Christianity in Cappadocia – Art and Underground Cities

Cappadocia has been an important area for Christian Art for hundreds of years . The terrain is well suited to defense, with cave dwellings and underground cities easily carved from the volcanic tufa. This stone is easy to excavate, but then hardens with exposure to air. With plentiful water and hiding places, various waves of Christian emigrants and monks lived in Cappadocia, eluding various raiders from the 6th to 14th centuries.

Goreme Open Air Museum

.gallery – goreme church

The Goreme Open-Air Museum is an extensive collection of monastic cells, abbeys and small churches and chapels. The rock-cut churches, have beautiful frescoes which, thanks to the dry climate still have remarkably fresh colors. Most of the churches date from the 10th thru 12th centuries.

Azize Barbara Kilisesi (the Church of St Barbara) has a square plan with 4 columns and what appears to be a groin-vaulted roof. In fact, like all the cave churches, the interior was entirely carved from the rock, leaving architectural trompe d’oeil that appear to be vaulting and other constructions. The frescoes show the life of Christ, the Hospitality of Abraham and Three Hebrew Youths

Elmali Kilise – Apple Church. With so many churches needing names, this one was supposedly named because an early visitor saw an apple in one of the frescoes, or perhaps because there was an apple orchard outside. The valleys of Cappadocia remain fertile areas of orchards of apples, pistachios, apricots and walnuts.

Many frescoes are damaged, sometimes from wind and water, but also from various waves of Christian and later Islamic iconoclasts who obscured the faces, especially the eyes.

Snake (Yilanli) Church has just 2 chambers. The front section is barrel-vaulted, while the back one has a flat ceiling. There is an image of Christ with a book in his hand, and, flanking him Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena. A fresco showing the Killing of the Snake by St. George and St. Theodore gives the church its name. Other saints include, the Apostle Thomas, and St. Basileios Of particular interest is St. Ono0phrius, who once female virgin was transformed into a man.. The frescos show him with long beard, and a woman’s breasts. He became the patron saint of weavers due to the fact that he was depicted “dressed only in his own abundant hair, and a loin-cloth of leaves”

========hairy mary

Carikli (Sandals) Church This church is cross vaulted, with 3 apses and 4 domes. Its frescoes show the life of Jesus, Abraham, and images of the saints and the donors of the church. Footprints under the Ascension scene give the church its name, which means “with sandal”. The church dates to the beginning of the 13th century. The center dome displays a picture of Jesus Christ, Pantocrator. Other apses depict the Deesis, Madonna and child, and St Michael.

Buckle (Tokali) Church This church is just outside the museum. It‘s formed from 4 main chambers. The New Church has a rectangular plan leading to the barrel-vaulted single-nave Old Church with frescoes dating to early 10th century. The usual palette of of rich red and green, represent scenes from the Bible. The indigo coloring sets the New Church apart from its neighbors. The Buckle Church’s best paintings narrate the life of Christ including the Infancy, Ministry and Passion cycles. 

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Underground Cities

Derinkuyu & Keymakli are two underground cities we’ve explored. They’re at least 8 floors deep ( esimates of levels & number of underground cities vary greatly). We, like most tourists, have only gone down 3-4 levels. The first floors held animals and food stores. Large circular millstones could seal off passages. Living quarters and a chapel were located further down along with water cisterns and air shafts.

These cities were most likely used for emergencies of short duration. While populations have been given from 20,000 to 70,000(!), it’s difficult to imagine the logistical (if not the psychological ) problems of supplying food. Animals would require mass quantities for forage & bedding

An aside: One commonly held belief is that Christians hid in underground cities to escape Roman persecution. Some sources describe a Byzantine persecution in the 4th century CE. In the previous 3 centuries, persecution of Christians was actually of short duration, often confined to small areas; only made infamous by the later Church’s glorification of martyr hood. The Edict of Serdica, issued in 311 by the Roman emperor Galerius, officially ended the Diocletian’s 8-year persecution of Christians. With the publication in 313 CE of the Edict of Milan, persecution of Christians by the Roman state ceased. So ‘4th century persecution’ was confined to the first decade. And after becoming the state religion the Church under Theodosius (ca 475 CE), began a millennium of persecution of schismatics, iconolasts AND anti-iconoclasts, witches and heretics culminating with the Inquisition.

More to the point, there’s no evidence the underground cities date to that time. The underground cities were built during the 600s and 700s in order to escape Arab raiders, who came from the south during the summer to plunder Anatolia on their way to attack Constantinople. So, the local population in Cappadocia built these temporary shelters to hide. The earliest historical sources about these subterranean shelters are Arabs writings that mention “underground dwellers.”

By Cascoly

I've been exploring and leading trips for over 40 years. climbing & trekkng in the Alps, Andes, North American mountain ranges and the Himalaya. I'm retired from mountaineering now but world travels in Europe, Africa & Asia continue to expand my portfolio. Besides private travel, I now focus on escorting trips to India & Turkey. Other interests include wide reading in history and vegetable gardening / cooking. You can download digital images here, or find images at We have many thousands of images we haven't displayed yet; so, if you have a special need or request please contact us