Andaval Church is a well-preserved medieval Byzantine church with a long, fascinating history. The large stone church from 1000 AD was built inside a pre-existing 6th-century basilica and above a Hittite religious site, and then dynamited in the 1970s.
The church is located in the village of Ak Taş near Niğde, immediately off the old highway. The archeological site is well-marked and easy to find. The church is an official museum site. A small fee is required to enter and visit the church.
The ancient settlement of Andaval (also, Andabalis) was a military garrison that protected Asia Minor from invaders coming through the Cilician Gates. This large church, along with the foundations of other early Byzantine churches nearby, testify to the prominence of this ancient settlement.
The existing church was built around 1000 AD but has a long prior history. According to tradition, St. Helen founded a church here during her pilgrimage from Constantinople to Jerusalem in 326 AD. The Roman emperor Constantine—Helen’s son and the first Christian emperor—provided unlimited imperial funds to find Christian relics and establish church sites. While crossing Asia Minor, Helen founded several churches at prominent locations, according to the church historian Eusebius, a contemporary of Constantine and Helen. The exact locations of those churches are not certain, so this story of Helen founding this church in Andaval may be a legend. Regardless, for this reason, the church is often called the Basilica of St. Constantine (and Helen).
We do know the church was built by the 500s, within two centuries of St. Helen. In the early 1900s, British archeologist William Ramsay found a late-Hittite (9C BC) inscription at the base of Andaval Church. The church was originally built on a pagan religious site—a common practice in the 4th and 5th centuries as the Roman empire transitioned from paganism to Christianity. The practice had ended by the 6th century, as most pagan sites had been destroyed or converted. This historical inscription is now kept at the Anatolia Civilizations Museum (Ankara), with an exact replica residing in the Niğde Museum.
The Original Basilica (500 AD)
The church structure resulted from two distinct building phases. The main church was a three-aisled basilica with a flat wood roof. This style of church was popular in the 400s and 500s. The large central nave with side aisles measures about 12m by 12m. Round pillars set on bases form an arcade separating the aisles, each of which had a wooden roof. The central nave extended three meters above the two arched windows on the back walls. The east apse features a rounded interior and an octagonal exterior, which were constructed as separate walls and then filled with smaller rock. Three arched windows illuminated the apse. The narthex contained a burial area and three doorways led into the nave.
This 6th-century basilica was destroyed and burned during the Arab raids of the 700s and 800s. The church and settlement were perhaps abandoned during this period of Byzantine decline.
The Current Church (1000 AD)
The church was remodeled and built during the medieval period. Around 1000 AD, the three-aisled basilica church was modified into a barrel-vaulted, single-nave church. The outer aisles were walled off and a large barrel vault was built inside the central nave. New side walls with two stout pillars were constructed on each side, just inside the original arcade. The neighboring arches contrast with the architectural styles of late antique (500 AD) and medieval (1000 AD) builders. The new arches are wider, pointed, and less sturdy.
All walls of the nave were plastered and fully painted. The images are detailed and well-preserved. The artistic style is similar to that of the nearby Eski Gümüş Monastery, suggesting a common painting workshop.
The back (west) wall had at least four layers of saints. The best-preserved, and likely most important, painting is Mary Theotokos holding Jesus. The young boy reaches towards St. Helen. The images of St. Constantine (left) and Archangel Michael (right) are damaged.
The side (north) wall contains narrative scenes and standing saints. In the back corner, Nativity includes the shepherds (top left), Jesus wrapped in the manger, and Joseph looking up. On the right side, the three magi ride white horses towards Jesus and Mary. Similar to churches in the Ihlara Valley, the shepherds and magi are all named.
The broad space between arches (spandrel) contains Joachim and Anna (Mary’s parents) flanking an elaborate gold cross with the central icon of Jesus as a teenager (Immanuel). To the left of Joachim is a female martyr (Catherine?) in red and white. Below them, the large Archangel Michael, dressed as a soldier of heaven, holds a spear and an orb with a painted cross (similar to the gold cross above him).
Above the middle arch is Raising of Lazarus. Jesus, elongated and in motion, is the scene’s focal point. Mary and Martha plead at Jesus’s feet and two boys remove the lid of the grave. Then, a diagonal line separates Entry into Jerusalem. Jesus rides the white donkey while two disciples follow. Welcoming Jesus are two boys in the palm tree and mothers with children. The figures on the wall’s eastern edge are: four military saints, the martyr St. Neophutos in a red medallion, and Archangel Gabriel between the arches.
In the early 1900s, many Western scholars visited and researched the church. In 1909, Gertrude Bell reported that the iconostasis screen was still standing. This suggests that local Christians used this church. On the other hand, photos from that era show large amounts of dirt accumulated against the walls (evident on the discolored south wall as you enter), which suggests that the church had long been abandoned.
The most intriguing chapter of Andaval Church occurred in 1977. At that time, Turkish farmers used Andaval Church to store apples every winter. This was a common use for historical sites in the mid-20th century (and is a reason why the churches were preserved). On March 11, 1977, Turkish authorities registered Andaval Church as a historic site to be restored and protected. The farmer was upset that the government was taking away his farm storage. Thus, a few nights later, he dynamited the building, blowing off the entire vaulted ceiling and apse dome. Fortunately, the sidewalls remain.
In 1996, Professor Dr. Sacit Pekak (Department Chair of Art History, Hacettepe University) began excavating and restoring the site. His summer teams of students excavated around the church and restored the wall paintings. More than 200 graves with 300 skeletons were found buried around the church (in the areas now covered with gravel). Dr. Pekak has published preliminary articles; the full archeological report will appear in 2020. His restoration efforts included the construction of a metal roof and an iron fence to protect the church. The historical site officially opened to the public in the spring of 2019.