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Church of St. Sergios

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

The Church of St. Sergios is an isolated cave church near Göreme with distinct crosses carved on the roof and cryptic magical inscriptions painted on the walls.

The church is located on the northwest edge of Göreme. Turn right after Göreme Belediye onto Adnan Menderes Sokak. Then turn left at Özbek Sokak. St. Sergios (also, Avcılar Church 9) is inside the large fairy chimney at the dead-end, surrounded by fields. See this map. The church is hard to access and is used for agricultural storage, though the entrance is open.

The fairy chimney contains multiple pigeon houses that have been carved into the face, along with an irrigation channel along the base. (This is the reason why the ground before the church was lowered three meters.) A small, seemingly-inaccessible room stands at the peak of the tall fairy chimney. The room has a cross inscribed up the wall, suggesting that the room was the hermitage of a solitary monk. The upper hermitage and church (and perhaps rooms in between) belonged to the same community.

St. Sergios (Göreme), fairy chimney

The square nave measures five meters by five meters, though the left (north) wall bows outward. The original design is hard to discern, as both doorways into the nave appear to be secondary and not original. The original narthex may have been the burial chamber with three graves and a walled-up exit, though the steeped doorway into the church is shallow. The current entrance has an external arcosolia.

The walls have a low bench all around. Each wall has a carved niche: a framed prothesis niche for Eucharist elements on the front wall, a water basin niche on the right (south) wall, and an irregular niche on the back wall.

The painting program in the nave uses scarlet red and dark green with (very rare) yellow. The walls have painted horseshoe arches upon faded yellow pillars. The Maltese crosses painted under the arches contradict the architectural mimicry (as the crosses hang in midair!).

St. Sergios (Göreme), walls and ceiling

The flat ceiling has a large relief cross carved into the rock. The arched Roman cross has palm trees under each arm. Red, green, and yellow intersecting circles (a common design element in Cappadocian relief crosses) fill the cross arms. This cross mirrors the middle cross of Three Crosses Church, which means the same people/person carved both churches. Ceiling crosses (typically encircled or arched, as here) appear often in sixth-century churches.

The wide apse is raised one step above the nave floor. A shallow synthronon bench lines the wall, but the central altar was destroyed to make the winepress. The small arched window angles left towards the outside. The leaf patterns framing the broad apse arch are the only decorative element that is both carved and painted. The soffit has side lateral recesses for hanging the iconostasis screen.

St. Sergios (Göreme), apse and front wall

The conch (apse ceiling) has a second rock-cut cross. This is the only cave church in Cappadocia with a relief cross in the conch. A series of gear-like teeth support the circular molding decorated with puzzle patterns in red. The central feature of the conch is the encircled Maltese cross on the flat ceiling. The decorative patterns of circles (on the cross arms) and leaves (on the circle) match the nave cross. Each quadrant contains a flat disc painted with a green Greek cross.

The entire conch carving is a geometric representation of the icon Christ in Majesty, which often appears in this same apse position. In this heavenly scene, Jesus sits enthroned (the cross) surrounded by four living creatures (the discs) inside a mandorla (the inscribed circle), while the saints (the circle of teeth) gather around in worship.

Two written inscriptions with red letters on a green background appear above the prothesis niche (front wall niche). The text uses secret letters as a sort of magical “heavenly alphabet” (according to scholars Joliet-Levy and Demesnil, and Ousterhout). The inscription reads, “St. Sergios, help your servant Longinos and your servant Maria, and stay beside him.” Similar letters appear amidst the rock teeth in the apse. Such symbols were designed to expedite prayers through the spiritual world straight to God’s throne. The epigraphy (style of Greek letters in the inscription) confirms a sixth-century date for the church.

Later farmers converted the church space into a pigeon house by opening the northern half of the ceiling to create a bird entrance and by carving roosting areas into all the benches. A winepress was designed in the apse. Today, local villagers use this historic sixth-century church to store their construction materials.


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