Cappadocia's most famous attraction, for good reason, is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a complex of medieval painted cave churches carved out by Orthodox monks. The Open Air Museum is located in Turkey's Göreme Valley, a 15-minute walk (1.5 km/1 mile) from Göreme and a short ride (6.5 km, 4 miles) from Ürgüp.
History of Göreme Cave Churches
In the 4th century, Cappadocia became known as the "Land of the Three Saints" because of three remarkable theologians who are still collectively known as The Cappadocians: St. Basil the Great, his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus contributed a great deal to Christian doctrine in general and Eastern Orthodox thought in particular.
St. Basil was instrumental in developing Christian monasticism, of which these cave churches in his homeland are a product. The monastic complex at Göremewas carved out and decorated between 900 and 1200.
What to See at Göreme Cave Churches
There are over 10 cave churches in the Göreme Open Air Museum. Along with rectories, dwellings, and a religious school, they form a large monastic complex carved out of a roughly ring-shaped rock formation in the otherworldy landscape of Cappadocia. Entrance to the site is on the north side.
The best way to explore the cave churches of Goreme is via the clearly marked path, working counterclockwise. Each one has a modern Turkish name, given by local villages based on a prominent feature.
Most of the churches are fully painted inside with beautiful and historically important Byzantine murals dating from 900-1200 AD. Most are in remarkably good condition, although nearly all the eyes of the painted figures have been gouged out by superstitious locals afraid of the Evil Eye. One notable exception is the Dark Church, whose walls were long protected by pigeon droppings!
One of the recurring themes in these and other Cappadocian churches is St. George slaying the dragon. According to local tradition, the event occurred on the summit of Mount Erciyes.
St. Basil's Church has a rectangular nave with niches and three apses, separated from a narthex by arches. The narthex has tombs in the floor, which are open but covered with metal grating. Fresco subjects in this church include Christ, St. George, St. Basil and St. Theodore. The three Maltese crosses on the vault of the nave are believed to represent the Holy Trinity.
The frescoes of the Apple Church mostly date from the 11th century. The interesting name probably derives from a red orb held by St. Michael the Archangel in a fresco near the entrance, but an alternative theory is that an apple tree used to grow next to it. The frescoes depict saints and bishops, with a Last Supper including a large fish to the right of the altar.
This cruciform chapel with three apses is mostly decorated with simple figures and symbols in red paint on white plaster, making a sharp contrast with the colorful figures of most Göreme frescoes. They may have been painted shortly after the 8th-century iconoclastic controversy.
A giant locust symbolizing evil on one wall opposes two crosses on the other, while a rooster representing the devil is battled with bricks representing the Church. Other strange creatures and shapes are more difficult to interpret. The figurative frescoes include Christ Pantocrator, St. George and the Dragon, St Theodore, and St Barbara.
The Snake Church has a long nave with a low, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Among the frescoes are portraits of St. Theodore, St. George slaying the dragon again (it looks like a snake, for which the chapel is named), Emperor Constantine and his mother St. Helena, and St. Onuphrius. The last saint was an Egyptian hermit who lived near Thebes. In medieval art, including in this example, he is usually depicted with a long gray beard, wearing nothing but a fig leaf.
The Dark Church, so named for the little light that penetrates the interior, was used as a pigeon house until the 1950s. It took 14 years to scrape pigeon poo off the walls, but underneath were beautifully preserved 11th-century frescoes. Recently restored, the paintings of New Testament scenes and other subjects are considered the best-preserved frescoes in Cappadocia.
Built by a donor named Anna, the Chapel of St. Catherine dates from the 11th century. It has a Greek-cross-shaped nave, with a dome over the center and barrel-vaulted cross arms. The narthex has nine floor tombs and two burial niches. The frescoes depict: a Deesis (in the apse); Doctors of the Church: Gregory, Basil the Great and John Chrysostom; St. George, St. Theodore, and St. Catherine.
This church is named for two footprints just inside the entrance, around which many legends have been woven. Suggestively, a fresco of the Ascension can be seen directly of above. The narthex of the church has collapsed; the nave has a cross plan with barrel vaults and 11th-century frescoes.
The fresco subjects are New Testament scenes such as the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, and the Baptism of Christ. The main cupola has a Christ Pantocrator with the Four Evangelists below; the other three cupolas are occupied by the angels Michael, Gabriel and Uriel.
In the apse is a Deesis (Christ with Mary and John the Baptist), with an inscription next to Christ reading "I am the light of the world, who follows me will not be left in the dark." Around the altar are saints: Blaise, Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil, Chrysostom and Hypatius.
The last sight within the museum complex near the exit is a remarkable rock-carved convent with six stories of tunnels, corridors, stairways and chambers. It housed as many as 300 nuns at any one time.
Just outside the museum exit on the right is the Buckle Church, the largest of the cave churches at Göreme. It can be entered with the same ticket as the main complex and should not be missed. The frescoes are also the finest in Göreme, with the richest colors and the most detail. It dates from the 10th and 11th centuries and was restored in the 1960s.
The Buckle Church is comprised of four chambers, which are known as the Old Church, New Church, Paracclesion and Lower Church. The Old Church (10th century) has a single nave with a barrel vault. The frescoes give a comprehensive account of the life of Christ, from the Annunciation through the Baptism and Miracles and ending with the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension. The Transfiguration is painted over the entrance and the vault has portraits of saints.
The Old Church now acts as a narthex for the New Church, which was added to the former's east side around 990-1010 AD. Its barrel-vaulted nave tells the story of Christ in deep red and blue hues. The transverse nave has frescoes of saints, scenes from the life of St. Basil, and the miracles of Christ.
Quick Facts on Göreme Cave Churches
|Names:||Göreme Cave Churches|
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|Coordinates:||38.638741° N, 34.845439° E|
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Map of Göreme Cave Churches, Turkey
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