Three Crosses Church (Turkish, Üç Haclı Kilise) in Güllü Dere is a cliffside cave church with three monumental crosses carved onto the roof. This tenth-century church has the most ornate, stunning relief carvings in Cappadocia. Three Crosses church is somtimes named St. Agathangelus Church or Güllü Dere Chapel 3.
Three Crosses Church is easy to access by hiking. As you enter towards Red Valley from Çavuşin, turn left into the first valley, Güllü Dere I. Walk 300 meters along the sandy road. The church will be on your left, just as the path becomes a gorge. You will find a cluster of broken cave rooms 3 meters up the cliff. Scale the sandy hillside and enter through the apse.
The church sits on a large, multi-level cave complex. Several agricultural rooms extend back from the nave. The cliff face shows broken rooms several floors above and below the church. The original structure is severely eroded, but the size of the spaces and the proximity to the Güllü Dere Monastic Area suggest this complex housed a monastic community.
The room behind the church nave was a monastic dormitory. The spacious area has five beds and a direct entrance into the cave. Carved crosses and trimming decorate the two bed niches flanking the church door. People cooked in the round area towards the front wall. An open pathway leads to a large oven and then an animal manger with troughs.
The large complex and multiple layers of paint indicate a long history of development. The main structure may date back to the 600s, but the paintings were added in the 900s, some 300 years after the initial carving.
The transverse (situated crossways) nave has a flat ceiling. The three crosses fill only the front section of the ceiling, and the carving in the back half is distinctly rougher. Therefore, the original nave was only the broad front section, which measures 8 meters wide.
Three large carved crosses decorate the wall. The middle section has an equal-armed cross within a larger circle, with smaller concentric circles in each quadrant. Tall Latin crosses with arches stand on each side. Four palm trees grow under the arms of the side crosses. Palms trees (also in St. Sergios Church, Göreme) grow nowhere near Cappadocia. They may symbolize the desert oases of Syria and Egypt, the birthplaces of Christian monasticism. Therefore, their symbolic meaning is uncertain. The fine carvings have circular patterns: entwined rope, draping leaves, circles, and elegant arches.
The relief carvings are the result of reverse artistry. While lying on their backs and facing the ceiling, the artists removed the negative space, leaving only the crosses attached to the ceiling.
Some people attribute the crosses to the Iconoclastic Period (730–843), when visual images were prohibited. However, the monumental cross reliefs resulted from creative artists adapting Cappadocia’s unique terrain. They were not the result of political conditions in Constantinople. (Learn about the history and meaning of the cross.)
The apse has several irregular features—off-centered towards the left, a wide oval-shaped bema floor, a flat ceiling, and a 360° scene around the top. The upper right has a painted window shaft and an unreachable niche. A long synthronon bench wraps around the entire base. Any central or altar has eroded away.
Christ in Glory appears on the large rounded apse. Jesus sits enthroned as ruler of the world. With an intimate face and soft beard, Jesus faces forward.
Around Jesus are the heads of four living creatures from Old Testament prophets (Ezekiel 1; Daniel 7; Revelation 4). To early Christians, the creatures symbolized the four Evangelists who gave witness (through their gospel writings) to the divine glory revealed in Christ’s life. Matthew is the man, Mark is the lion, John is the eagle, and Luke is the ox. This symbolism dates back to Irenaeus, the second-century Church Father from Gaul (modern France). A thick mandorla of skinny diamonds encircles the heavenly throe. The painting style is identical to that of the conch painting at nearby Cross Church. However, the image here is proportionately smaller and tucked towards the back.
The front half of the apse is filled with various angels. Seraphim (Hebrew, “the burning ones”) are six-winged angels who surround God’s throne, crying, “holy, holy, holy” (see Isaiah 6; Revelation 4). They lead the heavenly choir of eternal praise. Tetramorphs (Greek, “a four-form one”) are symbolic arrangements of four creations in one. The mythical composite united the characteristics of the four most powerful creatures (man, eagle, ox, lion) into a single being with angelic wings.
Adam and Eve kneel before the seraphim angels on both sides. The seraphim extend a single, human-like hand to help (similar to Jesus in Resurrection images). The Archangels Michael and Gabriel stand over the arch in royal military attire. A solitary hand of God appears in a navy triangle. The peak of the roof has three circles—an uncommon feature in apse scenes. The middle central has disappeared. The other two figures are unlabeled busts—a woman (Mary?) and a young saint against a background of red sun rays.
On the lower portion of the apse were standing angels, apostles, and Church Fathers. The faded soffit (underside of the arch) had roundels with Maltese crosses and Old Testament prophets.
The priest standing in the apse has the best viewing angle in the church. The figures on the front half of the apse are directly visible and the crosses with trees appear upright. Worshippers standing in the nave have a limited view of the apse scene, while the relief scene overhead looks upside-down.
On the front left wall is Jesus’ Baptism. The image is similar to that of nearby Church 1 of the Güllü Dere Monastic Area. John the Baptist, wearing a large red robe, puts his hand on Jesus, who stands central in the white water. Two angels stand at the right in service. A hand from heaven appears inside a black semicircle and a dove descends.
This scene is severely discolored, as various layers are visible. The five layers are plain rock, white plaster base, preliminary sketch in red-green, final painting in rich tones, and a layer of smoke and soot. The upper portion reveals all the layers. At some point, an untrained hand sought to clean the soot, but also rubbed away the final layer, thus revealing the preliminary sketch and plaster on the bottom. The cleaner was an overzealous Greek pilgrim who etched prayers onto the green background.
To the right is St. Aganthangelus. While serving in the royal courts of Armenia in the 400s, he wrote the popular book History of St. Gregory and the Conversion of Armenia. The hagiography recounts how St. Gregory fled from Cappadocia to Armenia. Through Gregory, the Armenian king and entire nation converted to Christianity in 301, over a decade before Constantine’s famous conversion. The only information we know about his life is the writing of this book, which he holds with both hands in the painting. The smaller figure on the right is St. Anastasia, martyred in Serbia in 304.
In the post-Byzantine era, ingenious farmers converted the cave space into a water cistern to irrigate crops. The wall channel in the apse captured rainwater from behind the church. The lower half of the walls were plastered to retain water, while four side rooms added storage capacity. Water flowed from the southern part of the church (creating the large opening) to the opposite fields, using a pipe to bridge the riverbed.