Buckle Church (Turkish, Tokalı Kilise) is a tall, spacious cave church set on a cliff face in the Soğanlı Valley. The church was only 90% carved, a feature that allows us to observe how cave churches were built.
As you drive towards the Soğanlı Valley, you will find the church located about 1 km before the official entrance gate. The site is on the right side of the road and is marked with a yellow sign. A carved staircase leads up the rockface to the church. Note this is not the famous Buckle (Tokalı) Church at the Göreme Open Air Museum, but another church with the same name.
Rock-cut steps ascend to the complex with rooms at various elevations. The spaces were interconnected by paths which have since eroded away.
The left-hand side has an elaborate façade with two entrances. The large entrance with an arched recess leads to an ornate, square room. The small space is decorated with an apse, molding, and geometric painting, but could not have been a church because it faces west. This room was an entrance to the formal hall. The room is much smaller than other refectories, but has benches and a square apse.
There is no trace of a rock table. Behind the hall are monk’s cells. The two spaces were independent living rooms with wall shelving and a sleeping area. One cell has three oval windows, while the other has a decorated square recess in back.
There was apparently no flat, open courtyard between the spaces, as in other courtyard complexes. Erosion in this steep ravine may have altered the original layout.
Narthex (Entrance Room)
Entrance from the outside is made through a rectangle below a flattened half-circle. Because of the terrain, the narthex is on the south side (not rear) of the church. There was another burial room before the narthex. Three graves remain before the door, and a prominent acrosolia was on the left wall.
The church has a spacious narthex with an arched window. Painting remains only on the right (east) side. The two figures are faceless and nameless. The layer of plastered paint has been largely scratched away. A band of small green diamonds decorates the cornice, while red lines create a masonry look on the arched ceiling. The left wall contains a single burial chamber with a tiny portal. This was the most privileged burial location in the church.
The burial chamber to the right is a tight space with five floor graves and an elevated acrosolium. A small window allows light to enter the space. Based on the wall marking, the floor graves were a later addition. The room is crudely carved, with crooked walls and a slanted vault.
Nave (Main Room)
The church follows a cross-in-square floorplan—the standard shape of churches during the Middle Byzantine Era (900-1200 AD). Four columns create nine bays with arched ceilings. All the bays have arched vaults with a painted brick design. The crowns of each column are pronounced and differ from one another. The capitals and bases of each column have rippled wedges. Small oval windows in the rear allow light into the nave.
The central dome is unseemly in both proportion and design. The tall elevation distances the small dome, creating a miniaturized look. In terms of design, the sequence from the dome’s base is: cornice, flat wall, obligatory pendentives, and then an oval-shaped dome larger than the flat ceiling upon which it rests. This dome was the work of a novice, not a master.
The apse, like the central dome, is disproportionately tall. Two towering crowned pillars support an arch. The upper portion preserves some of the original, triangular artwork. Between the three apses are attached altars and doorways. The main apse has slits on the top and bottom for securing the iconostasis screen.
The finished walls were plastered and painted. However, onto the plaster, the artists painted geometric, non-figural designs (as though painting directly onto rock) instead of the usual saints and narrative scenes. The only painted saint stands on the front pillar and faces the apse. The prothesis niche (front left) is elaborately painted.
Several parts of the church were not finished. The most notable is the rear corner bay. The arches were carved as doorways into the space, but the interior remains. The arched entrance from the narthex to the nave is also unfinished.
The incomplete nature of the church reveals several clues about the building process.
Carvers created the entrance and main chamber, then worked out towards the corner bays.
Carvers cleared the general area, then carved the details. Perhaps apprentice workers did the rough cutting, then the master carved the details and architectural features. The master carver worked from the top down. In the back left bay, the top quarter is smoothly finished.
Painters did not wait until the church was fully carved. This church received earth-tone geometric designs for the dedication and a later layer of multi-colored plastered paints, all before the carvers finished. Three workers could have finished the final corner bay in just one day. Considering the ease of such a task, we wonder why the space was never finished.
Two factors suggest that the burial room was the original plan for a church, but then the project was redirected so that a much larger church space could be constructed. The first factor is that the arched passageway from the narthex to the nave is unfinished and incongruent, with signs of a wall terminating there. The second factor is that the back (east) wall of the burial room has an arch-shaped marking, as though there were plans for a carved apse. If true, this indicates the random, unplanned nature of the process of carving cave churches. The builders may have changed plans in mid-course.
This church, as well as Sky Church (Turkish, Gök Kilise) across the street, were used by the local community. Both have nearby rooms for possible residence. The valley floor is thin at this point, so agriculture would have been limited. The location of these churches, about one kilometer from the village center and other monastic communities, illustrates the extent of the Soğanlı community.