The plane landed at night. The airport shuttle hurtled through a black unknown, glimpses of dusty roads in the headlights. When I got into my room I fell asleep the minute I lay down.
I woke up in a rock palace. Breakfast was being served out on the lawn. The air glittered. Far up on the smooth rock face of the hill behind the hotel was a small square black hole, my first glimpse of the famous caves of Kapadokya. I drew the hill, the hotel balcony, an apricot tree. The air was full of tiny flies. I wrapped a scarf around my head and shoulders against them. A slivery woman with bright blue eyes showed up and started unloading jams and jellies, chattering in German with the tourists at the next table. “I am Sabine,” she said– she pronounced that final e–“You must come to our new hotel and draw it. It’s an energy center.” I did feel energized. The place was full of natural vitality. “Yes,” she said seriously, “All Kapadokya is a center of energy.”
I’ll say. A TV crew came and filmed me drawing the picture above, friends in Istanbul saw it! I even met the mayor. We were in Urgup, a wonderful little rock town punctuated with the dots of caves. Kapadokya is Turkey’s central steppes region. High and rocky, populated with small towns, famous for its pure air and water, history, surreal natural stone formations, and the ancient caves in them which dot every landscape. The Greek spelling, Cappadocia, means Land of Beautiful Horses. I love that Kapadokya sounds like horses galloping.
COMING FROM DISASTER It was my second trip to Turkey in 1999, and back in Istanbul I had lost a nearly-full sketchbook. Not only did it feel like a miscarriage, but my whole trip was contingent on producing drawings for my website to boost tourism, as a big earthquake near Istanbul earlier that year had scared people off. The travel company I was working with was sending me to some place called Kapadokya. Numb with shock, I’d pulled out a blank sketchbook and gotten on the plane. I’d had no idea what to expect. The resulting experience changed my life and took my work to a new level. I have always loved this first look at Kapadokya, a place immediately familiar despite the fact I’d never suspected its existence. ROAMING THE ROCK PALACES Sabine invited me over for later and arranged for me to ride around with Mevlut, the manager of the hotel, to see the land. Still mourning the lost sketchbook, I closed the new one over the new drawings and got in the car.
I had never seen such country. All around us rose giant rocks in amazing shapes. Some looked like enormous erotica, others like trolls. Mevlut stopped the car. “Look! Men in hats!”
We drove further. “Camel Rock,” he said. There were many donkeys. All the women I saw were wearing shalvar: long loose trousers gathered at the waist, and loose vests, clothes that seemed to celebrate billowing hips and breasts. The commonest headscarf was a gauzy pale green number, scalloped on the edges and sparkled with green glass beads. When we got to Red Valley, Ali Baba the groundskeeper told me the local scarf code. It’s all pretty much optional, more fashion than fear.
“When the Christians went into the caves, the caves were here,” said Ali Baba, “See? Matthew, Mark, Luke an’ John…” pointing out frescoes of the Apostles in the Grape Church, a Medieval chapel in Red Valley. The path to the church was through gold and peach rock laced with the bright green of apricot trees. On it I had a happy epiphany: I had been here before. Over the years since, this feeling of personal familiarity has only intensified. These cave churches are small cheerful places full of light. This one was gated against vandals, but Ali Baba unlocked it and left me for two hours. It was my first sense of what Christianity had been, a refuge and a comfort from Old Testament and Roman atrocities. The Apostles looked homey, like favorite uncles. Only their eyes were damaged. I learned later that, before tourism and subsequent governmental protections, children playing in the abandoned caves had been frightened by those staring Byzantine eyes and had scratched them out. Me, I felt closer to the original teachings of Christ here in this golden cave than ever I had before.
In The Name of the Rose, when those monks were on their way to a 13th-century confrontation between the worldly Dominican and more aescetic Franciscan ideologies, Goreme– pronounced Gore-eh-may– was where they were going. Its monastery, arguably the most powerful in the Middle Ages, is still there, preserved as the Open Air Museum, part of the legendary 1001 cave churches of Goreme Valley.
