Cappadocia’s Other Churches
When it comes to Cappadocia, visitors are spoilt for choice of things to see and do. They can take to the skies in a hot-air balloon for a birds-eye view of the spectacular scenery. They can explore the myriad valleys with their extraordinary rock formations on foot or on horseback. They can make their way to Avanos and try their hand at throwing a pot. Or they can delve beneath the surface quite literally in one of the many underground cities that riddle the area.
But most of all, they can take time out to inspect some of the wonderful medieval churches hollowed out of the rocks during the centuries when Cappadocia was a remote province of the Byzantine Empire. These churches are astonishing, partly because of the extraordinary way in which they mimic the shape of conventional masonry churches right down to columns and domes that serve no structural function in a cave context. But most of all they are astonishing because of the colorful frescoes that cover the walls and ceilings — utterly mind-blowing when you see them for the first time.
Some of the finest of the frescoed churches are to be found in the Göreme Open Air Museum where several are grouped together to form what must once have been a very lively monastic settlement. But what if you arrive at the museum and find the car park jam-packed with coaches as can easily happen especially over a bayram (public holiday)? Luckily, there are plenty of other stand-alone churches to explore. And theres a fair chance that youll have some of them to yourself.
The following list offers a mere taster. There are many other rock-cut churches to discover especially in the Ihlara and Soğanlı valleys.
El Nazar Church, Göreme
If the car park at the Open Air Museum is indeed full, one of the easiest alternatives to find is the El Nazar Church, which is signposted to the left off the road leading back to Göreme. After a walk of perhaps 300 meters, youll come to a conical formation that looks rather like an outsize molar. Inside, it is a small but impressively frescoed 10th-century church, its neat, small dome decorated with a painting of the Pantocrator (God the Almighty).
Aynalı Church, Göreme
Alternatively, you could head for the 11th-century Aynalı (Symmetrical) Church, which is uphill behind the museum and clearly signposted off the road to the right. In place of the frescoes of the El Nazar Church, its decorated with lively red and white geometrical patterns. Like the Yusuf Koç Church in Göreme, the Aynalı Church appears to have been part of a monastery with a huge hall running back from the church and tunnels leading to other rooms at least some of which could be sealed off with rolling stones as in the underground cities.
Yusuf Koç Church, Göreme
If youre staying in Göreme, there are several impressively frescoed churches right on your doorstep. The closest is the 11th-century Yusuf Koç Church, named after a man on whose land it used to stand. The church is part of a rock-cut monastic complex that includes an open-sided cave with a rock-cut refectory table running along one side. But its the church itself, accessed via a metal ladder, that is most impressive.
Inside, what looks just like any one of the fairy-chimney cones standing around it, youll find a brilliantly colorful church with twin domes and the tops of lost columns hanging from the ceiling where they were probably axed at the same time as a pigeon house was sliced into the walls. Here youll find a painting of St George spearing his dragon, a popular image in an area that revered him as its patron saint. Here, too, youll see life-size portraits of Saints Helena and Constantine holding the True Cross, which she is believed to have discovered while visiting Jerusalem.
Durmuş Kadir Church, Göreme
Close enough to be visited together with the Yusuf Koç Church, the Durmuş Kadir Church probably dates back to the sixth or seventh century, making it one of the oldest in the area. It may lack the glorious frescoes that are such a pull but offers instead one of the best examples of the sheer ambition brought to bear on creating the cave churches since its at least as large as many masonry ones. The church is also worth seeing for the free-standing ambo (pulpit) that dominates the naos (nave), the partially surviving stone screen, and the synthronon, a tiered bench ringing the apse that is a feature of the most impressive Byzantine churches.
If youre walking in the Güllüdere (Rose Valley), you should make a point of looking for the wonderful Haçlı (Cross) Church, accessible via a steep metal ladder at the back of a small café. Here youll find some of the most wonderfully colorful frescoes, including a magnificent 10th-century Pantocrator painted onto the apse and virtually undamaged despite its great age. Visitable on the same walk, especially if you have a guide to show you the way, are the Üçhaçlı (Three Crosses) Church, with more damaged frescoes, and the Kolonlu (Columned) Church, which, like the Durmuş Kadir, is more impressive for its virtuoso architecture, including the soaring pillars from which it takes its name.
Church of John the Baptist, Çavusin
On the way to or from Avanos, you can easily hop off the bus at Çavuşin where, right by the road, youll see a 10th-century church whose façade has sheered away leaving some of its paintings exposed to the elements. Once again, access is via a metal ladder that lets you inspect at close quarters the huge painted archangels thus exposed before stepping inside the church to swoon over a barrel-vaulted ceiling entirely painted with pictures showing Bible stories in continuous strips. More unexpectedly, here, too, are images of the Emperor Nicephorus Focas and his wife, who visited the area in the 960s.
Church of St John, Gülsehir
If you have a car, its an easy drive south of Nevşehir to Gülşehir where the Church of St John (AKA Karşı Kilise) lurks on the northern outskirts unpromisingly hidden behind a cluster of modern houses. From the outside, the cone that houses the church looks equally unpromising. Inside, however, the frescoes have been wonderfully restored. Whats more, theyre easy to view from a platform reached by a spiral ladder that brings you up close enough to admire the details, especially of the dramatic Last Judgment scene painted on the west wall, an image that is rarely shown in Cappadocia.
Some local tours take in this church, which can also be visited by bus from Nevsehir to Gülşehir.
Church of St Theodore, Yesilöz (Tagor)
Virtually impossible to reach without private transport, the Tagor Church is, not surprisingly, one of the least well-known marvels of Cappadocia, despite the fact that it has a unique upper gallery, perhaps intended for women worshippers, that overlooks the central naos. Windows let into the raised dome allow light to flood into the church, which probably dates from the late 1lth or early 12th century.
Sakli Church, Göreme
The Saklı (Hidden) Church is a small gem of a building tucked away beneath a plateau within walking distance of the El Nazar. Unfortunately its obvious from the fractured state of some of the ceiling paintings that it is not entirely safe in its current state, so the church is kept locked unless the El Nazar custodian feels like showing it to visitors. Should you be lucky enough to get inside, you will discover more glorious frescoes painted with a more restrained palate than those of the El Nazar.
Church of Forty Martyrs, Sahinefendi
One of the finest of all Cappadocias less-visited treasures is the superb Church of Forty Martyrs hidden inside one of the dramatic fairy chimneys dotting the roadside at Şahinefendi, a village too often whipped through by minibuses on their way to Soğanlı. Access is problematic despite the fact that the frescoes on the walls and ceiling are newly restored and that the church has been readied for visitors. For the time being, the keyholder also has to guard the Roman ruins at nearby Sobesos so may be reluctant to divert to unlock the gate. If he does, you will discover a dramatic rendering of the strange story of the 40 martyrs, a group of early Christians from Sivas who refused to give up their faith and were driven out onto a frozen lake to freeze to death. Theres even an image of the one man who recanted being replaced by a local official who converted to Christianity and who is shown casting off his elaborate robe to join the men on the lake. Unusually, an inscription permits the paintings to be dated accurately to 1216.