Byzantine rock-cut churches

Göreme Open Air Museum in Cappadocia

We spent two very full days in Cappadocia, Turkey and we could have easily spent a week exploring this area. We had our own car, so we could choose the sites we wanted to visit. If you’re planning to take a tour of the area, you can arrange one locally and we noticed there are at least four main tour routes–going northwest, northeast, southwest and southeast from Göreme to cover the varied places of interest in the region. For a map of the sites we visited in Cappadocia, click here. For a map of sites visited in Turkey click here.

The ‘castle’ at Uchisar, near Goreme. This was a fortress and it sits at the top of a hill overlooking the area–rooms and passageways are carved out of the stone.

We stayed in the Canyon View Hotel right in Göreme, which was converted from an old church and built right into the hillside. It’s a decent hotel, and a short walk to the main shopping and dining areas. Göreme itself is a very pleasant and scenic town nestled among the “fair chimney” rock formations of Cappadocia, and a perfect home base during your visit.

Exterior view of our hotel in Goreme. We ate breakfast on the terrace in the upper right-great view!

Our room at the Canyon View Hotel in Goreme.

We visited the Open Air Museum in Göreme on our first day, after our exhilarating balloon ride. The Open Air Museum, which is a collection of rock-cut churches along a path in the Göreme Valley, is just a kilometer or so outside the town—we walked to it from our hotel. The Göreme Valley holds the greatest concentration of Byzantine rock-cut churches in Cappadocia. Originally this area was a settlement for 20 Byzantine monks, then became a pilgramage site in the 17th century.

A view of the Gorme Open Air Museum–a path winds among the rock formations and rock-cut churches and other rooms.

It seemed that the churches we visited mostly date from the 12th century.  This area was a center for religious thought and life from the 3rd and 4thcentury onwards.  One can get a feel for the life of the monks with all the various types of rooms—storage areas, eating areas, kitchens and of course the chapels.

The monks’ eating area–they would sit on the outer edge and use the table in the middle. Not a lot of leg room!

The Karanlik (Dark) Church–behind the wall is a beautiful chapel with well-preserved frescoes. Note how a part of the chapel is now exposed since the rock exterior has crumbled and eroded away. (Dates from end of 12th century).

Many of the chapels contain frescoes of scenes from the Bible, especially the life of Christ and acts of various saints. In some cases the frescoes are extremely well-preserved (with little daylight to damage them). Don’t miss the “Dark Church” (so-called since it has only one small window), the vivid frescoes look like they were painted yesterday. This church requires a separate entrance fee.  Photos are allowed in some churches, but not in the churches with the best frescoes. Don’t miss the Buckle Church (Tokali Kilise) outside the main musuem–just across the road.  It is large and one of the finest churches in Goreme. Your ticket for the Open Air Museum includes this church. Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take pictures inside.

The frescoes of the Carikli (Sandals) Chapel. (Dates from the end of the 12th century).

Interior of the St. Barbara Chapel. The chapels vary greatly in the detail of the artwork and frescoes.

The Open Air Museum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the entrance fee is 15 Turkish Lira (TL) per person and another 8 TL for the Dark Church (the exchange rate is about 1.8 TL per USD).  There are well-marked walking paths to the various chapels in the valley with explanatory signs posted at each one. The Museum is open from 8 am to 7 pm April – October, and 8 am to 5 pm November – March. Allow at least two hours to visit the Open Air Museum.

At the entrance to a pottery shop and store near the Goreme Open Air Museum.

References: Area brochures, posted informational signs, Lonely Planet’s Guide to Turkey 2010, DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Turkey 2008.

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).

Selime Cathedral –The inspiration for the setting in Star Wars Episode 1

After hiking through a portion of the Ihlara Valley we hopped back in our car and stopped at a small store. A friendly Turkish gentleman spoke with us at the store, and when he found out we hadn’t gone to Selime Cathedral, he strongly urged us to do so—we’re so glad we did, I can’t believe we almost missed it! An added bonus was that the entry fee for Selime Cathedral is covered by the Ihlara Valley ticket (8 TL per person). (For a map of the general area click here.)

Hiking up the hill to Selime Cathedral (note the carved cave entrances everywhere).

Selime Cathedral along with numerous other rock-carved buildings sits at the northern end of the Ihlara Valley just across a highway. This area is “other worldly” and was the inspiration for part of the location set in Star Wars Episode 1, the location where Anakin Skywalker’s “pod race”  took place, if you saw that movie.

The landscape of Selime Cathedral area–hiking up.

The exterior area on the hillside around Selime Cathedral.

Entrance to one of the churches at the Selime Cathedral site.

Interior of another church at the Selime Cathedral site.

This room has two levels, and walkways around the 2nd level.

Selime Cathedral does not look like a cathedral in the traditional sense. The main church is the largest of its kind (carved out of rock) in Cappadocia, and the site contains numerous other caves and rooms for the monks (living quarters, kitchens, chapels, etc.) in the side of a mountain. Most of the structures here are from the 13thcentury.

Interior of Selime Cathedral.

Another interior view of Selime Cathedral.

Possibly the Chapter House of Selime Cathedral.

Allow at least an hour to visit this site.  Hiking up to the caves does involve some scrambling along the narrow and steep rock trails.

Another exterior view of the carved churches and other rooms.

Due to its easy access from the road, Selime Cathedral was far busier that the Ihlara Valley itself.