Aynalı Church is a courtyard monastery complex with marvelous earthy, red paintings. A variety of rooms frame a small courtyard built into a cliff. This church is located one kilometer up the road (southeast) from the Göreme Open Air Museum.
The courtyard complex of Aynalı has some unique features. The courtyard is relatively small, about 35 feet. The courtyard oddly faces north, away from direct sunlight. This makes the interior rooms dark and cold. The room layout is also puzzling. The two main rooms are set parallel (transversely) to the courtyard, meaning you enter from the outside through the side of the rooms.
The main façade creates a 3x3 grid. There are three bays separated by large pilasters and three horizontal registers separated by bold cornices. The lower bay sections have large horseshoe arches over entrances. The right two doorways lead into the hall; the far-left entrance goes to the church narthex (entry room). The middle and upper sections have small, blind niches, some with holes. The upper portions are heavily eroded, but there is no indication a portico (roof supported by pillars) covered the front façade. Although the façade is three stories tall, the original builders carved rooms only on the first floor.
The main hall has a barrel vault with two bands. A cornice (band atop the wall) and bench surround the room. Pilasters (half-pillars) divide the walls into sections. The original entrance was from the middle arch of the façade, with all other doors being added later. In the western half of the room, water leakage has damaged the painted decorations.
Red geometric shapes decorate the room’s architectural features. Rows of triangles and squares in check patterns line the room. On the east lunette (flat area under arch), a large diamond houses a Latin cross with crescent tips.
The south (back) wall has curious paintings. In the middle section, the letters “IC XC” surmount another large crescent-tipped cross. These letters, a sacred abbreviation of the name Jesus Christ, usually appear above Jesus’ head in painted icons. But here, the cross has apparently replaced the Pantocrator image. The left panel has a primitive archer shooting a bird. The meaning of this picture in a sacred space is hard to discern.
Two small rooms form the entrance to the church, a narthex and a tomb chamber. The narthex (entrance room) is a small cruciform room with short arched arms. A dome was punched into a flat ceiling. In the dome, four checkered bands give the appearance of ribs upholding the medallion with a Greek cross. The small pendentives (corner triangles) are purely decorative, the unnecessary vestige of masonry architecture.
The tomb chamber is a small square room. The three walls have an acrosolium (with no grave pit dug), a bench with a short grave pit, and a plan bench. This room now functions as the guard’s room.
The church space is the most decorated room in terms of architecture and painting. The church is a basilica floorplan. The central corridor has a high barrel-vaulted ceiling. Arcades with 2 ½ arches separated the side aisles with flat ceilings. The half-arches in the back appear planned. On each side, two columns support the arcade, and two pilasters (half-pillars) decorate the wall. A low bench runs around the base of the church.
The large central sanctuary is set within a rectangular recess on the east wall. The apse has a high shelf and side niches. Later, dwellers adapted the floor to create the bowl and winepress. Scars on the rock indicate the presence of a rock alter in the back and a tall templon screen in front. The two small apses on each side (at the end of the side halls) are different—a small apse with alter on the right and an arched niche on the left.
The painting program defines Aynalı Church. Geometric patterns, like checkered bands and crosses, line the architectural features and fill prominent spaces. The design is symmetrical, thus the name Mirror (Turkish, aynalı) Church. The painting program features unique elements, including:
zigzag designs (above cornice),
torches (above cornice),
a cross in a diamond on a pillar (back lunette),
a medallion and two lions over the cross (front lunette),
a gable-roofed house (above doorway, and opposite),
domino patterns (soffit),
stylized birds on pillars (spandrel between arches), and
a row of ten unique medallions (apex of vault).
The most curious decorative element is the stylized birds. This was not a standard motif in church decorations. The birds appear in three rooms: the main hall (3x), the narthex (1x), and the church (12x). Scholars have guessed about their significance and meaning. They could be merely decorative, represent the souls of the deceased saints, refer to stylite monks who lived atop pillars, or relate to the Roman eagle. The fact that a hunter is shooting a bird likely preclude spiritual symbolism.
While the patterns of Aynalı Church are more elaborate than other churches, the monochrome folkloric style is common in Cappadocia. This was the final step of the building process after the masons finished carving the rock. The designs give the illusion of a “built structure” and signify the space as a church. The lines mark out a sacred space, both to aid Christians in worship and ward off evil spirits.
The complex includes a variety of functional rooms. None of these rooms are datable, but they provide a glimpse into the various agricultural technologies of ancient settlements.
A large kitchen area sits on the left (east) side of the courtyard. The winepress has a large threshing floor and small collection vat. The carved ribs in the corner formed a beehive, though the back wall and shelves are now absent. Bees would enter through the small holes and make honey on wooden slats inside the protected room.
A cistern is behind the drink stand under the kitchen area. Ground water naturally collects in this large cavern.
A dovecote sits on the second floor. Rows of niches for pigeon nesting line the walls. Farmers used the pigeon valley as fertilizer. The valley in which Aynalı stands includes a large section of arable land, requiring a significant amount of fertilizer. The smooth walls in the room suggest it originally served another purpose.
Two large millstone doors protect the entrance to the rear rooms. These rooms and their connecting tunnels were likely carved by settlers in the post-Byzantine area. The rooms were used for protection during attack and/or storing valuable items such as livestock.
Purpose and Date
The well-decorated basilica church and large hall suggest a monastic community used this space. There is no discernable refectory with a rock-cut table, but either the main hall or inside hall may have been used for communal meals.
The date of Aynalı Church is problematic. The space has no written inscription, so the date must be deduced from the style. Various features point to different time periods. The church’s basilica floor plan suggests an early date of the 500’s. The painting style, with no icons and many crosses, could result from the Iconoclastic Controversy, 726–843. The similarity with Yılanı and Barbara churches (Göreme Open Air Museum) suggests mid-eleventh century. Most scholars lean towards the last date of circa 1050 AD.
Aynalı Church is located across from Kaya Camping, between Göreme and Ortahısar. Its older name, Fırkatan Church, does appear on some signage.
Entrance costs 5 TL and includes a flashlight to explore the hidden rooms on the upper level. The church is open 9am–5pm each day.