Cappadocia – Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum

A four night stay in the Cappadocia region of Turkey included spending an afternoon enjoying and appreciating Göreme’s monastic past, evolution and demise of this ancient landscape.

The area now known as Göreme has changed throughout history. During antiquity the Göreme valley was known as Kòrama by the ancient Greeks, and changed to Matiana; with the arrival of the Armenian Christians it was renamed Macan. Following the Turkish rule of modern day Turkey the area changed name again and was known as Avcilar, before renaming the area to the present name Göreme; meaning ‘unseen’, that represents the many churches that are built into the walls found throughout the Göreme valley.

The present name Göreme was given when the area became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. The Göreme Open Air Museum is approx. 100 km 2 and consists of the modern day Göreme Open Air Museum (formerly Kòrama) and the modern name Göreme village (formerly known as Matiana/Macan).

Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site there is a small admission fee.

 Let’s take a walk through this unique and ancient land of the Göreme Open Air Museum that today is a popular tourist attraction known for its monastic complexes of ancient caves, the many burial grave sites from the pre Roman Christian period, a number of monasteries used as teaching facilities and the many beautiful rock cut churches with well preserved frescoes.

Chapel of St. Basil _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum

Passing through the entry point, we follow the paved path a short distance that leads to the Chapel of St. Basil, also known as Aziz Basil Sapeli (Turkish). The small compact church has a small number of frescoes painted in a style known as panelled style, having been painted by a talented amateur. The frescoes include that of St. Basil who was the Bishop of Caesarea in 379 AD and defended of the Nicene Orthodox. A panelled style frescoes of St Theodore and another panelled style frescoes of St. George are also found in the chapel of St. Basil.

St. Basil was raised by a wealthy and distinguished Greek family from Caesarea (then the capital of Cappadocia) and a province of Asia Minor. His family were long standing Christians and had been since the period of Christian persecutions. He was educated in Caesarea, Constantinople and during 351 – 356 in the Greek capital of Athens.

Given his wealthy upbringing, it was during his young adult years that he gave away all his material possessions to the poor to embark on a monastic path and undertake his studies in other cities. Returning to Caesarea he began a secular life and established a monastic settlement in Pontos (an ancient region of modern day Anatolia). He became a prolific writer with several of his writings becoming part of the canon law of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In addition to his work as a theologian, he was known for providing for the poor and underprivileged, and is remembered as a father of communal monasticism.

St. Basil died on 1 January, 379 in Caesarea. Today throughout Greece St. Basil is celebrated on 1 January and on this day it’s also a tradition to bake Vasilopita; a rich bread that is baked with a coin inside. When setting the table for the celebrations locals also set a place at the table for St. Basil. Whoever is the recipient of the piece of Vasilopita with the coin inside, it is said that they will have good fortune for the coming year.

Apple Church _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air MuseumNext along the paved path we reached the small entrance to the Apple Church, Elmali Kilise (Turkish), dating back to 1050.

Much of the original entrance has eroded away due to the weather of over a long period of time. We learn that this church was likely part of a larger monastic complex, as there is a section close by that is believed to have been a communal dining room, and a number of smaller rooms, and grave tombs. However, other parts of what is believed to be part of the larger complex has also suffered erosion over time and collapsed into the valley below.

The inside of the Apple church was carved with four pillars in the form of a Greek cross that support the richly preserved and colourful interior frescoes; truly a magnificent sight to behold.

Detailed and skillfully painted frescoes including those of saints, including St. Basil, various bishops, a scene of the last supper, Jesus’ death at the hands of Roman clothed officials and the Archangel Michael holding a reddish coloured orb in his left hand adorn the walls and the ceiling.

One can also see past the more visible and colourful frescoes that there are sections of the frescoes that have began to peel away in places, revealing layers of plaster that covered the less ornate red ochre panelled style frescoes scene underneath of Maltese Crosses.

St. Barbara Church _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum

From the Apple Church it’s a short walk along the paved path to the cave Chapel of St. Barbara, Azize Barbara Kilisesi (Turkish). The Chapel of St. Barbara also dates around 11th century and is a four domed church with distinguishing and beautiful red okra decorated frescoes and a Greek Orthodox cross on the apex.

Inside various patterns of frescoes adorn the underside of the arches, the cornice and the triangular walls that support the domes. Patterns including crisscross, zigzags, circles and triangles and animals, nature and a total of nine different style medallion and free crosses to disarm the evil of Satan. A fresco of St. Barbara is featured in the entrance dome and others, including St. George and St. Theodore can also be found with the Chapel of St. Barbara.

