Balkan Deresi Churches

The large Byzantine rock-cut settlement at Balkan Deresi has five churches, monks cells, and multi-story rooms. The peculiar architecture and serene setting make Balkan Deresi Churches a top destination.

Balkan Deresi, churches 1, 2, and 3

The site is located between İbrahimpaşa and Ortahısar in Balkan Deresi, here on Bing maps. The complex sits on the upper portion of the valley wall, so it is best approached from the fields on the plateau above. This site is easily accessible but rarely visited.

The Complex

The site at Balkan Deresi has more than 30 carved rooms set at five levels of the cliff. Most rooms were carved into the large vertical rock bulging toward the valley. The east side of the rock has large rooms at three levels, with the lower level mostly concealed by silt. The west side has smaller isolated rooms and external arcosolia. An elaborate hall at the southern edge connects both sections. The rooms lack a common courtyard but communicate via internal tunnels or paths. The condition has deteriorated so that many of the rooms are half-exposed and/or no longer accessible.


Balkan Deresi, west section

The churches are located at the ends of the settlement. Balkan Deresi Churches 1, 2, and 3 are stacked in an isolated volcanic cone 50 meters to the east. On the other end, Church 4 (St. Basil’s) is the last space in the western section. The eroded cone just west of Church 4 has the floorplan of a single-nave church, the fifth in the complex. The position of the churches beyond the main living sections, and their extensive graves, suggest that these churches were mostly for burial of the dead.


Balkan Deresi, site map

Balkan Church 1

Balkan Deresi Church 1 is the large open church at the base of the broken cone. A sixth-century date makes this one of Cappadocia’s earliest churches. The cruciform space has lost its entrance, apse, and south arm, so it is only half-surviving. Each section of the church differs in style. This suggests that the church, along with the entire cone, probably developed over time. The church clearly had a burial function, with 27 total graves.

Balkan Deresi, Church 1 nave and dome

The nave survives, measuring 5 by 4 meters, with a collapsed west wall. With an irregular step on the side walls, the pitched ceiling extends higher than the other spaces. The nave has two enormous arcosolia graves on each wall and 10 craves cut orderly into the floor. A templon-like barrier frames the transition to the central bay.

The central bay and south transept share a flat ceiling and the church’s only paintings. These two portions were built together, perhaps before the others. The red-yellow-green weaved roundels and floral patterns are common in nearby Red Valley churches. The central dome rises from the flat ceiling with no architectural transition, but only a painted floral frame. The destroyed scene painted inside the dome was Christ Pantocrator surrounded by the apostles, angels, and Virgin (west side).

The barrel-vaulted north transept has no painting. Arched recesses on each wall look like seats, albeit misplaced outside of the apse. The entire east apse has eroded away, which limits our interpretation of the space. Twelve graves line the transepts and central area.

Balkan Deresi Church 2


Balkan Deresi Church 2 occupies the middle of the cone. The slender cruciform church sits above the nave of Church 1, slightly to the south. The original framed entrance was accessed externally but has since fallen. The builders painted red geometric patterns, such as the Maltese cross on the pendentive(s). A later artist provided a complete painted program of standing figures in yellow and red. In the apse, two angels and a prostrating donor flank Mother and Child. A slit window illuminated the apse. The north arm was expanded back to create a transverse barrel-vaulted burial chamber with a large, painted arcosolium. The floor probably had more graves but has been illegally excavated.

Balkan Deresi, Church 2 and upper monk's cell

The original church space, though hard to image because of human destruction and natural deterioration, was irregularly tall. With elevated walls and a tall drum over the atrophied Greek compact nave, the height was over twice the width. The four arches spring from the crowns of the faux corner piers, while proper pendentives support the towering dome.

Balkan Deresi Church 3 (Hermit’s Cell)


Balkan Deresi Church 3 sits at the apex of the cone, slightly south of the lower churches. A vertical shaft from Church 2 rises through the floor of the upper barrel-vaulted room. Though labeled a church, the slender arched recess on the east wall is not a church apse. Rather, this was likely a hermit’s cell. The west portion has collapsed, but a fragment of an arched bed remains, with a rock-cut pillow on the eastern portion. The east arch functioned as a mini-apse for the recluse’s personal liturgy. A window opens into the dome to provide an auditory and visual connection to the church below.

Other carved spaces around the Balkan Deresi complex may have been monastic cells. The most likely candidates are the isolated room 10 meters north of Church 1, the isolated space 20 meters west of Church 4, and a space far above the Domed Hall with a cross-inscribed wall.

Balkan Deresi Church 4 (Church of St. Basil)


A small cruciform chapel stands alone 30 meters west of the Domed Hall. Several external arcosolia surround this unconnected church. The small area has 17 floor graves, including three in the narthex. Similar to Church 1 on the opposite of the settlement, this burial chapel was located on the margins of the community, but not entirely removed. The church was dedicated to St. Basil, the prominent bishop of Caesarea (Kayseri), who appears four times in the painted program.

Balkan Deresi, Church 4 ceiling

The Greek-cross floorplan has long transepts extending from the small central bay (c. 1.5 by 1.5 meters). The four arches spring from a low cornice on the corner pilasters. The narthex has collapsed, so one enters from the opened north transept.

