The tectonic plates, which carry Turkey and the neighbouring Caucasian republics, are some of the most restless in the world and have been so for millions of years. The region has been chronically shaken by earthquakes. If that wasn’t enough, in the dying years of the Mesozoic around 66 million years ago, northern Africa crashed beneath southern Eurasia to form the Taurus Mountain ranges in Turkey. The fracturing enabled subsurface magma to climb up, resulting in the creation of several active volcanoes parallel to the mountain complex. The same geological dynamics also gave rise to the Himalayas and the Alps in the same time
Due to constant seismic activity, Mounts Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz subjected the region to volcanic eruptions for millions of years. Successive lava flows formed layers of soft and hard rocks including basalt, ash, clay, sandstone. Over thousands of years, the ash solidified into a plateau consisting of a rock type called tufa. Over the course of time wind erosion, rivers, snow and rainfall created a geological wonder unparalleled in the world. Heating allowed the rocks to expand and low temperatures caused them to break up, creating the singularly beautiful landscape of Cappadocia, with its famous mountain ridges, steep river valleys and hills. It also resulted is some odd-shaped rock formations of various sizes including spires and cones called ‘fairy chimneys’.
Early human settlers soon found that the tuff was soft and could be easily broken through. They hollowed out the rocks to make cave dwellings with multiple rooms and windows creating what are called troglodyte villages. They soon found that earth was soft as well so they started digging. They went deeper and deeper and fanned out underneath, carving tunnels, storage chambers and curving staircases. The result was a subterranean network of entire cities. There are said to be more than a hundred underground settlements in the region, out of which only 6 are open to visitors.
The cities are thought to have been settled since the Bronze Age, which began in the region began in the fourth millennium B.C. Caves have always sheltered humans from wild animals and natural elements, but with their unique insulations properties the tuff caves proved to be more comfortable both during the summers and winters. But the troglodyte villages and underground settlements were particularly useful to hide from marauding armies. Ancient Anatolia, and the region around it, was the bridge between Europe and Asia. What’s more the houses above the surface were connected to the underground villages through a series of staircases and meandering labyrinths, so people could switch to subterranean living in times of danger.
Of course, the subterranean quarters were not ‘cities’ in the conventional sense, but the ancient Cappadocians took urban civilization to new ‘depths’. Ventilation shafts or ‘chimneys’, up to a depth of 80 metres, were dug into all cities at various places. The chimneys also served the purpose of rainwater harvesting; the people also tapped into underground streams and stored the water. The tuff stone kept the settlements cool in winters
and tepid in summer the hot months. Subterranean Cappadocia soon had community kitchens, wine houses, communal logistics and places for social gatherings. Many rooms and chambers in these cities had locking stones, which allowed the doors to be opened and closed only from the inside. A pretty reassuring measure, especially when Croesus was enslaving the citizens of nearby Pteria in his fight against Cyrus the Great, or when Genghis Khan was mass murdering civilians of captured territories on his way to empire.
Today, the place is preserved as the Goreme National Park and The Rock Sites of Cappadocia. It came under the protection of the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1985 due to its natural uniqueness and for its outstanding examples of Byzantine art. Especially valuable are the images of post-iconoclastic Christianity, when aspects of it could be depicted artistically and ornately.
If homes and commercial establishments can be carved out of rock, would religious institutions be far behind? In the 4th century A.D., Saint Basil of Caesarea asked Christian ascetics to make churches and monasteries in some of the over ground caves. The anchorite community took to the task with zeal. Using existing caves and carving our new ones, they built innumerable refectory monasteries side-by-side. Each monastery has its own church with colourful frescoes, sculptures and other works of art. Many of the frescoes have faded but their aesthetics are still evident. Of course, the refectories and churches now lie vacant, but as the Goreme Open-Air Museum, they are the focus of the Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia. Goreme lies at the heart of Cappadocia.
