Yesterday, once again, Spring reasserted itself in Cappadocia. I woke up to blue skies, warm temperatures and birdies chirping. Paul asked me to join him on a walk through the valley to Ortahisar – that sounded good to me so we set off around 11:30. The stream through the valley floor was running fast and full; all the snow in the last little while must have swelled what is usually a small trickle to a decent sized stream. This meant that the stream banks were very, very muddy and we had to hop and gingerly step from one side of the stream to another as we negotiated our way along the valley. At times, we went up the banks and through orchards of fruit trees and meadows of dry waving grass. In this area families have gardens, many of which are no longer tended since the old folks have died and the children are not interested in being farmers and gardeners. Many, many fruit trees stand unkempt in these ancient orchards.
After about an hour or so of walking through the valley we reached a very large tunnel going under a very large fairy chimney. We entered and walked beneath this massive geographical formation for quite a while before emerging into a beautiful valley ringed with hills and chimneys. This is the valley of the Balkan church and monastery complex. Four rock cut churches are here, along with quite a large monastery cut into the rock.
One of these churches, a small one, has frescoed walls; one depicts a scene of Jesus baptizing St John, one of the very few images of a nude man in these parts. This church also has several rock-cut graves in its floor. Next to it, in a larger chimney, is the remains of quite a big church with relief sculptures cut into the walls and ceiling. Most of its dome is missing, having been sheared off into the valley some time in the past. I could see small trees growing on the roofs of these structures and their roots, burrowing into the stone, eventually cause the ceiling and walls to crack and give way. In this church is a carved image of the tree of life and a very large Byzantine or Greek cross surrounded by leaves representing the tree of life. In front of this cross is a hole which Paul thinks must have been a baptismal font (thus relating to the baptismal scene in the neighbouring church). These ruined churches have been used by local people in the recent past as stables. I could see small niches cut into the walls; these were used as troughs for feeding their animals. There are three types of niches in these buildings: long narrow holes in the ground – graves; semi-circular holes in the walls – graves; and small wall hollows – animal feeding troughs or pigeon resting places.
In two other close-by chimneys are two other churches, one with beautiful frescoes on the ceiling and pillars and 16 graves cut into the floor; these would have been for the monastic community here. Paul explained that there were three reasons for erecting churches in these valleys: to give glory to God (the church would not have actually been used); to bury the dead of the community (essentially a cemetery, not used as a church); and to worship. The first two kinds of churches, because they weren’t actually used as such, have clean, white walls. The third kind have dark, sometimes black, walls from the candles that were used during services.
The valley cliffs are full of pigeon houses, often decorated with painted motifs such as a carpet design, signifying “home”, red sun rays, or a tree of life. Many of these in this area have metal sheets added to them, a feature I’ve not seen before. The pigeon houses, with their tiny entrances, are cut into the soft rock here, while the churches, which were supposed to last longer, were cut into the harder, darker stone formations. A third kind of feature in these cliffs is very tiny openings, smaller than those for pigeons, which are entrances to bee houses. This area is well known for its honey and pecmez, a spread derived from honey.
From here we went down again to the valley floor and walked into Ortahisar town and up the cliffs on the side opposite. There we visited three more churches, two with red designs painted on the walls, one with the remains of frescoes, and the last, a black church, probably stained by fire. The first two churches are now used as pigeon houses and have small sleeping niches for the birds cut into the walls. The black church is now used as a stable; a metal cart sits in front of the altar and a pile of straw in one corner. The domes are intact here and feature the same byzantine cross-tree of life motif, except painted on the wall rather than carved into it. Part of the wall has been destroyed and the hillside dirt is sliding into the church. In a few years from now it will be buried.
A fantastic walk that took about 5 hours.
See pictures here.
See a video of Paul Broekman discussing the frescoes in one of the Balkan Churches at the link below: