Deer (Geyikli) Church

Deer Church (Turkish, Geyikli Kilise) is a charming rock-cut monastery in Soğanlı Valley. The complex includes three churches, Cappadocia’s most ornate monastic refectory, and a unique fairy chimney cemetery.


The monastery is well marked and easy to find. After passing through the entrance gate, turn left onto the west branch. The area is 400 meters down on the left side, immediately across the creek from the large Han courtyard. Park along the road and walk 20 meters up the hillside.


Courtyard


The courtyard area of Geyikli lacks both inspiration and regularity. The tiny area has dwarfed walls, no portico, and only one adjacent room. The courtyard area does not match the scale and quality of the churches or refectory.


Front Church


The main two rooms in the courtyard are churches. Their relationship is unclear. Is this a single two-aisled church, or two separate churches? Are rooms considered equal, or is the first room a narthex (entrance room) for the second church? There are no obvious clues as to how these two spaces interrelate.


In the first church, severe erosion allows sunlight to penetrate the space. The walls are a series of niches and the ceiling has recessed squares, each with a geometric pattern. The sanctuary has a high templon wall, alter, and low bench. Two graves are near the alter. The painting is bright and geometrical. The courtyard monastery dates to the mid-900s, as it predates nearby Melekli Kilise (early 11th century.)


The focal point of the church is the burial area in the far back. One grave survives, and others (two?) were re-carved into a storage pit. The painting on the back wall is St. Eustathios on horseback chasing a deer. He was a second-century Roman general, who saw a vision of Christ while hunting a deer. His was burned to death a martyr in 118 AD by emperor Hadrian for not making a pagan sacrifice. The painting style here is airy and outdoorsy. Deep fold lines shape the mountains, water, and hair.


Above was the dedicatory inscription, “Lord, protect your servant John Skepides, counsel of the chrysotriklinion, advisor, and commander.” These common titles indicated a mid-level Byzantine official. John, the monastery founder/patron, was buried in this prominent location, likely with family. He probably lived at Han across the creek, and was related to Michael Skepides, the donor at nearby Karabaş Kilise.


Back Church


The second church is darker and less ornate, but larger and better carved. Three recessed pilasters create four large panel sections on each wall. The panel opposite the entrance houses a large, destroyed image of Archangel Michael. This is the church’s only painted scene, and the single grave lies at its base. Above is the banded, barrel vaulted ceiling. The original chancel screen has the doorway, two windows, and two niches—all arched in unison. Behind this dividing wall, the deep apse has an alter and three framed window shafts. A stout bench lines the entire nave perimeter.


The passage way in the rear was a later addition. This leads to a plain functional room, perhaps used as a kitchen.


Refectory


The elaborate dining hall stands next to the kitchen. This amazing space was filled with dirt, and rediscovered only in the 1990s. Most refectories in Cappadocia are located directly under or opposite the main church, and yet this refectory stands alone on the western edge, another aspect of the monastery’s irregular layout.

With such ornate wall carvings, this room is unrivaled as Cappadocia’s finest refectory. The left wall has a long arcade of seventeen horseshoe niches. These areas were “headrests” for the monks sitting on the bench. Larger recessed niches decorate the wall above.



The framed table and dual-leveled benches occupy the left half of the room. The foot end of the table has eroded away. Nearby is a raised area for the monk reading Scripture while the others ate. The head of the table features a large niche with a throne for the monastery’s abbot (hegoumenos). The architectural prominence projects his superior rank in the community. The eight-meter table could seat forty monks.


A second large cavern lies to the right of the table’s head. The space has two niches, benches, an elevated seat, and a small tunnel leading to the seat at the head of the table. The circular band above supported the light fixture (a metal ring with candles, held up by three chains). This area was for important visitors and patrons of the monastery. In principle, only official monks could eat in the refectory. But in reality, rich donors would provide special food on feast days, and thus be invited to join the monks for the sacred meal.


The large rooms on the right were carved for wine-making. Grapes harvested on the hillside were dropped down the chute, stomped on the floor, then stored in the vats. Although wine was the standard drink of Byzantine monasteries, the wine press was added later. The refectory was a sacred space for communal eating and Scripture-reading, not for food production.


Melekli Kilise (Angel Church)


Melekli Kilise is fifteen meters east of the courtyard area and down the hill a bit. This small funerary church rests inside a singular fairy chimney. The shallow, off-set door leads into the elongated space. Seven parallel graves (five adults, two infants) cover the floor. The deep blue and red paintings are mostly preserved. The roof is concentric steps with a mini dome—a design like the first church in the courtyard.



Most paintings are saints standing in niches or in circles. The style is similar to the St. Barbara Church nearby, which itself dates to 1006. Under the plastered, colored fresco was the original geometric painting design. The broken apse has been filled in with rocks to protect the interior. The main scene in the apse was Deesis. Jesus’ head and Mary’s body are still visible.


Fairy Chimney Cemetery


Nearby are six fairy chimneys covered with graves. This cemetery complex is forty meters east (toward the entrance gate) of the monastery courtyard, just above the road. These fairy chimneys have interior rooms, for storage and burials. But most graves were carved on the outside of the fairy chimney. Two of the cones also have a decorative dome, similar to the three Kubbeli churches. These burial plots were likely for the monks from the monastery.


Conclusion


The quaint churches and open space of Geyikli Church create a charming atmosphere. Meanwhile, the unique designs of the refectory and fairy chimney cemetery illustrate the humanity of ancient monastic life.


After you visit Geyekli, cross the river to explore the Han, and then walk five minutes upstream to Barbara Kilise, before circling back on the road to Geyikli.

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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