Cappadocia (Kapadokya in Turkish) is the ancient and modern name
of a remarkable region in Central Anatolia. It is a geological
wonderland which is sometimes considered to have covered a
triangular area between Kayseri, Nigde and Kirsehir, or more
specifically, a smaller triangular area from Urgup to Avanos and
Its harsh climate limits agricultural pursuits to growing grain
and fruit. Its vast grassland was ideal for raising horses,
sheep and other small stock. Silver, copper and salt have been
Cappadocia can be viewed from three different aspects, natural,
historical and religious.
The Natural Aspect
The strange but beautiful formation of Cappadocia has had this
appearance for millions of years. When the volcanoes in the
region were active, the lava which poured out covered all
previously formed hills and valleys forming a high plateau. This
newly formed plateau consists mainly of tufa and some rare
layers of basalt. This is the constructive stage of Cappadocia’s
formation. The destruction of the tufa and the basalt layers by
erosion (heavy rains and melting snow in spring) and sharp
temperature changes has continued for thousands of years and is
still in process today. Wind in general has a circling effect
while rivers have horizontal and rain vertical effects on the
The basalt is less affected by erosion when compared to the tufa
and has served as a protective cover. This juxtaposition of
different materials has produced capped columns, pyramids and
conical formations with dark-colored caps known as peribacalari,
fairy chimneys. A block of hard rock which resists erosion is
left standing alone as the tufa around it is worn away, until it
stands at the top of a large cone. A fairy chimney exists until
the neck of the cone is eroded and the cap falls off.
History of Cappadocia
During the 19C BC, Old Assyrian traders were established among
the numerous native city-states of Cappadocia. Between
c.1750-1200 BC, Cappadocia formed the "Lower Land" of the
The Persians made Cappadocia a satrapy (province), through which
passed the famous Persian Royal Road from Sardis to Susa.
Cappadocia avoided submitting to Alexander the Great. After 190
BC Cappadocia was ruled by a native dynasty and the rulers
became friendly to Rome. In 17 AD Cappadocia became a Roman
province and was joined with the provinces of Galatia under
Vespasian in 72 AD. Soon after, under Trajan, it was united with
Pontus. The Roman period of Cappadocia continued from the 1C
through the 4C AD followed by the Byzantine, Seljuk and Turkish
The monasteries of Cappadocia were abandoned after the arrival
of the Turks and later occupied by the local people. Some of the
Christian population continued to live here until the exchange
of populations between Greece and Turkey in 1923.
The Religious Aspect
Christianity came early to Cappadocia. St. Paul passed through
Caesarea (today Kayseri) on the way to Ankyra (Ankara). In the
4C AD Cappadocia produced three saints from the area. These are
St. Basil the Great from Caesarea, his younger brother St.
Gregory of Nysa and St. Gregory Nazianzus. St. Basil the Great
was the son of devout parents and received his higher education
in Constantinople and Athens but renounced a promising career to
become a monk. Impressed by the ascetic life, he settled as a
hermit in Cappadocia where he was joined by Gregory of
Nazianzus. Basil ably defended the Christian faith among the
churches of Anatolia, which had suffered from divisions caused
by the Arian controversy. In 370 he succeeded Eusebius as
bishop. As a leader who had brilliant organizational skills,
Basil established hospitals, fostered monasticism, and reformed
the liturgy. His Rule, a code for monastic life, became the
basis of eastern monasticism, and the liturgy of St. Basil,
probably compiled by him though later revised, is still used on
certain Sundays in Orthodox churches.
Anchorites of the Early Church, who sought refuge from the
distractions of the world in wild and remote places, chose
Cappadocia which led monasticism to develop in the area. They
devoted their lives to prayer, penance and fasting, often living
in man-made or natural caves. Martyrdom was the ultimate aim of
a devout Christian.
