Goreme Open Air Museum: Best Cave Churches of Cappadocia
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Goreme Open Air Museum

Best-preserved rock-cut churches

Best Known for
Wall paintings

Built
4th century

Civilization
Byzantine

Suggested Duration
2 hrs

Cappadocia is a wondrous land, treating visitors to unique architecture, sights, and experiences. At the heart of this historic region sits the most visited attraction in Cappadocia, Goreme Open Air Museum. This museum attracts well over two million visitors each year, which is why it is commonly referred to as the crown jewel of Cappadocia.

So, what makes the site so special? The area is home to some of the best-preserved churches from the Byzantine era in the whole of Cappadocia. Nonetheless, these are not your ordinary brick and mortar churches; they are rock-cut (cave) churches dating back to the 10th century AD.

The churches in Goreme Open Air Museum are part of a larger complex of churches in Goreme Valley, which contains over 200 rock-hewn churches.

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Cappadocia is a wondrous land, treating visitors to unique architecture, sights, and experiences. At the heart of this historic region sits the most visited attraction in Cappadocia, Goreme Open Air Museum. This museum attracts well over two million visitors each year, which is why it is commonly referred to as the crown jewel of Cappadocia.

So, what makes the site so special? The area is home to some of the best-preserved churches from the Byzantine era in the whole of Cappadocia. Nonetheless, these are not your ordinary brick and mortar churches; they are rock-cut (cave) churches dating back to the 10th century AD.

The churches in Goreme Open Air Museum are part of a larger complex of churches in Goreme Valley, which contains over 200 rock-hewn churches.

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Planning a trip to Cappadocia? Answer this trip planner and get your FREE quotation within 24 hours.

The History

Christianity

Paintings

Key Features

Tips & Etiquette

During Roman times, the region of Cappadocia was used as a burial ground. As Christianity seeped into the Roman Empire, their burial grounds became more Christian in nature, including those in Goreme Valley. Therefore, some early saints were laid to rest in the valley, making it a sacred area to medieval Christians.

This sanctity, combined with the region’s desert-like topography, drew monks looking for ideal places to lead a contemplative life. The monks formed small monasteries, and over time, more monks and hermits joined them in Goreme Valley, turning the area into a pilgrimage destination. With this influx of pilgrims, the region’s holistic reputation grew, and thus, the need to construct chapels in the region.

Therefore, the numerous rock-cut churches in the region came to life. The churches were in use until the population exchange that was much later than the Ottoman occupation. Eventually, the Christian population in Anatolia decreased, and the significance of cave churches also faded over time. It was not until the mid-20th century that the valley regained its once irresistible only this time, it drew researchers and tourists who wanted to explore medieval monasteries.

Goreme Valley has a long history of interaction with Christianity, which predates some of the churches there. In the 4th century, Christian believers had a great desire to lead a monastic life free from the secular world’s pleasures and influences. Therefore, the great Saint Basil founded this way of life in Cappadocia.

During this time, Christians were still facing persecution for their beliefs and therefore needed a place to hide from the world. The Cappadocian region made an ideal hiding spot due to its moonscape topography and relatively inhospitable state that discouraged habitation by other people.

A few centuries later, in the Iconoclastic period, the region again proved to be an ideal hiding spot for persecuted Christians. In this secluded section of the world, they would lead humble lives of worship and devotion out of the reach of their persecutors.

To preserve the region’s significance to Christian history, the “Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia” was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.

As with every other Byzantine-era church (except for the iconoclastic period), paintings played an essential part in worship. Therefore, when churches were cut next to the monasteries, the monks made an effort to decorate the churches with wall paintings called fresco-secco (or a secco).

Masters were commissioned to draw various paintings on the walls and roofs of the cave chapels.

At their best, these paintings were of incredible detail, which you can still see today. Most of these wall paintings depicted various stages of the life of Christ or some important happenings in Christian history.

When the churches fell out of use, the paintings were left at the mercy of malicious acts by locals, which is why some of them have their eyes gouged out. They were also exposed to the elements and thus, sustained some damage. Nonetheless, the paintings are still in pretty good condition, and visitors can enjoy the incredible detail that went into place.

