Eski Gumus Monastery is a breathtaking rock-carved complex. You walk through a tunnel into the courtyard of a huge, cube-shaped, subterranean fortress. The towering rock walls impress the visitor. A gigantic cube (15m wide x 14m long x 11m tall) was carved from the surface level to create this four-sided courtyard, from which other rooms are carved out. This subterranean living complex was hidden and thus was more secure.
The complex features many rooms, and itself is part of a sprawling rock-cut settlement in Eski Gumus (“Old Silver”) village, which is 10 kilometers northeast of the city of Nigde. The village of Eski Gumus has a 500-meter long, 15-meter high outcrop of volcanic rock, honeycombed with many caves. The monastery is located at the far (northern) end of the outcropping.
The current frescoes were painted around 1050 A.D., and under the plaster are yet earlier paintings (i.e., geometric red designs) painted directly on the rock. Since the complex was obviously carved before these paintings, a start date sometime in the 900’s is likely. So this complex is around 1,200 years old.
The northern wall is the first impression upon entering, so it is purposely the most intricate. A series of nine tall arches decorate
the wall. The upper portions of the arches are well decorated and sheltered by an overhang. The legs of each arch (i.e., pilaster) originally extended to the ground, but are now severely damaged. Perhaps the harsh Anatolian winters or courtyard livestock caused
the erosion. But more likely, residents cut away the lower arches to make a wood structure in the courtyard. The holes in the facade
likely held timber beams for a roofing structure. This reconstruction was likely post-Byzantine (after 1453), when Ottomans reshaped
the premises for their purposes.
The north wall has several entrances. The far left door goes into a plain, rectangular, barrel vaulted room (perhaps a cooking area?). The decorative door in the middle is the focal point of the entire facade, as it leads to the church entrance (narthex). The far right entrance is now bricked-up, but goes into the central space of the church (naos).
Above the narthex door is a strange, irregular entrance. Originally,
a small arch-shaped window served as the room’s source of lighting. That window was later expanded (with sloppy craftsmanship) to
make an external entrance into the upstairs room. To complete the entrance, builders constructed external stairs up to the doorway
and carved a few steps from the floor just inside the room.
The design and function of this upstairs room is particularly curious. The careful carving indicates it was original to the complex, not a later addition. The original access to the room was only by ladder up from the plain room below. The room has two arched recesses, containing apparent sofa beds with rock cut pillows. The platform appears small, but remember ancient Romans were only 5ft (1.55m) tall. The wall pictures are scenes from Aesop’s Fables, moral stories from an ancient Greek storyteller. These pictures were common decorations in the monastic communities. Byzantine Greek Christians used Aesop’s Fables for moral instructions, just as many societies continue to do today! So what was the purpose for this curious
room? Rodley suggests a secret, special room for the monastery
such as a treasury or library. Ousterhout sees the complex as a secular estate, so suggests this space was a sitting room from
which the lord of the manor watched over others. Without
written sources, we can only rely upon the architectural elements
to deduce the purpose.
Church Entrance Room (Narthex)
The external church entrance (eco-narthex) is impressively carved, yet unfinished. The barrel vaulted ceiling starts from a high band (cornice), and the walls have tall, blocked arches (i.e., blind arcades). The wall above the exit (lunette) has an equal-armed Greek cross cut in relief. Between the doorways to the church and courtyard, the legs of two arches (pilasters) were removed to create a larger panel area for painting a fresco. The scene features archangels Gabriel (L) and Michael (R), dressed in royal robes and prepared to serve. The central figure is Mary, identified here as “the mother of God.” As usual, she is front facing, wearing a head covering, and holding the Christ-child.
Church (Nave, Apse, and Frescos)
The church at Eski Gumus is unique and well preserved. Overall the carving is detailed and smooth. Tall, round pillars dominate the church’s interior space. The pillars are black with a white geometric pattern. The roof extends higher than normal, so the interior spaces feel disproportionate. The ceiling follows the pattern “cross-in-square” floor plans—a central dome, rounded barrel vaults on the four arms, and lower domes in the four corner bays.
In the sanctuary area in front (apse), the rounded part on top (conch) shows Jesus seated in majesty on the royal throne of heaven, as described in Revelation chapter 5. Mary and John the Baptist, along with a serving angel, stand at Jesus’ side. There was surely a second archangel on the right where the plaster has crumbled away. The central band under Jesus are busts of his apostles. The lowest section features several church fathers. In the middle is Mary, and to her immediate right are the Cappadocia Fathers Basil and Gregory of Nazianzos, here called “the theologian.” This visual layout of the apse represents the order of the universal Church—Jesus Christ (on top) is the founding head of the church seated in heaven; then apostles (in the middle section) reveal the good new about Jesus to humanity, and church fathers (lower panel) shepherd and serve the church on earth. This heaven/Jerusalem/earth layout in the apse fresco was a common pattern for church frescos in the Middle Byzantine period (roughly 700-1,100 A.D.).
