Açık Saray (Open Palace) is an open settlement with nine prominent courtyard complexes and fifteen cave churches, all carved into the volcanic landscape. This large Byzantine site was developed around AD 1000. The complexes are near the small creek running through the valley, about 1 kilometer before the large Halys River (Kızılırmak).
Two kilometers east of Gulşehir, the site entrance is just off the main road, here on Google Maps. You park at the official museum entrance and then walk about 300 meters to see the rock-cut mansions. The open area is beautiful to hike in the spring and fall, but can be unbearably hot in the summer.
The main complexes are three-sided courtyards with similar plans. The elaborate façade, decorated like multi-story architecture with multiple levels of horseshoe niches, is visible and impressive. The monumental architecture projects status and power. Internally, most complexes follow a T-shaped pattern with two formal spaces—a horizontal vestibule behind the façade and then a perpendicular main hall. Other side rooms are smaller and less decorated. Most courtyards have functional spaces, such as dovecotes, kitchens, and/or horse stables. The decorative style, especially the crosses, emphasizes the Christian origins of Açık Saray.
The courtyard complexes are similar in design. This indicates that they were built contemporaneously some time in the 900s. However, the complexes are not identical. The carver-architects creatively adjusted the standard plan to the local topography in each instance. The courtyard complexes are in close proximity on the west side of the creek. The exceptions are Areas 8 and 9, situated on the other side of the river about 300 meters east.
The formal complexes occupy the center portion of the settlement, while hundreds of simple carved rooms lie beyond the central area, especially on the south and east sides.
Besides the prominent courtyards, the settlement has fifteen churches. Three of the churches are within a courtyard complex (Areas 3, 5, and 8), but the others were carved into isolated cones along the northern and southern boundaries. Most churches are small and unpainted, so they were noticed only recently.
Burial graves, often scattered and sporadic, dominate Cappadocian settlements such as Göreme Valley and Soğanlı Valley. However, at Açık Saray, more than fifty burial graves appear in one centralized cemetery, located on the bluff above Area 3.
What was the function and purpose of this settlement? There are no written inscriptions or documents, so the architectural forms remain our own evidence. Researchers have offered many interpretations for Açık Saray. We first summarize the main complexes, then discuss the possible functions.
Areas 3 and 4
The largest concentration of rooms appears in the rock outcropping with Areas 3 and 4, which merge together. Area 3 consists of two complexes connected by a curved tunnel. The south complex developed over time. The tri-level residence has an irregular internal plan with ad hoc rooms and no formal façade. A large church lies at the center of the rooms.
To the west, Area 4 follows the typical courtyard pattern. A barrel-vaulted vestibule leads into a large cruciform hall with a central dome. This plan imitates the architecture of a Byzantine church, but is a formal gathering hall. A conical kitchen and barrel-vaulted rooms flank the courtyard.
With a large size and central location, Area 5 was likely the main complex at Açık Saray. The façade had three registers of horseshoe blind niches, but the lower section is now eroded open. Behind the façade, two banded barrel-vaulted rooms—a horizontal vestibule and a perpendicular hall—follow the inverted T-plan. The west end of the vestibule has a small barrel-vaulted room with niches. On an eastern wall of the vestibule, the gabled square niche is a mihrab for Islamic prayers, which suggests that this hall became a mosque or madrasa.
The sides of the broad courtyard (20 meters wide) have additional rooms. On the west side, the partial room with a large conical ceiling was a kitchen. On the opposite east side, a small doorway leads to a cave church. A barrel vault covers the square nave, which terminates at the broad apse with side benches and a detached altar. Three more rooms are north of the church. Then, 25 meters to the northeast, at the edge of the courtyard, lies another small church. The single nave has two lateral burial chambers and a collapsed apse.
Areas 6 and 7
The final two areas on the west end are around the rock outcropping. These two areas display a distinct architectural style, yet date to the same timeframe. The residences extend back deep into the rock.
Another series of carved spaces lies in a natural ravine 70 meters farther south (upstream). This unnumbered area has an irregular settlement and scores of rooms, as well as five winepresses. Two churches stand in isolated cones on the southern edge.
Set alone across the creek, the two-level courtyard complex at Area 8 is large and elaborate. The broad façade with two arcaded registers is heavily damaged. Behind the lower registers, three rooms connect with the ground-level courtyard. An elaborate staircase from the north corner leads to the upper-level hall. This prominent hall had a banded, barrel-vault ceiling and windows overlooking the courtyard.
The north wing contains a well-carved church at Açık Saray. A central dome covers the cross-in-square nave, which confirms the area’s tenth-century date. The south wall and entrance have collapsed, creating a cross-section view of the church. The four pillars have disappeared, so two capitals are suspended in the air. The arched transepts end with a horseshoe arch, and the corner bays have groin vaults. The east apse had a tall screen with two arched windows flanking the arched doorway. The upper section is closed, but decorated with thin pilasters, a thick cornice with petite niches, and a large lunette with a horseshoe recess. The detailed craftsmanship and precise carving confirm the resident’s status. Relative to the other rooms, the church is small and marginalized—not a prominent space overall.
