Buckle Church (Turkish, Tokalı Kilise) in the Göreme Open Air Museum is the finest of all the Cappadocian cave churches. The interior has the finest mural paintings, theologically and artistically. Buckle Church is actually a complex of four churches and a hermitage, all dating to the 900’s. Buckle was the most popular church in ancient times, and today remains the most remarkable church.
Tokalı Kilise (Buckle Church) played a leading role in making Göreme Valley a popular area for Byzantine monasticism in the 10th and 11th centuries. Exploring the architecture and painting, this article traces the development and meaning of the Tokalı churches.
Sometime in the 800’s AD, Tokalı Church began as a simple hermitage—a small dwelling for a solitary monk. The small, dark room immediately to the left as you enter was the original hermitage of this site. The current entrance has a framed doorway, but the bricked up hole was the original entry point. The space has furniture such as benches/bed and storage spaces carved into the wall. The room is basic and functional, with no paintings.
Most scholars overlook this hermitage as a “storage room.” However, Professor Robert Oosterhout notes its central role in the complex. Old Tokalı Church was obviously built around (and thus after) the hermitage. Builders carved Old Tokalı north wall with a bend to avoid breaking into the hermit’s chamber.
The hermit’s cell also has a small, but important window (hagioscope). This hole allowed the hermit to look into Old Tokalı. The angles of construction remarkably allow for a complete view of the entirely ceiling. Moreover, the window also provides a direct view to the revered icon of Theotokos Eleousa in New Tokalı (to the left of main apse). Thus, the hermit had a privileged view for meditating upon the venerated icon of Mary with Jesus. If this architectural interpretation is true, both Old and New Tokalı Churches were built around (and for) the revered monk in this cell. This means the simple hermit’s cell is the original space and main reason for the complex of Tokalı churches.
2. Old Tokalı
Around 915 AD, Old Tokalı Church was carved immediately next to the hermitage. We might guess that a rich patron financed the church out of gratitude for the hermit's prayer or healing.
The original entrance is hard to reconstruct. The narthex of the church has largely eroded from the face of the fairy chimney, and the modern road blurs the original architecture.
The single nave of Old Tokalı has an irregular shape, for good reason. The left (north) wall of the church elbows to avoid breaking into the hermitage room. This shape creates the angled window through which the hermit could view the full program (and original apse) of Tokalı Church.
The ceiling is a classic barrel vault. The open, rounded shape allows for a continuous narration of Jesus’ life. Each side of the vault has three bands. In chronological order and clockwise direction, they depict Jesus’ birth (upper bands), ministry (middle bands), and death (lower bands). Each band has fives scenes on a consistent background of green grass and blue sky. Red and pink lines divine the sections.
The thirty scenes are mostly from the New Testament, with some from the Gospel of James—an apocryphal writing c. 150 AD elaborating the births of Mary and Jesus. The scenes consist of multiple people who sometimes crowd the neighboring picture. This is the most extensive continuous narrative of any Cappadocia cave church. The scenes are as follows:
Jesus’ Birth (top bands)
Annunciation—Gabriel visits Mary, holding a spindle while sitting on a throne
Visitation—Elizabeth embraces Mary and feels the baby in her stomach
Trial by Water—Mary and Joseph drink from priest Zechariah to prove virginity
Journey to Bethlehem—James (Jesus’ brother) leads, Mary says, “Take me off this donkey.”
Nativity—Joseph contemplates, donkey and ox look (Isaiah 1:3), Mary reclines on a royal mat, midwives Mea and Salome wash Jesus.
Adoration of Magi—Mary on a throne with Jesus, three Persian wise men with gifts.
Massacre of Innocents—Herod in red commands the slaughter of children, Rachel laments and mourns.
Flight to Egypt—Joseph follows with a dove, Mary and Jesus sitting frontally, James leading to “Lady Egypt.”
Murder of Zechariah—Two soldiers murder priest the Zechariah (John the B’s dad) in temple.
Jesus’ Ministry (middle bands)
Pursuit of Elizabeth—Elizabeth and John the Baptist (toddler) hide from Roman soldiers in a cave.
John the Baptist Called—Angel calls John to leave the wilderness and start baptizing.
John Preaching—John, with staff and robe, preaches to multitudes.
John Bowing—Jesus requests baptism, but John objects.
Jesus’ Baptism—John pours water, Jesus is nude in Jordan River, dove descends, and angels serve with a towel
Wedding at Cana—Christ talking with the deacon and newlyweds at a wedding meal.
