Emre and I traveled from Istanbul to Göreme by bus. The land there is high arid desert with deep canyons and diverse conical land-forms. The rock is porous but has high tensile strength—many of Göreme's residents have carved functional, multi-level homes from these strange cones. We met a wire-thin man there named Ahmed—in exchange for some hashish he let us stay in his cone, fed us, and gave us his car for two days. The old Celica was missing a gear—high, whining third gave way to a stuttering, laboring fifth.
We drove down to Derinkuyu, where in the fifth century BC ancient Turks built a massive underground city. No one's sure why it was originally built, but much later it came in handy for troglodyte Christians escaping first the persecution of the Roman, and then the Ottoman Empires. At one time 50,000 people lived there, crawling through a system of tunnels that goes 11 levels deep and stretches as many as 100km out into the subterrennean desert. There's no actual record of just how vast or complex the city is; the Turkish Department of Culture has excavated only a tiny portion, which has been open to tourism since the 60's.
Emre would not be joining me underground because he'd already been there and it made him feel claustrophobic. As we approached the entrance he said, "Wait, I will get you the Turkish price."
He walked partway to the lone ticket stall, turned and came back. "Stop grinning—you look so American."
He returned to the booth, completed the transaction, and I was inside. The ancients ventilated the crepuscular city so they could breathe, keep livestock, cook—survive. As you start down the main entrance, a cool, ferric wind buoys you to prove it.
I kept one hand on the ridged wall as I descended alone, keeping to the lit areas because I had no flashlight—Emre kept our only lighter so he could continue smoking constantly.
I saw the underground granary. I saw the underground stables. I looked up in wonderment at the stark square of light at the top of a long, vertical ventilation shaft. I was quietly joined by a Turkish father-and-son with a flashlight. We said nothing, but ventured on together, a silent search party looking for we knew not what. The father directed his light down an unlit shaft and we stooped to enter and explore. The more he shone the light into the dark, the more the tunnel continued before us. After we'd been crawling for several minutes, I realized I knew nothing about my companions. I turned to them smiling, gave my name and asked,
"What are your names?"
The silence was total. I extended my hand and repeated my question. The father's furrows deepened. He shot me a disapproving glare, said something to his son, and they rushed from the shaft. The departing light flickered on the corrugated walls and disappeared. What had I said? How could I mean one thing and effect entirely another?
The darkness loomed with shapes and forms. My mind leapt to the pale thousands who'd burrowed and populated this crypt, who'd borne the burden of their years in these shafts. An ice shudder convulsed me and I forgot for an instant which way was out. I could feel the lines of the city surging beyond the earth, into frozen walls of mortifying isolation.
My racing heart brought me to my senses (relatively speaking). I moved as fast as I could up the low shaft, past the stables, past the granary, and came running out of the entrance into the cool, balanced light of the late-spring Cappadocian afternoon. The father-and-son were nowhere to be seen. Emre was sitting on a bench smoking a cigarette and drinking tea from a very small paper cup. He looked at me and emitted one crackling, bronchial chuckle.