Cistern Church (Zemi Valley)

Cistern Church (Turkish, Sarnıç Kilise; aka, Avcılar Church 13) is a stunning cave church in Göreme’s Zemi Valley. The colorful, detailed icons inside the cave church contrast with the serene, natural landscape of its setting.


The church is in Zemi Valley, 100 meters east of Karabulut Church, here on Google Maps. You can hike to Cistern Church from Göreme, or from the Nevşehir–Ürgüp highway, in about one hour. The church does not have a door, so it is always open and free to enter.


General


Cistern Church was part of a monastic complex. Unlike other complexes in Cappadocia, the carved rooms near Cistern Church did have a coherent layout or common courtyard. The only identifiable spaces are the refectory (immediately to the left of the church, with a bench and apse) and the narthex (the small entrance space before the church.

Cistern Church, facade

The interior painting of Cistern Church is similar to others in Göreme valley, especially Merymana Church (closed) and Dark Church (Göreme OAM). These churches have rich blue and red pigments, narrative depictions, OT prophets, and huge archangels. The artistic similarities suggest that the same workshop of artists from Constantinople completed multiple churches.


Ceiling Paintings


The barrel-vaulted ceiling starts from the red frame (not a formal cornice molding). The tall ceiling provides a broad space for narrative storytelling. The scenes capture a sense of drama and action. The right (south) vault features three birth scenes:

  • Annunciation—The angel Gabriel appears in motion to Mary, standing in her house.

  • Journey to Bethlehem—Mary sits frontally on a white horse led by James (in a red tunic with crosses), talking with Joseph and holding her womb.

  • Nativity—Mary lays like royalty on her mat, dividing the busy image into two parts. Above Mary, three angels along with an ox and a cow look upon the newborn Jesus. Below Mary, two ladies bathe Jesus while Joseph turns away and shepherds look on.

Cistern Church, nave and south wall

The north wall contains three scenes from the death of Jesus.

  • The Last Supper—Seven of the apostles sit at the semi-round table as Judas reaches for the cup. The scene is large and detailed but largely destroyed by irrigation water from above.

  • Judas’ Betrayal—Jesus and Judas move towards one another as crowds of soldiers watch.

  • Crucifixion—Jesus hangs limply upon the wooden cross as Mary watches.

Cistern Church, north wall with Jesus' death and prophets

The ceiling ridge contains a wide, red band of Old Testament prophets—Jonah, Isaiah, Solomon, David, and Elisha. They foretold the events of Jesus’ birth and death.


Side Walls


The lower section has well-preserved images of Christian martyrs and saints. The large south arch portrays the archangel Michael, holding a “HOLY, HOLY, HOLY” placard and a white orb. To his left is Baptism of Jesus, with the Spirit descending as a bird through the white channel of divine affirmation. The opposite arch likely contained Gabriel and the resurrection scene. The four saints standing in the large soffits (arch undersides) are remarkably aged and wear peculiar black hats.


The back wall features Pentecost. Jesus sits upon his exalted throne. The jagged mandorla circles visualize his glory. Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to his apostles, who sit in folding robes and hold bejeweled Gospel books. The back wall was too narrow for all 12 disciples, so the scene extends three-dimensionally to the side walls, which contain two disciples (Thomas and Simon). Their bodies were shrunken to fit around the rear arch, which contains St. George on horseback (surrounded by rare Arabic graffiti and two female martyrs).

Cistern Church, north wall

The scene envelops the back area, as eight apostles are on the back wall while the others extend onto the side walls. A tall building of Jerusalem fills the background.


Jesus on the Front Wall


The front wall is one of Cappadocia’s most developed sanctuaries. The wall features four prominent yet different images with a central Jesus. On the left wall, Mary holds the infant Jesus on her lap. On the right wall, Jesus sits upon his throne. This Pantocrator icon typically appears in domes and apses but rarely on the lower section of the wall as here.


Transfiguration occupies the front lunette (above the arch). Jesus stands flanked by the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elijah. The large white circle around them denotes heavenly glory. This is the only pre-Resurrection scene in which Jesus has a full-body halo. The disciples (Peter, James, and John) do not appear asleep or aloof but, rather, in worshipful poses. On the bottom left, John “the theologian” is prostrate in reverence. The other two disciples jump back in fear upon seeing their majesty. The disciples’ reaction models the ideal response of worshipers during the liturgy—awe and worship as they encounter the glorious Jesus.


Despite the severe water damage, three assorted niches remain in the apse. The conch scene is Deesis—Jesus on the throne, with his mother Mary and cousin John making intercession. The faint remains show great detail and skill, especially in the finely-shaded faces. The artists stippled Jesus’ cruciform halo and names. The arch apse has a Central-Asian-style floral design.

Cistern Church, apse with Jesus and John

Cistern Usage


This ancient church had a second life as an agricultural cistern. Its location at the head of a valley made the church an ideal space for storing water. Farmers blocked the doorway and channeled water from above and into the church. From there, they released water down into the valley (hence, the name “Cistern Church”). Water entering the church erased frescos of Pentecost and the Last Supper. The collected water also destroyed the frescos and architectural features along the lower half of the church.


This later reuse is, of course, regrettable—even in the eyes of local Turks today. However, this is history—people adapt and repurpose as empires come and go. The original builders wanted to worship. Later peoples sought to grow food. Modern peoples now visit Cistern Church to experience a unique connection with nature and history. This one space captures the various drives of all humans and the long history of Cappadocia.

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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