Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers Bronze Winner: Ali’s Heritage Garden

By Rosie Cohan

One man’s efforts to preserve traditional culture as tourism changes his community.

Pink skid marks faded to purple in the blackening sky as lights popped on across Goreme, the stony Turkish village below me. I had checked into my room and then saw my friend, Ali, sitting alone on the terrace of the hotel he had built within the cave walls where his family had originally lived. Cave homes had been a common form of habitation in this rugged land.  Ali’s chair was turned toward the dark valleys on the opposite side of the illuminated village.  He was nursing a beer.

Iyi Aksamlar (Good evening), Ali. May I join you?” I saw a flash of melancholy disappear from his face as he turned and graciously pulled out a chair for me and then ordered a glass of wine for me. “Why are you sitting here alone?” I asked, taking the seat next to him.

His curly silver-streaked hair glistened in the moonlight and his muscular body looked tight and tense.  He answered me in a far away voice. “I was remembering my grandfather and his garden outside of the village. I used to love working there as a boy. I wonder what he would think of Goreme now? What would he think of me?”

“He would be proud. You’ve built some of the best hotels in Cappadocia. You work to preserve the local environment and traditions. You employ many people and support others through your generosity. You have a beautiful family.”

Ali lowered his eyes and whispered, “I don’t know what’s right or good anymore.” Then he was silent and resumed looking at the far away dark canyons. Having known Ali for fifteen years, I sensed we were done talking. I drank my wine quietly staring at hundreds of Tinker Bell lights shimmering in Goreme, which from many previous visits, had become like a second home to me.

Goreme is in the heart of Cappadocia: a moonscape land covered with hundreds of phallic towers with tilting tips, mysterious arched caves, and unique meringue-like conic tufa peaks called fairy chimneys. The fairy chimneys, a product of volcanic eruptions over ten million years ago, are unique natural structures that have been chiseled by wind, rain and snow and pose as curious sculptures all over this rugged land. Many were used as churches in the Middle Ages, adorned with Byzantine painted stories and icons. Variegated earth tone cliffs with swirled rose-colored layers hide several underground cities that housed Christians who were seeking safety, first from the Romans and then from various Turkish tribal regimes.

For centuries Cappadocia consisted of somewhat isolated subsistence farming communities. It really became a tourist destination around 1985, when UNESCO made the area a World Heritage Site. Now, pictures of fairy chimneys and the colorful hot air balloons floating in the sky every morning are on almost every brochure and tourist website about Turkey. Goreme is a “must see” place in all the tour books.

In 1993, a young and resourceful Ali saw an opportunity.  He put extra beds in his traditional family cave home in Goreme and opened it to backpackers who were coming but had no place to stay unless people invited them into their homes. Ali’s home-turned-pension soon became so popular that he had to expand. Although he had never seen a hotel, through trial and error, he created the first boutique cave hotel in Goreme. Built within the caves and fairy chimneys, each room melded with the natural environment.

Ali employed his friends and neighbors: local stonemasons did the construction, craftsmen created replicas of traditional Anatolian furniture, village women expertly embroidered bed linens and towels. Scouring Cappadocia for old urns, building materials, doors, farming tools and cultural artifacts, he placed them artistically around the hotel as reminders of the area’s agrarian way of life. As Ali became successful, others tried to copy his style.  But, I knew his business acumen, artistic sense, generous hospitality, and deep respect for village traditions and history could not be duplicated.

When I sat with Ali on the terrace, it had been two years since I was last in Goreme. The next morning I walked down to the village center and was shocked that almost all of the cave homes along the way had been replaced with hotels or restaurants. The neighbors, who used to wave and invite me into their cave homes as I passed, were gone. The old women dressed in embroidered flowered scarves and colorful pantaloons who gathered along on the cobblestone path to gossip, had disappeared. No girls were weaving their dowry rugs outside their homes. Instead, there were new shops along the road selling their rugs. The communal mill, once a busy meeting place where villagers took turns pushing the large wheat-grinding wheel, was now empty.  Hammering and drilling sounds could be heard everywhere, shattering the peace in the once tranquil village where the most noise one heard came from the clip-clop sound of donkey-led wagons filled with crops and families.

In town, tourists and young locals were sitting in new cafés focused on their mobile devices. They drank lattes instead of cay, Turkish tea, which is the lifeblood of Turkey. The thunder of motorcycles and ATVs cruising through town disturbed the previously slow-paced, lazy calm.

