Agricultural Cave Spaces

Updated: Oct 5, 2019

The vast majority of carved spaces in Cappadocia are functional and agricultural, designed to meet basic human needs in everyday life. These include beehives, dovecotes, water canals, winepresses, horse stables, kitchens and ovens. This article explains these agricultural, non-religious spaces of Cappadocia.


Cappadocians did far more than just pray in churches and monasteries. They also raised livestock, grew crops, and produced food. People developed ingenious means for food production, often uniquely designed for the volcanic landscape of Cappadocia.


The agricultural spaces generally date to the Middle Byzantine Period (900–1070 AD), a time of political expansion, military advancement, and monastic renewal throughout the empire. This era of Byzantine flourishing involved great cultural and agricultural investment in Cappadocia’s landscape. These areas are hard to date precisely though, because they were continuously used, modified for centuries, and experienced significant erosion. Even today, Cappadocian farmers continue these agricultural techniques, sometimes in the very same spaces carved over 1,000 years ago.

Dovecotes (Pigeon Houses)


Dovecotes (Turkish, guvercinlik) are the most ubiquitous landscape carvings in Cappadocia. They are most commonly built into the cliff faces of Cappadocia’s valleys, such as Uzengi (Mustafapaşa) or Red valley (Göreme). Dovecotes are dark, closed rooms for pigeons to roost in at night time. Once a year, farmers collect the pigeon droppings from the floor to use as fertilizer. Pigeon poop is extremely rich in nitrogen, a chemical needed for farming Cappadocia's volcanic soil, and thus the most valued natural fertilizer.


Farmers often converted existing rooms into pigeon coats. (Why dig, when you can use an abandoned church room!) They would seal off the entrance with rocks and mud mortar, and then create a small hole high from the ground. This hole allowed pigeons to enter, but kept out predators like coyotes or weasels. To attract the pigeons, farmers painted a white background or colorful designs around the entrance hole. On the inside farmers create roosting spaces by either (1) hanging branches across the space for birds, or (2) carving rows of small niches into the wall. Both styles provide roosting places for pigeons.


Dovecotes (Pigeon Houses) in Uzgenti Valley, Urgup

St. Basil explains how 4th century Cappadocians farmed pigeons:

When pigeon farmers have caught a pigeon, they tame it, and make it feed with them. Then the farmer smears its wings with sweet oil, and releases it to join other birds outside. The sweet scent of that oil makes the wild birds the possession of the owner of the tame bird, for all the rest are attracted by the fragrance, and settle in the pigeon house. (Letter 10)

As Basil’s letter shows, Cappadocians have farmed pigeons for millennia. But in recent times, petroleum-based fertilizers have replaced nature manure. The pigeoncotes have been abandoned, and pigeons fly wild in Cappadocia’s valleys.


Beehives


Cappadocians carved large beehives into the landscape. Like pigeoncotes, these protected rooms had small entrances and internal dwelling spaces, though shaped specifically for bees.

Beehives have rows of small holes on the outside. The slits are just big enough for the bees to enter. The inside has columns to support shelving for the honeycombs. Around 2m x 4m, these beehive rooms are much larger than modern bee boxes.

Beehive (Aynalı Monastery, Goreme)

The bees provided honey, the only sweetener in Byzantine time. As white cane sugar was a New World crop. The beehives also attracted and protected bees to pollenate nearby crops.


Beehive and Winepress (Grape Church, Red Valley)

Water Canals


Water canals are the most elaborate agricultural feature in Cappadocia. These are trenches dug along the edge of a valley, or sometimes they tunnel through the rock for kilometers. The landscape of Cappadocia is quite arid with flash storms in the spring and fall. Controlling and storing the water is important for summer irrigation.

By diverting rain water from the valley floor into the canals, farmers prevented soil erosion and protected the plants. Farmers terraced the valley floor with low rock walls, and cultivated perennial crops such as grape vines or apple trees.

Farmers also designed cisterns to store irrigation water. These large basins were plastered to prevent water from seeping through the porous volcanic soil.


Eroded Water Tunnel (Uzengti Valley, Urgup)

With creative engineering, Sarniç Kilise (Cistern Church) in Zemi Valley was converted into a cistern. The church is located into the cliffside above a field. So the farmer bricked up the entrance, then diverted spring rains from the plateau above toward a small hole in the church’s roof. Then, in the dry summer months, farmers released water through the entrance to irrigate crops below.


Entrance of Sarniç Kilise (Cistern Church, Zemi Valley

Water canals appear in many Cappadocian valleys, but the most extensive network is throughout Red/Love Valley. These water projects are roughly 1,000­–1,200 years old. After centuries of erosion, the water canals are no longer useable for agriculture, but do make for fun tunnels to hike through.


