Elias and Sean grew up together overseas before studying engineering in Germany and the US respectively. Breadcrumbs is their weekly chat about things past, present, and future.
Sean spends a week in a (very nice) cave and recounts his exploration of Cappadocia/Kapadokya.
Sean: So remember how we joked that time about me pretending to record in a cave?
Elias: Yeah. It was when we were talking about my trip to Wilhemshaven, and I was walking with all the background noise, and you were mimicking that. You did a great job on that in post. And then when we re-released the episode as a shorter version, it was the darling we couldn’t cut, but probably should have.
Sean: So, I actually am coming to you from a cave this time, sort of.
Elias: Okay. So like a cave cave? Like I’m either picturing some fancy hotel, which tries to be a cave, or like some neanderthal nostalgia kind of trip that you’re on. But it’s probably the first, because I don’t think you’re wearing a loincloth and going hunting game and sitting around a fire in a damp, cold cave.
Sean: No, tempting, but no. Megan and I are staying in a cave hotel. This is five levels carved into the hillside. Reception’s actually on top and then you have these levels of rooms terraced down to the valley floor. So we’re on the fourth of those.
Elias: Okay. Impressive. But of course the most important question is, does it come with cave acoustics? Otherwise you can just forget it.
Sean: Yeah. So if I pick up my laptop and my mic here, I walk back into our bathroom, which is pretty recessed into the hill, and particularly back here in our shower—yeah, there’s a lot of echo here and I’m not doing it in post.
Elias: Yeah, that sounds impressive. I mean, not just the natural reverb, but the whole fact that you’re staying in a cave and it’s a cave hotel and that, so are these all new things carved into the rock side, or are they old caves that are now being remodeled?
Sean: No ours is new. Most of the hotels are new or that there’ve been some remodeled from older things. And the hotels themselves are all patterned after much, much older caves. And those were not hotels. Those were churches or monasteries or homes and, some even like whole underground cities.
But yeah, these cave hotels—we’re in one of easily dozens that are an iconic part of this region of central Turkey called Cappadocia.
This is Breadcrumbs. I’m Sean.
Elias: And I’m Elias. Sean and I grew up abroad and still enjoy seeing new places and thinking about how different cultures interact.
Sean: Today, I’m sharing about what I’ve seen, experienced, and learned about the historical caves of Cappadocia.
So both of us were on the road when we recorded that intro. But that was a couple of weeks ago. We’re back home now. I’m recording from my studio again with considerably less reverb.
But anyway, how familiar are you with Cappadocia?
Elias: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is the address in 1 Peter, the letter in the New Testament. It’s a region in what’s modern day Turkey, that Peter wrote this letter to, and as far as I know, I don’t think Paul ever made it there. But that’s my context to Cappado-kia, -chia? This is a good question. So I’ve always known it as Cappado-chia.
Sean: Yeah. I had always called it Cappado-shia before coming here. But then since being here we’ve taken on the Turkish—so the Turkish spelling is Kapadokya, and that’s how it’s pronounced, even though I continue to spell it the English way most of the time.
But anyway, so this region is a major tourist destination. It’s known for, again, as we talked about its cave hotels, but also balloon rides and rock formations. But it was also a major center of Christianity back in the Roman and Byzantine eras, going back to that church you mentioned in 1 Peter, and what’s really interesting to see today is how that history intersects with the geography of the region, specifically like you have these dwellings for monks and hermits and you have churches and you have even entire underground cities carved into the living rock.
Elias: So I’m trying to wrap my head around this, that I’m sure I heard what you said right. Okay, hotels and other things, but like underground cities and all carved into rock? How am I supposed to picture this? What’s this rock like, that you’re not building a house next to the mountain, but into the mountain?
Sean: Yeah, so I had to look this up while we were there because we wondered that too. It’s actually this volcanic rock known as tuff—T-U-F-F—made of ash that’s lithified. It is a very gritty kind of texture, almost like rough concrete or something, so it is very different from a lot of other rock.
And so apparently in Cappadocia, there were eruptions from several volcanoes in the region over centuries in prehistoric times, and these blanketed the whole region. After that, you had flowing water eroding that rock away and carving out these iconic spires that the area’s known for now. Despite its name, tuff seems to be a pretty soft rock to dig into, which is why the hillsides and all those rock formations that make up the landscape are dotted with caves—only a handful of which are natural.
Elias: So I get the idea that the rock is soft enough that you can cut into it, but it doesn’t completely fall apart. And of course, right away, I’m thinking this must have incredible architectural consequences, so these must look very different than your normal run-of-the-mill house or dwelling or anything, really, just because of the way that they’re made by basically subtracting stuff, rather than adding stuff to where there isn’t anything. Yeah, so like, what are the caves like?
Sean: Yeah. it’s a little bit of a two-edged sword because it’s so easily carved and eroded, a lot of the definition of those shapes is pretty rounded off. So I feel like, yeah, there may have been a time when you had sharper edges and you could have had a better sense of what things looked like, but you basically have a whole range of shapes and sizes here.