Feeling robbed of my memories, I saw Ali on the main street talking with his friend Mehmet in front of Mehmet’s rug shop. I ran to him and in a shaky voice with tears welling up I asked,  “Where have all the villagers gone? What’s happened to Goreme?”

Ali led me into Mehmet’s rug store. Surrounded by the deep red and black geometric patterns of Turkmen carpets and locally woven kilim rugs, Mehmet brought us cay while Ali explained:  “Many villagers have sold their caves and homes for amounts of money they never could have imagined. They have built more modern homes on the outskirts of town. They work in the new hotels, restaurants, hot air balloon companies, and travel agencies and make more money than they did from farming.  You can’t blame them for wanting a better life. The village could not stay the way you remember it. There is no going back.”

Of course, I wanted the villagers to have an easier life. But the traditional village I fell in love with was disappearing. Modernization and change was inévitable once Goreme opened up to the world of tourism. I just didn’t know it would happen so quickly. I knew I was foolish and selfish to want Goreme to stay frozen in time.

Ali then said, “ I have decided I must accept change in order to shape it. You must accept it too.”

A few days later, Ali picked me up in a jeep and took me to where his grandfather’s garden used to be. He was smiling and chatty, unlike the prior night on the terrace. We stopped at a steep community of ecru and rosy cliffs overlooking a rock-filled valley punctuated with dark green bushes. Ali was still in good shape for a middle-aged man as he scampered down the side of the cliff, a shower of loose stones in his wake. “I must hurry to pay some workers I hired. Can you make it down yourself?” he shouted up to me. “At the bottom, just follow the path.”

Not wanting to seem wimpy, but without looking too far down, I told him to go ahead. Soon I was perched on a narrow ledge frozen in place on the side of the cliff. Friends in the village were right when they said it would be difficult to reach Ali’s grandfather’s garden. I had scoffed at the warning thinking, “How difficult can a walk down a garden path be?” But standing on the precipice, I decided that climbing up and down cliffs must be part of the DNA of villagers in this land of peaks and valleys. Missing that chromosome, I finished the descent the best way I could, on my butt.

At the bottom, I followed a narrow path to a clearing surrounded by pockmarked cliff faces. From previous visits, I recognized these cavities as deserted pigeon houses. Ali had told me that as a boy, he had cleaned out these pigeon houses. Used as a natural fertilizer, pigeon poop had been a valuable commodity. A young man was judged worthy of marriage by the number of pigeon houses his family owned. If you were rich in pigeon poop, you were considered a good catch.

But the pigeons and the tradition had disappeared after the appearance of commercial fertilizers about thirty years earlier. The garden was overgrown with dense brush, the fruit trees were dormant, and the vineyard fallow. Huge boulders had fallen blocking the surrounding cave entrances. I saw Ali talking with the workmen and then he turned to me. “I will make an organic garden here in my grandfather’s garden to honor the old ways,” he announced, his dark eyes shining.

“Great,” I said, forcing enthusiasm. But, given the rough terrain and condition of the area, I couldn’t’t imagine how he was going to reincarnate the garden of his youth.

I left Goreme and didn’t return until two years later. It was harvest time and the garden had been completed. Ali invited me to join some of his hotel guests there the next morning to make pekmez, a sweet syrup made from grape juice thickened with mineral-filled local clay. It’s the local cure-all, healing everything from the flu to a hangover.  I accepted cheerfully, but absolutely dreaded the climb down.

The next morning, we heard a tractor’s heavy coughing as it crawled up the road towing a large, wooden wagon-like contraption that resembled pictures of Noah’s Ark.  We piled in and as we chugged above the village through the silent landscape of fairy chimneys and fields of yellow squash along the road, Ali shared the history of the area and his memories of agrarian life in his grandfather’s time.  As a young boy helping his grandfather, he had led the family donkey loaded with baskets of fruit and vegetables up the steep cliffs. His passionate descriptions of traditional culture and the local community life captivated us.

We arrived at the spot where I had slid down the cliff and to my astonishment, I saw stone steps and a rope-railing.  With a mischievous smile and dark eyes flashing, Ali whispered, “I learned from your last visit I had to build a better path to the garden. You won’t need to use your ass.”

I knew he didn’t mean my donkey.

At the bottom of the cliff, we walked past an orchard with trees drooping under the weight of blushing apples, chartreuse quince, and seductive purple figs.  Rose bushes, geraniums, and nasturtium replaced the previously tangled overgrowth.

