Cave churches are a defining feature of Cappadocia. The process of carving a cave church is unique and fascinating. The nuances of cave architecture help explain the meaning and purpose of the church.
Before workers began digging, they had to first select where to dig a church. Several factors influenced the selection of a church site. The location of a church suggests its purpose and function. In other words, where explains why.
First, the location must have the right type of rock for digging. Cappadocian cave churches are between the ancient volcanoes of Mount Erciyes and Mount Hasan. Their eruptions created tuff—the light, porous rock that is ideal for rock-cut spaces. The soil is soft enough to carve out, but firm enough to support itself. This geological area spans 150 km by 150 km around the city of Nevşehir.
Within this volcanic region, most churches are in valleys. The valleys with multiple churches include Soğanlı, Kızıl Çukur, Göreme, Ihlara, Zelve, and Güzelyürt. Such valleys contain water and fertile areas for agriculture. Also, the vertical cliff faces in a valley permits horizontal digging. This fact allows a normal entrance into the space (and perhaps windows) to be carved from the side. Compare this to digging in a flat area, where you must dig downward, which means no windows and a steep, tunnel-like entrance. Fortunately, there are many valleys in Cappadocia because the brittle tuff easily erodes away.
Some churches were carved into isolated fairy chimneys. This also allows for the easy entrance and lighting from the side. These fairy chimney churches--e.g., El Nazar, Yusuf Koç, Grape Church (aka, St. Niketas), and Symeon’s Hermitage--are mostly near Göreme.
Another factor in the location of churches was urban centers. Monastic communities in Cappadocia were purposefully near towns or roads. Monks sought to show love for people by caring for the sick, feeding the poor, and educating children. Contrary to common stereotypes of asceticism and monasticism, Cappadocia monks sought to engage the world. This intention required geographical proximity to population centers.
Moreover, some cave churches were built near pre-Christian cemeteries. Churches often functioned as funerary chapels to bury the dead, so Christians placed churches near previous burial grounds. The areas around Göreme Open Air Museum, Keşlik Monastery, and Soğanlı Valley all have pre-Christian graves.
These three factors--valley geography, population centers, and prior cemeteries--influenced where the first churches were constructed. But in reality, the main factor determining a church’s location was the presence of previous churches. Christians sought to live and worship in community, so they built churches and living spaces close to existing cave churches. This fact explains why most cave churches in Cappadocia are clustered together.
The Carving Process
The cave churches of Cappadocia feature "rock-cut architecture." This method is very different from traditional building techniques. Instead of adding materials to build the structure, they subtracted rock to create a negative space. With axes and chisels builders carved away rock to create an ornate cavity. So instead of building columns, arches, and domes from the floor up, the artists simply left behind rock formations in that shape. When you stand inside a cave church, consider the skill and challenge of this method.
Another notable feature of rock-carved churches is their lack of an external appearance. They are carved into the terrain, so there is no dome roofline or majestic facade to behold, but only a plain rock face. Visitors do not approach a grand building structure, but they suddenly appear on the inside.
Despite the unique building process, Cappadocian cave churches follow the same floor plans and architectural features of traditional masonry churches. A visitor easily forgets they are inside a rock-cut church. In the Byzantine world, the common architectural pattern signified church unity and orthodoxy.
But in a cave church, many of the forms and shapes are architecturally not necessary. For example, the self-suspending ceilings in cave churches do not require columns and arches for support. Nevertheless, cave churches include these features to mark the room as sacred. The features are more symbolic than functional. Stylized physical forms convey spiritual concepts. They declare to those who enter, "This is a holy place for worship."
Yet, cave churches are not identical to rock built churches. Unskilled (or perhaps lazy) artists carved unrealistic shapes. For example, some cave churches have flat domes or crooked arches that would be impossible to construct from rocks.
Rock cut architecture has several advantages. Most significant, construction is cheaper because you don't need building materials, like wood beams or stones. You only need digging tools and manpower. According to locals, one person could carve one cubic meter per day. This means three people could carve out a small church in about one week. So in ancient times, the political elite of Cappadocia could easily construct a church by commanding their workers to dig.
Also, cave churches are easy to furnish and decorate. Artists could easily sculpt decorative or functional elements into the church interior. For example, arcades decorate the walls and chairs furnish the apse in many cave churches. This rock-cut furniture remains to this day and reveals the interior design of ancient churches.
Finally, cave churches remain standing for a long time. For visitors and historians today, this is a wonderful fact. Normal masonry churches from the same period have been plundered for building materials or leveled in an earthquake. But cave churches are naturally loot-proof and earthquake-proof, so they remain intact after 1,000 years. The main threat to cave churches (besides thoughtless tourists) is erosion from wind and rain.
Next time you visit a cave church, ask yourself—Why is the church located here? What was the process of carving this negative space? What shapes are carved into the space? The answers shed light on the history and purpose of the church space.