Water to Wine Miracle—Jesus uses staff, host tests wine, and servant pours water.
Calling Apostles—Jesus calls fisherman brothers Peter and Andrew to follow him.
Blessing of Food—Jesus prays to multiply Peter’s two fish and Andrew’s five loaves.
Multiplication of Food—Peter standing serves bread to six people with 12 wicker baskets above.
Healing Blind Man—Apostles Thomas and Philip watch, Jesus heals blind man with mud.
Raising Lazarus—Mary and Martha crouch down, Jesus resurrects Lazarus.
Jesus’ Death (lower bands)
Triumphal Entry—Apostles James and Philip walk, Jesus rides donkey into Jerusalem, children cut palm branches and lay down garments.
Last Supper—Jesus extends blessing with his hand, 12 disciples sit at table with fish, Judas reaches his hand.
Judas’ Betrayal— Judas kisses Jesus as a signal to the armed Jews.
Jesus’ Trial—Two Jews present Jesus to Pontius Pilate, who sits and washes hands.
Carrying Cross—Simon carries Jesus’ cross, Jesus and Jewish escorts have faded.
Crucifixion—Mary (left) and John (right) watch, Jesus with a towel hangs on the cross, Roman soldiers extend spear and sponge.
Deposition—Mary, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus remove Jesus from the cross.
Entombment—Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea lay Jesus’ wrapped body in a tomb.
Empty Tomb—Two women carrying myrrh see angel before the open tomb.
Resurrection—Jesus with mandorla emerges from tomb, trampling on Hades/death, and lifting Adam and Eve.
The painting style features earthy green, blue, and red colors. The figures appear soft and pleasant, even a bit cartoon-like. A similar painting style appears in Ayvalı Church (Güllü Dere), which has an inscription dating to 913–14 AD. The same artist(s) came from Constantinople and painted both churches, thus Old Tokalı Church also dates to around 915 AD.
Several more icons decorate the ceiling. The Transfiguration appears above the arched entrance. Moses and Elijah flank Jesus, standing in divine splendor, while the apostles Peter, John, and James shirk in fear. The Ascension was above the apse (east wall, front).
The busts of twelve Old Testament prophets line the ridge of the nave’s rounded ceiling. They typically appear on soffits (the underside of an arch), not at the highest points. From top to bottom, the prophets are: unknown, Jeremiah, Joel, Jonah, Amos, Zechariah, unknown, Micah, Daniel, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Hosea. This collection of Old Testament prophets frames the “narrative lineage” of Jesus. His life and death fulfilled God’s promises, as prophets foretold.
The lower north wall features a row of saints. These were all painted later. They include seven martyrs (three women, four men), then Saints Helena and Constantine holding the True Cross, and St. Katherina. The final military saint in giant form is the “local favorite” St. Hieron. He was a Roman soldier martyred in 305 AD, then buried in Göreme (ancient Korama).
3. Lower Church
Several years after Old Tokalı Church, the Lower Tokalı Church was built as a burial place. A steep staircase from the narthex descends to a dark, windowless space.
The left side of the Lower Church has two acrosolia (arched burial recesses), and a small room with two graves precedes the church. The prominence of these four graves suggests the Lower Church was built as a burial chapel for the hermit(s) and/or patron(s) of Old Tokalı Church. Old Tokalı and Lower Tokalı were built to relate to one another, even though they are not directly aligned.
The Lower Church has a small, basilica floor plan. Two arches (rows of arches) divide the central barrel-vaulted room from the side aisles with flat ceilings. The pillars supporting the arches are modern reconstructions.
The front sanctuary has three apses set behind a thin hallway, just like New Tokalı Church. Each apse has a small altar and seat. A small dome rises in the middle of the dividing hall. The crown on top was shaved off when the builders of New Tokalı Church lowered the floor of Old Tokalı Church. The church has no painted icons or inscriptions, just plain well-carved walls. A basin for holy water also sits in the back right corner.
4. New Tokalı Kilise
The grand New Tokalı Church was carved and painted around 960 AD. New Tokalı Church was an extremely important church, as it (1) required the demolition of the sacred apse in Old Tokalı, (2) used costly blue pigments and real gold, (3) occupied a massive space, and (4) featured the most theologically sophisticated painting program. A finely-skilled master from Constantinople painted the interior program using expensive, imported materials.
