Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cave Churches in Turkey

The town of Ortahisar, in the Nevşehir province, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey is quite famous for it's odd geology, the Rose and Red Valleys, and the carved cave churches. In spite of being on tourist radar, it is still a very small town where most people know each other.

I'm here to house-sit for Evelien, a Dutch woman who has three dogs and runs a walking tour travel agency. She caters to Dutch people, but gets customers from all over. She knows this huge area like she knows her own living room.
The small walled up "caves"
are the pigeon houses.

The day before she left on her trip, we drove, with the dogs, to the Rose and Red Valley. It is an area just east of Göreme and part of a large national park which, interestingly, includes many small towns and lots of privately owned garden plots in the moist valleys between the wind and rain sculpted tuff formations. 

I forgot my camera.

At first I was heart broken, but then realized it is probably a better idea to experience this unique area first, then come back later, when the light is right and concentrate on photographing it. Down inside each little valley there are the remains of cave homes and pigeon caves. 

The people in this area, over the last couple of centuries, have provided pigeon dwellings so that in the fall, when the pigeons migrate, they can collect the nests and all the droppings to fertilize their gardens. Over recent decades, the practice has dropped off considerably. Commercial fertilizers are more available. The poor soil, nothing more than eroded tuff, needs help, but it's probably easier to go to the store than travel for miles and haul back pigeon poop. 

The pigeon dwellings are small openings into caves which have nesting cavities inside. They are visible all over the valley, up high in the rocks, so high it makes you wonder how anyone got up there to make the little cave in the first place, or how they would clean out the droppings later.

Multiwinged Angel, photo taken
at the MNAC museum, but there
is one almost identical to it in
the cave church, with a missing face. 
Well over a thousand years ago, during the Byzantine era, churches were carved out of the rocks and served communities of cave dwellers. In the Rose Valley, a man has "adopted" a church, cleaned it up, provided stairs up to the entrance and cleaned the marvelous frescos inside. In addition, he has opened a little store that serves tea, water, snacks, jewelry, handmade items, and most importantly shade, for people hiking the valley. It's refreshing to come across his little enterprise tucked into the rocks.

His church is small, with a large cross carved into the ceiling, and frescos that are almost identical to ones I saw in the MNAC museum in Barcelona. The only difference between the museum and the little church: when Christianity was kicked out of Turkey, the faces on all the saints and angels were intentionally scratched off by the subsequent Muslims. For years the church was also used as a pigeon house, nesting boxes were carved into the walls.

Walking back to the car, we went a different path and came across a much larger church, with a wooden bridge across the deep stream bed in front. The entrance is a small cave opening into a low vestibule, but beyond that, a cavern opens up, with columns carved from the solid rock to hold up the ceiling. There was no sign of frescos, so it's possible it was never decorated that way. Some painted designs are still visible on the ceiling, but nothing on the walls. It too served as a pigeon house for many years.


MNAC display of frescos from early Byzantine church.