming against the gathering dusk.
The next day, at a lookout near the town of Goreme, the scene is a children’s fairytale book come alive. An enchanted land of twisted rock turrets, mysterious caves, fairy chimneys and gigantic magical mushrooms; a place where rocky outcrops transform themselves into imaginary stone wizards with tall hats, gaping mouths and hollow eyes. Then, a little further away, at Uchisar an immense cream-coloured limestone cliff pocked with cave holes comes into view, prompting one of our group to exclaim. “Looks like a hunk of Swiss cheese!”
Cappadocia has secrets that pierce the veils of time. In Kaymakli I step warily into a narrow aperture that fans out into a labyrinth of underground passages. The air smells dank and our voices bounce off the walls. This was once the hideout of as many as 5000 early Christians forced underground by Roman persecution. The settlement had eight storeys (only four have been excavated so far) and apart from private living quarters, the complex also had a granary, water cisterns and animal barns. The community worshipped in a small chapel, celebrated festive occasions with wine from their cellar, and prepared meals in their kitchen. A ventilation chute provided fresh air even to a depth of four storeys. I stand in silence for a second or two imagining how the walls around me had once echoed with the voices of people who’d loved, laughed, cried, married, raised their families—and endured a mole like existence rather than forsake their Faith. Amazing! I step out with relief into the bright sunshine.
The open air museum at Goreme showcases medieval cave-churches painted by Christian monks between 1000 and 1200 AD. The vivid Byzantine-era frescos are deserving of a better camera than mine, but no lens can capture the passion that went into the creation of these works of art that even after ten centuries still have the power to transfix.
My expectations run high as we approach Pamukkale (meaning “cotton castle”) but nothing prepares me for its sheer size and spectacle. Dazzling white calcified limestone “falls” and terraces of Turkey’s most celebrated mineral hot springs span 1970 feet in width and tower 525 feet above the town of Pamukkale. As far back as the 2nd century BC, these waters drew people who came to soothe or cure their ailments in the healing spas. Today, however, in an effort to preserve the site, no one is permitted to walk on the surface of the travertine. Some of our group indulge in a dip in the artificial hot pools at the foot of the terraces, but I’m content to merely stand and marvel at Nature’s artistry. Captivating Cappadocia indeed!
PHOTOS: by Margaret Deefholts
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