When we arrived at a clearing, two smiling sunbaked women were standing over an outdoor wood-burning oven carved into the rock.  Wearing delicately embroidered white headscarves and patterned tops and pantaloons that didn’t’t match, but somehow went together, they were making gozleme, a flatbread rolled very thin, like a tortilla.  The smell of dough baking over the open fire increased my appetite. A picnic table was set with a typical Turkish breakfast: boiled eggs (gathered from the chickens strutting around), local cheeses, and sweet tomatoes, crisp cucumbers, olives cured with local spices and garlic all from Ali’s garden. Hearing echoes of cooing, I looked up at the once barren condominium complex of dovecotes.  Ali had brought 2,000 pigeons back to the garden to produce organic fertilizer.

After breakfast, we hiked to the vineyard to harvest plump bunches of grapes. The grapes were then brought to another part of the garden where Ali had built a village house with a flat roof.  I had seen this type of house when I first came to Goreme fifteen years earlier.  At that time, barefooted village women with pulled up pantaloons danced on their flat rooftops stomping the grapes. Every night, for about two weeks, the hillsides were lit up from the fires outside each home as the grape juice was cooked to make pekmez for the long winter.

We donned rubber boots and were helped onto the recreated flat roof.  Slipping and sliding on the skins and seeds, we took turns stomping the grapes on the roof. Unfortunately, as I was stomping, I fell into the pekmez mess on the roof.  My pride was hurt more than my body.  While everyone was laughing at my expense, the village women brought me clean, local garments, pantaloons, and a top to change into. Ali started calling me “Sachar Rosie,” clumsy Rosie, from then on.

I washed my clothes by hand and hung them from nearby bushes to dry. The buckets of juice, produced before my fall, were poured into huge hand-hammered copper pots set upon a blazing wood fire.

Lusty aromas of lamb sizzling on the fire and bulgur wheat simmering with tomato sauce and chilies called us back to the eating area. Ibrahim, a local winemaker, was pouring his wine. After a glass or two, it seemed to have rivaled anything I had tasted from Napa or Bordeaux.

Ali had arranged for a saz player to serenade us. A saz is a traditional stringed instrument with a deep rounded back. The young musician looked like a Turkish Johnny Cash: dark hair, black shirt, leather pants and vest. Like any good country singer, he sang soulful songs about lost love.

Without our noticing it, the day had slipped away.  We piled into jeeps to go back to town drunk with wine and wonder as the tangerine sun set over the dark shadowed cliffs.  One woman announced, “This is one of the best days I have had traveling in any country.  I will never forget the garden and what Ali has taught us about traditional life and the great experiences he created for us today.”

That night, sitting on the hotel terrace I reflected on the day and how complicated the impact of tourism is on a community. It had brought prosperity and a higher standard of living to many in Goreme, allowing the village to invest more in education and  social and city services.  Exposure to different cultures and values has widened people’s views of the world, especially the younger generations who will create the future.

Yet, the modernization that tourism demands had increased noise, traffic, and strain on the ecology of the area. Changes have occurred in family life and other relationships due to the 24/7 demands of tourism and competition for tourist dollars. It seems inevitable that many old ways of life disappear when a community becomes a tourist destination.  Conscious efforts, such as Ali’s, are needed to manage change and preserve the traditions, landscape, and the attributes that have made Goreme so appealing in the first place.

Keeping one foot in the past, another in the present and his eyes on the future, Ali had again found ways to weld together the double-edged sword of preservation and progress. The making of gozleme and pekmez, the traditional melodies of the saz floating through the canyons where pigeons now fly, all these will keep the area’s collective memory alive. They also delight tourists who seek cultural authenticity. Perhaps, I hoped, others will copy Ali’s preservation efforts, just as they did when he built his cave hotel.

Just then, Ali came bounding up the stone steps, interrupting my thoughts.

“Tomorrow night I am celebrating the full moon with a barbecue in the garden. Can you come?”

“I wouldn’t miss it!”  I replied, smiling gratefully.

I think Ali’s grandfather would be smiling too.


Rosie Cohan left home for summer camp at age nine and has been a passionate traveler ever since. An award winning travel writer, she has traveled to fifty countries, including fifteen trips to Turkey, her “home away from home.” Through her storytelling, Rosie describes the beauty of the natural world and introduces readers to fascinating characters and different cultural traditions; while showing us the universality of the human experience. Rosie has a Master’s Degree in Community and Organizational Planning from UC Berkeley.  As an international management and organizational development consultant, she has published articles in several professional magazines and journals. Rosie lives and writes in Berkeley, California, truly a world unto itself.

Comments are closed.

Travelers' Tales