Ali Reis Church is an irregular cruciform chapel in Ortahısar with splendid Pantocrator images. The rock-cut church is located 50 meters northwest of Ali Reis Mosque, here on Google Maps. From the mosque, walk north down the aisle, then turn left onto the grassy path. The church remains free and open to visitors.
The popular name for this site is Church of St. Nino. According to local tradition, St. Nino was born and raised in the nearby house. However, this legend is the result of tourism marketing, not history. In the Christian hagiography, St. Nino belonged to a Roman family from Kolastra, Cappadocia. Around AD 300, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. Nino in a vision and instructed her to preach the gospel in the kingdom of Georgia (Iberia). She converted the entire country and remains an enormously popular saint in the modern nation of Georgia. However, regarding her Cappadocian origins, we do not know the location of Kolastra. The village of Ortahısar seized upon this void in the 1980s, claiming that St. Nino was from Ortahısar and even identifying her “birth house.” The designation has promoted some tourism, as Georgian officials and tourists visit the site. Often, they leave behind hand-written prayers and cardboard icons.
The church sits inside a protruding cone, surrounded by other rooms cut into the hillside. The cone’s south façade was carved flat to create a formal approach. The main passageway leads directly into the nave, as the church has no narthex. The square window above the door illuminated the dome, which is now half-open because of erosion. This opening provides the only view of Christ Pantocrator in the dome. The raised doorway into the apse is secondary.
The convex pendentives are triangular points under the flat rim of the dome. Tetramorph angels remain on two of the pendentives. A layer of logs and rocks blocks the central dome.
The small cruciform church consists of a square surrounded by four arched arms. A low arched recess was cut into the north transept, perhaps as a burial location opposite the door. The west wall has a gigantic standing figure in military attire. Faint wings suggest an angel.
The northeast (front left) pillar has a unique arched recess opening toward the apse. Busts [TB1] of St. Kyprikos and a female (St. Joannes?) occupy the internal arch, and a diagonal pattern decorates the back lunette. The recess is set to the right, creating a narrow surface to the left. There sits a hooded stylite monk (St. Symeon?) on a tall white pillar. The damaged picture on the west face was likely three apostles. Opposite the apse opening, a military saint (Gregory?) faces the apse.
A deep horseshoe apse extends beyond the east arch. The apse is now walled off, though portions of the original painted iconostasis screen remain on both sides. Floral designs fill the understand of the apse arch, which leans forward to expand the conch space but also compresses the shoulders of Joachim and Anna in the east arch.
Painted icons have survived in the southeast section of the church. The parents of Mary—Joachim and Anna—stand under the east arch. Anna wears a red outer garment and head covering, much like icons of Mary. Joachim’s lined hair and brown beard give him an appearance like Jesus. These sacred grandparents of Jesus stand in intercession and look over the nave.
Christ Pantocrator occupies the apse conch (upper section). Jesus’ face has detailed shadowing, and distinct brown lines form his hair. Jesus’ left hand holds a bejeweled Gospel book. A series of concentric circles—Jesus’ eyes, enlarged head, gold cruciform halo, mandorla, the conch area—govern the composition. A row of five archangels stands below Jesus, separated by a red line. The divine guardians wear military attire and stretch out their wings. Water has damaged the north half of the apse. The dome contains a second image of Christ Pantocrator.
Ali Reis Church is private property. The severe secondary usage has altered and damaged the Byzantine church. The owners inserted logs into the dome to create an upper storage chamber. The rock wall and raised cement platform divide the nave and sanctuary areas. The apse was expanded at the base to extend the Turkish-era house. A simple restoration effort to clean the space would enhance the site.