After Christianity was accepted as the official religion by
Constantine the Great in 330 AD, the days of martyrdom went and
a peaceful and secure life did not satisfy these people. The
geography of Cappadocia was suitable for people who preferred
In the 7 and 8C AD when the Arabs began to raid Anatolia,
monastic communities had to hide themselves and, where it was
geographically easy, dug their underground shelters. In time
these shelters developed into large underground cities.
Churches of Cappadocia
It is estimated that there are more than 600 rock-cut churches
in Cappadocia. These churches that people carved were similar in
plan to the ones in the capital. Walls were covered with
beautiful frescoes and they were also influenced by the
Iconoclast period in the 8C and 9C. Most of the frescoes date
from the 11C and 12C.
Two different techniques were employed for the frescoes, they
were either painted directly on the rock or on a very thin coat
of plaster. In churches where it was not plastered over, the
painting became extensive. The predominant color of this style
was red ocher.
In many pictures it is noted that eyes or faces of people are
obliterated as it was believed that this action killed the
painted subject in the Islamic period. In addition to this there
are also many scratches of vandals’ initials which is strictly
forbidden today. The visitor should be reminded that the use of
flash with cameras inside the churches is not allowed.
The simplest church had a rectangular vaulted nave with an apse
covered by a projecting arch. There are many variations of the
churches, some with triple apse and a dome, cross-planned and so
on. Because the churches were carved into the rock, they did not
need to be supported by columns. Therefore columns and vaults
are only structural symbols. Names of the churches are based on
their archeological style or decoration, for instance the Buckle
or Sandal Church. The apses of the churches face different
directions as they are carved in accordance with the natural
formations and availability of suitable rock pieces.
In most churches there are many grave pits which are thought to
have probably belonged to donors or the church dignitaries as
this was the tradition.
GOREME OPEN AIR MUSEUM
Goreme museum consists of steep cliffs and many hidden churches
dating from the second half of the 9C and afterwards.
The Church of St. Barbara
It is an 11C cruciform church with two columns, three apses and
a side entrance. According to some sources this church was
believed to have come from the Iconoclast period. However
considering its plan which is similar to 11C and 12C buildings,
it can easily be concluded that this cannot be right. Its name
derives from a legendary saint, Barbara. According to legend,
Barbara, after becoming a Christian, was shut up and eventually
killed by her father. Her father was later punished by being
struck by lightning. Barbara was remembered as the patron saint
of architects, stonemasons and artillery men. Her attribute is
generally a tower with three windows representing the Holy
Trinity. St. Barbara is depicted on the north wall.
In the apse Christ, pantocrator is shown enthroned with his
right hand in the gesture of blessing. On the wall opposite the
entrance are painted two soldier saints on the horseback, St.
George and St. Theodore. These two equestrian figures battling
against a dragon symbolize the fight between the divine heroes
and the forces of evil. St. Theodore was a recruit in the Roman
army who was burned to death for setting fire to the Temple of
Cybele in Amasya.
The dark colored bird-like creature was believed to represent
The predominant color in the frescoes of the church is red which
was obtained from ocher. The two pits to the left after entering
are interpreted as being either baptismal or for wine
The Church of the Serpent
This 11C church has a single nave covered by a barrel vault and
a small apse on the left after entering. An interesting feature
in this church is that the frescoes are framed like icons. The
name of the church derives from the serpent in one of the
frescoes on the left above the apse. Here, like in the Church of
St. Barbara, two soldier saints St. George and St. Theodore are
fighting against evil forces in the appearance of a serpent.
Next to them is St. Onesimus.
On the right above the apse is another picture showing
Constantine the Great and his mother Helena. They are holding
the true cross. Constantine is very important in the name of
Christianity as he is the emperor who declared Christianity the
official religion in 330 AD. Helena was the mother of
Constantine. After her conversion to Christianity, she used her
position to promote the cause of the faith. She is the subject
of many legends and is said to have found the cross of Christ
during a trip to the Holy Land after receiving a vision at the
age of 80. In art her emblem is the cross.
