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Once home, like Cappadocia, to people living in underground passages in the rocks, Kilistra is a village at once fascinating, extraordinary and full of surprises.
“Konya is the quintessential child of the steppe. With the same mysterious, hidden beauty. The steppe, which likes to give the impression of a mirage.” So does Turkish writer Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar describe Konya. As is evident from this description in his book, ‘Beş Şehir’ (Five Cities), this was the city that most touched him, filling him with profound sadness, excitement and astonishment. And truly Konya, faithful child of the steppe, has a mysterious beauty which it does not yield up easily. To grasp it, you must, as Tanpınar says, "intermingle closely with time and the seasons".
There is no end to touring the historical monuments, mosques, mosque complexes and religious colleges, Mevlânâ’s dervish lodge, the feltmakers’ market, the special restaurants serving ‘bread with meat’, and the shops selling handicrafts and ceramic tiles. And even if you do reach the end, there will always be something new. For the environs of this city are so rich that you’ll become obsessed, drawn heart and soul into their world. Meram, famous for its vineyards, is a treasure unto itself. After visiting the tomb of the famous Tavus Baba of legend here at what can be regarded as Konya’s summer resort, prepare yourself for a surprise. For the village of Kilistra, which is attached to Meram, is Konya’s own Cappadocia. Reminiscent in some respects of the Karaman township of Taşkale, Kilistra is known today, no doubt because the name was hard to pronounce and its meaning inaccessible, as Gökyurt.
LIFE IN ROCK CAVES
Forty-nine kilometers southwest of Konya, Kilistra is a virgin treasure as yet undiscovered by tourists. Excavations have been under way here since 1997. In a lush green setting of caves and hermits’ chambers carved in the rocks, Kilistra, like Cappadocia, was a place of dense population in the Byzantine period, and secrecy played a key role in the founding and construction of the city.
The village of Gökyurt, known locally as Gilissıra, was founded over the ruins of ancient Kilistra, whose name appears in Biblical stories. The rock formations here, which until four years ago were used by the villagers as stables and storage depots, were first noticed by a visiting photographer. As a result of the excavations subsequently undertaken in the village, the rock formations have been unearthed and cleared of rubble.
Excavations are continuing today in this village, which has been declared an official archaeological site by the Ministry of Culture. Up to now five chapels, a winery, a water cistern, ten snow wells for cold storage, a pottery workshop, two observation towers, a group of monasteries and the city center have been excavated and cleared.
STROLLING THROUGH THE ANCIENT CITY
The significance of Kilistra is that, like its close neighbor Sille, it was a major center for early Christians. So much so that the path to Saint Thecla, female saint and disciple of Paul, lay first through Sille, then Kilistra. Saint Paul is also said to have stopped, and even resided briefly, here. Considered sacred by Christians, who pay it frequent visits, the village takes on a festive atmosphere on high holidays and feast days.
The archaeological excavations here indicate that settlement at Kilistra began in the Hellenistic and Roman periods between the 2nd century B.C. and the 3rd century A.D. The name Kilistra appears in a gravestone inscription from the Roman period which, during the excavations, was found as the threshold stone in the building where grapes were pressed for wine. The find confirms the existence of an ancient village by that name.
If you don’t hire a guide for touring the village, the local children will surely accompany you. The most convenient route to follow is the well-preserved ancient Royal Road running from Lystra (Hatunsaray) east of the village up to the area known as Devrek. After passing the observation tower at Devrek, follow the ancient road into the city center and you will see the rock-carved tombs of antiquity at Konacak and the meeting hall and other buildings for social purposes at the western foot of the rock formation where the graves are located. Just south of here, Sandıkkaya, a chapel on a cross-plan carved out of a single slab of rock, is a splendid structure definitely worth seeing. After touring first the second observation tower at the other entrance to the Royal Road, which continues westward from the chapel, and then the second guard station, the cistern and the ‘Kapçı İni’, which was used in the late period for the production of earthenware jugs and pots, you will come to the Köy Konağı or ‘Village Mansion’ at the center of the village. Here you can fill your stomach and pause for a glass of tea. The juice of a species of wild grape known locally as ‘Gılabba’ is drunk here in place of the usual ‘ayran’ (yoghurt diluted with water). If you find it, try it, because its tart juice is a cure for many ills.
In the early Byzantine period the ancient city of Kilistra consisted of five separate sections running parallel to the natural rock formation. The founding principle of the city was secrecy since the actual settlement was in hollowed out passages under the ground. The urban texture today takes the form of hillside houses built in keeping with the area’s topography. Reminiscent of the ‘fairy chimneys’ of Cappadocia, the rock formations consist of volcanic tufa stone. Extending the entire length of the valley in which the village is situated, they give one the impression of strolling through an imaginary lunar landscape. You can get a splendid view of the ancient city from the viewing terraces in the valley, which resembles a forest of stones.
After seeing the water cistern, the grape press and Sümbül Kilise (‘Hyacinth Church’), known locally as ‘Paul’s place’, all of which stand west of the Village Mansion, you will reach the great cistern on the northern slope of Ardıçlı Tepe, or ‘Juniper Hill’. This large cistern with three naves, known as ‘Katırini’, is one of the most attractive buildings of the ancient city, whose abundance of cisterns and water ways will catch your attention. Since the region was a wetland in its day, the plains and vineyards here were extremely fertile and have remained so. With its endless shades of green, the road on which all these ancient structures stand will lull you into a dream. A dream just like the one described by Tanpınar...