What Are the “Fairy Chimneys” of Turkey?

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Fairy chimneys aren’t chimneys, nor do they have anything to do with fairies. Yet although scientists can offer a perfectly logical explanation for their formation, there’s something magical about these curious landforms in Cappadocia, Turkey. Similar in shape to the hoodoos of Utah and other formations in New Zealand, France, Canada, Taiwan, and Italy, the fairy chimneys are particularly unique since they were once transformed into living quarters. Here’s everything you need to know about these unusual landforms.

What Are They?

Fairy chimneys view near Cavusin Town in Cappadocia.
Credit: Nejdet Duzen/ Shutterstock

Cappadocia, a dry, moonscaped region located in central Turkey features the hoodoos known as fairy chimneys; they were formed millions of years ago, when ancient volcanoes spewed ash across a vast plain. Two volcanoes in particular, Erciyes and Hasan, played a crucial role in creating the landscape seen today. Over time, the ash solidified to rock — compacting under pressure through a process known as lithification to form tuff. The eruptions continued and a layer of basalt covered the tuff. Although both basalt and tuff are volcanic rock, basalt is much tougher than tuff (say that three times!), so this top layer protected the tuff from erosion.

Over time, erosion and weathering worked in tandem to alter the landscape. In Cappadocia, tiny cracks in the basalt allowed water to find its way into the subterranean tuff and wear it away. This led to the creation of the spindly rock formations, which were sculpted not only from water, but also wind. The fairy chimneys’ existence hangs by a thread. Without the layer of basalt, they wouldn’t exist.

The Meaning Behind Their Magical Name

Colorful hot air balloons flying over the valley at Cappadocia, Anatolia, Turkey.
Credit: Olena Tur/ Shutterstock

According to locals, the term “fairy chimneys” originated from several legends passed down through generations. The most common legend suggests that the hoodoos are literally the chimneys of fairy houses underground. In another more elaborate tale, an exhausted peasant found he couldn’t muster the strength to bring in his harvest. As he sat propped against one of the rocks, he watched as fairies brought in the crop for him only to disappear when their work was done.

A third legend relates more specifically to the name of three fairy chimneys near Urgüp — collectively known as the Three Graces. A king raising his only daughter was alarmed when she fell in love with a shepherd. The princess eloped to marry her lover and bore him a child. Seeking reconciliation with her father, the family of three set off for the palace, but the king’s soldiers had orders to kill them. The princess prayed to God to be turned to stone. He obliged, and to this day, they remain as a trio of fairy chimneys.

Variations

"The Camel at the Devrent Valley" in Cappadocia, Turkey.
Credit: gumbao/ Shutterstock

The appearances of the fairy chimneys varies considerably across a relatively small area near the town of Göreme. Each valley of fairy chimneys differs in shape and even color, and the varying formations are best viewed from a hot air balloon.

In Paşabağ (Monks’ Valley), the fairy chimneys look like oversized mushrooms. Some have twin or even triple caps and one features a chapel dedicated to Saint Simeon, a monk who climbed a pillar near the city of Aleppo in neighboring Syria and stayed there for years.

The fairy chimneys in Kiliclar Vadasi, which is also known as Sword Valley, are tall and pointy, like the blades of swords. Those in Love Valley are phallic in appearance (hence the name). Pigeon Valley gets its name from the dovecotes cut into its chunky fairy chimneys. Pigeons were once kept here not only for food but also because their excrement was useful for fertilizing soil. These days, the practice has been discontinued but the pigeon homes in the rock are maintained so that visiting tourists can appreciate this facet of the area’s history.  

In contrast, many of the fairy chimneys of Devrent Valley (Rose Valley) are smaller, leading some to describe it as a lunar landscape. Local guides refer to it as Imagination Valley, pointing out quirky figures to visitors, such as a camel, Napoleon’s hat, and a pair of kissing lovers. There are no cave churches, but if you look carefully, you might be able to pick out a rock shaped like the Virgin Mary with Jesus in her arms.

Cultural Impact

Kaymakli underground city is a unique attraction for tourists coming to Turkey.
Credit: kross13/ Shutterstock

One thing that sets Cappadocia apart from other areas containing hoodoos is the considerable impact that people have made on the landscape. As far back as 3,500 years ago, people realized that they could easily hollow out the soft tuff to create dwellings. Some of these dwellings are located in the fairy chimneys, while others are in hillsides or underground.

No one can be exactly sure who first opted to turn the fairy chimneys into living quarters, but historians suggest that either the Hattians, Hittites, Phrygians, or Persians may have started the trend. Whoever was responsible did so on an enormous scale. Archaeologists have uncovered multiple levels at the underground cities of Derinkuyu and nearby Kaymaklı. Judging by the extent of rooms and connecting tunnels, indications are that several thousand people might once have lived in each dwelling community. In all, there are thought to be 36 underground cities across Cappadocia.

It’s unlikely such cities were permanently settled, but they would have provided temporary places of refuge. Over the course of Cappadocia’s history, many civilizations have come and gone. The subterranean way of life was partly due to the response from persecuted Christians afraid of those who threatened their beliefs and way of life. Ventilation shafts and deep wells enabled such settlements not only to exist underground, but to thrive. The hoodoo communities included everything from churches, living quarters, and meeting halls to granaries, stables, wine presses, and tombs.

These days, the fairy chimneys, caves, and underground cities are a boon for the area’s tourism industry. While the underground cities can be toured as museums, some of the larger fairy chimneys contain caves that create repurposed spaces for boutique hotel rooms. Cooler temperatures in the summer and cozy temperatures in the winter are caused by the roughly hewn rock walls which provide better insulation.

Other Fairy Chimneys in Turkey

Narman Fairy Chimneys, Sandstone.
Credit: 01_Erhanveli/ Shutterstock

Cappadocia is most closely associated with its fairy chimneys, but it’s not the only place in Turkey where you can find the phenomenon. Narman is a 10-hour drive east of Cappadocia in eastern Anatolia. The place gets the nickname “Land of the Red Fairies” from the iron oxide found in the sandstone rock of its fairy chimneys. But unlike those in Cappadocia, these sedimentary rock pillars are more resistant to weathering and erosion, so there are no caves or underground cities here. However, if you’re an intrepid traveler and looking for another adventure, far fewer visitors reach this remote spot.

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