Dark Church (Turkish, Karanlık Kilise) is Cappadocia’s most famous and beautiful cave church. Located inside the Göreme Open Air Museum, this monastic church has bright, brilliant paintings on every wall. The additional 18 TL (in 2019) extra fee to enter the church is worth the price.
Dark Church is a monastic church dating to the mid-11th-century. The cross-in-square church has four columns, five domes, and three apses. Dark Church, along with Apple Church and Sandal Church, are known as the three “Column Churches” because of their architectural and artistic similarities. Dark Church was completed first by the workshop master. Then, apprentices built Apple Church and Sandal Church in a similar yet inferior fashion.
Dark Church was the main church for a monastic complex. With grandiose architecture and a prominent location at the head of Göreme Valley, the original monastery was built to impress and awe.
The original layout of the monastery is hard to reconstruct due to natural erosion and the modern terrace for tourists. The original monastery probably had a different entrance to the courtyard and a wall on the open (north) side.
The complex centered around a small, three-sided courtyard with a two-storied portico (measuring 5 meters by 14 meters). The lower hallway (vestibule) was open, so the unsupported roof has collapsed. The upper level was enclosed. The detailed architecture of the upper hallway had alternating sections of arched roofs and domed bays.
The front of the monastery has precise recessed doorways, pilasters, and a long blind arcade of 19 keyhole niches with Maltese crosses. Much of the façade has the red geometric designs found in many Cappadocian churches, though this is not a church space.
The far left door enters the dining room (refractory). The 15-meter-long table has rock-cut benches and round apses at each end. From the right side of the refractory, a staircase leads to the upper level. This was a storage area with floor holes to hold pottery jugs. The central and right doorways on the portico lead to nondescript rooms—perhaps storage rooms or even the monks’ cells.
The church is connected geographically and artistically to the courtyard. The east wall of the portico has a panel of Mary and Christ-Child with two archangels, about five meters from the church entrance. The artwork is similar to paintings at Sandal Church.
The entrance to Dark Church is nondescript, with only a carved half arch above the doorway. The shallow tunnel entrance into the nave has an infant grave at the bend.
The artwork and architecture of Dark Church’s narthex alone are more impressive than those of many Cappadocian churches. The narthex sits at an angle to avoid breaking into the pre-existing refectory room (behind the grave chamber) and to intersect with the courtyard to create the church’s single window. A prominent burial chamber opposite the entrance houses the church’s only two graves (and an infant acrosolium). The circle entrance leads to a domed cruciform burial chamber. Saints Hieron (of Göreme) and Theodore guard the entrance.
Ascension covers the narthex roof. Jesus sits in the concentric mandorla, which four angels lift to heaven. Below stands Mary, flanked by angels and then the perplexed disciples. The other (western/window) side of the vault is Blessing the Apostles. This scene portrays two of the donors bowing at Jesus’ feet. Below are Hospitality of Abraham (left) and Sarah (right), with the three angels representing the Holy Trinity (see Genesis 18). Annunciation (now destroyed) flanked the doorway into the nave and began the narrative sequence of Jesus’ life. The busts of many saints line the sidewalls.
The cross-in-square church has four central pillars. The one original pillar and six pilasters (half pillars on the front wall) have lined patterns. This may be fake marble to enhance the appearance, or an aspect of divine transcendence/mystery to counterbalance the imminence/knowability of God portrayed in all the figural drawings. The four corner bays have angels. The two center bays have Christ Pantocrator, while the three barrel-vaulted arms contain scenes of Christ’s life.
The nave has a pristine painting program. The artistic quality and level of preservation exceed those of all other Cappadocian churches. For a complete explanation of all the paintings, see Mustafa Uysun’s helpful book Göreme Churches’ Iconography, pp. 125–200 (available in the Göreme Open Air Museum gift shop and on Amazon). The following description notes several highlights.
The structure of the interior space follows the standard three-fold Byzantine division of the cosmos. The upper domes represent heaven, and so they feature Christ Pantocrator (middle domes) and angels (corner domes). The upper wall contains scenes from the life of Christ. The lower wall has mostly standing saints.
Old Testament Prophets
The undersides of the arches portray Old Testament prophets. They stand with open scrolls containing verses from their prophetic writings. These messianic prophecies explain a scene from Christ’s life towards which the prophet looks. For example, Zechariah’s scroll says, “Rejoice, Daughter Zion! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey” (9:9) as he points towards the Triumphal Entry (rear vault, above Transfiguration).