What was the reason for this majestic new cave church? Why did a wealthy person invest such resources in a quirky, irregular church? Mostly likely, Old Tokalı Church had become a busy, over-crowded pilgrimage site because of the holy monk living in his hermitage. This prompted someone with imperial resources to build an even larger church—the New Tokalı Church.
The church dates to the 960’s (based on similarities with Nikephoros Phokas Church in Cavuşin, which dates to 963-69). This means New Tokalı was built only 45 years after Old Tokalı.
The interior of New Tokalı church is vast and impressive. The transverse barrel-vaulted ceiling rises nearly 8 meters above the expansive nave (over 10 x 5 meters). The deep apses, side church, and oversized narthex (Old Tokalı) add volume around the edges. From the middle of the room, you can sense the massive proportions.
Narthex (Old Tokalı Remodeled)
To make New Tokalı Church, the builders made significant alterations to Old Tokalı Church.
The narthex was expanded. Builders recarved the arch connecting the nave and narthex, perhaps to allow for better access for construction materials. Then different artists painted the narthex.
The floor was lowered one meter. Now it is the same elevation as New Tokalı’s floor.
The apse was destroyed to carve out the New Tokalı Church. The intentional destruction of an apse—the most sacred component of a Byzantine church—is startling, but not unprecedented. For example, Pancarlık Church (Ürgüp) was recut to create a rock alter, and double churches with secondary apses occur in Byzantine architecture. As the architecture and painting of New Tokalı indicate, the apse of Old Tokalı was removed to make way for something far grander.
The builders of New Tokalı took great liberty to modify Old Tokalı, as only the ceiling with narrative paintings survived. These alternations transformed Old Tokalı into the functional narthex (entry room) of New Tokalı.
East Wall (Arcade)
In the front arcade, four fluted pillars create five archways. Alternating arches lead to the three apses, while the other two have a short barrier. Behind the left barrier is the niched icon “Mary the Merciful (Eleousa)”—one of Cappadocia’s most famous icons. Affection fills both faces, as the infant Jesus embraces his mother. With a tender eye and soft cheeks, Mary eyes the viewer. The image portrays the humanity of Jesus and emotes human connection.
The lower barrier on the right depicts the martyrdom of St. Euthathius, a Roman military commander in the early 100’s. He and his wife saw visions of Christ and converted. When they did not make a public sacrifice to the Roman gods, the Roman Emperor Hadrian roasted his family in a large bronze bull, as the painting shows. St. Theodore, with a spear and shield, stands to the right.
Each apse functions an independent sanctuary, with its own altar table, seat for priests, prothesis niche for Eucharistic elements, and templon (low dividing wall). The apses all have elaborately painted scenes.
Apse & Crucifixion
The central apse has two notable features. One, it is the most detailed and impressive apse program of Cappadocian churches. Two, the apse features Jesus’ death by crucifixion, not the typical scene of his exaltation on a throne (Pantocrator). This unusual choice has liturgical and eucharistic meaning.
A complete crucifixion scene dominates the apse—Jesus is stretched out on the cross, flanked by two other crosses, surmounted by two angels and the radiant glow of heaven, and surrounded by disciples and Roman centurions. The Jerusalem temple, with a torn curtain, stands on the right. In this busy scene, three people declare Jesus as the “Son of God,” a theology of Christ’s divine identity. Old Testament prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah on the soffit (underside of arch) frame the Crucifixion. Their scrolls interpret the event with prophecies of Jesus’ death (Ezek 37:1 and Jer 11:19). The scenes under the Crucifixion complete the passionate narrative. The faded scenes (L to R) were Deposition, Entombment, Resurrection, and Myrrh-Bearers.
A thin corridor separates the front arcade from the three apses. This feature, perhaps adopted from Lower Tokalı Church, is rare in Cappadocia. Though only one meter wide, the corridor’s extended length and height provide abundant surface for painting. Several dozen Church Fathers fill the corridor. These are bishops and theologians from the era of the 7 Ecumenical Councils (325-787 AD). They shaped core Christian theology and practice. Each figure wears a white scarf decorated with black crosses, holds a decorated Bible, and gestures a blessings with his hand. Their position in the corridor suggests they are both guardians and mediators of God’s Truth. They protect the Eucharist from heretics, but also bring Christ’s presence to the laity in the nave.
