Today’s order of business, since the weather was decent, was a visit to the most famous sight in Turkey’s Cappadocia region, the Göreme Open-Air Museum in the Göreme Valley only a 15-minute walk (1.5 km, 1 mile) from Göreme Town and a short ride (6.5 km, 4 miles) from Ürgüp. Willemijn called her taxi-man Halil for me, and after a short wait in the village square, he drove me to the site. Since the tourist season has not started here yet (it begins in mid-April), the Museum was not at all crowded, a real blessing! A few busloads of people were there, but for most of my time there, I had the churches to myself and could appreciate them in silence.
After I was finished my visit, I walked into Goreme town to visit Mehmet, the owner of Sultan Carpets, a friend of Willemijn’s with whom she used to work. After downing the obligatory cup of tea, I was shown the various kilims and carpets that Sultan stocks. Mehmet explained to me the technique of kilim making and that those he carried were mostly old, over a hundred years, made by women from nomadic families to decorate their yurts (nomadic tents). Each family has its own particular patterns and motifs, thus no two carpets are ever the same. Each of the elements on the fabric has special significance, mostly to do with nomadic lifestyles; for example, the five pillars of Islam and a geometrical shape designed to ward off wolves. Mehmet’s store has several levels, each of which houses carpets and kilims from a different part of Asia. He also has a small gallery space, in which two of Willemijn’s painting are displayed, as well as doll sculptures by an American artist.
More about the Goreme Open Air Museum:
The Göreme Valley holds the region’s best collection of painted cave-churches. Medieval orthodox Christian monks (1000-1200 AD) carved the caves from the soft volcanic stone and decorated them with elaborate Byzantine frescoes. The valley, and other troglodyte (“cave-dweller”) habitations in Cappadocia, may have been inhabited since Hittite times, but Göreme is known for its thousand-year-old churches.
Most of the frescoes in the churches have been damaged-many of them badly damaged-by wind, water, weather, earthquake, and shepherd boys who sought refuge in the caves and used the faces of the figures as targets for pebble attacks, having been taught that images were sinful. But the beauty of the churches and their decoration is still apparent.
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 Göreme was carved out and decorated between 900 and 1200. 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.
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, the volcano in the distance behind Ibrahimpasa.
St. Basil’s Church (Basil Kilise)
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.
Apple Church (Elmali Kilise)
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.
St. Barbara Chapel (Azize Barbara Kilisesi)
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.
Dark Church (Karanlik Kilise)
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.
St. Catherine Chapel
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.
Sandal Church (Çarikli Kilise)
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 Deisis (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.
See pictures here.