The Goreme Open-Air Museum is a vast complex with marvellous examples of rock-cut architecture with mainstream features of Byzantine construction. Since Asia Minor was the cradle of Christianity, the churches of Goreme are the some of the earliest and oldest in the world, but most belong to the 10th 11th and 12th centuries. Some of the best-known rock churches and chapels may be in The Goreme Open-Air Museum, but the shrines themselves are spread out over a vast region. The eleven refectories of the museum and its churches even have furniture like tables and benches carved out of rock. Some of the most important churches in Goreme are:
The church complex is made up of four main chambers, comprising an Old Church, a New Church, the Paracclesion, or mortuary chapel, and Lower Church. It is the largest church in the museum. The New Church was added to the Old Church at the turn of the first millennium. The old church has only one nave where people sat under a barrel-vaulted ceiling. The Buckle Church, so called because it had a buckle-shaped lamp hook at one time, contains the most important frescoes in the museum dedicated to the life of Christ. What makes them striking is the lifelike illustration and attention to detail. A major attraction is the elaborate portrayal of the lifecycle or Christological cycle of Jesus on the barreled ceiling of the old Church. Also featured in the church are various episodes from the life of St. Basil. The frescoes were renovated in the 1960s.
St. Barbara’s Church
This church also has a cruciform layout whose centre and eastern arms and corners have a domed ceiling; the north, west and south arms are barrel vaulted. The main apse is in the centre with two more apses at the sides. The walls and dome are painted with familiar geometric patterns and military symbols though the depictions of mythical creatures may come as a surprise. St. Barbara’s Church was built in the 12th century.
The Nunnery is a 6-storey rock structure, on the first floor of which you can still visit the dining hall, kitchen and other rooms. You will come across ruins of a chapel on the second ‘floor’. The third level occupies the church, which is accessible through a tunnel, a common medium for traversing across all levels. It is a domed structure supported by four columns. It has a cruciform layout and three apses, of which the main apse has the templon, a feature of Byzantine architecture that seperates the congregation from the sacred altar. An apse is a semi-circular culmination of one end of the church, a typical feature of Roman, Byzantine and Gothic church architecture. A fresco of Jesus Christ has been directly painted on the rock. All the rooms have ‘millstone doors’ like in the underground cities. The structure housed 300 nuns at any given time in its history.
One of the most prominent and colourful churches of the complex, it derives its name from an apple orchard that used to bloom in front of the main entrance. It is a groin-vaulted structure with a cross-in-square plan. The latter comprises of a room with a central square, whose domed ceiling is supported by four pillars, which create spaces in the shape of a cross. It features 11th and 12th century frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Also depicted are stories of Abraham and other biblical narratives.
This church has a simpler layout where only the front chamber is barrel-vaulted. Though the Snake Church is dedicated to Christ, the frescoes, painted directly on the walls, also pay tributes to historical figures. Opposite the entrance and by the side of Christ are Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena, who are both remembered as saints. Another story depicted on the walls us that St. George killing the dragon along with St. Theodore. The dragon looks more like a snake which explains the nomenclature. Also remembered is the founder of the Goreme churches, St. Basil of Caesarea.
Though it receives less sunlight than the other churches, the Dark Church is well worth its extra admission fee. You can go to it through a winding tunnel, which opens onto a barrel-vaulted narthex, which is nothing but the west part of the main church. At the south of this
space there are three graves, which probably belong to the donors of the church. The frescoes of the Dark Church are incredibly well-preserved, much of it due to the cover of decades of bird-drippings and more recent restoration efforts. The frescoes are vivid depictions of many important biblical events including the Annunciation, Journey to Bethlehem, Raising of Lazarus, Last Supper, Betrayal of Judas and the Crucifixion. The images comprise some of the most reproduced art works in religious publications and travel guides.
With three apses and four domes, the Sandals Church is one of the bigger churches of Goreme. The numerous, well-preserved frescoes, recount the various tales of the life of Jesus Christ. Also depicted are saints and the patrons of the church. The footprints just after the entrance and under the ceiling fresco of Christ’s Ascension to heaven represent the sandals, which give the church its name. The images are large and the central dome dominates the imagery with the common Greek Orthodox depiction of Jesus the Pantocrator with busts of angels. The most common translation of the Greek Pantocrator is ‘Almighty’.
Though Goreme Open-Air Museum has the best-known rock-cut churches, it by no means has a monopoly on troglodyte Christian shrines. Rock-cut churches can be found throughout Cappadocia, notable among which are the church of St. John the Baptist and the Nicephoras Phocas Church in the town of Cavusin and the Uzumlu or Grape Church, the Church of St. Nichlitas and the Church with the Cross, all of which are situated in the Red Valley.
In Cappadocia and throughout Turkey, Muslims and Christians lived in perfect harmony till the last decades of the nineteenth century. After the creation of the modern state of Turkey, Christians evacuated the region en masse in the exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1924. Muslims inhabited the National Park region till the 1950s till they were forced to leave due to the risk of cave-ins due to increased erosion.
Looking for specific information about any heritage destination?