With so many other charming and more characteristic villages in Cappadocia, it’s a wonder that Göreme’s popularity never wanes. Its name recognition has been high among backpackers, a state of affairs that led to a profusion of charmless, dormitory-style pensions and fly-by-night bars catering to a coed crowd. As travelers to the region increase, young ambitious entrepreneurs are stepping up to the plate with better-endowed pensions and outright luxury hotels. For the most part, however, the presence of “modern,” albeit low-rise, concrete slabs detracts from the magic of the horizon.
The main appeal of Göreme, besides the Open Air Museum located on its fringes, is the village’s proximity to some of the most scenic valley walks. Inconspicuous early churches dot the landscape between the town and the Open Air Museum, popping up unexpectedly at the edge of a lonely corner of a valley. In Göreme itself, one of the few villages in which the rock homes and fairy chimneys have been continually inhabited, the attractions share the spotlight with the daily lives of the locals. Gentrification has yet to push out its natives and, with it, the authenticity of the village. In Göreme it’s still common to run into a donkey delivery, or stumble upon a devout gaggle of chatty women and chickens, while staying fairly accessible to food, transportation, and Internet cafes.
The road from the Open Air Museum leads right to the center of town over a dry creek bed; turn left onto Uzundere Caddesi until you get to the otogar. Everything you need is located here or just behind the station, including tour operators, car and scooter rentals, taxis and the tourist information office. The bazaar is located behind the otogar around the mosque and Roman tower. Adnan Menderes Caddesi forks off from Uzundere Caddesi closer to the turnoff from the museum; Kapadokya Balloons is on the right and the Orient Restaurant is on the left.
Göreme Open Air Museum
Cappadocia’s main attraction and the customary starting point for an overview of what the region has to offer, the Göreme Open Air Museum is a monastic complex composed of churches, rectories, and dwellings, and one of the earliest centers for religious education.
The practice of monasticism was developed by St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea (Kayseri) in the 4th century, as a reaction to his increased disillusionment with the materialism of the Church. St. Basil’s definition of monastic life, based on the idea that men should live in small, self-sufficient units with an emphasis on poverty, obedience, labor, and religious devotion, took root in Cappadocia, later becoming the basis for the Orthodox monastic system.
St. Basil, his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzoz (St. Gregorios the Theologian) greatly influenced the course of religious thought through their writings, contributing to the development of Eastern Orthodoxy. In his extensive writings St. Basil describes the nature of the Holy Spirit as a trinity, while St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote of the dogma of the Virgin Mary, and St. Gregory of Nazianzoz developed the thesis on Jesus as a representative of the indivisible nature of the human and divine. Because of their contributions, Cappadocia became known as “the land of the three saints,” but was soon divided in two in A.D. 371 when Emperor Valens rejected Basil’s thesis on Jesus as the son of God.
There are at least 10 churches and chapels in the museum area dating between A.D. 900 and 1200, each one named (after a prominent attribute) by the local villagers who were exploring these caves long before there was an entrance fee. The paintings and decoration represent a flowering of a uniquely Cappadocian artistic style, while the Byzantine architectural features of the churches, like arches, columns, and capitals, are interesting in that not one of them is necessary structurally. The best way to approach the site is to begin in a counterclockwise direction toward a clearly marked path.
During the Iconoclastic period, many of the frescoes and paintings were damaged, while the eyes of the images were scratched out by the local Turkish population superstitious of the “evil eye.” Past a small rock tower or Monks’ Convent is the Church of St. Basil, whose entrance is hollowed out with niches for small graves. This is a common feature of Cappadocian churches and it’s still not uncommon to reach down and come up with a knuckle bone every now and again in the more remote valleys. Another recurring theme in Cappadocian churches is the image of St. George slaying the dragon. St. George was considered a local hero, as local lore equated the dragon with a monster on the summit of Mount Erciyes. The church is decorated with scenes of Christ, with St. Basil and St. Theodore depicted on the north wall.
