Had you been hiding up a cobbled country lane, 10km south of Mustaphapasha in the gathering gloom one warm summerâ€™s evening in late July, youâ€™d have spotted two British lads. As they forced their rented Hyundai into a muddy parking spot opposite a very small sign attached to an apricot tree that read â€˜Keshlik Monasteryâ€™, you may have caught them discussing where they planned to stay that night.
They had no great expectations of their visit to the monastery. They had had an incredible day, first crawling around underground Christian cities of the 6th and 7th centuries. Later, meeting Yuvus, whoâ€™d shown them carved frescoed churches from a similar period on the inside of rock cones in Soganlu, before inviting them to share a stiff Turkish coffee in his first floor flat. Unknowingly, they had also gained a knife, from two hitchhiking climbing brothers to whom they had offered a lift late in the day.
They had stopped only because there was still light, and their â€˜off-the-tourist-trailâ€™ day had been so great, that they felt dropping in to another spot mentioned only in one line in passing in the Lonely Planet seemed like a good way to pass the time before dinner.
They were to be pretty darn impressed by the time they got back in the Hyundai.
Having met a sensible looking guy at the entrance and negotiated a fee for a tour, they headed straight for a great hall carved from the rock face at least fifteen metres long, ten metres wide and six or seven metres high. Its vaulted ceiling was immediately apparent among the almost pitch black cavern. As was the soot that covered the entire place, due to many a shepherd who had kept warm here in years past. But what was to become visible once Mohammed, their guide, flicked his torch switch was quite remarkable.
Every wall, ceiling and pillar of the exquisitely excavated interior of the 9th century St Stephanos church was covered with frescoes, and graffiti in a plethora of languages. Scenes from the Last Supper, images of Mary, Jesus and Roman Soldiers jumped out in vivid colours. All had been severely vandalized by Russian, Greek, French and Turkish speakers over the past few hundred years. However this simply added to the intrigue and amazement the boys felt at that moment.
Once awed, they headed back into what seemed like bright sunlight, but was in fact the early twilight. Their eyes adjusted, they headed around a total of sixteen Monksâ€™ houses and a dining room, complete with badly worn carved tables and benches sunk into the ground of the hall â€“ another huge cavern. A kitchen, with bread ovens and a carved preparation table was attached, as well as an office.
Mohammed continued the tour, when he didnâ€™t know the correct word in English, he resorted to French, German, Spanish or Italian. His vernacular covered all these and some more surprising languages including Afrikaans.
The delight was ongoing for the Brits.
They wandered amongst Mustaphaâ€™s wheat and onions, marrows and courgettes, speckled about the ruins of houses and chapels almost a thousand years old. â€œMy grandfather lived here, and my father, and now I, with my wifeâ€ said Mustapha, offering them an apricot. They spotted watermelons and apples too, the food seemed endless and varied, and Mohammed seemed both genuinely interested in the historic aspect of his plot of land, as well as the produce he grew there. Heâ€™d cleared out two outbuildings in the past year, revealing far less eroded features of walls and cobbled floors.
The final halt on the tour was a gigantic baptism pool, aside a room of dark columned graves. As if to corroborate the mystery, a Jewish tree of life had been carved into the wall above the baptism pool. It almost became more magical to stop asking questions and just accept the place.
As they left, Mustapha insisted on handing them the name of his Friendâ€™s hotel in Mustaphapasha. The boys had no intention of staying there, but took the opportunity to be once more flummoxed by the filing cabinet alongside his table in the open air under another apricot tree. His surly wife kept quiet and did nothing.
Keshlik rounded off an eye-opening day almost devoid of tourists by Turkish standards, the best the boys had in Turkey. They climbed back into their Hyundai and headed into an evening that was to incorporate chamber music and a twelve-course tasting menu.
What a combo.
I have made up the name Mohammed, as I canâ€™t remember the guideâ€™s name – an detail unfortunately lacking from those few minutes that will last forever in my travelling memory.