On the wall opposite the entrance is Jesus Christ. The small
figure next to him is probably either the donor of the church or
the artist of the painting as found in Italian art.
Opposite the apse are shown three saints, St. Onophrius, St.
Thomas and St. Basil the Great. St. Onophrius, with raised hands
in a dismissive gesture, was a hermit who spent a life of
solitude in the desert in Egypt. He used desert leaves for a
loincloth and became the patron saint of weavers. Because of his
breasts and the way he is dressed he became a subject of some
apocryphal stories according to one of which he was originally a
beautiful, lecherous girl who repented of her sins and prayed
God to help her. Her prayer was accepted and she woke up one day
as an ugly old man.
In addition to churches, suitably to the monastic lifestyle,
there was also a refectory, a dining complex, consisting of
three rooms in line, a storehouse, a kitchen and a dining hall
with a long table cut from the rock for about 30 people and an
apsidal place for the father abbot at the top of the table
The Church of the Buckle
Tokali Kilise, which for convenience is called the "New Church"
is the most spectacular of all the rock-cut churches in
Cappadocia. The 10C church is different in plan to others in the
vicinity, having a transverse nave (Mesopotamian type) with
three apses and a narthex hewn out of an earlier church, known
as the "Old Church". On the left of the transept is a small
chapel and below the floor is a crypt. The most striking feature
after entering the church is the dominant bright blue color used
in the background of the frescoes. Because it was difficult to
obtain, the color blue was very rare in Cappadocia. It was
probably taken there from somewhere else which implies its cost.
From this it is understood that the church was special among
others. In the New Church, the niches in the walls of the nave
serve to give a sense of depth and substance to the paintings.
ZELVE OPEN AIR MUSEUM
Zelve was the name of a village which was inhabited until the
1950s in the Zelve Valley. The population of this settlement was
moved further away to Yeni Zelve, and Zelve itself was made an
open air museum because of the danger of collapse. The museum of
Zelve consists of three canyons intersecting at the entrance of
the museum. The first canyon on the right is entered through a
pathway between the first two canyons passing by the Geyikli
Kilise (the Church of the Deer) with paintings of a cross, fish
and deer. Figures of fish are frequently used in churches of
Cappadocia symbolizing the faithful who were called pisciculi
and who became members of the church by being baptized in the
piscina (fishpond in L). The acrostic of the Greek word for fish
formed the phrase, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. A cross in
a circle with fish on both sides symbolized the faithful people
who believed in Jesus Christ.
In the first canyon on the left there is a mosque which was
converted from a church. Towards the end of the canyon, two rock
faces are honeycombed with caves of dwellings, dovecotes, a
monastery, storage rooms, chapels and tunnels leading to the
second canyon. It is recommended that visitors not climb up
these caves or pass through the tunnels.
A dwelling room with storage bins and stone wheels used for
grinding grain and the Uzumlu Kilise (the Church of the Grapes)
can be found in the third canyon. Grape juice here represents
the blood of Christ.
No one knows when the underground cities of Cappadocia were
built, perhaps in Hittite times or as late as the 6C AD. There
were certainly underground cities as early as the 5C BC. They
are referred to by a 5 and 4C BC Athenian historian Xenophon in
his Anabasis. So far 36 underground cities have been discovered
some of them being very recent. It is also estimated that most
of them are connected to each other. But it is difficult to
identify these connections.
The ground consists of the same volcanic tufa. Cappadocians
created vast cities which cannot be noticed from the ground
level. They carved airshafts as deep as 85 m / 300 ft into the
rock and then made holes laterally at different levels in all
directions. They hewed an elaborate system of staircases and
tunnels to connect all layers to the surface. They dug
dwellings, bathrooms, kitchens, dining halls, storage rooms,
wine cellars, chapels, graves and suchlike. In times of danger
they provided security by rolling big round hard stones across
strategic tunnels. Entrances at the surface were also
Today even from some of the modern houses there are man-made
holes leading to underground passages most of which are used as