Goreme is a national park in Turkey. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has been since 1985. Goreme is the name of the town in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, and it contains a number of amazing geologic formations.
Mount Erciyes, a nearby volcano, erupted thousands of years ago, and covered some 8,000 square miles (about 20,700 sq. km) in lava, which eventually formed beautiful soft rock formations over the entire area. Most of the rock was eroded over time, leaving only the harder caps to survive, making the structures that are today referred to as fairy chimneys.
In the 4th century, Goreme began to be settled by small Christian communities. They discovered that the soft rock could be easily carved, and so dug out churches, sanctuaries, houses, monasteries, and cells. Earlier structures that were built, which were dug during the iconoclastic period, were sparsely decorated, but later construction had elaborate frescoes.
The Churches of Goreme are one of its three attractions, and are more or less unique in the world. The Tokali Kilise is the largest of the Churches of Goreme, dating from around the 9th century. The frescoes in this church are stunning, with vibrant use of color and beautiful depictions of various saints, the apostles, and scenes showing the life of Jesus Christ.
Barbara Kilise is a church in Goreme celebrating the life of Saint Barbara. She was an Egyptian saint, who practiced Christianity in spite of being imprisoned by her father to try to prevent her faith. When he discovered her, he tortured her and killed her. Yilani Kilise celebrates Saint George slaying the dragon, and also contains depictions of the Emperor Constantine. Other churches in Goreme include the Karanlik Kilise, the Elmali Kilise, and the Carikli Kilise.
Tunnels and underground cave dwellings are another of the major attractions of Goreme. The oldest evidence for settlement in caves in this region dates back to the 4th century BCE, when Xenophon the Greek wrote about seeing underground storage facilities when passing through Cappadocia on the way to Persia. The caves were favored as dwellings in part because of the protection they offered from the elements. In the 13th century, Skutariotes the Byzantine wrote about the balanced temperatures dwellings in Goreme offered year-round.
The underground dwellings of Goreme are unique in the world in part because of the unique fairy chimneys that dot the landscape. This allowed for the construction of dwellings not only deep beneath the surface, but well up above the base level of the surrounding plains. This lead to a sort of otherworldly architecture, in which natural skyscrapers seem to spring up hundreds of feet in the air.
Goreme is one of the major tourist attractions in Western Turkey, and contains enough remarkable sights to keep almost everyone busy for days on end. There is something for everyone, with remarkable natural formations providing stark beauty to those who love the natural world, beautifully adorned early-Christian churches granting a religious tranquility and reverential presence to those of a more spiritual bent, and unique dwellings showing one of the most intriguing ways humans can live for those who are interested in archeological sites.
The entire site is easy to get to, with buses running regularly from Istanbul, and there is a good tourist infrastructure throughout. Paths crisscross the valley, and are free to all visitors. Maps are offered at most hotels, and show a number of routes to take through the valley. Balloon rides are also offered by a number of providers, and last for around 45 minutes, taking you through the valley as the wind blows.