The Church with the Apple (Elmali Kilise) is one of the smaller churches in the area, carved in the sign of a Greek cross with four irregular pillars supporting a central dome. The church was restored in 1991; however, the frescoes continue to chip off, revealing a layer of earlier paintings underneath. Paintings depict scenes of the saints, bishops, and martyrs, and to the right of the altar, a Last Supper with the symbolic fish (the letters of the word fish in Greek stand for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Savior”). The name of the church is believed to refer to a reddish orb in the left hand of the Archangel Michael in the dome of the main apse, although there’s also speculation that there used to be an apple tree at the entrance to the church.
Santa Barbara was an Egyptian saint imprisoned by her father to protect her from the influences of Christianity. When she nevertheless found a way to practice her faith, her father tortured and killed her. The Church of Santa Barbara, probably built as a tribute, is a cross-domed church with three apses, with mostly crudely painted geometrical patterns in red ochre believed to be symbolic in nature. The wall with the large locust probably represents evil, warded off by the protection of two adjacent crosses. The repetitive line of bricks above the rooster in the upper right-hand corner, symbolically warding off the evil influences of the devil, represents the Church.
The Snake Church is a simple barrel-vaulted church with a low ceiling and long nave. One fresco represents Saints Theodore and George slaying the dragon (looking suspiciously like a snake), with Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother, Helena, depicted holding the “True Cross.” Legend has it that she discovered the cross upon which Jesus was crucified after seeing it in a dream, and that a piece of the cross is still buried in the foundations of the Ayasofya in Istanbul. Other sections of the cross are in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and in St. Peter’s in Rome. Another interesting portrait is the one of St. Onuphrius on the upper wall to the right of the entrance. The saint, a popular subject in medieval art, lived the life of a hermit in the Egyptian desert near Thebes and is usually depicted with a long gray beard and a fig leaf over his privates.
Until the 1950s the Dark Church (Karanlik Kilise) was used as a pigeon house. After 14 years of scraping pigeon droppings off the walls, these newly restored frescoes, depicting scenes from the New Testament, are the best preserved in all of Cappadocia and a fine example of 11th-century Byzantine art. Because light is allowed in through only one small opening, the richness of the pigments has survived the test of time. There is an the additional admission of 8TL for entry into the Dark Church.
Cut into the same rock as the Dark Church and accessible via a metal walkway, the Church with Sandals (Çarikli Kilise) takes its name from the two imprints on the floor inside the entrance. In the land of truth-stretching, these footprints have been given some weighty religious significance, but the fact is, they’re just footprints and all of those stories are just more creative embellishment. The church is carved into a simple cross plan with intersecting barrel vaults. The frescoes, which date to the 11th century, depict the Nativity, the Baptism, the Adoration of the Magi, and other New Testament themes.
The last thing to see before exiting the museum is the Nunnery, or Girls’ Tower (Kizlar Kalesi), a six-story convent cut into the rock with a system of tunnels, stairways, and corridors. The convent housed up to 300 nuns, whose proximity spawned rumors of a tunnel connecting the tower and the Monks’ Convent to the right of the museum entrance.
About 5 mt outside the exit to the museum site on the right is the Buckle Church (Tokali Kilise), the largest rock-cut church and the one with the most sensational collection of frescoes in all of Cappadocia. Of all of the narrations of scenes from the Bible in the region, these are painted with the most detail and use the richest colors.
The Buckle Church is a complex formed of four chambers: the Old Church, the New Church, the Paracclesion, and the Lower Church. The Old Church dates to the 10th century, with pale hues of red and green painted in strips to represent scenes from the New Testament. Panels of rich indigo painted with pigments from the lapis stone dominate the New Church, carved out of the eastern wall of the Old Church and decorated with Eastern-style arches and a series of arcades. The Paracclesion is a chapel with a single apse, and the Lower Church has three aisles and a burial space, or krypto.
The high plateau behind Tokali Church brings you to Kiliçlar Valley, named “Valley of the Swords” for the jagged formations that seem to slice into the sky. This is a favorite spot for hikers because of its high cliffs, deep ravines, and vineyards, in addition to a tunnel that forms part of an old drainage system. The cliff walls are dotted with dovecotes or pigeon houses hollowed out of the rock to harvest valuable fertilizer — pigeon droppings are rich in nitrogen — by area farmers. There are several old churches in this valley, but they are closed to the public. The best way to get to the valley is to enter along an access road from the road between the Göreme Museum and the town.