From the front left, going back and around to the front right, the prophets are: Jonah and Malachi, Habakkuk and Zachariah, Haggai and Isaiah, Daniel (in Persian clothes and mislabeled as ‘Solomon’) and Jeremiah, and then Elijah and Moses. Kings Solomon and David in royal attire fill the arch between the two Pantocrator domes. Many of the pairings contain an old person and a young person.
Scenes of Jesus’ Life
The painting program features the life of Christ, beginning on the left (north) wall with Nativity and Journey to Bethlehem. The back wall has Baptism, Transfiguration, and Raising of Lazarus. The right (south) wall has Empty Tomb, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. The three barrel vaults include more scenes focusing on Jesus—Magi, Entry into Jerusalem, and Judas’ Betrayal. These scenes are not in exact order. Nativity and Crucifixion, facing each other on opposite walls, are the important centerpiece images. Two resurrection-related images (Empty Tomb and Raising of Lazarus) appear in the back corner nearest the graves, a symbol of the deceased person's hope in the Universal Resurrection. The small lunettes along the upper wall could not fit the oversized images. Therefore, the artists ignored the architectural forms and extended the red frames below the cornice molding.
The Four Evangelists
The four gospel writers (evangelists) appear in the front left bay. Their images depict how Cappadocians would have copied biblical manuscripts. They sit upon ornate chairs with cushioned seats and backings. They dip their quills into the ink well on the center table and write on vellum (calf-skin) pages. The text on each scroll is the opening words from each gospel. John (marked “IW”) sits with Mark on the left wall, while Luke sits with Matthew above the left apse, which has an oversized Theotokos and Christ Child painted at an angle so that it can be seen from the nave.
Christ Pantocrator in Domes
Christ Pantocrator appears in three consecutive domes, all in spectacular detail. In the central dome, Jesus has red hair and soft facial features. He looks down with piercing eyes and a broad chest. The words of Psalms 53:2 wrap around the base—“God looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.” The figures in medallions around the drum are six angels and Jesus Immanuel, a teenage-looking version of Christ Pantocrator.
The front (eastern) dome has another image of Christ Pantocrator. The figures around the base are four angels, John the Baptist, and Mary’s parents Anna and Joachim. The biblical text on the open Gospel book is appropriate for this dark church—"I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).
The immaculate Deesis painting in the central apse portrays Jesus sitting on a massive bench, flanked by his mother Mary and by John the Baptist (with dreads and a fur-lined robe, similar to his forerunner Elijah). The open Gospel book displays John 8:12—“I am the light of the world.” Two donors (discussed below) kneel on each side, with their prayers written above them. The entire composition extends down onto the cornice molding. Five Church Fathers—Gregory the Theologian, Basil, John Chrysostom, Nicholas, and Ipathos—stand in the lower half.
The right apse has several unique paintings. The large figure in the conch is elderly Abraham, the patriarch of Israel to whom God promised to bless the world. Below Abraham and above the round altar is the Holy Mandylion (a towel with Jesus’ face). This was the “first icon of Jesus,” according to church legend. King Abgar of Syria invited Jesus to come and heal his illness. Instead, Jesus sent his apostles along with this sacred garment, by which the king was miraculously healed. Hidden on the far left side stands the apostolic father St. Polycarp, the first bishop of Smyrna (modern Izmir) and a famous martyr (d. 155AD).
Dark Church and the monastery were extremely well-financed. The ornate carving, large spaces, and quality paintings indicate that significant money was spent on hiring professional artists from Constantinople. The Deesis scene in the main apse includes two patrons (identified as Nikephoros [a priest] and Bassianos) prostrated at Jesus’ feet. Their presence in the apse—a rare phenomenon in Cappadocian churches—suggests that they were prominent people. On the back wall of the narthex, two small figures bow at Jesus’ feet. The inscriptions identify them as John entalmatikos (an important title) and Genenthlios. The clothing style of both figures—decorated dresses, with scarf and large turban—is different from the disciples’ attire. On the church’s side walls, the four other donors stand protected under the wings of archangels Gabriel and Michael.
Beyond the written inscriptions and images, we know nothing else about these donors. Perhaps these eight people were a family, though no women are among them. We can assume the burial tombs in the narthex were built for these patrons. However, there are only two tombs for the eight patrons—a fact for which there is no clear historical explanation.
The plaster of the lower wall contained lots of graffiti, the prayers of Greek pilgrims. The oldest graffiti is from 1629, though most date from the 1800s.
After the population exchange in 1924, local Turkish farmers converted the room into a pigeon house by closing the entrances. This helped preserve the wall paintings.
The church was opened to the public in the 1970s, and restored in the 1980s. The restoration rebuilt three of the church pillars and colored in the wall graffiti. A small section in the right apse still contains the white lines of graffiti scratches.