The Seljuk Han of Anatolia
The following chapter is an extract from the book of essays by Katharine Branning
on the history and culture of Tokat, Turkey, entitled
Tokat Ancient, Tokat Green (publication forthcoming).
It was formed eons and eons ago, perhaps even before the stars appeared in the galaxies. It could have been created by a dried up crevice of the sea, a gash in the ground carved by an earthquake, a sliding of primeval tectonic plates or even from the scar left by one of the huge lightning bolts thrown to the earth by the Hittite god Teshub. No one knows how long ago it was born, but one thing is certain: one of the most impressive prehistoric cave formations in the world is located in the small farming town of Pazar, not far from Tokat.
The Ballica Cave is one of the most well-known tourist attractions of Tokat, far better known than its Seljuk architecture or its fine old Ottoman homes. Visitors flock there – last year almost 70,000 of them to be exact – to go spelunking, to gawk at the beauty of its rare geological formations, its underground pools and to gasp at the surreal colors of all its various formations, lit by disco-style neon-colored floodlights.
The caves are located at an altitude of 1,085 meters in the small Ballica village about 6 km from the town of Pazar (a 26 km jitney ride from Tokat) in the lovely Indere valley. Parts of the cave have yet to be fully explored, and it could extend much farther and deeper than is currently known. A folk saying of the locals of Ballica Village asserts that “if a puppy enters the cave, it will come out again as an old dog”; such is their belief in the potential dimensions of the cave. The Ballica Cave is a labyrinth of paths and halls spread in eight sectors. These sectors bear highly descriptive names in Turkish, designating the various features of each of them: the Columns Hall, the Sunken Hall (named after the huge stone blocks in its floor), the Great “Dripping Stones” Stalactites Room, the Muddy Hall, the Mushroom Hall, the Fossils Hall, the Pool Hall, and my favorite, the “Bats Cave”. Research and mapping of the cave began in 1987, followed with the construction of walkways and lighting in 1995. The cave opened to visitors only fairly recently, in 1997, and has quickly become an appealing tourist destination. A newly-created national park surrounds the area of the cave and plans are afoot to create a modern health facility near the cave entrance, for many of the visitors who come here have asthma, and are attracted to the caves by their healing powers. The caves are pollen and dust-free, and the oxygen level is a high 75-80%, three times regular air, which makes a visit attractive for those who find breathing difficult. There is no cure for asthma, but a stay in the caves can bring much relief to those who are plagued with the affliction. Sometimes you will see people (usually elderly Turkish ladies in block-printed muslin headscarves) sitting in chairs along the way, taking in the air for extended periods.
I am not a great fan of caves and certainly not a specialist in them, but those who are say that this is the largest cave in Turkey and one of the most interesting in the world. Scientists using dating techniques of radio metrics and electron spin resonance believe that the caves were formed over three separate periods, the oldest being formed some 3.4 million years ago during the Pliocene era, in those days when mastodons roamed over continents which drifted in oceans filled with sea lions.
For those interested in these things, the cave is a karst cave, a type of landscape made of limestone rocks which slowly dissolve in the presence of slightly acidic water. Every sort of known speleothems, the mineral deposits (generally calcium carbonate), formed from groundwater within underground caverns, can be found here: stalactites (pointed pendants hanging down from the cave ceiling), stalagmites (ground up growths), and dripstones in every shape you can possibly imagine. The cave contains an extraordinary 6.5 m long stalactite, one of the largest in Europe.
