Çökek Churches

The Çökek Churches are two medieval Byzantine cave churches. They are located on the south side of Çökek village, just outside Ürgüp, Nevşehir.

Because of the churches’ poor condition, few tourists or scholars visit them. However, the churches are easy to access and offer a beautiful panoramic view of the Ürgüp Valley. Here are their locations on Google Maps: Church 1 and Church 2.

Hundreds of carved spaces honeycomb long rock falaise along the west side of Çökek. Most are dovecotes, though some had to have been functional living spaces. The amount of dovecotes and the presence of two churches suggest that a decent population lived here in Byzantine times. The area around Church 1 has many potential living spaces.

Church 1

Çökek Church 1 is unique; the architectural style has no parallels elsewhere in Cappadocia. In fact, the various sections may reflect two or three successive churches built on-axis with one another. The later churches were constructed through the destroyed apse of the previous churches. The ground level of the rooms is now concealed due to silt, erosion, and illegal digging.

Çökek Church 1, ceiling

The external wall has a large central entrance with recessed arches, flanked by two circular niches. The bottom half is now destroyed. Three pointed gables cover the arched sections, with the middle pitch much larger to cover the central entrance. Four rounded pilasters with pronounced crowns supported the gables, visible on the left side. The roof was a shallow barrel vault, or perhaps slightly pointed (like the nave at Balkan Deresi Church), while the south (right) wall has square insets.

This wall now appears as the church façade, as though the carvers wanted a monumental entrance (cf., Ala Kilise in Belisırma). However, this “façade” was the back wall of an enclosed room, which has entirely collapsed, leaving only the east wall to appear as a façade. Mostly like, this was the east wall of an initial church. The current entrance was the arch of the apse, which was carved out to add another church. Though the destruction of a church sanctuary seems sacrilegious, this practice (stemming from Cappadocia’s carvable terrain) occurred at other churches, including the famous Tokalı Kilise (Buckle Church) in Göreme Valley.

The first enclosed room is a short nave with a shallow barrel vault, whose lower sections contain some plaster and painted images. The arched recess on the south wall appears to be an arcosolia grave, but seems exceptionally low to be original. This room may have been a simple church (before the deeper cruciform space was carved), as no other churches have such an extended, barrel-vaulted narthex before a cruciform nave. The uniform painting does not infer that the spaces were carved contemporaneously, but only that the final painting program united the spaces.

The third space is a large cross-in-square nave with a central dome. The western half is best preserved, as the east bays and apse have severely eroded. Four barrel-vaulted transepts frame the central area. The north and south walls have arched recesses, while a horseshoe-shaped molding edges the side lunettes. The destroyed apse extended back from the east transept.

Four pillars, all destroyed, once supported the arches and organized the interior, which is now entirely open. The four corner bays had arched openings with pairs of standing saints and groin vaults painted in geometric tile patterns. Considering the thin arches and location of the pillars, the corner bays were slender—barely large enough for one person to stand inside.

The central dome rises above the main arches in a sequenced fashion. The lunettes above the arches form an initial square. The painted pattern of triangular rows (typically found above the apse arch or Jesus’ mandorla) indicates a transition to a higher realm of holiness. Then, in the corners, four flat triangles transition to an octagonal cornice, followed by the octagonal drum. The encircled busts on the pendentives were likely the four Gospel writers.

Though in poor condition, the painting remnants reveal the hand of a skilled artist. The program involves a complex layout, multiple tones, and elaborate scenes. Nativity occupies the south transept, while the west transept has other Infancy scenes.

Çökek Church 1, sideroom

Another formal room appears just northwest of the church. The room is detached, set higher than the church, and turned away from the church area, and so was intentionally distinct from the church. The small square space has a flat roof. Each wall has two large blind niches. Their horseshoe-shaped arches have a red zig-zag pattern and supporting pilasters. The function of this room is unclear. It was not a chapel or burial chamber, but was important enough for formal architectural elements.

Church 2

Çökek Church 2 is a large cruciform church 500 meters south of Çökek Church 1. The rock walls and plateau foundation of this church have eroded. Only the east wall and apse remain, leaving a solitary open cross-section that makes for a spectacular sight from the road below.

Çökek Church 2, from afar

Arched recesses on each wall create a Greek-cross shape. The side walls are plain, uncarved, and unpainted. The carver-architect had a fetish for imposts. These protruding blocks at the base of each arch are isolated and unnecessary, but common at each corner.

Rounded pendentives transition to the dome, which remains only in part. A tall dome (~7 meters tall) towered over the narrow nave (~3 meters wide). Cruciform churches are generally cubical in shape, with all three dimensions roughly the same distance. The collapse of the western half distorts the internal dimensions—or at least our experience of the ‘interior.’


Çökek Church 2, apse

The large apse remains intact. The arched recess carved into the back wall was the bishop’s chair, with a footstool and rock-cut frame. Another arched chair appears on the south side. Later farmers repurposed the space as a dovecote. They cut roosting niches into the wall and opened an upper window. The large blocks on the left reveal an uncompleted attempt to expand the space. Cappadocians would carve out such blocks to expedite the digging process.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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