We saw a lot of these in what they call the Open Air Museum, which is this whole settlement full of hermitages and monasteries and churches. There’s a big spire, when you first come in, that’s just peppered with holes on every side and going all the way up. And they say this was like a nunnery or something. And then there are a bunch of other cliff faces and rocks with all these other caves in them. A lot of these are just little one or two room dwellings. And so, like you said more subtractive: you had beds or shelves just carved into the walls, or you had holes dug into the floor that could have a fire or a wine press or whatever.
And then one particular interesting feature we saw was: a number of the bigger rooms had this kind of raised platform with these long round troughs cut into it—basically the shape of a race track, if you can picture that. And it took us a while to figure out that these were actually dining tables for a large group of people. Like you could easily fit 20 people around this. And so you end up sitting around the edge of this with your feet dangling into the trough and the negative space in the middle of this racetrack was the table. But we, we did wonder like how does this work if someone’s on that back wall and needs to get out in the middle of the meal? Do they go all the way around? Do they have to crawl across the table? I don’t know.
Elias: Yeah. So this is, this is fun also thinking of that modern problem that we all know so well and how they might’ve dealt with that, or I dunno, if it even was a problem. But of course, what I’m way more interested in here is like that table design, like, oh my goodness. Like, yes, it wouldn’t have won some, I don’t know, Red Dot or iF Design Award or whatever, but it’s brilliant. It’s so cool because it’s a novel way to think of what a table even is.
The first thing that came to my mind was this thing that we had in an engineering class, which was actually one of the few design classes we had. It was about how to come up with ideas, and so you take what you’re making or what you’re kind of trying to come up with, an element of it, and then you basically go through the different extremes, like the different types or ways or shapes that you could make it, or simply just the number.
And one of the examples there was the table and how many legs you could have on the table. And you can picture this: a table with one leg and then a table with, well, two legs can be fastened on the wall; table with three legs is less common, but four, you can see, and five and six and whatever, if it’s longer. And then of course, just because you got to go to the extremes, you think of a table with zero legs and then you, you know, hang it with chains on the roof. And it’s kind of, I don’t know, it’s just with zero legs, and then you can basically work at this table and you can, I don’t know, raise it or lower it, or you can swing it back and forth, and might be useful to be able to sweep underneath easily. I’d never thought about this though. And I think that’s always cool, when you think of like, oh, I’ve actually used my system to think of every possible table in the world. Yeah, and then you visit Cappadocia, or your friend does, and you see that people made a table that your system didn’t come up with.
So I guess my question here now is really important. Is this a table with one leg or is this a table with infinite legs?
Sean: Yeah, I definitely, I think I saw you going to the infinite legs, as you’re extrapolating here, because it does kind of feel like that—they all merge into one or something, right?
Elias: So now that you’ve led with such an amazing table design, what other cool stuff did you see there that they made?
Sean: I don’t know. I don’t know if I can top that. We did see a lot of churches. It was actually kind of surprising just how many of these were in this pretty small area and throughout the whole region. But those too again, because they’re carved into the rock, you get some different things there.
A lot of these little chapels were not much different from the homes, except they were decorated to clearly be some sort of chapel. But you had the larger ones that actually replicated that traditional cruciform shape that was common for much of Christianity, with the nave and the transept and the apse. And the biggest of these even had the three-aisle basilica plan with two sets of columns, running lengthwise.
Elias: Slow down, slow down. So you’re using a lot of churchy technical terms here that I’m not sure our listeners are so aware of. I’ve heard these names before, but like, just to get the, like: nave, transept, and apse is basically cross from top to bottom?
Sean: Reverse that. So yeah. So cruciform does refer to, like, shape of a cross. And then yeah, typically the apse is actually like a semicircle behind the altar. And then—you can get really pedantic with these. I actually, since living in Turkey, I’ve looked up the Wikipedia articles for these to actually get them all straight and those have very helpful floor plans with highlights on them and stuff. So I’ll link all those.
So you know, that kind of covers the range of architecture you saw. We also saw three distinct styles of artwork. This is all what’s now thought of as Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which has a lot of emphasis on art as part of worship and liturgy.
The most basic of these just had kind of a few isolated panels on the walls, which might be illustrating different biblical scenes or later historical scenes, and otherwise were pretty bare. A number of them had more just like geometric lines and shapes following the curvature of the rocks, all in this like dark red paint. But then the most elaborate were the full plaster, like floor to ceiling, painted ones with icons and everything. These are like the really beautiful ones that you see pictures of and you just really have to see.
I think the crown jewel of this Open Air Museum was the Dark Church—or the Turkish name for it is the Karanlık Kilise. Basically, it was, like, recessed even farther into the rock, with just one little shaft of light, hence the “Dark Church”. So there wasn’t really any natural light in there. Which meant that this artwork from centuries and centuries ago is still incredibly well-preserved.
Elias: Yeah, that sounds really amazing. And yeah it’s really cool to think that like that is language back then. Like I dunno, post- Reformation and everyone being literate now, we kind of tend to forget that most people couldn’t read, and so this was very much a way of communicating stories and meaning through art and the walls of churches.