Like St. Basil, St. Barbara came from a wealthy family in Phoenicia, what is known as Lebanon today. Her wealthy pagan father locked her away whilst he awaited a suitable suitor to wed his daughter.  She secretly became a Christian and when her father ordered her to renounce her Christianity and she refused her father’s order, her father then arranged her gruesome beheading.

St. Barbara is known as being the saint of explosives, mines and lightning. It was interesting to learn that divine justice saw her father killed when struck by lightning.

St. Barbara is celebrated on 4 December (in the Julian calendar) in Lebanon and other eastern Christian countries.

Whilst walking along the path and stopping to step inside the remarkable rock cut churches that display detailed visible stories, it was important to reflect on the sacred religious and spiritual practices that once took place. To feel and appreciate the ambiance of the surroundings, and the echoes of prayers from long ago that held a cultural and communities together in an ancient land.

Snake Church _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum

Between the Chapel of St. Barbara and the Snake Church, we pass another rock church that is inaccessible to the public.

The Snake Church is believed to be an unfinished church dating back to the 11th century, and is also known as the Church of St. Onuphirus or Yilanli Kilise (Turkish).

Stepping inside there are a number of well preserved frescoes, including a fresco close to the church entrance showing St Onuphirus wearing only a fig leaf to cover his/her genitals, standing together with St. Thomas and St. Basil.

According to folktale St. Onuphirus a hermaphrodite, was once a female and prayed to God to protect her from men. God honoured her prayer with a beard and moustache that grew to great length and enabled her to cover her feminine form.

Other frescoes within the church include the Emperor Constantine and his Mother Helena who is holding a cross, which is believed to be the cross that Jesus was crucified upon. The St. Onuphirus church is a fascinating and unique little church, as is the story of the saint and the equally unique and interesting frescoes.

St. Onuphirus choose to live a secluded life of a hermit in a cave. Many of the small churches dedicated to St. Onuphirus on the island of Crete are built into the side of hill or mountain and representative of a cave. The saints feast day is celebrated on 12 June in both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic churches.

Dark Church _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum

On the highest point of the path we found ourselves at the Dark Church. The interior of the Dark Church or Karanlik Kilise (Turkish) is noted as being the best preserved church in the Cappadocia region. During the period following the Greek/Turkish population exchange in 1923, churches in the Cappadocia region were left abandoned. However the Dark Church was used as a dovecote, to house pigeons until 1950. During the restoration period it took fourteen years to scrape away the pigeon droppings from the interior to reveal the best preserved 11th century Byzantine frescoes.

However, it wasn’t the pigeon droppings that preserved the frescoes; interestingly the Dark Church frescoes were preserved due to the lack of natural light that also gave the church its name. The small oculus (circle window) in the church was the only fixed window that permitted natural light. Many of the beautifully preserved frescoes are biblical scenes, including the Nativity, Baptism, the Last Supper with the hand of Judas on the table, the Crucifixion and Christ’s Ascension.

Originally the Dark Church was like other cave churches in the Göreme region and was part of a monastic compound carved during the mid 11th century and dedicated to the Ascension of the Saviour. With the passing of time a section of the church’s narthex wall has collapsed opening the roof to the sky causing damage to some frescoes, and only partial remains of other frescoes where the wall has collapsed.  Truly remarkable and well preserved frescoes.

St. Catherine _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum

Leaving the Dark church we continue along the designated circular path through Göreme Open Air Museum to arrive at the small cave Chapel of St. Catherine positioned between the Dark Church and the Sandal church.

The chapel of St. Catherine also dated from the 11th century has an interesting and unique façade showing three different carved cross circles; one larger carved cross circle above the door entrance and a second carved cross circle above a recessed burial chamber, a place of entombment known as an acrosolia on the left and a third cross circle on the right of the entrance, with the three believed to represent the Holy Trinity.  Within the large entrance room there are seven carved out floor graves and an additional two burial chambers.

The carving of the chapel is believed to have been financed by a donor named Anna, who was originally shown (now destroyed) in a frescoes kneeling alongside the chapels namesake St. Catherine. Other panelled style red ochre coloured frescoes of other saints including, St. Basil, St. George St. Theodore and others are found covering the walls of the windowless chapel of St. Catherine.

St. Catherine was the daughter of royal lineage, born in the 3rd century in Alexandria Egypt. An avid learner from an early age she became a Christian in her youth, having studied the sacred scriptures and writings. On 25 November, 305 still a young women the Roman Emperor of Alexandria at the time, Maxentius caught sight of her and marvelled at her beauty and wisdom, yet was distraught by her staunch stance of Christians. The Emperor challenged her to defend her faith in an open debate with prominent philosophers and pagan orators of Alexandria, in the hope she would return to her pagan roots. However, Catherine defeated the elite learned men of Alexandria. This brought rage within the Emperor and ordered Catherine be stripped of her royal position, flogged and tortured. None of which had any impact on Catherine and her faith and thus the Emperor ordered her decapitation.

