Ala Church

Ala Church is a large, impressive cave church near Ihlara Valley. The monumental character and elaborate façade are unlike those of any cave church in Cappadocia. This community church was built around 1000AD.

Ala Church (Belisirma), facade

The church is located in the village of Belisırma, about 300 meters east of the river valley, immediately on the road. The site is marked on Google Maps as “Bezirhane,” referring to the neighboring linseed press.


Façade


The ornate, monumental cliff-face is the distinguishing feature of Ala Kilise. Cave churches in Cappadocia generally have discrete, concealed entrances. However, Ala Kilise has a massive, decorated façade. Such an elaborate facade is typically found on the front wall of a courtyard complex with multiple rooms, not on a church. People approaching would notice the symbolic/sacred designs carved on the rock face. The façade functionally replaced the narthex as the preparatory marking for people entering the sacred space. The entire exterior decoration is purely ornamental, as the sections or lines do not correspond to the interior architecture (as in typical masonry architecture).


Large pilasters divide the prominent façade into two main bays. The upper cornice with miniature keyhole niches (painted in red geometric shapes) edged the upper facade. After centuries of erosion, visitors must mentally reconstruct the façade’s original surface design. Both sides of the facade accentuate the two arched entrances.


The left half contains a triumphal arch entrance leading directly into the church nave. The lower sections of the wall are not carved, creating a simple background for the massive dark entrance. The upper frieze has a row of blind horseshoe arches. The pilaster above the arch and molding forms a relief cross over the church entrance.


On the right half, a small pilaster subdivides the area into two smaller bays decorated with large blind arches and gables. The right side contained four friezes (horizontal sections) with progressively smaller arches, as the number doubled in each successive section (e.g., one, two, four, eight arches). The effect highlights the singular arched entrance, which leads into two barrel-vaulted spaces. These rooms were carved along with the church but their function is unknown, as they were converted into a linseed press (Turkish, bezirhane) around the 1800s.

The original façade was, in fact, much larger but the entire left bay has eroded away. The large doorway into the church was the central bay of the symmetric façade. Behind the rock shed where the far left bay once existed, the traces of the gabled façade and barrel-vaulted room still remain.


Church Architecture


Ala Kilise is one of the largest cave churches in Cappadocia, measuring 11 meters by 14 meters. This was a community church for the nearby village of Byzantine/Orthodox Christians. The complex has no burial graves.


The church lacks a narthex (entrance room), so visitors walk into the nave through the gigantic large arch, which imitates the interior arches. In the layout design, the builders combined elements of cross-in-square and cross-domed plans. The central bay has four side bays, all with domes. The five round domes project from a flat ceiling, supported by triangular framed pendentives that bow outwards. They serve no structural function besides imitating and innovating the architectural forms of masonry buildings.

Ala Church (Belisirma), central dome and apse

The four corner sections of the nave are small, barrel-vaulted chambers. Entrances into the small, barrel-vaulted corner sections are “walled-off” with thin arched entrances. Rock lunettes remain above the cornice.


The three front (east) bays function as the sanctuary/bema. The two front corner bays became side apses (prothesis for Eucharistic elements and diakonikon for liturgical books and vestments). They connect with the middle apse, which has a central niche seat.


A thick molding, doubled on the pillar capitals, lines the interior. The walls are set back with fake arches. The resulting soffits create additional painting spaces.


No other prominent churches in Cappadocia lack a narthex and use the three front (east) bays as the sanctuary. This illustrates the vast variety of artistic styles of church-builders in Cappadocia.


Church Painting


The painting program has been severely damaged. Although the interior was fully plastered and painted, only the upper walls still have paintings. The lower walls, domes, and apses do not have preserved paintings.

Ala Church (Belisirma), rear dome

The painted images are sophisticated and detailed—perhaps the work of an artist from Constantinople. The artist preferred red frames with dark blue backgrounds, made from expensive pigments. The sophisticated artwork and grand façade indicate prominent financial patronage. The layout of the painting programs follows the typical pattern.

  • The main arches under the central dome have saints (on the front and back arches) and Old Testament prophets (under the side arches). Roundels with saints also appear under the arches of the transepts.

  • Narrative scenes appear on the lunette above the arches. They include: Entry into Jerusalem (west arm, south wall), Last Supper (west arm, north wall), Visitation (south arm, west wall), Dormition (south arm, south wall), and Anastasis (north arm, west wall).

  • The pillars contain full-sized standing images of Church Fathers and military saints.

  • The two corner sections in the back (west) feature several popular monks. The appearance of such rare figures suggests some monastic association for this church.

Conclusion


Ala Kilise is one of the most impressive cave churches in Cappadocia due to its magnificent façade, grand interior space, and robust painting program. The skilled builders creatively adapted many architectural design elements. They created a monumental façade instead of a narthex, carved converse pendentives, and transformed the front bays into the sanctuary area.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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