It was 19 April. I had just had my last vaccination against rabies after a mishap in İstanbul’s Gülhane Park and had now made my way to Aksaray at the start of a two-month research trip. First stop on my hit list was the Canlı Kilise, the Church with a Bell. It was one of those reminders of Byzantine Cappadocia that I’d always known about but somehow never got round to visiting. Now finally it had risen to the top of the list.
The problem was my lack of a car. The church was some way out of Aksaray in an area not served by public transport. I was going to need a taxi driver, preferably one with a sense of adventure.
Fortunately just such a man was soon to be found. Mehmet was young, lanky and gleeful. There weren’t many foreign visitors hanging about Aksaray in April and if nothing else I would surely be good for a story back home in the evening. “Is it all right if we bring this man along too?” he asked, indicating a more doleful young man named Altan who had somehow wound up here while on furlough from his military service.
I looked him up and down but no stranger-danger alarm started ringing, so off we went, a happy party of three, not one of us with a clear idea where we were going
It was a fine day to be out and about with the sun shining in a clear blue sky. There was an edge to the air, it being early in the year still, but the further we drove from Aksaray the higher my spirits soared even if the signposts were few and far between.
Soon we were starting up a hillside. To our right Mt Hasan stood proud on the horizon, its neat snowcap almost laughably Toblerone-shaped.
“There it is!” yelled the driver who had only the haziest understanding of what I wanted to see. He was looking at a row of rock-cut structures tucked into the hill to the left. They didn’t look remotely like the built church I thought we were after. On the other hand they certainly looked worth a quick inspection, so out we got and up the hill we scrambled, quickly finding ourselves ankle-deep in manure in stone-built enclosures that fronted the same sort of rock-cut houses and stables I was already familiar with from my home in Göreme. Aha, Celtek, I thought, that being the name of the rock-cut settlement extensively surveyed in the 1990s by Byzantine scholar Robert Ousterhout.
The two young men were terribly excited. It’s easy to forget sometimes how remote from their life the Cappadocian cave settlements are to those who live in the big frontier towns. I know it from the wonder shown by tradesmen visiting my house from Nevşehir and it has always struck me as amazing that people can come from all over the world to see cave structures which those living just ten kilometres away from them know nothing about. I know it but I forget it, and so it was only with the greatest difficulty that I dragged the men away from those caves with promises of an even greater treat if we just kept going.
Then, just round the corner, we found what we’d been seeking. A huge stone-built church, crumbling, broken, forgotten, its side nonetheless decorated with an elaborate pattern of tile that has no equivalent elsewhere in Turkey. And then I remembered a sentence from Ousterhout’s A Byzantine Settlement in Cappadocia: “My heart sank when I saw it for I knew I could do nothing at it in under three hours.”
Ousterhout was quoting Gertrude Bell who had visited on a “bitter hot” day in 1907. At that time she had found a church in far better condition than the shattered wreck before us now. If nothing else its dome had still been intact then, not succumbing to gravity for another 47 years. Now there was nothing to do but clamber over the fallen stones, gazing up at frescoes shockingly exposed to the weather and fading almost before our eyes.
Mehmet and Altan jumped about the ruins like mountain goats. They asked a few cursory questions to which I gave faltering half-answers. Then we made our way back to the taxi with smiles all around at a journey successfully accomplished.
It was that night in my hotel room as I thought back over the day that Gertrude Bell first stepped out of the shadows to ambush me. Why had I never thought about her travels in Turkey before, I wondered? After all I’d always known that she had visited the Kızıl Kılise near Güzelyurt. Why, there were copies of photographs taken by her on the walls of a friend’s hotel there.
It was to be some time before I thought any more about it but already the germ of a travel story was starting to seed itself in my mind. What I didn’t know then, though, was that Gertrude had climbed Mt Hasan.