Every single structure here is hollowed out of a cave: dormitories, offices, refectories and chapels. All the architectural elements were carved out of a single piece of rock: pillars, benches, altars, arches, crosses and, after Hagia Sophia in the 6th-century, domes. So we have a sculpture of a church, which was then painted, and nothing is harder to render in pen and ink.
ST BARBARA’S CHAPEL This drawing took about five hours, spread out over two days, freezing sessions with grit blowing in the open door and roughening the page. The geometric paintings were done in the 8t-century during the time of the pictorial art-destroying Iconoclasts who took the Second Commandment quite literally: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image of anything… See the dome at the top? Look just below it to the left and see a little stick figure on the top of something like an oil-derrick. This has got to be an Ascension. Up in the dome, some of the figures fade into dots, presumably because they have already Ascended. All of this geometric work was painted in cochineal blood, still red twelve centuries later. A cochineal is like a big cockroach, and this little figure at the bottom is either a cochineal with blood coming out its behind or the devil on a broomstick, depending on which guide you hear. Two centuries after the Iconoclasts, the area behind the carved stone altar was overlaid with paintings of Jesus and a few saints, in a Naive Byzantine style I love. Think of those artists: natural light or torches, local paints, the occasional master coming through from the great cities. And over the centuries the glory growing in the caves. TEA IN A CAVE The first day I drew St. Barbara’s was cold but the second day it rained. The guards took pity on me and invited me into their cave for chai. They had a wood stove in there, a fine view of the caves opposite which look like black windows in sorcerers’ hats, and a samovar.
The chai was hot and substantial. Osman, at far left, had peculiar writing all over his hands. He told me that they itched horribly, and that a healer had written all over them in purple ink, and that it cured the itching. Another guard told me he was crazy, but two days later, when I came back to draw more, the hands that had been purple were clean and the itching was gone.
WALKING WITH SABINE
At the tip of a tower of rock was an ancient cave door, two hundred feet above the floor of a canyon. “The land is sunken,” said Sabine, “Was once much higher.” We climbed up into a cave apartment house, where the rock had sheared off, leaving the long-abandoned cave houses exposed. Above several of the doors were many little declivities in rows. “Pigeonholes,” said Sabine. Actual pigeonholes!” I said, delighted. “Yes,” she said, “everything here is still fertilized with pigeon dung.”
So it turns out that most of these caves either are or were eventual pigeon caves. The people go in the bottom and rake out the precious pigeon poop, spreading it over the fields as they have done since ancient days. Arabs in the caves, monks in the monasteries, pagans in the rocks, all scraped and spread and planted and prayed, and flocks of pigeons still fill the skies.
Away along the rocky trail, through a valley of breast-shaped stone formations, we came upon a tablecloth-sized patch of dark red earth combed to the consistency of velvet. In the middle stood an apricot tree, and near it a grapevine. This was part of someone’s farm. It was here that we left money– under the bark!– for grapes we had eaten off the vine. In those palmy days this was customary. I was amazed. “Do not worry,” said Sabine, “we have left far more than the whole grapevine would bring.”
That afternoon I was hunched over my sketchbook on a scrap of carpet for two hours in the cold October light drawing old Greek buildings. My hand was stiff and even my bones were cold. A plump lady in traditional Kapadokyan dress appeared carrying a laden tea-tray. She smiled and jerked her head in invitation. She had sapphire eyes. I followed her into a house I had just drawn. Although the walls were stained and the floor uneven, she had lace curtains and nice china. I forgot I had been cold. I tried to draw the food before I ate it but lost out, it smelled so good. She called out the window, and up came a little girl I had just drawn, Fatma, who told me that my hostess’s name was Zeliha. Such elegance. The things that matter– like children, food, and curtains– were all immaculate, and the things that don’t matter– like the walls– just didn’t matter.
