Bahattin Hayloft Church near Ihlara Valley is a small church with elaborate carving and extensive paintings of Christ's life. Based on the architecture and painting style, the church was built around 1000AD.
The church is located near Column Church (Direkli Kilise) in Belisırma, on the west side of the river. The Turkish name is Bahattin Samanlığı Kilise.
This church was part of a broader complex. Three other rooms are near the church. The main room is a tall barrel-vaulted banquet hall (7m by 16m, and 8m tall). A niched façade remains above the church. The complex may have contained a courtyard and additional rooms but the cliff-side rock has collapsed.
This settlement belonged to a family of the Byzantine elite. The dedicatory inscription around the nave of the church mentions a certain Barbas—perhaps a native of Cappadocia who had imperial titles. Various details indicate the donor was a member of the wealthy aristocracy.
Ornate motifs decorate the scenes. Strings of pearls line the arches and open spaces. Free spaces are decorated with ornamental motifs that project power and prestige. Joseph’s stool (Nativity), Jesus’ throne (Deesis), and the arches over the bishops are richly bejeweled.
A pattern band lines the ceiling in the nave. Garlands create a diamond pattern with crosses and stars—a motif evoking heaven. The band narrows towards the apse, thus pointing to the image of Christ in a medallion above the apse.
The number of painted inscriptions—names, image titles, and liturgical inscriptions along the molding—further signals prestige and status. In an era when most people were illiterate, words were intended for creating an impression, not for reading.
The same donor and workshop also constructed Karagedik Church, a prestigious masonry church in the middle of Ihlara Valley. The affluent donor hired talented architects, builders, and painters from Istanbul to construct these two impressive churches.
The small, single-nave church (2.5m by 4m) follows Byzantine architectural norms. Though conservative in form, the carving is precise and detailed. The walls have deep recessed arches and square cornice trim. The apse has a central window and attached altar.
Due to the lack of a narthex, visitors enter directly into the nave through the south wall. The quaint area is abnormally spacious because later builders lowered the ground and removed the side benches, perhaps to add floor graves.
The life of Christ appears on the ceiling and side walls in three concentric rings, each beginning in the front right (southeast) of the church. The narrative sequence contains more than 20 images in total.
Scenes of Jesus’ Birth fill the upper registers of the ceiling—Annunciation, Visitation, Proof of Virgin, Journey to Bethlehem, Nativity (upper back wall), Magi, Joseph’s Dream, and Flight to Egypt (Mary gently holds Jesus).
Scenes of John the Baptist fill the lower registers of the ceiling—Massacre of Innocents (Herod strikes a royal pose), Pursuit of Elizabeth, Temple Presentation (Symeon receives Jesus above the altar with a cross), and Baptism.
Scenes of Jesus’ Death and Resurrection cover the side walls—Raising Lazarus (opposite resurrection), Entry to Jerusalem (with Jerusalem under the arch), Judas’ Betrayal, Crucifixion (the Church is personified receiving the gushing blood), Entombment, Marys at Tomb (the first holding a censer, and two sleeping soldiers), Resurrection, Jesus Appears to Marys (aka Chairete, a rare scene in Cappadocia).
The skilled painter integrated the paintings with the bold architectural forms. The paintings are in sequential order, beginning at the top and moving down. The scenes are strategically grouped into sections. For example, the two central registers on the upper ceiling contain eight scenes of Jesus’ birth, yet the outer registers on the lower ceiling contain only four scenes related to John the Baptist.
Most Cappadocian churches give prominence to either Crucifixion or Resurrection. However, here they receive equal importance. These main scenes are juxtaposed in the large niches on the north wall. Opposite the door, these two images are naturally illuminated and are immediately seen. The insides of the arches contain scenes related to the two main events, such as two resurrection appearances flanking the Resurrection scene. Both scenes are now covered with graffiti—the inscribed prayers of later Christians.
Opposite the entrance, three “holy doctors” appear on the spandrel between the arches. The first two are Florus and Laurus, famous miracle workers buried in Constantinople. The third figure is Orestes, a doctor from Tyana (modern Niğde).
The painting program has notable absences. The church has no military saints (though the donor was a military figure) and no monks (though the church was part of a monastic complex). Also, Transfiguration is missing from the Christological cycle.
The apse conch features Christ Enthroned in Glory. In two nearby medallions, Peter and Paul are praying towards Jesus. Though rare in Cappadocia, Peter and Paul also appear standing in the apse of the nearby Column Church. On the sides, Archangels Michael and Gabriel lean towards Jesus in active service.
A liturgical inscription lines the apse molding: “Come, O Priest, and sacrifice the body of Christ. God is presented here. I break this (bread/body) and sustain those who are worthy. Have fear to not eat in an unworthy manner.” This text engages worshippers participating in the Eucharist, as a reminder of the event’s meaning and the necessity of personal purity in God’s presence. Similarly, the inscription lining the nave cornice cites lines from the liturgy.
The lower section of the apse has six bishops: Epiphanios, Amphilochios, John Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus, and Gregory Thaumaturges (the third-century miracle-worker in Pontus/Cappadocia, half-length above the niche). Inside the apse niche is St. Constantine on a yellow background and dressed as a medieval emperor. Constantine is usually depicted holding the True Cross with his mother St. Helen and rarely alone as here. St. Helen appears inside the front-left (northeast) arch, next to the resurrection scene.
The arch of the apse contains seven round medallions. The central cross, here and above the entrance, marks the transition into a more sacred space. The OT prophets are Hosea, Isaiah, Malachi, Habakkuk, and Elijah.
Though small and rarely visited, Bahattin Hayloft Church contains a robust painting cycle of Christ’s life. The opulent church is a testament to the patron’s wealth and connections to the Byzantine capital.
For more, see “The Bahattin Samanlığı Kiilisesi at Belisırma (Cappadocia) Revisited,” by Catherine Jolivet-Levy.