The left apse has a unique fresco known as “smiling Mary.” The art work is unsophisticated, but the subject of Mary smiling is rare, making it a popular feature of the church. The opposite apse features John the Baptist.
The left (northern) wall has two elevated grave spaces built into a deep niche. This space was for the financial donors (patrons) who funded the church’s construction. The painting and architecture show this space was certainly original. The surrounding wall narrates three parts of Jesus’ birth. On the bottom section, the annunciation scene spans both sides of the arch. Here the archangel Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth to the young Mary. The busy scene in the middle combines several narratives. From left to right, the picture involves the actual birth, the adoration of the three magi, the angelic choir, the shepherds who came to worship Jesus, and the first bathing of Jesus. The upper scene is Mary and Joseph presenting/dedicating Jesus to the priest Simeon in the Jerusalem temple. These scenes reflect the supernatural origins of the incarnation, teaching when and how God became human in the person of Jesus. The opposite southern wall, though unfinished, would have featured scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion, as Byzantine churches juxtaposed Jesus' incarnation and crucifixion—the pinnacles of divine revelation.
Why are so many walls unpainted? Most likely, the church was never finished. Scholars date the existing paintings to 1030–1070 AD. There is no written documentation, so this is a rough estimate based on comparative artistic styles. In 1071 Seljuk Turks defeated and captured the Byzantine king at the Battle of Manzikert (far east Turkey), and within a few years overtook Cappadocia. This political change meant Byzantine Christians at Eski Gumus were unable to finish the fresco program. Painting had started in the 1050’s or 1060’s, but was not finished before the unexpected Seljuk conquest.
At the front left of the church, another doorway leads to a small funeral chapel. This room has a simple apse and large grave pit in the floor. The chapel was added later, as you can see from how the doorway was later carved through the back of a carved seat.
The well carved room connected to the church is a hall. The large space is 30x15 feet. The roof is barrel vaulted, starting from a simple cornice band. The far wall has a large rectangular arched apse and two small side niches. On the wall space above the apse (lunette) is a "Maltese cross,” which means each arm of the cross has two pointed fingers. This large room was the main gathering place. The community gathered here for meals. On the front right there may have been a rock table with benches. Many graves were later cut into the floor.
South and West Walls
The entrance tunnel in the south wall is a cross-shaped hallway. On the upper level above the entrance is a kitchen, uniquely carved to allow ventilation. The other spaces are non-descript, functional storage areas. The left (west) side of the rock complex features a network of informal rooms which connect to the larger complex.
Purpose and Function
A Christian community constructed and used this space in the middle Byzantium period. The church and hall were the most important spaces, as their fine architecture indicates, so church worship and meal gatherings were defining practices for the community. Most likely, the residents were a group of monks who vowed to live in community. The residents could also have been the household of a powerful political figure. But even then, such a group would have identified as a Christian community centered around worship and common gatherings. Without a written record, we can never know for certain the identity and purposes of this community. So we rely upon the architecture and artistic remains to tell the story of this stunning rock complex.
In the 1900’s local Turks used the facility for grain storage and animal shelter¾a common secondary usage of rock-cut architecture. In 1962-64 Michael Gough lead restoration efforts to clean and conserve the church frescos. Gough removed soot from the walls and repainted scratched frescos. If you examine the frescos closely, you can see the touchups. This link shares more of his story: https://biaa.ac.uk/research/item/name/eski-gumus-monastery-restoration. Today, Eski Gumus is a public museum site operated by Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Access and Entrance
Eski Gumus Museum is open year around, 9 am–5 pm. You pay 10TL at the entrance booth (or use your MuzeKart), then walk through a tunnel entrance into the impressive courtyard. The site has excellent signage from the main road, so it is easy to find. The view looking into the courtyard from above is worth the short hike to the top. The path up begins outside, a few meters up the asphalt road from the ticket booth.
Gough, M. 1964: ‘The Monastery of Eski Gümüş - A Preliminary Report’ Anatolian Studies 14: 147-161, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3642470
Gough, M. 1965: ‘The Monastery of Eski Gümüş – Second Preliminary Report’ Anatolian Studies 15: 157-164, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3642507.