A simple apse had a templon and detached altar, both now destroyed. The conch scene, largely scratched out, was Diesis; Mary and John the Baptist flank Christ Pantocrator with a sky-blue background. The scene’s maroon frame connects to the small arched recess. This double-diamonded band visually connects the body of Christ in heaven with the Eucharistic elements, where he is mystically present. The power and glory of Christ in heaven gets “funneled” into the bread and wine.

The lower band of the apse has eight Church Fathers standing against a blue and green background. Sts. Basil and Gregory the Theologian are the first and third figures on the left. The large arched seat in the corner had another painted figure. A jagged diamond pattern lines the arch apse, with a rainbow of cascading Vs running up the soffit. Outside the sanctuary are two more small niches.

The central dome emerges from a flat ceiling. Similar to St. Barbara and Geyikli Churches in Soğanlı Valley, the corbelled molding creates a step design, decorated with a geocentric kite pattern and then eastern swirl design. In place of pendentives, two small roundels with saints fill each corner between the arches. The central dome has the 12 Apostles. They stand with flowing red and yellow robes and hold Gospel books. The dome ceiling had a small image of Christ Pantocrator inside a mandorla frame.

The small church has a robust painting program. The interior was fully plastered and painted but has suffered severe damage from intentional scratching. The east and west soffits have standing saints; the north and south soffits have narrative scenes, which surmount images of Mary in the lunettes. The overall program emphasizes historical saints and has few images of Christ.

The south (right) soffit has two scenes of St. Basil. On the east face, Basil stands inside a building with Church/Jerusalem architecture and baptizes a man and a woman. The other side features the burial of St. Basil. Similar images, based on apocryphal stories of Basil, appear on the north columns of New Tokalı Church (Göreme). On the lunette below is the Koimesis of Mary, heavily scratched.

The west soffit has four standing Church Fathers, with their heads meeting near the apex. The two figures on the south side are St. Basil and Gregory the Theologian; the other two men are unidentified. Archangel Gabriel spreads her wings on the lunette above the entrance.

The north arm displays the crucifixions of Peter and Paul. In the west, Peter (white halo and white tunic) holds the large cross of his impending martyrdom. Nero, the maniac Roman ruler who destroyed Rome and then blamed Christians in AD 60s, stands on the right. A lengthy inscription of the story appears above Peter. The tiny lettering, similar to the name St. Catherine, is in a second artistic hand. The opposite image is Paul (bald, white halo) with two figures, probably his executioners, leading him away. In the lunette below, Mary with Child sits in a broad chair, flanked by two figures, whose names and faces are destroyed. They wear apostolic garments, so they are likely the resurrected personas of Peter and Paul, linked from the neighboring images.

On the east soffit transitioning to the apse, a red frame separates four saints—Prokopios, Sisinios, Catherine, and another female saint.

Domed Hall

The Domed Hall at Balkan Deresi features the most ornate decorations in Cappadocia. The room, accessed by internal corridors, has a central position at the south nose of the protruding cliff. The room measures 5 by 4 meters, though was originally much larger. The west half has collapsed and secondary spaces were carved into the southwest portion. The sculptural decorations are ornate, but the architectural planning is haphazard. For example, the dome and wall recesses are not centered and the corners are not right angles. The room’s fragmentary and irregular state prohibits easy interpretation.

Balkan Deresi, domed hall

The flat ceiling has a ribbed dome. The dome emerges directly from the flat ceiling with any support or transition, which is impossible in masonry construction. A small portion of the remaining dome reveals both horizontal bands with a vertical rib—aa style from Roman domes. A thick band with dentils and triangle wedges frames the dome. The same pattern encircles the “miniature-dome” recess in the corner of the flat ceiling.

A three-step cornice surrounds the entire ceiling. The lower steps are plain; the upper step has angled wedges decorated with crosses, leaves, and palm trees. At the west end of the ceiling, a band connects two (of the three) encircled crosses.

The side walls have two large recesses, set inside arches springing from low imposts. The west arm has a large cross medallion with triple oval molding. The vertical cross arms intersecting round bands mimic the vertical and horizontal ribs of the dome. A frame with multiple setbacks edges the lunette, also like the ceiling molding. The south lunette has only secondary carvings. The south pillar has a raised palm tree above a framed wreath.

The original function of “Domed Hall” is not obvious. Most scholars assume the cruciform room was a church, albeit highly irregular. However, because the east wall has collapsed, we cannot know whether the room had an apse—the surest sign of a Byzantine church. The unique decorative carvings in Domed Hall are found only in other churches—e.g., St. John the Baptist (Çavuşin), St. Sergios (Göreme), Zelve Churches 1 and 2, Three Crosses Church (Rose Valley), and Ak Kilise (Soğanlı).

The Domed Hall is securely dated to the early 500s, the period of Justinian the Great’s imperial and religious expansion. The article “A Group of Early Churches in Cappadocia: Evidence for Dating,” by N. Teteriatnikov links the distinctive stylistic elements in the Dome Hall—e.g., decoration on side walls, zig-zag motif, relief crosses, and triple oval moldings—to sixth-century Christian architecture. The secure date of these features at Domed Hall allows us to date other churches based on stylistic similarities.

Conclusion


The site at Balkan Deresi has five churches, an elaborate domed hall, several monks’ cells, and dozens of other rooms carved into a protruding cliff overlooking Balkan Deresi. The majestic setting and early date of this Byzantine Christian settlement near Ortahısar make for a great destination.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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