Cappadocia landscape carved by nature, history By Carla Hunt / February 29, 2000 Share 1 -- ANKARA -- The expression "Turkish delights" takes on new meaning in Cappadocia, a geological wonderland sculpted by erosion into a labyrinth of natural arches, towers and pyramids. During its turbulent history, this central Anatolian plateau has seen the likes of Alexander the Great and Tamerlane march by. Today's invaders are tourists captivated by its mysterious beauty and grand treasury of monuments.The major gateway is Ankara, 50 minutes by air from Istanbul and a half-day drive by car. There is also the option of a seven-hour ride aboard the Ankara Express, a train that offers seating in private compartments. From Ankara it is a four-hour drive to the main towns of Cappadocia.Most tour operators come to Cappadocia through Kayseri by a 90-minute flight from Istanbul. From Kayseri, it is less than a two-hour drive to the most popular bases for exploring sites in Goreme, Urgup and Avanos.Although there are no official borders to Cappadocia, many attractions lie roughly within a triangle formed by the towns of Avanos in the north, Nevsehir in the west and Urgup in the east.Long-ago eruptions of a volcano covered the plateau in a moonscape of ash. The soft rock, called tufa, has been transformed by erosion into a haunting, surrealistic landscape of cones and columns.The finest formations lie in what is called the Valley of the Fairy Chimneys, whose white-rock pinnacles often soar to 250 feet.Cappadocia became an area of refuge for Christians as early as the second century. By the fourth century, the region had produced several important saints, among them St. Basil the Great, who came to teach in the Goreme Valley and who served as bishop of Kayseri.These Christians, safe from the hostile rulers closer to the Mediterranean, carved out caves and later churches that they decorated with domed ceilings, graceful columns and altars and scenes from the Old and New Testaments.Despite destruction from invading Mongols in the 13th century, echoes of a religious past remain in the chapel of St. Basil, which features paintings of the Christ child.There also are religious patterns adorning the archways of the Apple Church. Graffiti scratched in the paintings of the two churches show desecrations dating to the mid-1800s. About two dozen churches are found in what is called Goreme's open-air museum.South of Nevsehir, at Kaymakli and Derinkuyu, visitors find entire underground cities hollowed out of the earth to depths of six and seven stories and occupied centuries before Christians came to the region.Derinkuyu, for instance, is laced with tunnels that connect a vertical honeycomb of apartments, kitchens, wineries, chapels, stables and other rooms, all estimated to have accommodated a populace of 30,000 inhabitants.In Kaymakli, another subterranean city, residents could escape from harm some four levels belowground.Nevsehir is the regional capital and, along with nearby and prettier Urgup, one of several good bases from which to explore Cappadocia.The region is a natural destination for hikers to explore, and several walking-tour companies are offering Turkey itineraries, including Backroads in Berkeley, Calif., (800) GO-ACTIVE; Butterfield & Robinson in Toronto, (800) 678-1147, and Adventure Center in Emery-ville, Calif., (800) 227-8747.Turkish Tourist Office Phone: (212) 687-2194 Fax: (212) 599-7568 Web: www.turkey.org.