A kitchen with a conical roof appears across the courtyard from the church. The famous Mushroom Rock stands 30 meters northwest, en route back to the parking lot.
The Function of Açık Saray
Scholars have proposed various functions for Açık Saray. Certainly, Byzantine Christians occupied this area around AD 1000. Who exactly lived here? And what did they do? In light of the abundance of prestigious courtyard complexes, Açık Saray was not a standard community, such as a village or small town. There have been four main proposals.
Monastic? Until the 1980s, scholars identified Açık Saray, like most Cappadocian settlements, as a monastic community. A community of Byzantine monks lived in each complex. They prayed at a nearby church and shared their meals in the large halls. The carved decorations include many crosses, and some rooms are cross-shaped.
However, the complexes have a curious lack of churches, refectories with rock-cut tables, and burial chambers—all common features of Byzantine monasteries. Therefore, recent scholars (i.e., Rodley, Öztürk, Ousterhout) have advocated for a secular interpretation (detailed below).
However, Areas 3, 5, and 8 do feature prominent churches, and the area is home to at least twelve solitary chapels. Moreover, the massive scale of the complexes at Açık Saray does not preclude monastic functions, as Byzantine monasteries were well-financed. For example, monastic complexes at the Göreme Open Air Museum have similar multi-level, decorated facades. Therefore, the monastic function should not be entirely dismissed, though the lack of attached churches and tomb chambers within the complexes does cast doubt.
Military/ Political? The excess decoration of each complex projects status and importance. The monumentalizing of social capital was a significant aspect of each area. The symbolic architecture suggests a certain political or military community—the sort of people who display their self-importance. Açık Saray could have been the residence of a regional lord or military commander. Historical sources do mention other garrisons in the other, and the ancient city of Zoropassos (modern Gulşehir) was located at a strategic junction. The east-west road along the Halys River intersected with the large military road heading south through Cilician Gates into ancient Syria. Açık Saray could have been a military station during the Middle Byzantine period as Constantinople expanded eastward toward Persia. This would explain the extravagant architecture. However, the open area has no fortification or protection, so it would have been vulnerable as a military compound.
Horse Breeding? Recent scholarship favors an agricultural interpretation, i.e., Açık Saray was an upscale farm for breeding horses. Large stable rooms are associated with many of the areas. These barrel-vaulted rooms have high mangers for large livestock. Horses were tied to the rock and ate from the individual mangers. Near their entrances, each stable has an arched bed for the night guard. In this area, horses had plenty of grazing land and a fresh-water creek.
Cappadocia is known today as “the land of beautiful horses” (though this is based upon incorrect etymology). Historically, the Persian Empire (fifth and fourth centuries BC) demanded tens of thousands of horses from Cappadocians as an annual tribute, and horse breeding was an important part of the Byzantine society and economy.
For internal and external reasons, this interpretation of a stud farm is attractive. However, horse breeding does not explain the massive upscale complexes. Did the horse farmers need such ornate housing structures? Such a massive investment is not essential for raising horses. And while the stables are large, there are only four stables (in Areas 1–4), which together fit only fifty to sixty horses. Such a small herd could not have been the principal reason for the construction of nine elaborate courtyard complexes and fifteen churches.
Caravansary? Another proposal interprets the animal stables as evidence of a prominent caravansary. This was a secure trading site where traders could house their pack animals and barter with each other. Such a proposal explains the stables and the prominent dwelling complexes. The various courtyard houses belonged to competing businessmen, who grew rich from the trade they facilitated. Cappadocia did become a prominent route along the Silk Route a few centuries later, as Seljuk Turks built a string of large enclosed hans. However, the proposal of a caravansary is speculative and has no Byzantine-era comparison.
Conclusion? The large settlement of Açık Saray, in theory, could have worked as a monastery, military barrack, horse farm, or caravansary. However, all these proposals have drawbacks and lack compelling evidence. In the end, we conclude that Açık Saray was a Byzantine settlement for important people around the year AD 1000. Beyond that, we invite you to visit and explore this site, which is part of Cappadocia’s peculiar landscape and unique history.
The settlement remained populated into the Seljuk era (AD 1070–1300). Two of the churches have thirteenth-century paintings, similar to nearby St. John’s Church (Karşı Κilise), which dates to AD 1212.
Açık Saray was later used for Islamic purposes. Two mihrab (niches indicating the direction for Islamic prayers) appear at Area 5 and a nearby detached hall. The local museum identifies these spaces as a mosque (cami). Also, hagiographic legends recount that Hacı Bektaş Veli, the famous local founder of the Bektaşı Sufi sect, visited the area twice in the 1400s. Açık Saray became an official Archeology Heritage Site and public museum in 1999.
In the last one hundred years, the site has been the focus of scholarship. In the early 1900s, Rott and Jerphanion mentioned a few churches with paintings and presupposed a monastic function. Lynn Rodley first published the site in Cave Monasteries of Cappadocia (1985), 121–150. The publications (2010–15) of Fatma Öztürk offer the best analysis. Her numbering system is followed by other scholars, the museum maps, and this article. Filiz Tütüncü wrote a helpful thesis about the horse stables.