The side walls are lunettes (arched walls) serving as huge painting palettes. Bands subdivide the large area into multiple sections. The four horizontal sections include: (1) a thin top section, (2) a blind arcade with the Forty Martyrs of Sebastia and fictional architecture painted on the pillars, (3) a decorative band (frieze) with miracles of Jesus, (4) then a lower arcade with four pillars. The decorated cross divides the upper lunette as a bejeweled cross, with Christ’s bust in the center.
New Tokalı church is Cappadocia’s most skillfully painted church. The figures are very elongated and graceful. The scenes are complex and detailed, with a rich sense of dimensionality. The super-marine blue comes from lapis lazuli, a precious mineral from Afghanistan. A few icons have particles of real gold and silver to enhance the shine. The cumulative effect is stunning. Even the original red and green figural painting of New Tokalı is extensive and deliberate. The original builder highlighted the architectural curves with great care.
The painting program portrays a very advanced theology. The narrative starts in the front left corner with Annunciation, arches along the ceiling, then runs across the frieze zone to the right (south) side of the church. Rather than identify every icon, we note three artistic/theological emphasis of New Tokalı Church—the Miracles of Jesus, Post-Resurrection and Pentecost scenes, and St. Basil of Caesarea. Each of these themes carried specific theological meaning in 10th-century Byzantine Christianity.
a. The Miracles of Jesus
A continuous decorative band (frieze) wraps three sides of the church and depicts Jesus’ ministry. This narrative sequence of stories is rare and innovative. This multiple scenes occupy a privileged location and emphasis the miracles of Christ. Of the sixteen scenes starting in the northwest (back left) corner, the central nine depict miracles. This painting program communicates a clear theological purpose. During the ancient Christological debates regarding Jesus’ divine and human natures, theologians highlighted Jesus’ miracles as proof of his divinity. They argued that only God could perform such wonders. Byzantine political expansion during the 10th century brought Orthodox Byzantines back into contact with the “heretical” eastward populations in Armenia, Georgia, and Syria. This motivated Cappadocians to re-express their Orthodox credentials. Jesus’ miracles, as symbols of God’s arriving kingdom and Christ’s divine-human nature, were theological affirmations among Byzantine Christians. The Homilies of Gregory of Nazianzus, a famous illustrated manuscript made in Constantinople in 880 AD, uses the same miracle scenes to defend Orthodoxy and denounce heretics (see Joliet-Levy, “Tokalı Kilise Revisited”).
The first miracle (front left) is the Wedding at Cana. The iconography foreshadows the Last Supper: Jesus sits around a table with his disciples. Jesus’ transformation of water into wine alludes to the Eucharist where wine represents Jesus’ sacrificial blood. The next five miracles appear on the front spandrels (area between arches). They have largely decayed, so only the original red Maltese cross remains. The miracles are: Healing Two Blind Men, Healing the Leper, The Poor Widow, Healing Man with Withered Hand (visible), and Healing Man with Dropsy. The Greek writings above each scene are quotes from the biblical stories and mark each scene. The final three miracles, all still visible, extend on the south (right) wall. They are: Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, Healing the Paralytic, and Raising of Lazarus. The buildings in each background symbolize Jerusalem and the Holy Land.
b. Pentecost Scenes
After the miracles scenes, the narrative program jumps locations. The Death and Resurrection of Christ move the story from the rear of the church into the central apse. The narrative returns to the ceiling of the nave with multiple Ascension and Pentecost scenes. Two decorated bands divide the vaulted ceiling into three sections. The middle and southern (right) sections have seven scenes related to Jesus’ Ascension and Pentecost.
The middle of the ceiling features Jesus’ Blessing and Ascension. Before Jesus ascends to heaven, he blesses his apostles so they continue his work on earth (west side). Jesus stands front facing and gestures a blessing. The twelve disciples, with Paul and Peter first in each line of six, bow to receive Christ’s words. The two confused disciples on each side belong to the nearby Ascension scene (east side). Blessing and Ascension are connected as a singular event. Jesus ascends to heaven in a large mandorla, lifted by four angels. Jesus says, “My peace I leave with you” (John 14:27). Mary stands on a podium with two angels and Jesus’ surprised disciples. Green trees fill the background.
Pentecost fills the upper parts of the ceiling’s southern (right) section. In Acts 2, God’s Spirit descends on Jesus’ disciples and the early Church during the Jewish day of Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. In the image, a shaft of light (the Holy Spirit) shines down from the center (heaven) towards two rows of six (the disciples). The twelve apostles, like ancient philosophers, hold books and wear white robes.
