Ağaçaltı Church in Ihlara Valley features beautiful, vibrant pictures with an towering central dome. The thick layer of compacted dirt elevates visitors for a closer view of the ceiling paintings. This unique cave church at the base of Ihlara's main entrance was built around 800AD.
This cruciform church has a central domed area with three barrel-vaulted arms. The apse of the church has fallen away, creating the large entrance on the east side. The original entrance was through the rear tunnels but, today, visitors enter the opposite direction and stand immediately beneath the central dome.
Vibrant colors and folksy iconographic style define Ağaçaltı Church. The pastel pigments consist of jade green, navy blue, gold yellow, and orange-red. Though bright and attractive, the limited range of colors unifies the busily decorated interior.
The background of scenes cuts off at head level, creating the appearance of the earth’s horizon. The faces are round and babyish. People face forward with stiff bodies. Everyone’s hair is light-colored—golden blonde or orangish-red. The robes are a light sky blue with straight lines for the folds.
The prominent architectural feature of Ağaçaltı Church is the multilayered, bright central dome. This irregular dome imitates architectural styles from the eastern Mediterranean (i.e., Syria or Armenia), not the capital of Constantinople. Beginning with the four arches in a square, each register becomes successively more rounded until the mandorla of Christ.
The first band above the thick arches contains 16 people—12 apostles and four Church Fathers. The corner squinches (white niches) above yellow pendentives (curved triangles) create an irregular octagonal shape. Painted orange columns with swirls divide the band into square segments. A thick white molding (cornice) with two black Maltese crosses separates the bands.
The second band includes the busts of eight Old Testament prophets. Clockwise from Christ’s head, they are: David, Jonah, Daniel, Isaiah, (window) Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, and Solomon. Unique geometric patterns separate the panel of each prophet. A white cornice with red checkers frames the band.
The dome is not a smooth semi-sphere but, rather, is pumpkin-shaped with eight bulges. This physical design distinguishes the four individual angels (holding Christ’s mandorla) from the groups of angels (singing the heavenly chorus of worship). The scene is Christ’s ascension into heaven. He sits in glory, holding the Gospel and gesturing a blessing to those below.
A window shaft illuminates the scene. This lone source of natural luminosity casts a spotlight upon the ascension.
The space combines architecture and painting to create a scene of participatory worship. One looks up to the heavens, where Christ sits in glory and splendor (aided by the window). Below him stand successive rows of angels, Old Testament prophets, and the New Testament apostles. The final (unpainted) row of people is you the worshiper, standing at ground level and looking up to Christ Pantocrator.
The narrative program of Christ’s life begins on the south arm (left as you enter). The four scenes are Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, and Magi. The three Magi, in bright blue, carry gifts to the newborn Jesus, located on a different wall. The names of the Magi—Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior (as per church tradition)—are written above their heads, a practice unique to Ihlara churches. The ceiling vault has a Greek cross with a spoked wheel in each quadrant.
West (Rear) Arm
The west arm (opposite the entrance) features an array of floral and geometric patterns. The patterns are large and exuberant. A thick cross, as found in other Ihlara churches, decorates the upper vault.
The scene on the rear wall is Daniel being attacked by lions on each side. The white band of writing is the church’s dedicatory inscription: “To the Virgin Pantanossa,” a Greek title for Mary that means “Queen of All.” Due to this image, the church is also called Daniel Pantanossa.
Markings on the large circles indicate how the artist made the braided patterns. He drew a straight red line on the plaster, then used a compass to etch perfect circles around equidistant points along that line. These markings guided the painting process.
North (Right) Arm
The north arm contains three paintings. Christ’s Baptism fills the lunette. In the Dormition of Mary, with a bright yellow background, Jesus appears twice—once at Mary’s side and then standing. Such repetition creates a sense of narrative action. The picture on the right (east) is Flight to Egypt.
Ağaçaltı Church is a wonderful first stop in Ihlara Valley. The convenient location makes it the valley’s busiest church but the bright colors and unique dome are worth the visit.