Cemetery (Mezarlık) Kilise

Cemetery Church (Turkish, Mezarlık Kilise) is an isolated cave church in Soğanlı Valley, with primitive, bright orange wall paintings and innovative visual theology. The church dates back to around 1000 AD.

Cemetery Church (Soğanlı), facade and setting

The Church is unmarked but easy to find. From the outdoor eating area of Hidden Apple Garden Café (near the entrance gate), cross a long, wooden ladder that passes over the creek. Then walk up and to the right. The entrance is 30 m from the ladder. The name “Cemetery Church” comes from its location near the Turkish cemetery; it has nothing to do with the church itself.


Architecture


The entrance is a square doorway set in an arched recess. As with many doorways in Soğanlı Valley, slots at the top allowed for the hanging of a curtain as a barrier. The narthex has been destroyed, and a small grave remains outside on the right.

The rectangular nave (2 x 4 m) has side benches. An infant grave was carved in the rear corner. A small framed prothesis niche appears at the front left.


Cemetery Church (Soğanlı), nave and apse

A step stool leads to the raised apse. There is no templon barrier, but the cornice on the side would have supported the iconostasis crossbar. The apse has a square altar in the center and two side seats.

Painting


The overall painting program is primitive and rudimentary. In terms of content, color, and skill, the interior space appears similar to the work of a three-year-old. Crude lines and animal-like shapes in red-orange and black decorate the space. The orange hue may be the result of discoloration over time (as at Karabaş Kilise, Church 1) and so not the original look.


Although primitive at first glance, the letters and shapes carry rich theological meaning. They are symbolic replacements of the standard images.


The painting in the conch (upper apse) is a non-figural representation of Christ in Majesty. The encircled cross substitutes for the enthroned Jesus in a mandorla. The rows of black X’s below represent the heavenly choir of saints and angels at the feet of Jesus’ throne.

Cemetery Church (Soğanlı), back corner with grave

The various writings also replace common images. Three verses from the Psalms appear in symbolic locations.

  • The arch before the apse has a faint inscription of Psalm 86:1, “Hear me, Lord, and answer me.” Here, these words stand in for the saints and martyrs, typically painted on the arch, who stand in God’s presence and make petition.

  • The writing near the front niche is Psalm 68:1 (LXX 67:2), “Let God rise up, may [his enemies] be scattered.” This presents the Resurrection when God “rose up” and trampled the enemy of Hades. The Resurrection is in the same front-left position at nearby St. Barbara and Karabaş Churches.

  • In crude penmanship above the grave is Psalm 35:1, “Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me.” These words represent the guardian angels that “contend,” or fight, on behalf of God’s people (cf. Ps 91:11; Heb 1:14). Such angels (or military saints) commonly appear in the same position over graves.

The quotes articulate the implicit action of their corresponding images. The three writings are from the Book of Psalms. Each of the three verses is the first verse of its respective Psalm, suggesting the short text was a type of shorthand/title invoking the entire chapter (a common exegetical practice in the New Testament as well).


The interior painting also had an apotropaic function. Certain shapes and letters supposedly had the power to ward off evil spirits. The central band on the ceiling has large Greek letters in diamond frames. This was a magical inscription. Stick-figure animals (turtles, scorpions, birds, snakes, etc.) appear throughout the interior and also functioned to keep away harmful spirits.

Cemetery Church (Soğanlı), vault

Conclusion


The painting of Mezarlık Kilise appears to be childish and folkloric. However, a deeper analysis reveals rich theological symbolism, as the author creatively used shapes and words to evoke common visual icons. The church is worth a quick visit, especially if you plan to eat at Hidden Apple Garden Café.

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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