Çanlı Kilise is a picturesque Byzantine site with a magnificent church and 25 elaborate rock cut structures. The abandoned site sits on barren hills overlooking Hasan Dağı near Aksaray. The majestic views, isolated setting, endless cave rooms, and plentiful churches make Çanlı Kilise a spectacular site worthy to visit.
The settlement emerged in the 900s and peaked around 1050 AD amidst the Byzantine Renaissance. The area gradually declined once Seljuk Turks entered Cappadocia by 1100.
The settlement of Çanlı Kilise lies between the Aksaray and Ihlara valley. The string of rock-cut structures parallels the asphalt road, about 3 km southwest of the village Çeltek. Çanlı Kilise is accurately marked on Google Maps and impossible to miss from the road. The settlement extends over one kilometer in length, so allow several hours to walk about and explore the many rooms. A clear spring day is the ideal time to visit.
The site is free and open to visit. When I visited in spring 2019, the area was desolate, though Turkish guard dogs protected animals in Areas 6 and 7. At the end of my morning visit, I met a friendly local guard from the Aksaray Culture and Tourism department patrolling the area against looting.
Çanlı Kilise—The Main Church
The main feature and namesake of the entire settlement is Çanlı Kilise—a large, elaborate, 11th-century stone-built church. The setting and craftsmanship of this structure is truly magnificent, even more impressive than Kizil Kilise (Red Church) near Güzelyürt.
The original church, built around 1050 AD, is the expansive cross-in-square nave (9m x 9m) with 3 slitted apses. Four pillars supported the massive central dome which was 4.5 meters wide and 16 meters high. Its tall 12-sided drum had 4 slits for interior illumination and a flattened cap. This original dome collapsed in the 1950s during an earthquake. The narthex is uniquely two floors in height.
The detailed exterior and precision masonry is a distinguishing feature of Çanlı Kilise. The facade has alternating bands of red brick and local stone creating a two-story appearance. Red bricks were used only on the exterior to create a base layer and to decorate the stepped arches. Such intricacy and precision suggests the mason came from Constantinople.
The few remaining frescos match the professional craftsmanship. The naos pictures reflect miracles scenes from Christ’s life.
Some 200 years later in the 13th century, the church was repainted and the smaller, side church (paraekklesion) was added on the north side. This church was freestanding, but is buried under a landslide.
The area around Çanlı Kilise includes over 25 large, rock-cut settlements. They are independent dwellings that are integrated into one-kilometer strings of residences. The standard area consists of:
a three-sided courtyard dug into the hillside,
with multiple rooms off each side
oriented southward to capture sunlight.
While each area is different in size and layout, they have several common features:
a rock-cut portico (roofed porch supported by pillars) on the main wall,
a large, decorated main hall behind the front wall,
a small, cruciform church (chapel), often cross-in-square shaped in the front right corner with burial tombs,
and smaller spaces on the sides that serve as kitchens, storage rooms, cisterns, dovecotes bedrooms, animal stables, and hiding spaces.
The Purpose: Monastic or Residential?
What is the purpose of these courtyard structures? Most scholars in the 20th century (e.g., Bell, Rott, Rodley) interpreted the area as “monastic”—each courtyard housed a community of Orthodox monks.
Then, based on his fieldwork in the 1990s, Robert Ousterhout concluded Çanlı Kilise was “clearly not a monastic enclave,” but a residential area. Based on the expansive courtyards, detailed facades, and large stables, he suggests the area was a prosperous community associated with the nearby town/fortress of Akhısar (visible 4 km southwest). The courtyard settlements provided upscale housing for military leaders and land barons, along with a population of their support staff.
Ousterhout reminds us how the landscape of Cappadocia also supported non-monastic functions, such as military, agriculture, and regular housing. However, his domestic interpretation does not negate all monastic presence at Çanlı Kilise.