St. Catherine Day is honoured and celebrated on 25 November, having retained its popularity throughout the centuries, in commemorating the martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria.

Sandal Church _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum

Continuing downhill we then found ourselves standing in the courtyard of the impressive Sandal Church, Çarikli Kilise (Turkish) again dated to the 11th century. There are two entrances on the ground level and a metal staircase that now serves as the entrance to the upper level. Really interesting, my mind is in awe of the uniqueness of these centuries old carved out cave churches.

A number of red painted Maltese Crosses adorn the church façade, while little remains of the original carved rock staircase that was to the left of the metal staircase and once gave access to the now collapsed portico and entrance to the upper level and the small church inside. Inside the small church there are two small floor grave.

The church name, Sandal Church is due to the footprints that mark the entrance floor and are directly below the Ascension frescoes above.

The ground floor level consists of a seven metre dining room table carved from the rock, including bench seats and is known as Cappadocia’s best preserved refectory. Interesting to learn that the dining room table setting, including the abbots seat at the head of the table with the frescoes of the last supper directly behind him is positioned directly below the church above. The ground level ceiling comprising four domes, each with various frescoes depicting biblical scenes, and additional ceiling frescoes including one showing three archangels.

Above the first level are what is believed to be the Monks living cells that are inaccessible to the public. Whilst the now open courtyard is also believed to have been enclosed by a stone wall that provided an inner sanctuary.

Kizlar Monastery _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air MuseumWe’re nearing the end of the circuit path within the Göreme Open Air Museum and standing before us is the six level rock cut mass of the Monastery of Girls, Kizlar Manastiri (Turkish), and also known as the Sisters Monastery/Nunnery and the Rahibeler Monastery.

During my visit only the first two floors were accessible due to erosion over time and is today closed to the public. Yet this once towering monastic complex was home to numerous rooms throughout the levels, a dining hall with a dining table carved from the rock and kitchen close by on the lower floor; a (now ruined) small chapel on the lower level with a frescoes of Saint George and the church that was built in 1055 on the second level with a single frescoes painting of Jesus standing.

Entry to each level was by internal tunnels, similarly to those found in the underground city of Derinkuyu with the same design millstone doors, or Tiğraz (Turkish) that were closed during times of danger.

Map of Göreme _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air MuseumThere are a total of fifteen historical monasteries and rock cave churches found in the area of the Göreme Open Air Museum, with only eight accessible to the public at the time of my visit that showcase the many exquisite works of ancient Byzantine frescoes.

In addition to the eight historical monasteries and cave churches noted above, there is also the Buckle Church, Tokali Kilise (Turkish) that is located in the Soğanlı Valley a short 50 meters outside of the main entrance of the Göreme Open Air Museum and is included in the entry ticket.

Buckle Church _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum


The Buckle Church is one not to be missed.

Within the unsuspecting entrance of the Buckle Church is the oldest, largest and considered to be the most beautiful rock cut church in the Göreme Valley.

The Buckle church consists of four sections, including the original “old church”, that was initially a small dwelling for a solitary monk; the “new church”; the “lower church” and the “parecciesion”, being a type of side chapel found in Byzantine architecture.

The original one nave old church was carved out in 915 and now forms the entrance to the new church. During the carving out of the new church in 961 the apse being the semicircular recess of the old church was cut away to make space for the new larger church.

Buckle Church Interior _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum

Richly detailed, vibrant, colourful and costly frescoes using the blue pigments of the lapis lazuli stone that was traded along the Silk Road from (modern day) Afghanistan together with real gold describe the life of Jesus in chronological order and adorn the vault ceiling and the top of the walls from right to left in the new church.

A visually beautiful representation of antiquity storytelling, that any lover of art, history and cultural would surely appreciate.

Buckle Church Interior _ Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum

Other frescoes of the life of St. Basil and other saints together with frescoes of the miracles of Jesus adorn more walls. Whilst the open holes in the church floor were once burial tombs of important people that were taken by the Greek Orthodox Christians during the Greek/Turkey human exchange.

The Buckle, “New Tokali Church” was instrumental in defining the Göreme Valley as a popular place for monasticism and pilgrimage with many people coming to visit the new church and many others finding the inspiration to build additional monasteries and churches in the upper area above the valley that is now the Göreme Open Air Museum.

