It's like something from another reality, displaced in time and space. On the high plateau of Anatolia in central Turkey, bizarrely organic-looking stone structures jut up from the ground and point towards the sky, like little castles built by elemental spirits. But look closer, and you'll see it isn't fairies that dwell within these mushroom-like spires.
Seriously, this place doesn't look real. What other part of the planet is blanketed by a forest of natural stone towers? Factor in the doors and windows carved directly into these natural structures, and it's clear why tourists and locals alike call them "fairy chimneys." But they weren't created by pixie architects. These strange and unique structures are the result of a collaboration between Mother Nature and humankind.
According to National Geographic, the thick ash from ancient volcanic eruptions in the region solidified into soft rock called tuft: "Wind and water went to work on this plateau, leaving only its harder elements behind to form a fairy tale landscape of cones, pillars, pinnacles, mushrooms, and chimneys, which stretch as far as 130 feet (40 meters) into the sky." Then, humans worked with Mother Nature's creations to build caves. The tunnels were so complex that they actually formed entire underground towns.
This region, now known as Göreme National Park, was once the only land path between the Greek and Persian empires. Later, it bridged the gap between the Byzantine Greeks and their rivals in the Middle East. In other words, it was a place where your political and national affiliations could get you in big trouble, depending on what army happened to be marching through at the time. That's where the caves come in — they made a great hiding spot for anyone who didn't want to get involved in the bloody game of classical era politics. And as the years went on, those underground caves became more and more elaborate.
What Lies Beneath
As you can probably tell from the pictures, Cappadocia kind of has a thing for hot air balloons. And they're a great way to see how the landscape looks after a couple of eons of volcanos, winds, and human intervention. But if that's the only way you visit the region, then you'll miss out on a big part of the local flavor. Besides giving shelter to Cappadocian natives, the chimneys also attracted refugees — specifically, Christian refugees fleeing persecution in Rome. As thousands of people poured into Turkey, they dug out the caves to literally create giant underground cities such as Kaymakli and Derinkuyu.
Thinking of rough-cut caverns in pitch-black darkness? Think again. Actually, these settlements might be subterranean but they're home to some stunning works of art and architecture. You'll find gorgeous, Byzantine-era chapels complete with elaborate religious reliefs and mosaics, lit by sunlight streaming in through the hand-cut windows. You might even find your hotel room in that underground labyrinth — many caves have been transformed into hotels for 21st-century cave living.