Four interrelated scenes frame the lower sections of the Pentecost painting. They collectively depict the Church’s mission to all nations, the very purpose for which they received the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:8).
In the eastern edge above the apse, Peter (yellow robe and sole halo) orders the other eleven disciples “to go teach in their own lands just as the Holy Spirit instructed.” Jesus’ original disciples did spread the gospel throughout the Mediterranean basin, including Cappadocia and Anatolia.
Next to Peter’s commissioning is a symbolic picture of the early Church. Luke, the author of the early historical book of Acts, holds a scroll with Acts 2, “They were all together when Pentecost came, and the apostles devoted themselves to praying together.” Before the castle are the nations “from every tribe and tongue,” represented by two haloed kings and their citizens. This figure depicts how medieval Christianity spread as kings first adopted Christianity, and then a mass conversion of their subjects followed.
The western wall features two parallel images. On the left, the prophet Joel (like Luke) holds a scroll prophesying the miracles of Pentecost for those “from every people and nation.” The other image is Peter again, as he ordains seven deacons and lays hands on them (Acts 6). The deacons ministered in the Jerusalem church while the apostles oversaw the expansion of the church.
Why so many Pentecost paintings? These scenes emphasize the missionary expansion of the early Church. Christ has empowered the disciples with the Holy Spirit, and they are commissioned out to the nations. The 10th century was an era of growth for the Byzantine Church. Slavic peoples in the Balkans and Kiev converted to Orthodoxy. Monks carried the gospel beyond the imperial boundaries to new regions, translating the Bible and starting churches. The post-resurrection scenes celebrate the Church’s expansion among all nations, in both the 1st and 10th centuries.
c. St. Basil of Caesarea
St. Basil’s bust is in two key locations—the main apse under the Crucifixion, and the vertical band splitting the upper blind arcade of the south wall. In both instances, Basil is singular and prominent. But most significant is the major narrative sequence of St. Basil’s life. These eight scenes begin in the back left (north end of west wall) and continue east across the pillars. The paintings recount Basil’s defense of Orthodoxy against Arianism, specifically an episode when St. Basil’s group miraculously won control of the Church of Nicaea, host of the first Ecumenical Council in 325 AD and thus symbol of theological orthodoxy. The story comes from the 7C. Cappadocian document Pseudo-Amphilochian’s Life of St. Basil.
The paintings have largely disappeared, except for the Miracle at St. Basil’s Funeral in the northeast (front left) corner. Deacons with liturgical clothing and vessels stand behind St. Basil’s body. The central deacon looks at a scroll, and tells a crying woman that her deeds were miraculously erased when the scroll touched Basil’s corpse.
Why is St. Basil of Caesarea so prominent in New Tokalı Church? The church was likely dedicated to St. Basil, and so it visually honors him. St. Basil, as one who fought heresy, represents the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the momentous victory of monks over iconoclasts in 843 AD, just 100 years before the building of New Tokalı.
5. Side Church
A small side church (Greek, parekklesion) sits beside New Tokalı church. The simple church has a single nave, barrel-vaulted ceiling, and standard apse. The side walls have arcades with upper portions painted with fine geometric patterns. To create the side chapel, builders opened the north arcade of New Tokalı Church, meaning it is the last space to be carved.
The exact purpose of this church, in the shadow of a far grander church, is unclear. There are no grave pits, so its purpose was not funerary. The most important component of the side church is the dedicatory inscription left of the apse, which reads: “This sanctuary was painted by Nikephoros through the patronage of God’s servant, Leo, son of Constantine. Those reading this, pray to God for them. Amen.”
In the 1970’s Turkish authorities restored Tokalı Church. They (re)constructed the front entrance, covered the entire fairy chimney with rock tiles to prevent water erosion, and cleaned the frescos.
Since 2011 Italian restorers come every summer and join the local museum authorities. From wooden scaffolding, they restore the paintings by coloring in the white specks. This work is tedious and meticulous, so it may continue for many years.
Tokalı Church is part of the Göreme Open Air Museum, though located 50 meters down the main road from the ticket office. Since you need a ticket from the main gain to enter Tokalı, people usually visit this church last on their way back to the parking lot. The vast paintings and architectural treasures in the Tokalı Churches require at least one hour to fully appreciate.
There are many half-collapsed cave churches on the hillside above Tokalı Church. Exploring these unmarked churches makes a fun adventure.