Welcome to Designing From Bones, where we use archaeology, myth, mysteries and history to unearth the stories of tomorrow.
This week is the first in a Special DfB series on unusual historical settings and how we can use them as inspiration for our fiction. If the planet provided a place to build, humans have tried to live there. Today we look at two locations that were forged by fire, hardened to rock, and crafted by the unyielding mastery of wind and water – the four elemental architects working together to create a unique living environment – the fairy chimneys.
Cappadocia, Turkey. Millennium ago, Mount Erciyes, a massive stratovolcano, went through a series of eruptions that coated a 10,000 mile area in lava-covered ash. Over the course of centuries, wind and water erosion wore away the softer parts, until only sculpted fragments of volcanic rock remained perched atop pillars of hard-packed ash. At Goreme, a valley of dark-headed spears and oddly balanced platters formed – an unusual natural wonder known as a fairy chimneys.
From the 7th century CE (current era) on, the Erciyes valley acted as a highway for Arab invaders headed deeper into Asia Minor. The area was raided constantly, its villages and cities razed until only but a few fortresses remained in the now depopulated wasteland.
Beginning in the 10th century CE, the oft-persecuted Syriac Christians and Armenians settled the area in the face of this constant threat. However, the Syriac Christians possessed a special gift for making homes and fortresses out of the natural terrain as a defense against traveling raiders and other unfriendly forces. At Goreme, (which means, “you cannot see here”), the Syriacs carved their houses directly into the hardened volcanic rock of the fairy chimney’s, thus creating one of the more unusual housing projects of the ancient world. Those who would be killed upon the tip of a spear learned to live within the tips of the largest natural spears of their world. Have to love the irony of this.
The spear tip homes are still occupied today as residences, hotels, shops and more and are maintained as an active tourist attraction by friendly and serene locals.
How does this relate to writers? Glad you asked. It can be said that the environment shapes human action and reaction as much as it is shaped by our presence. When considering setting, what unusual features are present in your world that can be used in a new and unique way, like the fairy chimneys, to thrill a reader? Take a look at the picture of Goreme and compare it with the one to the side – the alien hive spires from the movie Pitch Black (sorry for the blurriness, it was the best pic I could find). Humans, aliens or perhaps an odd breed of dwarf or troll – what will inhabit the Goreme of your world?
In the northwest corner of Iran is the home of the worlds largest termite colony. Well, at least that is how it would appear to a casual traveler from a distance. Kandovan was formed after layers of volcanic ash from Mount Sahand were worn down to hardened pillars similar to those at Goreme, only without the specialized tips. Softer material at first, but just as hard after elemental forging.
The origins of Kandovan’s occupation are a bit sketchy, either those fleeing from the advancing Mongol hoard or late period Assyrians driven out at the collapse of their empire serving is the top candidates. Regardless, the first occupiers found the caves pitting these ash-rock pillars useful for both hiding and housing. They expanded the natural pits, hollowing out the pillars to form 2 to 4 story residences with many of them connected by a network of underground tunnels – handy if an invader happens along. And, of course, they did from time to time. The lowest floor was typically used as a stable while the residents lived and slept above (the smell – which may be the most forgotten thing about past eras).
Modern day Kandovan serves as a tourist destination and spa with the unusual mineral water of the area believed to act as a cure for kidney ailments. As in Goreme, the ancient pillars continue to act as homes, hotels and shops for the current population.
How have the denizens of your world shaped their natural environment? Are they using all the tools that are available to them or do they live in pre-fab medieval/synth-plastic structures?
Goreme or Kandovan would be well at home on Tatooine, Arrakis (Dune) or the desolate broken lands of a fantasy world. One only needs a volcano in the distance (active or not), a steady wind and presence of water (current or lost beneath the sands) to create the basic environment of the fairy chimneys.
Listen. Can you hear the moan of the wind as it winds through pillars of ash? The soft hiss of sand and rock grains drawn away, rasping through a forest of rock? Think this would work as a paranormal setting? A place where horror visits the lost? Where dark beings, human, or not quite, wait for the setting of the sun? I do.
From ancient times to the deepest explorations of space, the fairy chimneys are ready for travel. What will live in your termite towers or wind-hardened spear tips? Only you can decide.
Join me next week when we move from earth above to earth below. Any thoughts on the fairy chimneys? Have you ever visited a fairy chimney in your travels? What do you think would be a fun use of this setting? I’d love to hear your thoughts.