THE CITY IN THE HILL Honeycombed below a hill behind a dusty little town is the huge underground Hittite city of Kaymakli.
It’s like a giant dark honeycomb, dry and dessicated, bleak with piped-in halogen lights. Many Kapadokyans say that the whole land is connected with tunnels between the many underground cities. There are no earthquakes here. When persecuted Christians went underground, this is where they went. Attributed to Hittite construction in 1640 BCE, Kaymakli has been co-opted by everyone since who has needed a place to hide. This has got to be the genesis of the term underground to mean covert.
I sat in a four-thousand-year-old winery, a stone chamber twenty meters down, drawing in the cold stillness and the faint buzzing of the lights, and thought about burning rags soaked in oil. I wondered how their vision was, what they looked like and what they wore. The air must have been thick with odors. I thought about looms in the dimness, cooking fires, smoke, talk, laughter in the hive of kitchens, prisons, infirmaries, chapels, wells, toilets, forges, baths, food storage, wine presses, birthing and embalming chambers, all in the constant dark.
I was allowed two hours to draw, and very grateful I was for the light. They slept ten to a room and hung the sling for the baby in the center: you can see the hook there in the ceiling. The rock is so soft that any little household item had its own little declivity. Hammocks were popular, and alcoves held clothes. Food was stored in this vast common chamber on the third level. There were jars of water and oil and wine, animals, small people hurrying through the stepped corridors between levels. My guide Mustafa capered through the cramped labyrinthine passages, laughing over his flashlight, he said, to encourage me, “in case you are claustrophobe.”
Once it was so crowded here, and the passageways so tiny, that the stocky little people went one-way only. Small as they were they still had to bend double to get around, so that to prevent miscarriage pregnant women stayed near the surface, where you could stand up.
These guys below told me there is still a tiny band of Hittites in Kapadokya, worshiping their ancient gods and small enough to navigate comfortably through the tunnels of their Iron Age cities. I’d love to believe them.
THE PALACE AT ORTAHISAR I’d heard of an American woman who bought part of a village to renovate into a home here. Sabine took me to meet her. We walked through the fields and came out onto a plateau on the edge of a steep gorge. Across from us was a mountain, all by itself on the steppe. It was honeycombed with arches, caves, walls, square Greek buildings, stone ruins and tunnels all the way to the top, where a flag waved above a brick wall. This was the Castle of Ortahisar.
“There she is,” said Sabine, pointing to a tiny waving figure halfway up the Castle. Laura, the woman we had come to meet, was sitting out on the terrace of her Palace, a sprawl of terraces, buildings and fifty-two caves she was renovating with her partner Nurettin. We walked a narrow path along the face of the gorge, all the way down to the river below and back up again. On the terrace I looked across to see where we had been. A hundred abandoned caves looked back at me, some with painting outside their doors, some with elaborate staircases carved in front, some with walls and trees and pigeonholes. Laura was sitting next to a giant Hittite stone lion.
Still in renovation, the Palace terrace looked like this. I got drunk on both views and had to draw them. Laura and Nurettin invited me to stay awhile. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
The top of a Roman arch stuck up through the asphalt of a courtyard nearby. Years before, I’d spent many hours drawing things out of my art history books. I’d put myself to sleep at night picturing ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece– cultures I could only imagine in countries I had never seen. Now after a half a year around Turkey I still almost wept at the proximity of so much old stone and I had to sit right down and draw it.
One day I wandered around in the ruins down from the Palace, sat down on a pile of rock and started drawing the tumbled piles of masonry and weeds. I had taken to wearing a brown leather jacket over a thick silk sweater, and a huge scarf. I had discovered why local women wore them. I wrapped it around my head and shoulders against the cold and other times against sun and flies. The wind fluttered the fringe as I hunched over the sketchbook, holding it flat to keep the pages from blowing.
