CAPPADOCIA, Turkey – Picture yourself in the heart of Asia Minor. You see a caravanserai, a 16th century Silk Road hotel, built centuries ago and now a stage for modern events. West is the Aegean Sea. East lies the border with Iran. North is the Black Sea (Pontus) and south the Mediterranean. Welcome to Cappadoccia, home to cavetowns and gorges, where one of the world’s earliest known communities was founded 10,000 years ago and where early Christians also made their homes, carving secret churches and entire communities into the giant volcanic rocks. Just after Easter, Kathimerini joined a group of Greek pilgrims making their way to the old Christian sites of Cappadocia. To make the experience richer with context and history, the group also invited several academics on the trip, including Yiannis Varalis, a Byzantine archaeology professor at the University of Thessaly, and historian Yiannis Varalis. History revealed Many Cappadocian settlements were established mainly as monastic communities. Saint Basil the Great, then Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in the 4th century, wrote the rules for monastic life there that are still observed by the Church’s monks and nuns. Basil pushed for community life, prayer and hands-on work instead of the time’s lonely ascetism. Under his guidance, the first churches were built in what is now known as the Goreme Valley. Hundreds of churches were carved out of the soft volcanic rock, the residue of numerous eruptions millions of years ago from the powerful volcanoes on the central Anatolian plateau. Cappadocia is estimated to have between 600 and 3,000 rock-cut churches. The walls of these churches were covered with intricate frescoes dating from the 11th and 12th century and inspired by the Iconoclast period of the 8th and 9th century. Most of the churches were built between 850 and 1071; the latter is the date the Seljuk Turk army defeated the Byzantine emperor Romanos IV Diogenes at Mantzikhert and took over a giant portion of Asia Minor. Within these two decades of peace, hagiography and iconography flourished as the rock-cut churches were built. At the same time, thousands of homes, monasteries, warehouses – entire secret cities – were also chiseled into the rock. A secret place Not much is known about Cappadocia before it became part of the Persian Empire. Historians say it is impossible to define its limits accurately, since the only circumstantial account of Cappadocia came from the ancient author Strabo, who greatly exaggerated its dimensions. The two largest communities unearthed so far are located at Anakou (Kaymakli) and Malakopi (Derinkuyu), though there are likely many others. Historians believe the Hittites may have dug the first few levels in the rock when the Phrygians attacked in 1200 BC. Some archaeologists believe the oldest caves are much older. Christians escaping the Arab invasions of the 7th and 8th centuries expanded the chambers for their own use. There are sculptures everywhere in the rock-cut communities. Often, the built facade of a house is part of another carved-into-the-rock structure. Patriarch visit The tour begins in the village of Sinasos (known as Mustafa Pasa in Turkish) and the town of Prokopi. Both places are lovely and highlight their Christian heritage. Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios even showed up at the Church of Eleni and Constantinou in Sinasos, officiating at the divine liturgy on the Sunday honoring the apostle Thomas. Joining the patriarch was Metropolitan Michael of Austria and Exarch of Hungary and Middle Europe. At Sinasos, the visiting Greeks traveled to the Church of Saint Basil and admired its lively hagiography. But many of the churches have now been converted to mosques. In Guzelyurt, a big tourist area in Cappadocia, the old Byzantine church honoring Saint Gregory Nazianzus, the 4th century Cappadocian who was born and died nearby, is now a mosque. A few kilometers later, outside of the village of Sivrihisar, many were touched when they saw a lone church standing amid the wilderness. It was the famous Kizil Kilise, or the Red Church, a 6th century cruciform church with a dome that sits atop an octagonal structure. The church got its name from the red volcanic rock with which it was built. Many of these churches have fallen apart, but a few are still standing in nearly every village. Many were creations of the 19th century or reconstructions of older churches. In the rock-cut churches of Goreme, the Tokali Kilise, or the «Buckle Church,» is one of the most beautiful structures. Restored in the 1960s, its main nave has 9th century frescoes. There are also several other notable churches here, including the Apple (Elmali) Church, which was built in the 11th century and has wall paintings that represent signature Christian scenes such as the raising of Lazarus and the Last Supper, as well as the Dark (Karanlik) Church, also from the 11th century and considered one of the best examples of Byzantine art.