Özkonak Monastery, which includes Belha Church, is a large courtyard complex carved in a rocky hillside just outside of Özkonak village. Byzantine Christians built this residence in the 500's.
Who lived here? What was the purpose of this residential complex? The original, and most common explanation, is the site was a Christian monastery for a community of monks. However, in recent years, some scholars have suggested this is actually an "elite complex"—the residential estate of a rich land baron.
Either way, all interpreters agree this was a dwelling built by Byzantine Christians in the 500's. The purpose and function of this space is hard to discern without any documentation. However, the surviving complex does provide some clues about its original community and purpose.
This residential complex is built into a sloping hill next to a riverbed. The central area is a massive, open courtyard. The front of the courtyard area features a large, roofed porch supported by columns (portico). Four pillars create three massive archways, leading into the covered hallway. (The current columns are not original but added during a modern restoration project.) The ceiling of the portico is tall and supported by arches from the columns.
Smaller arched porticos ran along the sides of the courtyard. These are eroded away, but still evident near the main front portico. This large courtyard, with elaborate porticos on three sides, was designed to impress visitors.
From all three sides of the courtyard, you can enter long rooms with arched roofs (barrel -vaulted ceilings). Behind the front portico is the main hall. This plain room only has molding at the top of the wall and a few cutout niches on the right side. The hall may have been the monastic refractory where monks ate. The floor holes near the entrance and spaces on the left side are later additions made for cooking.
From the back left of the mall hall, a thin tunnel leads to a dark storage room. The Turkish attendant preached to me about the healing powers of this room, and billboards around town advertise it having "bioenergy"! In terms of history, this room was added later as storage space.
The left side of the courtyard has two long halls. They are 11 meters long, 4 meters wide, and 7 meters tall. Their high, barrel vaulted roofs are severely damaged, and continue to erode away and collapse. The sparse interior design provides minimal clues about their exact function. Perhaps these rooms were living quarters for men and women.
The original complex consisted of a courtyard with three porticos and four long halls (i.e., two on left, one main hall, plus the church). All the other spaces were likely added at a later date, including the smaller rooms on the upper levels. A cooking area sits on each side of the main hall. The kitchen between the main hall and church is entered from the portico. The cooking area has a circle window, which allows for ventilation. The other kitchen is above the front left corner of the courtyard and accessed by walking above the two halls on the left, or from the tunnel just inside the door of the main hall. The tunnel was perhaps used to serve the food in the main hall.
There are additional rooms in the same slopped hill, about 50 meters northwest of the courtyard. Some hypothesize these were animal mangers, and perhaps a double nave church built as a burial chapel.
Belha Church is the most articulated room in the complex. This room stands to the right of the complex, at the east end of the portico. In courtyard complexes, the church building is often located in this corner so the church could face eastward, like all Orthodox churches.
Though the church has no paintings, the architecture is elaborate. The interior space is strikingly tall. The long, thin hall makes the 7-meter tall ceiling seem even higher. Unlike many churches in Cappadocia, there are no tombs in this church (or anywhere else in the complex).
In the main room of the church (nave), each side has three, thick pillars under a row of arches (arcade). The space between the pillars is deeply recessed, about one meter back. The columns are heavily eroded at the base because farmers once stored their animals in the room. However, the upper columns reveal intricate carvings. A tall barrel-vaulted ceiling with three bands covers the room. Between the side arches and the ceiling, thick strips of molding (cornice) demarcate a flat strip of wall. This frieze zone is divided into five sections, so perhaps each featured scenes from Jesus’ life. The paintings may have been stripped away during the Iconoclastic Era (726–842), or simply crumbled away with time.
The church is technically a single-nave church, but the side arcades give the appearance of a basilica church. The rows of columns make the visitor expect aisles on each side of the nave, but the area between the columns ends with a wall.
The front section of the church (apse) is rather large, over 2 meters deep and 4 meters tall. A small templon wall remains, but wall scars on the right side show the original templon was much higher. The central throne stands at the head of the apse. Wall markings around the base suggest there was a full bench (synthronon) for the priests to sit. The two shallow niches in the corners housed the communion elements.
The design of the Belha is similar to two other basilica style churches—St. John’s Church (Çavuşin) and Durmuş Kadir (Göreme). All three churches date to the 500's.
This residential compound was either a monastic complex or elite estate. If the complex was an elite residence, the owner of a large agricultural estate lived here with his family. The ornate facade projected his power and prestige to visitors. The smaller rooms on the upper levels would have been for servants and workers. The church would have been a "private" church, established apart from the institutional church or regional bishop. Byzantine sources describe this sort of elite residence in the region, so this historical interpretation of "elite residence" is plausible.
There is also strong support for the common theory of a monastic community. The church space indicates this was obviously a Christian area. The absence of a rock table in the main hall does not automatically mean this was not a monastic refractory, as the room could have easily been furnished with moveable furniture (like most Byzantine monasteries). There is a potential monastic refractory twenty meters to the right of the courtyard. This room has a side bench and discoloring where the table would have been, but refractories are usually located next to the church.
The impressive size and decoration of the facility is also plausible for a Byzantine monastery. They were well-endowed and functioned like large agricultural estates. Perhaps a rich land magnate built this as a monastery complex for his retirement years. In modern scholarship, French researchers (Thierry, Lemagre-Demesnil, and Jolivet-Levy) favor a monastic interpretation, and English-speaking researchers (Cooper and Decker, Ousterhout) advocate a secular use.
I have heard (but not yet confirmed) that, in the late 1800’s, French Jesuit priests used the complex as a Catholic monastery.
In 1990, the complex endured an extensive restoration. Only one thin column remained, so the other three were completely reconstructed. Several columns inside Belha Church were covered with thick plaster, with the intent of mimicking the original appearance. The restoration crew also installed a drainage system above the complex to redirect the rain runoff that was eroding the portico; unfortunately, the erosion continues.
The complex, located south of Özkonak village, is currently open year round and free to visit. Follow the signs from the main road marked either "Belha" or "Monastery.” The small road ends at the monastery courtyard. Visitors who appreciate history, park before the courtyard. But most drivers pull right into the courtyard.
A friendly Turk named Serkan oversees the property. He welcomes guests with a brief explanation, displays some jewelry for sale, and gladly accepts tips.