The Ihlara Valley– A Canyon with Byzantine Rock-Cut Churches

The Cappadocia region of Turkey is full of amazing sights and one of them is the Ihlara Valley, located about 80 km southwest of Göreme, Turkey, which was our home port in Cappadocia.

The entrance to the Ihlara Valley.

The Ihlara Valley is 80 km southwest of Goreme.

Since there is so much to see in Cappadocia, we almost bypassed this valley and I’m very glad we didn’t.  A great day trip from Göreme is to go to Derinkuyu (one of the underground cities in the area) in the morning (about 35 km south of Göreme), and then visit the Ihlara Valley in the afternoon. We beat the crowds to Derinkuyu (see my separate post on Derinkuyu) since they stop at Kaymakli underground city first. We then drove out to Ihlara, and had the valley and rock-cut churches pretty much to ourselves.

There are numerous churches cut into the canyon walls (note the opening in the lower right of the picture).

The churches cut into the sides of the canyon walls date from the 11thcentury, carved by Byzantine monks.  There were originally 60 churches in the valley. Many of the churches contain frescoes, but some are badly damaged (not surprising given the 1,000 years of history and open access to tourists). The DK Eyewitness guidebook says that there are only 10 or so churches open, however, it appeared to us that at least 15 were open.  We visited 6 churches in just a couple hours working our way up one side of the river towards Ihlara and back towards the stairway on the other side of the canyon.

The entrance to Karanlikkale Church, Ihlara Valley.

The large main chapel of Karanlikkale Church, Ihlara Valley.

Ceiling detail of Karanlikkale Church, Ihlara Valley.

Another large room in Karanlikkale Church, Ihlara Valley.

The frescoes of Kokar Church, Ihlara Valley.

Another room, Kokar Church, Ihlara Valley.

The landscape driving out to Ihlara in September is pretty brown and dry, reminding me a bit of the Wyoming landscape with rolling hills (but with more farming fields and no sage brush!). As we arrived at the small town of Ihlara, the canyon all-of-a-sudden appeared below us with green foliage and the small Melindiz River running through it. It’s a completely different world from the surrounding area, and the beauty of the canyon with the availability of water is probably why the Byzantine monks a thousand years ago chose this spot. Even though the official name is the Ihlara “Valley,” “canyon” is a much more appropriate term for this narrow gorge.

Walking along the green, shady valley floor–Ihlara Valley.

The rooms of Egritas Church (note the tombs in the floor), Ihlara Valley.

Tomb in Egritas Church, Ihlara Valley.

The canyon is 15 km (about 9 miles) long and runs from the town of Ihlara on the south end to the town of Selime in the north. We entered from the midpoint entrance on the west side where there is a large parking lot, a ticket office and snack shop. A good stairway (360 steps) winds down into the canyon from the rim. From the canyon floor, one can either walk along the dirt path on the near side visiting the churches or cross the bridge over the river and visit the churches on the far side going north and south.  The churches are sign-posted on the main trail and most are just a short scramble up side paths a hundred feet or two up into the cliffs. There is a restaurant about midway between the two ends of the canyon, on the valley floor, to the left after you descend the stairway.

Entrance to Purenliseki Church, Ihlara Valley.

Some of the churches and rooms on the canyon walls are not accessible, such as these.

It cost 3 TL per car to park and 8 TL (1.8 TL per 1 USD) per person to visit the valley. Selime Cathedral area is included in the ticket and should not be missed (see my separate post on Selime Cathedral).