As I drew it grew colder and the wind howled lonely around the mountain. It felt like the end of the world. Under that bleak feeling was joy that at last I could render stone. I continued to draw under the gray sky until I had finished. I stood up and shook out my drawing hand. Stiff and chilled, I walked around the mountain and stopped in shock. There was a street, cars and minarets and telephone booths, people selling potato chips. A voice behind me said in brisk British, “Excuse me, but would you like a cup of coffee?”
That was how I met Una and Crazy Ali. While he made coffee I admired his store full of curiosities, stamping my feet to get the circulation going, before the three of us sat down at the stove for Turkish coffee. I love it now, but drinking it used to be like gargling sand. This was thick hot elixir. Ali gave me a poem which he composed on the spot, and Una told me that she had come out from Ireland years before, put on a scarf, and could not take it off.
While I was there came the Call to Prayer. Una and Ali started telling muezzin stories. The muezzin is the singer of the Call, and in Turkey he is electronically amplified. One muezzin’s rendition, they said, was so awful that every animal for miles would join in: honking donkeys, howling dogs and screeching roosters, the people walking around with their faces scrunched up and fingers in their ears, and by the time the prayer call was finished the entire village was a raucous cacophonic hymn.
A BALANCE OF ENERGY Sabine invited me to stay at Gamirasu, which was the name she had given to her hotel, renovated from Hittite and Byzantine ruins in the little town of Ayvali. Still dispirited from losing the sketchbook I gratefully accepted her offer of energy-balancing therapy. Not only that, but I was able to work on the drawings for three straight days, sitting out on the terrace in the good light, facing the caves and looking down on the rose garden and the lawn, letting go of the lost sketchbook with the development of this new one. The energy session came last. Sabine worked with a cat, who she said helped direct the forces. There was certainly some kind of force at work. I was to rip up my nice life in LA and move to Turkey, and to become increasingly close to my new friends and to Kapadokya. I will always be grateful to Sabine for her introduction to this magical, weirdly familiar spiritual home. We lost her in 2011. I expect she is now one with the energy she so understood.
LOVE VALLEY On the last day Laura dropped me off in Goreme to draw this house right out of Tolkein. I drew for two hours from the site of the Roman tomb opposite, the property of a German expat who enthusiastically told me all about renovating the tomb, which had been occupied by goats, shepherds and wayfarers long after its original occupant had turned to dust.
That night we all rode out happy under the huge October moon. We racketed through the bright night, the shapes of the rocks in dramatic relief, silver on one side and black on the other. We pulled up under a tree. I got out of the car and stared in amazement, for above the tree, all around and as far as I could see loomed the fabled clusters of stone phalli massive under the full moon. All across the hilly landscape they rose, in groups and pairs and awesome sentinels, as tall as buildings, every variation but all big and all graphically phallic.
“Makes you humble, eh Nurettin?” said the German. We hiked along a narrow gorge full of bushes and rocks. The ground began to change as we walked, until we were walking among great rounded humps of rock as wide as houses. “I think we’re past the really big ones,” said the German. “Hey, maybe these are the really big ones,” said Laura. “Maybe just the tops of the big ones.” The moon burned silver and the stars pounded overhead, millions in the huge dark sky glimpsed between the moonlit towers of stone. I thought of the Romans marching through here, the Persian armies, Alexander the Great, Mithridates, Hittites, Christians and Muslims and Genghis Khan; pictured the great slumbering masses of history billeted among the knobby shadows and gullies, all through the silent grasses, under the sentinel stones.
—– All drawings Plein Air. All art © Trici Venola, from The Drawing On Istanbul Project. All the drawings here are from one sketchbook, Kapadokya 1999, save for Peacock Pigeon Roost which was done in 2011. All art done with drafting pens on rag paper in the sketchbook which measures 18 cm X 52 cm when open. We love your comments! We love your Likes! Follow us and find a blog post in your inbox just when you most need it. Thanks for your participation in this project.