So I’m getting very much of a Moria vibe here. You said something about underground cities.
Sean: I don’t think any of them had any dwarves or Balrogs, but there are a bunch of these in the area. A lot of them were even connected by kilometers of underground tunnels. The one we saw was Derinkuyu. It dates back to the Phrygians in like the seventh or eighth century BC. And it was expanded over time, and came to its current form in the Byzantine era.
Elias: So this is people’s everyday lives? Why are people living underground? How deep does this go? Is this like basically a modern mall and, I guess, apartment building all underground?
Sean: Yeah, the main reason for this, I think, is really defensive, and I’ll come back to that. The deepest one of these was five levels deep. So there was a 55-meter ventilation shaft from the bottom level up to the surface, and that also functioned as a well, both for the people in the city and for those actually on the surface.
So apparently it could fit up to 20,000 people inside, but those people probably weren’t living there all the time. There was a village on the surface and really this was shelter that people could retreat to with their livestock and their food and everything in the case of invaders and war and stuff going on above ground.
So you had stables and kitchens on the first level, wine and oil presses, storage rooms, and another large cruciform church down on the bottom level. We did at one point stumble into this long vaulted room with all these little side rooms off of it, and again, found out later that this was apparently some sort of religious school.
I mentioned this was largely defensive. The one defensive measure we saw besides just being underground was these big stones that could be rolled across each of the passageways that were going up to the surface. And then like each floor also could be shut off by stones in all of the various passages.
Elias: I’m getting very much like a stone rolled away before Jesus’ tomb kind of picture here?
Sean: Yeah, exactly. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, like, this is basically a large round millstone. It was maybe a meter and a half across and at least a foot thick. It was kind of up on a perch or some of these were kind of in actually a dedicated, like kind of slit for this, so it could be pushed with relatively little effort and it would fall into place across the door or the passageway. And then it would take a whole team of people to get it back open from the inside, and until they did that nobody was ever getting in from the outside. Today, the ones that were still open were cemented open so that, with all the people coming through, somebody wouldn’t accidentally trap everybody inside.
Elias: That’s cool. It’s really cool to picture that and to think about like the engineers who came up with that, and then the people who actually didn’t just carve the whole cities into rocks, but then carved round stones as well to work as doors. You’ve got to, you know, get that right, because you do want a couple people to be able to lift it back up, and if you do wrong calculations or whatever, it’s a bad mistake to make.
So that like I’m kind of blown away. Also just thinking back, one of my highlights in Istanbul actually was seeing basically the big Moria hall under the ground—I’m not sure if you’ve been there—with basically what was a water-collecting cave. So this sounds very spectacular.
It’s been really cool hearing about this trip and the different things you were able to see. Wrapping up here, what would you say was the highlight of the trip?
Sean: So remember how we did that episode on serendipity a few years back now?
Elias: Yes, yes. That was my trip in Portugal. I had a lot of great, serendipitous moments there.
Sean: Yeah. So most of these churches and, caves and cities that, I’ve been talking about, I looked these up in advance to some degree or other, or at least had them on the agenda. Like these are things I want to see.
But there was one church that was not on the itinerary at all. Our taxi driver recommended it, on the way back to the hotel, just kind of in passing and even offered to stop the meter and let us go in and wait for us. In contrast to all these other places we’d been going to, like, this was just a guy sitting at a table collecting a pretty small entrance fee. And he pretty much just handed us a flashlight and sent us inside. My family and I—and Megan’s like this too like—we’ve always been more inclined to go and see places ourselves, at our own pace, and not worry about a tour guide. That’s mostly what we’d been doing this trip, but this felt like taking it to another level. He just kind of hands us this flashlight and it feels like we’re being given a charter to go and explore the unknown. We had the place pretty much ourselves, and that flashlight was certainly needed because we were mostly walking or crawling through, like, pitch dark rooms.
There were three levels to this place and, the staircases, if you could call them that, were basically just little passageways, that you had to crouch all the way down in, or almost crawl in, to get through. The steps were pretty much eroded away. You did have little handholds cut into the walls. But it was just cool to like walk through this with a flashlight and not even know where is this thing gonna pop out, for however long this tiny little passageway is going. And then at the top of each one of these, like you emerge into a little room and there was another one of those empty tomb stones at the top of them. So they could retreat in here and seal it off and be pretty secure in there.
So this was just a really cool find. This was the Aynalı Kilise. They translate it as like mirrored or symmetrical church. Like I said, the serendipity of it kind of the mystery, the discovery, that feeling of venturing in the dark was just really what made that.
I think this kind of adventure is exactly what I love about living in Turkey and visiting old ruins and stuff here, because—I’ve said before, in the States, it’s like you have anything that’s more than a hundred years old and there’s a rope around it and, sure, you can appreciate it from a distance, but don’t even think about touching it. But here, you can literally climb all over ruins that are centuries or even millennia old. Like we were doing that all week. And sometimes you’re just handed a flashlight and told to go explore.
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