The largest known water project in Cappadocia is 2,500 years old. In ancient times, the Halys River (today, Kizil Irmak) was the natural border between Greek and Persian empires. Without Roman-style bridges, crossing the large river was difficult and dangerous, especially for large armies going to war. In Sarihidir village (8 km east of Avanos) the river hairpins around a large rock outcropping. Ancient Cappadocians carved a massive tunnel (8m wide, 4m wide, and 200m long) through the rock. By diverting the water, they lowered the river and could easily cross through the water. The ancient historian Herodotus recounts how the Lycian king Croesus, in 547 BC, created such a water channel along the Halys River for his army to attack the Persian king Cyprus. Considering the uniqueness of such an achievement, this is likely the site Herodotus mentions.

Winepresses


Cappadocia has long been famous for growing grapes and producing wine. The arid climate is ideal for vineyards, as you encounter when hiking in any valley today. Wine was the common drink in Byzantine times, both in monasteries and homes. Though low in alcohol content, the fermentation process kills off bacteria. And to this day, the city of Ürgüp is known throughout Turkey for its wine.

In terms of technology, wine presses are fairly simple design—a raised area (threshing floor) with a small hole angled towards a basin (collection vat). Farmers would step on the graves on the upper section, and the juice drained into the lower pit.


Some winepresses were built specifically as winepresses. This is a room with two large caverns on the back wall. The small drain hole connected the threshing floor with the collection vat.


Wine Press (Pancarlık, Ortahısar-Ürgüp)

Later Turkic farmers often carved a small winepress in the floor of some abandoned space. The apse of Byzantine churches were ideally suitable for winepresses, as they are large flat spaces that are raised a few steps.

Wine Press in Apse (Hacli Kilise, Red Valley)

Modern homes in Turkey often have concrete threshing floors to make grape molasses (Turkish, pekmez), the main sweetener in Cappadocian cooking. But since the grapes are crushed on concrete (and not the volcanic tuff soil as in old times), the cooks often throw a handful of local dirt into with the grape to ensure the “real taste."


Horse Stables


The word Cappadocia means “Land of Beautiful Horses.” From ancient times until today, Cappadocia is renowned for horses. The region has many rock-carved horse stables. As the Byzantine period expanded in the 9th and 10th centuries, central Anatolia (Cappadocia) became an important frontier region militarily. Local elites bred horses to supply local and imperial armies, and as a sign of prestige. Monastic communities, which often had large agricultural estates, may have also owned field horses for farm work.

Animal Troughts (Mazi Underground City)

Horse stables are usually long, barrel-vaulted rooms with small troughs carved around the room. Each stable houses around 15-20 animals and horses were tethered to the individual troughs. Large horse stables appear at Açik Saray (Gulşehir), Çanli Kilise (Aksaray), and Selime Castle (Ihlara). The cave settlements at Saridihir (Avanos) and Gaziemer City have large caravan sarays with rows of stables to house several dozen horses.

Horse Stables (Sarihidir, Avanos)

Kitchens


Ancient Cappadocians carved kitchens into the rock. These were square rooms with a cone-shaped ceiling. A chimney hole on top allowed smoke to exit the room. Large tandir pits in the floors supported a large iron pot. The fire burned inside the pit, and the side slit oxygenated the fire and allowed the cook to stoke the coals.


Some kitchens have basic storage shelves cut into the walls. A few kitchens include ovens, mushroom-shaped niches carved into the rock wall. People placed bread dough or meats on the horseshoe shelf, and then tended a fire in the central cavity to cook the food.

Carved Bread Oven (Han Palace, Soganli Valley)

The kitchen near Canavar Kilise (Soğanlı Valley) has three such rock-carved ovens, three tandir pits, two long shelves, and a tall conical ventilation whole.


Kitchen with ovens, tandir, and shelves (Canavar Church, Soganli Valley)

The most impressive kitchen is at Selime Castle. The massive room has several tandir pits, an oven, ornate shelving niches, and a huge cone ceiling with a ventilation shaft. The kitchen’s large size suggests a large population lived in this complex.


Some kitchens have a flat roof and no ventilation. Consequently their walls are lined with soot. These rooms were not originally built as kitchens, but repurposed by later farmers/shepherds. They dug a pit into an abandoned room and cooked their food, letting the smoke escape through the doorway.


Scholars have noted a curious architecture feature in Cappadocia—kitchens are never located near dining halls, as one might expect. Food preparation and eating are geographically separated. The reason is because kitchens were considered functional/utilitarian spaces, so should not be located near the sacred spaces of the church and refectory.


Conclusion

The most famous caves in Cappadocia have a religious/symbolic meaning. The fine architecture and iconography of churches and monasteries reflect eternal spiritual realities.


But the majority of caves functional and agricultural, ingeniously designed to meet basic needs for everyday life.


Further Reading

  • For overview, see Ousterhout, 359–68.

  • For kitchens, see Kalas, “Byzantine Kitchen."

  • For water systems, see articles by Roberto Bixio and Ali Yamac.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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