A visit to the cave is enjoyed by Turks and foreigners, young and old. Depending on when you enter, it can have a hushed sunken cathedral atmosphere, or, if a group of Turkish families arrives at the same time as you, it becomes a boisterous exercise in enthusiasm, with kids shrieking with surprise at all the odd shapes appearing in front of them. The minute you enter the cave you notice that your breathing becomes much easier. The temperature is a pleasant and constant 18 degrees C, and the humidity a surprisingly low 54%. Although this fossil fantasia is some 680 meters long, for safety reasons visitors can walk only in the first 75 m in guided groups. Metal walkways and lots of lighting guide you along your way, but watch out, those metal steps can be slippery. The walls of the rooms are well-lit by those colored spotlights, and your guide carries a flame torch which he periodically waves in front of the more spectacular formations for heightened dramatic effect. Small ponds, drippings and dry pools can be found at every level, and there is a lake on the fifth one. The amount of mud and wet clay is high although there is no water flowing at the floors of each level. Underneath those disco lights, the walls of the cave are a translucent honey color, which lends the name to the cave. Colonies of dwarf bats live in some parts of the cave, but they remain a well-behaved lot and do not swoop about your head in Indiana Jones adventure-film style. You walk around to the sound of constantly dripping water, the squeaking of the bats and the oohing and ahing of visitors, while observing the varied display of formations. There is a different set at each turn: big blobs of stalagmites resembling overgrown mushrooms, growths that look like parasols or underwater jellyfish, fat gourds, frozen waterfalls and impressive stalactites in the shape of giant bulbous onions. Squint your eyes and open your imagination and even more fantastical shapes appear: Moonmilk crystals, scallops, pillars, cow’s udders, Sagrada Familia sunken cathedral spires, popcorn, pearls, dog’s teeth, fried eggs, ribbons, worms, straws, twigs, monkey’s heads, curly fries, Indian totem poles, ice cream cones: whatever shape you can dream, it is there. It is as if the Disney movie Fantasia has come to life underneath the green hills of Tokat.
Cave tourism is an up-and-coming sector of the travel business. In this world, there are those who love the secrets of caves, and can spend hours exploring these mysteries. There are those like myself who find them claustrophobic and eerie. Yes, I prefer the scenery up above the caves: those gorgeous green hills of the nearby Kazova Valley and the Seljuk Han in nearby Pazar are more to my liking. Yet, I must admit, those stalactites are a wonder of nature, as beautifully ornate as the portal of the Tokat Gök Medrese, whose elaborate honeycomb carving does indeed resemble underground stalactites.
Despite all that oxygen, I feel a bit suffocated and I am glad to be out of the cave after my visit – all those forms actually become a bit scary in the end. I clear my head by visiting the more reassuring Hatun Han, the fine Seljuk caravanserai nearby in Pazar, which, in my eyes, is a sight as intriguing as those caves. There I rest and enjoy a dinner of a fine grilled piliç kebab in the courtyard of the han, just as a merchant on his way into Tokat in the olden days would have done. While waiting for my kebab, I think about the formation of such a cave, and how many more are lying perhaps undiscovered yet today, and wonder if this is where the devil lives. I wonder if the Moon Queen Mahperi Hatun knew that those caves were right under this site when she selected it to build this han in the 13th century. After I finish my succulent chicken kebab (just what is it about eating outside that makes everything taste so much better?), I wrap my fingers around a hot glass of tea and look up at the clear pitch black night sky of the countryside of Pazar. As I look at those twinkling stars, I ponder the fascination they hold over scientists who struggle to imagine their role in our existence. It is said that the iron in our blood, the calcium in our bones and the oxygen we breathe are the physical remains of stars that lived and died long ago. As I think of the cave, I wonder if that same star ash formed its strange shapes as well. As I review my visit in my mind, the eternal question of where the stuff of life comes from invades my thoughts. I think of all the philosophers who love to deliberate on the definition of infinity. We live on the earth, in such a narrow confine of atmosphere and understanding, and scientists spend hours contemplating the stars and galaxies through powerful telescopes to try and discover the enigma of creation. But what if we looked down instead of up; what about the mysteries of the life underneath our sidewalks, deep, deep and down in the depths of the earth, hinted at by gateways to its sizzling core like this Ballica Cave? The answers to the secrets of the cosmos are perhaps not to be found in the lofty realm beyond our reach, but perhaps in one that plunges to the depth of all understanding below us. The Ballica Cave reminds me that up or down or in our very midst, science and philosophy still cannot tell us where we have come from; where those ashes came from, and certainly when that oxygen of breath first appeared in our universe. The essential elements of life – the carbon, the hydrogen, the phosphorus – may have come from star ashes or from gigantic gas clouds, rained down from galaxies distant, or belched up from the depth of the earth from caves like this one; but I still don’t know why I breathe and where that oxygen comes from, be it 21% or 80%. Such questions remain the memory I will take from my visit to the Ballica Cave: yes, the universe in which I live is still one great unfathomable mystery, as deep as this cave under the green hills of Tokat.
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