I like to fantasize that if I am ever told that I have only a short time left to live I will say,

“That’s all right. I’ve been to Cappadocia.” This volcanic area in central Turkey is a veritable wonderland with its cave dwellings, fairy chimneys, richly decorated cave churches, and underground cities.

Urgup is probably the best base to use to explore Cappadocia, and the old cave dwellings are very obvious here, but nearby Ortahisar and Uchisar provide better examples. Uchisar, in particular, is dominated by a large rock, which is dotted with little windows.

The best examples of the so-called fairy chimneys are to be found in the Pasabag area near Zelve. Here many centuries of erosion of volcanic rock of different hardnesses have left an area of natural enormous phallic symbols. The pinnacles of soft tufa rock, jutting high into the air, are capped in most cases by a crown of harder basaltic rock. Many of the pinnacles were at one stage hewn out as dwelling places and hermitages. St. Simeon is said to have lived in one of them in his pre-stylite days.

A few miles away, near the village of Goreme, you find the Open-Air Museum, a complex of churches hewn out of the rocks. There are reputed to be as many as one for every day in the year but only about 30 are open to the public. It is quite an experience to go through a plain opening in the side of a rock and find yourself in a perfectly shaped church, complete with columns, capitals, arches, and domes, and richly decorated with frescos. These churches were built and decorated between the mid-ninth and the 11th centuries. The ravages of time have taken their toll on the frescos, and some of them were damaged due to anti-Christian feeling, but many of them are still in remarkable condition.

For me, however, the most extraordinary experience during my trip was a visit to the underground city of Derinkuyu. This is the largest of the 40 or so such cities in the area. A labyrinth of tunnels, stairways, and rough-hewn rooms, it is 18 stories deep but only seven of them are accessible. It was capable of housing 20,000 inhabitants and was ventilated by well-camouflaged shafts, 55 meters deep, which also acted as wells. A large stone wheel with a central hole in it, which is in a niche off the passageway, protects the entrance. This could be rolled into position at the first sign of danger, and the times must have been very dangerous indeed to have driven such large numbers of people to live underground. The origins of these cities are shrouded in mystery, but some artifacts found suggest that the upper stories date back to the Hittite times, which ended about 1200 B.C. The lower ones were obviously occupied in Christian times. My wife Maura and I were on our own in a perfectly-shaped chapel, seven stories down, when it suddenly dawned on me that we had not brought a torch and that the electricity supply in the locality was not necessarily the most reliable. We got out of there fast!

These cities had, however, an additional significance for me, as my guidebook said that they were mentioned in Xenophon’s Anabasis. The Anabasis tells the story of the 10,000 Greek mercenaries who fought for Cyrus the Younger in his attempt to wrest the crown of Persia from his brother Artaxerxes II. Following the death of Cyrus at the Battle of Cunaxa near Babylon in 401 B.C., and the treacherous execution of all their generals, they were led by Xenophon in a heroic march of more than one thousand miles back to the Black Sea while under constant attack

Unfortunately, the memories resurrected by coming across this reference were not happy ones. In the early ‘50s we were taught Greek in St. Michael’s College in Listowel, Co. Kerry, by a man known locally as The Priest. A heavy red-faced powerful man, he was also president of the college and for 19 years subjected the boys of North Kerry to a reign of terror. The fact that I was an obedient child, and one of the brighter students, provided me with no protection. I was barely 12 years old when I was put outside the gate on a cold winter’s evening until my hands were frozen and then I got four vicious strokes of a cane on each hand. I picked off the clotted blood with a pin several weeks later. This was all because I could not tell him which boys were talking when he burst into the study room. On another occasion a mistake in translating Xenophon into Irish led to me being punched around the room. When I put up my hands to defend myself, he imitated me, mockingly waving his right hand in front of me, so that I did not see the powerful left uppercut that stretched me on my back.

I have long since forgiven The Priest, even though he haunted my nightmares for many of my adult years, because I believe he was wrestling with his own demons. I find it more difficult, however, to understand the successive bishops who appointed him and left him in charge of a school for so long. You might well ask why our parents tolerated such behavior, and we did indeed ourselves ask them later. My mother’s answer was that they saw education as the only way out of the grinding poverty of the times and this was the only school in town. In any case, nobody dared to take on the might of the Church.

Modern Ireland is not without its problems, but at least the children are no longer brutalized at school!