The Christian identity of people at Çanlı Kilise dominates the entire settlement. The main stone church was certainly the central and most important feature of the community. Besides the main church, Ousterhout identified 30 churches and chapels throughout the settlement, often one in each settlement area. (Note: a small church does not automatically mean a settlement is monastic in function, as wealthy Byzantine homes sometimes had private chapels.) The proliferation of churches testifies to the Christian identity of the ancient residents. Moreover, several points around Çanlı Kilise do have an explicit monastic presence. Area 17 with a central church and neighboring refectory is clearly a monastery. Area 12, with four churches, likely functioned as a monastery at some point in history. Another area 400 meters east of Çanlı Kilise appears to be another small monastery.
In sum, the settlement areas around Çanlı Kilise testify to both monastic and non-religious use.
Here is a brief explanation of several key areas of the settlement. These follow Ousterhout's numbering.
Area 1, the eastern-most courtyard (towards Çeltek), is elaborate and impressive. The spacious courtyard has two floors of rooms on the front. The lower rooms, from left to right, were a domed kitchen, large flat-roofed hall, and pillared room (perhaps an unfinished cross-in-square church). The front wall is decorated with an arcade of gabled arches. The upper level rooms, like other areas at Çanlı Kilise, became dovecotes to collect pigeon manure. The portico once covered the upper section of dovecotes, but is now collapsed, raising the present courtyard floor several meters.
A street lined with multiple shops jettisons off the front, right corner of the courtyard. The street was sunk below the surface, allowing for access to the underground rooms.
Area 12 is both elaborate and confusing. The original courtyard design featured a large portico (now fallen) leading to three separate large rooms. Rooms on the left were for storage, and the doorway on the right leads to an entry room with multiple doorways to more rooms, probably the residence area.
At some later point, a series of four churches were strangely carved over the space. A tiny chapel stands above the left side. Then another small, cross-in-square church sits offset above the main hall. The corner bays have cross-marked vaults, framing the central dome. The front sanctuary has a small alter, and on the backside the low wall has a cross cutting to house some holy object, like saint’s bones or a processional cross. The fresco on the back (west) wall is three Hebrews standing over orange flames and protected by an angel. The female donor on the left wears a dark gown, and the donor on the right is destroyed. The third church, masonry built, stands over the second rock-cut church. The rock foundations of the fourth church are visible 20 meters away, eastward and up the hill.
Area 13 retains a clean, original form. The left side of the portico still survives, allowing us the visual the original design. The three main rooms behind the portico are a ventilated kitchen, small hall, and cruciform room (perhaps unfinished church space). The lower level room to the left was for animals.
Area 17 should be identified as monastic. The rooms are irregularly strung together in a line, not around a three-sided courtyard. The church is barrel vaulted with a round dome and large narthex room. Nearby is the dining hall with a shorter rock-cut table. This trapeza hosted the communal meals. Back in the corner is a storeroom with cisterns and holes for earthward jars.
Another nearby room has an unfinished rock table, suggesting the monastic community sought to expand. Another church above this area features Deesis in the apse.
The road cuts away from the settlement and turns towards Akhısar just before Area 9. Areas 10-17 face a deep valley, which formed as the layer of loose ash gave way.
The historic site of Çanlı Kilise may have been one of Cappadocia's most important areas during the Middle Byzantine Era (900–1200 AD). The site today is abandoned, yet offers a fascinating direct encounter with history.
Ousterhout’s book Byzantine Settlement in Cappadocia (Dumbarton Oaks: 2005/2011) is the final report of his research. His chapter in Archeology of Byzantine Anatolia (Oxford, 2017) provides a concise summary. The annual field reports are available free online.
"The 1994 Survey at Akhisar - Canlı Kilise,” discusses the main church and Areas 1-4.
“Survey of the Byzantine Settlement at Çanlı Kilise: 1995 and 1996 Seasons” at JSTOR and Academia, details and interprets the individual settlements. "1997 Survey at Akhisar-Çarılı Kilise” focuses on graves and small cemeteries.