Homes and religious settlements carved from the soft rock were safe, the churches sometimes extravagently decorated, within a landscape itself sculpted into fantastical shapes by the elements.
The region became a refuge for Christians during the fourth century and developed into a renowned religious centre, with three prominent fourth century saints associated with it: Saint Gregory of Nazianos, Saint Basil of of Caeserea - present-day Kayseri, and his brother Saint Gregory of of Nyssa.
Goreme Open Air Museum is a rock-cut religious complex complete not just with many - perhaps up to 200 - churches and chapels, but also everything to sustain the monastic life: kitchens, refectories, hermit cells, etc. In the more extensively decorated caves photography is not permitted.
Near the entrance is the tall rock of the Nunnery consisting of several layers of caves connected by passageways, many of which have collapsed. The cave system includes a kitchen, refectory, sleeping rooms and a chapel which has traces of red.
Where the wall paintings are simple red patterns or primitively painted animals and birds, these usually date from the iconoclastic period, AD 726 to 843, when Christian imagery was systematically defaced or destroyed. Most of the wonderful murals date form the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
The earliest paintings were applied directly to the rock. Later a layer of plaster was first applied to cover the rock and any earlier paintings. The paintings were then created usually by applying the paint to the wet plaster - the true fresco technique.
The northern edge of the complex is bounded by a mass of rock housing a number of churches. Eleventh century Carikli Kilise is reached by an iron stairway. It is also called the Church of the Sandals possibly because of footprints carved into the floor beneath a painting of the Ascension. Apparently these are copies of footprints in the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem. It is small with a mural of Christ Pantocrator in an alcove and more frescoes on the domed ceiling and walls with scenes from the life of Christ.
Below the church is its refectory: a solid rock table and benches with an alcove at one end where the abbot would sit, above him a mural of the Last Supper.
Nearby St Catherine's Church was built by a female donor called Anna. This church has another very traditional image of Christ in its apse: a Deisis - Christ with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.
Karanlik Kilise is also high up, approached through a winding tunnel, and filled with absolutely magnificent murals. It is also known as the Dark Church and it is this darkness which has preserved the wonderful colours of the paintings.
The murals have been restored and it is well-worth the extra entrance fee to see them.
Biblical scenes include episodes in the life of Christ, from a beautiful Nativity with ox and ass staring at the swaddled Child, to a Last Supper, with a large fish, and the Crucifixion. The colours are fabulous and the space no longer looks like a decorated cave but just a fabulously painted church.
Most of the churches also have images of the donors or founders in amongst the religious scenes.
Nearby is another refectory, this one with indentations in the rock table, perhaps to hold vessels, and wall niches, probably for storage.
Yilani Kilise - Church of the Serpent - is named for the depiction of Saint George and Saint Theodorus killing the dragon which is in the form of a snake.
Elmali Kilise (Apple Church) and Azize Barbara Kilise (Church of Saint Barbara) lie on the southern edge of the complex close to each other. The former is entered through a narrow tunnel and has nine domes and four columns - these purely for aesthetic reasons as structurally they are not necessary - as well as colourful frescoes.
The Church of Saint Barbara has some wonderful primitive red decoration, inspired by iconoclastic designs. There are some strange images: a rooster, a bizarre upright creature with a cross-hatched front, as well as more traditional biblical imagery.
There is a lot to see in the museum, and there are often queues for the more popular sights. It can be rewarding just to wander away from the tourists and explore some of the plainer chapels and domestic rooms such as the refectories, where the monks held meetings as well as taking their meals.
The landscape around the museum is also interesting. Rock formations that reminded me a bit of the Zabriskie Point Badlands in Death Valley. Many cliff faces are dotted with caves and ranks of pigeon homes.
The ticket for the Open Air Museum includes entrance to Takali (Buckle) Church just down the road. This one is not to be missed, the largest in the region and covered with stunning frescoes, currently undergoing restoration by a Turkish and Italian Team. Constructed in several stages the oldest church dates back to the tenth century. Here the barrel vault is painted with the life of Jesus, predominantly in red, gold and green. The so-called New Church is only a century or so later in date. Its frescoes are notable for the predominance of beautiful blue tones.
This small interconnected series of caves is close to the Goreme Open Air Museum, a little way south off the road heading east towards Urgup.
There is a signboard near a limited amount of off-road parking and a very nice guide at the entrance who will provide information and essential torches.
Inside this eleventh century monastic complex there is a pillared church and a very large hall both decorated with beautiful red iconoclastic-style imagery.
A set of narrow, steep and very worn steps leads up through the dark of a narrow tunnel to a large dovecote.
There are several more rooms within the complex whose purpose is not clear but this is a nice place to explore and soak up some atmosphere away from the crowds - there was no-one else here when we visited.
This large church - the Grand Dovecote Church - is close to the village of Cavusin, just off the main road north of Goreme. Nobody there when we visited, just the guardian; it was nice to have it all to ourselves, and photography was allowed, though without flash.
This single nave church with high barrel vaulting and no columns was built by the Emperor Nicophorus Phokas in AD 964. It is said that it was for his army which defeated the Arabs. The frescoes cover the ceiling and walls and, along with the usual Biblical scenes - almost all the churches seem to include the Life of Christ - the Emperor Constantine and his mother Helen appear, as well as Christians martyred by Romans and St Blaise, patron saint of domestic animals.
The paintings of angels are particularly lovely.
There is not just this magnificent church here but several other caves cut deep into the rock including dovecotes and a wash or laundry room. This was the only one of its type that we saw in Cappadocia.
There is evidence also of iconoclastic decoration in monochrome geometric designs and images of animals. I rather like these simple designs, they are very refreshing after viewing a room covered with colourful mosaics - stunning though these may be!
These two beautiful valleys stretch south from Goreme - at the northern end where we did some walking I wasn't sure which one we were in to begin with!
The rock church of El Nazar is variously said to be in Gorkundere and Zemi valleys. A guardian let us in for a small fee and we were the only people there for this beautiful church, decorated with colourful eleventh century Byzantine frescoes of the life of Christ and other Biblical stories.
We walked deeper into the valley at this point among fruit trees and carved-out rocks.
We retraced our steps back past the church and onto a marked trail.
We walked through more lovely landscape with fine rock formations before returning to Urgüp for lunch.
At the southern end of Zemi are masses of lovely pink bulbous rocks and the remains of a few rock-cut homes.