The architecture and design of cave churches has rich symbolic meaning. The physical forms convey spiritual concepts. Following the pattern of all Byzantine churches, cave churches have three rooms: a narthex, nave, and sanctuary. This article describes the architecture and meaning of these interior spaces.
The ultimate purpose of all churches spaces is to facilitate worship of God. Byzantine churches purposefully represented the cosmos. In the interior space, God was exalted on his throne surrounded by angels, and down below were human worshipers. Like a sacred temple, the interior of a church mirrored the heavenly courts, and thus brought heaven to earth (or perhaps, brought earth into heaven). Through the sacred space of the church, people entered into the glorious throne room of God and joined angels' heavenly worship of God the Father and Jesus Christ, the exalted Lamb of God. All church architecture is designed for this purpose—to present the spiritual world and summon participation in heavenly worship.
The narthex is the entrance section of a church. This room represents the transition between the outside world and the church. In ancient times, non-Orthodox people stood in the narthex. In Cappadocian cave churches, the narthex often contains several tombs. The narthex may have fresco pictures, but they are generally limited. Every narthex varies in size, but they are generally about a quarter the size of the nave. Some cave churches do not have a narthex because of geological constraints. For example, the small fairy chimney of El Nazar Church only had space for the nave and apse sanctuary. In other churches, like Apple (Göreme) and St. John's (Çavuşin), the weather has eroded away the narthex.
The nave (aka, naos) is the main section of a church. The term "nave" comes from the Latin word for ship, suggesting the church was the arc of salvation.
There are no pews and seats in the nave, because worshipers in Eastern churches stand during the liturgy. The nave room can have various floor plans: a simple nave is a plain rectangle, a cross plan has two side wings (transepts), and a cross-in-square has four upright pillars (columns), larger basilica churches have rows of arches (arcade).
The roof of the nave can be flat, arched (barrel vaulted), or domed. Central domes were a hallmark of Byzantine architecture. The domes rest above four arches set in a square. The curved triangle section (pendentive) that transitions from the square base to the rounded dome often features the four gospel-writers. The underside of an arch (soffit) often contains rows of saints. In barrel-vaulted arms, the wall under the arched roof (lunette) often has scenes of Jesus' life.
Pictures of saints and Bible stories cover the walls of the nave. The images fill the nave with cosmic symbolism and situate the worshiper in heavenly worship. In cave churches, the lower frescos are often deteriorated.
The walls have common decorative features, such as: shallow columns projecting from the wall (pilaster), decorative molding along the upper wall (cornice), and hollow recesses in the wall for displaying items (niche). These features signify the interior as a sacred church space.
The sanctuary is the front section of the church. Priests stood in this sacred space to conduct the liturgy. The floor area of the sanctuary (bema) is raised higher than the nave, so steps may lead up to it. At the entrance of the sanctuary stands a low wall (templon), from which a sheet of icons (iconostasis) are hung.
The sanctuary has several architectural elements. Some cave churches have a hole in the floor (crypt) for housing sacred relics, like the bones of a saint. A table structure (alter) and recess in the side wall (niche) held the communion elements. Many sanctuaries have seating for the priests. Older churches have a bench (synthronon) along the back wall with a central throne. Later churches have separate chairs, often in the side corners. In cave churches, pieces of furniture were not made from wood, but carved into the space using negative architecture.
The sanctuary area is often called the apse. But technically, the apse is the rounded back wall with domed roof (conch). The apse features the church's most important icon, typically Christ Pantocrator. This area was symbolically important as the main focal point of the church. Light entering laterally from the door illuminates the apse like a spotlight.
Many churches in Cappadocia have multiple sanctuaries, small apses on each side of the main apse. They can have their own alter, seats, and templon. The size and complexity of side apses vary in every church, perhaps because the liturgical needs of each church were different. Each type of church--e.g., monastic, parochial, family, or commemorative--had a unique purpose, so it has specific architecture in the sanctuary area to suit that purpose.
The narthex, nave, and sanctuary are the primary spaces in a cave church. But other types of rooms often appear near cave churches.
A refractory is a large room with a carved table and bench. This was a common eating area, capable of seating forty to fifty people. Refectories are common in Cappadocia because communal meals were a central and defining part of monastic life. The valley around the Göreme Open Air Museum has nearly fifty refractory rooms. Some of these were probably constructed for funeral feasts to commemorate the dead.
Graves fill the landscape of Cappadocia, and many are found inside the churches. Many churches have an arched recess with a tomb (acrosolium) built into the wall. These were an original part of the church for the burial of the church's patron or monk. Other tombs dug into the floor space were later additions. Some churches are functional cemeteries with tombs lining the entire floor. For example the naves of St Basil's Church (Göreme), Tatların Church, Kubbeli Church (Soğanlı), and St. George (Kırkdamatlı, Ihlara Valley) are filled with burial tombs.
A paraecclesia (Greek, side church) was a small chapel beside the church. These rooms were typically added as funerary chapels. Churches with a paraecclesia include Eski Gümüs, Zındar (Ortahısar), Pancarlık (Ortahısar), and New Buckle (Göreme).
Sometimes, water basins furnish the back right corner of a church. This small bowl held holy water. Several times a year, Byzantine Christians practiced a rite called "Smaller Blessing" (compared to the rite of "Bigger Blessing," baptism). The short service utilized the holy basin to make prayers for spiritual cleansing and physical healing. The holy water, as a symbol of divine cleansing, was for both sanctification and sickness. Three churches with holy water basins are Durmuş Kadir, Pancarlık, and Tolkalı basement.
The architecture of each room in a cave church carries specific meaning. When you visit a cave church, take a moment to ask these questions—What rooms are here? What is the shape of this room? What decorative elements are carved out? How did this space function?