  • Declared in 1985; it is one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Turkey.
  • Goreme Open Air Museum is one of Turkey’s most visited sites, welcoming more than 2 million people annually.
  • It is only a few minutes away from Goreme town, which is the most famous town in the region.
  • The museum looks like a monastic complex. Each monastery in the Goreme Open Air Museum has its church.
  • The most iconic churches in the museum include St. Barbara Church, Apple (Elmali) Church, Dark Church, Snake Church, Carikli (Sandals) Church and Buckle (Tokali) Church.
  • There is also a nunnery in the museum.
  • Apart from monasteries and churches, the open-air museum also has refractories, kitchens, and living quarters.
  • The best times to visit are early in the morning, lunch time when most of the groups are out, or 2 hours before it closes.
  • Explore the museum for at least 1.5hours for the best experience.
  • Since you will be walking around in the hot sun for a few hours, remember to wear sunscreen.

1.Tokali Kilise (Buckle Church)

The Buckle Church is the largest and most decorated cave church in Cappadocia. It is also the oldest rock-cut church in Goreme Open Air Museum and one of the earliest in Goreme Valley. Built at around 960, the church is arguably the most significant in the museum. Here is why.

According to the church’s archeological remains, it was inspired by a simple hermitage of a solitary monk. In 915, the Old Tokali Church was carved next to this hermitage and instantly became a busy pilgrimage site because of the holy monk living in the hermitage.

This influx of pilgrims necessitated the need to carve an even larger church, and thus, the New Tokali Church came into being. This new church was so important that the Old Tokali Church’s sacred apse had to be demolished. The New Tokali Church also has the best-detailed paintings of any rock-cut church in Cappadocia.

The paintings attempt to narrate the life of Christ. They include the Infancy, Miracles, and Passion paintings. Some scenes tell of Saint Basil’s life: Basil and Emperor Valens, The Dispute for the Church of Nicaea, Meeting of St. Ephraim, Prayer of the Orthodox, Absolution of the Sinful Woman, and Funeral of Basil.

Costly blue pigments and even real gold were used to achieve this level of decoration in the New Tokali Church. These materials are quite expensive and leave you wondering, who funded the projects? On the nave cornice, there is a sentence fragment that states that the church was entirely decorated with the depictions of Constantine.

A second inscription at the north apse also mentions Leon, the son of Constantine, and the artist responsible for the decorations- Nikophoros.

In the Old Church, depictions are painted in rich red and green bands and attempt to depict scenes from the Bible. These scenes show the Christological cycle while there are others of Old Testament Prophets and saints.

2.Dark Church (Karanlik Kilise)

Another church with paintings that blow the mind away is the Dark Church. You will have to pay an extra 25TL to be admitted into the church, but the excellent conditions of the church’s wall paintings are worth a look.

The church gets its name from the fact that lighting comes from the fact that very little light gets in, and since exposure to sunlight tends to destroy the colors, this is why the church’s paintings are still intact. As a result, no photography is allowed as the camera flashes tend to destroy paintings.

The church was carved between the end of the 12th and the beginning of the 13th centuries. It is a domed church with three apses, one main and two small ones, and four columns. Decorations in the church show scenes from the New Testament. These include Adoration of Magi, Last Supper, Crucifixion, Betrayal of Judas, Anastasis, First Bath, Nativity, and Christ Pantocrator.

When the Ottoman Turks conquered the region, The Dark Church was converted into a pigeon house until the 1950s. This means, it became a private residence of the villager who kept the church away from human erosion, that led the church to be preserved either on purpose or accidentally. It took researchers 14 years to completely restore the church, revealing the best-preserved wall paintings in the whole of Cappadocia.

3.St. Barbara Chapel

This chapel was carved in the second half of the 11th century as a tribute to the Martyr-Saint Barbara. According to the story, the Greek martyr was imprisoned by her father, who wanted to stop her from practicing Christianity. Nonetheless, she still found a way, and as a result, her father tortured and killed her.

The chapel was carved with a cruciform plan. It has a cross-dome with three apses, one central and two side, and two columns. The west, north, and south arms of the cruciform are barrel-vaulted while the east arm, east corners, and the center are domed.