Throughout Time & History

By the end of the 2nd century, the Göreme Valley had become the centre of Christian activity with many people being drawn to the region due to the valley’s natural defences whilst fleeing persecution and seeking refuge.

During the 3rd century with the arrival of priests of prominent character, Christianity became more organised. This lead to rock cut monasteries first being established in the area during the 4th century and the Cappadocia region becoming known as the “Land of the Three Saints”. Basil of Caesarea, also known as St. Basil, who introduced the practice of worship within the community, became the Bishop of Caesara Mazaca in Cappadocia. St. Basil’s brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. George of Nazianzus made up the trio.

During the 7th – 11th centuries the Göreme Valley had become an important centre of monastic life, together with the devotional practice for Byzantine Christians and cultural activity bringing many Christian pilgrims to the area seeking assistance and support through worship during times of hardship and distress.

The area of the Göreme Valley once consisted of no less than 60 churches, approx. 45 monasteries and hundreds of burial graves.  Historical records by a 10th century monk who lived in the Göreme Valley, noted “that there were approx. 360 churches and monasteries of various sizes throughout the area”; known today as Cappadocia.

Following centuries of Christian prominence in the Göreme Valley and the wider region of Cappadocia, it was during 1071 that the population of Byzantine Greeks came under attack when Central Asian Seljuk Turks invaded vast areas of Byzantine Asia Minor. This lead to the torture, assassination and transition of an overwhelmingly Greek Christian populated region to become a primarily Muslim and Turkish region.

By the 12th century Ottoman Turks from Central Asia had seized control of the wider Cappadocia region, within the area known as Anatolia and cleared the population that rapidly diminished the Anatolian Greek Christian population through mass conversion to Islam, slaughter or exile.

The many rock cut churches and monasteries were left abandoned, whilst some were used by a local Turkish farming communities as winepresses and ovens and others as dovecots.

Fast forward to the Greco-Turkish War during 1919 – 1922 with Turkey gaining their National Independence that also resulted in the population exchange. Having defeated the Greeks, Turkey had no interest in preserving Greek culture, heritage or history.

During the pursuing years the area of the Göreme Open Air Museum was left abandoned and fell prey to the elements of nature with many cave churches and monasteries falling into disrepair and open to any and all who were interested in visiting the area. However, in the early 1970s interest in the Cappadocia region re-emerged. The Turkish Government formerly stepped in, in 1973 and declared Cappadocia as a privileged region for touristic development. With the nearby township of (the then modern day) Avcilar, changing its name to Göreme thereby claiming jurisdiction of the Göreme Open Air Museum and receiving 40% of tourism revenue.

The rest is modern history.

The detailed content of the “Monastic Life in what is now Göreme Open Air Museum” blog post within the Cappadocia region of Turkey is also available as a downloadable Soul Travel Guide e-Booklet for the price of a coffee here. see image below.

This blog is the fifth in the series of posts sharing my travels in Turkey and one of many that I have written sharing the personal journeys that have enriched my life and broadened my knowledge and understanding of the richness and diversity of our shared world.

Experiencing the gifts of a new outer landscape in a new country that evokes ones senses in many and varied ways, and provides offerings of reflection that is awakening the inner landscape.

Embracing the lessons and learning’s that a new outer landscape gives is one of life’s inspirational mysteries. Yet our personal horoscope offers valuable insights that guide each of us with acknowledging the lessons and integrating the learning’s through the practice of Astrocartography, Where Location Matters.

Below you’ll find a personal account of how and why Astrocartography is a valuable guide to support the awakening of our inner landscape. See how together with your personal horoscope and Astrocartography you can incorporate the outer and inner landscapes.

Thank you for taking the time to read and I hope that I bring some inspiration (if needed) to visit this amazing and magical part of the world. Leave a comment and let me know, and visit A Soul Awakening to subscribe and receive new blog posts as they become available.

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  • Maggie

    I LOVE Cappadocia! And I agree, the Goreme Open Air Museum is a must-visit there. It’s such a fascinating place and it’s amazing the artwork that has been preserved. Thanks for helping me revisit one of my favorite places I’ve been to!

  • Sonia

    The Cappadocia area looks incredibly unique, and worth its UNESCO designation (and a visit).

  • Moona

    Cappadocia is such a fascinating place to explore. I have wanted to visit ever since I watched a documentary about its intriguing architecture. After reading this article, I want to explore even more!

  • Sarah

    Fascinating. I had no idea. This is one of the best pieces I have ever read about Cappadocia, thank you 🙂

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