There is a motif depicting Christ on the Throne and red ochre geometric patterns painted directly on the rock on the cross-dome. There is also a painting of a large locust with two adjacent crosses and one of St. George and St Theodore on horse-back fighting the dragon and the snake.

There are red ochre lines on the rocks to give the impression that the monks used cut stones in the construction.

4.The Snake Church (Yilanli Kilise)

This cave church is named after the painting inside of St. George and St. Theodore slaying the dragon. It consists of two chambers and has a liner plane; depictions in the Snake Church date back to the 11th century and are painted directly to the wall.

Another famous depiction inside the Church is that of Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helena. In the painting, she is depicted holding the True Cross upon which Jesus was crucified, which she discovered after seeing it in a dream.

On the upper wall to the right of the entrance is a portrait of Saint Onuphrius, who lived as a hermit in the Egyptian desert near Thebes, Egypt. He is depicted with a long gray beard wearing only a fig leaf.

5.Apple (Elmali) Church

Another rock-cut church with vivid colors in the museum is Apple Church. It is smaller and was carved in the mid-11th century into four irregular pillars to support its central dome. The beautiful paintings in the church depict bishops, saints, and martyrs. We have the life of Christ, Three Hebrew Youth, and the Hospitality of Abraham. There is also the last supper depiction with the symbolic fish (the letters stand for ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Savior.”

Even after the restoration was completed in 1991, the wall paintings continued to chip off. Underneath, they revealed a layer of earlier paintings, simple red-painted figures that date to the iconoclastic period. The structure is believed to get its name from an apple tree that grew outside or a reddish orb in the left hand of Archangel Michael.

6.Carikli (Sandal) Church

The Church of Sandals gets its name from two footprints located at the church’s entrance at the bottom of the Ascension. The footprints have inspired many legends, many of which you will gear during your visit to the church.

The Carikli Kilise is a cross-vaulted church with three apses and four domes that date back to the end of the 12th century. The church is cut into the rock, same as the dark church, and scenes in the church including the Ascension, the Way of the Cross, the Descent from the Cross, the Baptism, the Four Evangelists, the Nativity, among other New Testament themes.

7.Nunnery

To the left of the museum, entrance is a 6 floors rock mass known as the Nunnery. There is a dining hall, a kitchen, some rooms on the first floor, and a chapel on the second level.

The third floor has a cruciform plan, three apses, and a dome with four columns. Here, there are depictions of Jesus and designs painted directly onto the rock. This level could be accessed via a tunnel, and other tunnels connecting the different levels and millstone doors like those found in the underground cities. The doors were used to block entry into the tunnels in times of danger.

Due to erosion risk, the nunnery is not open to visitors but offers excellent photos from different angles and lights.

Visiting Goreme Open-Air Museum

To get to Goreme Open Air Museum, first head to Goreme town, which is only one mile away from the town center. There are plenty of signs that will send you in the right direction, and you can even walk to the open-air museum. For those driving, there is plenty of parking space near the museum’s entrance. Nonetheless, you can always book a tour with a professional tour company to avoid any inconveniences that may arise.

You will only be able to truly appreciate the otherworldly look of the terrain once you set foot in the museum. The monastery complex in itself looks like something out of an alien planet. After taking in the surreal landscape, you can now start exploring the museum. The ticket you purchased at the entrance gives access to all the open cave churches, except the dark church, which requires you to pay an additional 25TL to enjoy the well-preserved paintings.

Photography inside the cave churches is prohibited. But if you really love taking photos, the museum makes for an incredible background.

Ticket Price
The entrance fee is 75TL per person.

Opening Hours
From 1st April to 1st October, the museum is open every day between 08.00 and 19.00hrs.
From 1st October to 1st April, it is open between 08.00 and 17.00hrs.
In summer, the ticket counters close at 18.30, while in the winter, they close at 16.15.

Cappadocia Tours

What is Nearby

The Goreme Open Air Museum is part of the larger Goreme Valley in Cappadocia. Here, there are numerous other cave churches that you can explore. On the other hand, the land of Cappadocia is full of attractions like Pasabag and Zelve fairy chimneys, underground cities, and hot air ballooning, which you should definitely try out.

If you want the best experience exploring Goreme Open Air Museum and Cappadocia as a whole, view our private day tours that cover this site and many other jewels.

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