Domed (Kubbeli) Churches

Kubbeli Kiliseler is a group of three churches in Soğanlı Valley with unique, external domes. These are the only cave churches in Cappadocia with church architecture on the outside.

The three churches were built by the same artists. They share the similar external architecture and internal painting styles. And all three churches were built above another church. The churches date to the early 900s AD.


Directions


These three churches, along with Saklı Kilise (Hidden Church) and Cross Church, are in the cluster of fairy chimneys, directly opposite Karabaş Church. To reach them, park at Snake (Canavar) Church (at the far end of the northern branch), cross over the creek, then walk 500 meters back downstream. The foot path is accessible and enjoyable, though not shaded on summer days.


Rock-Cut Domes


The churches are named for their unique external rock-cut dome. Kubbeli is Turkish for “with a dome.” Cappadocian cave churches are distinguished by their reverse architecture. The builder removed (not added) material to create the building space. External walls and roofing are unnecessary to create the space, so the builders focused only on the internal aspects of cave churches. They typically left the natural fairy chimney appearance on the outside.


The three domed (Turkish, Kubbeli) churches here are a unique exception. The builders wanted the spaces to be recognized from afar as churches, so they carved the preexisting fairy chimney into the shape of a church dome. This creates a Byzantine skyline. Apart from this grouping of churches, external domes (or any form of exterior design) do not appear above any other cave churches in Cappadocia.


The three domes have a uniform style—a flat cylinder with dentiled edging, covered by a flattened cone. The same design is seen in medieval Armenian churches in eastern Turkey as well.


The Three Churches


The three churches are blandly named Kubbeli Church 1, 2, and 3. Here is how to distinguish each one.

  • Kubbeli Church 1 has the half-fallen dome and stands above Saklı Kilise.

  • Kubbeli Church 2 is the first you encounter coming from Canavar. Since this is the most impressive of the three domed churches, it is marked as “Kubbeli Kilise.”

  • Kubbeli Church 3 is not marked; but is 15 meters downhill from Kubbeli 2.

Why were these churches built together? Scholar Robert Ousterhout suggests these churches were funerary chapels for the Karabaş monastery across the creek. When a monk died, relatives and friends (with obvious financial means) built these churches with graves to ensure perpetual prayers for the deceased. The rock outcropping has nearly one hundred graves of various styles. This area may have been a cemetery for monks in the nearby Karabaş monastery, a popular monastery with a long history. Monks would regularly visit the churches to pray, and remember the dead in their prayers.


Kubbeli Church 1


Kubbeli Church 1 is a small, square chapel situated above Hidden Church (Saklı Kilise). The external dome retains significant details. The flat drum has square indentations highlighted with paints. Two thin layers of small dentils edge the upper drum with a flat cap on top. The lower parts of the fairy chimney were flattened to create the appearance of a square building with walls.


A large portion of the dome has collapsed onto the church floor. The architectural design and carving of Kubbeli is among the finest in Cappadocia. The carver was highly imaginative and skilled, but despite the monumental exterior and decorated interior, the interior is rather small, just over 2m x 2m.


On the inside, pilasters are decorated with recessed edges and vertical grooves (fluting). Three deep arched recesses are symmetrically carved above the bench. A thick molding edges the ceiling. The cylindrical dome proceeds straight up from the flat ceiling. The interior was fully plastered and painted, but the images are hardly discernable now. Because of the collapsed roof and wall, natural elements have weathered the entire inside of the Church.


The relationship between Kubbeli Church 1 and Saklı Kilise below is unclear. Which came first? Why are they on top of each other? Why are they so different in shape and style? The physical remains provide few answers.


Kubbeli Church 2


Kubbeli Church 2 is the northern most domed church, the one you first see when approaching. The yellow sign marks it as “Dome Church.” The church stands at the apex of a long rock with many tomb chambers. The dome is large and pronounced at the western high point. The flat cylinder part has a window and the top retains its conical shape.


The floorplan of Kubbeli Church 2 is peculiar. The core space is a cruciform church with arched transepts and a central dome, but various additions extend in all directions.

  • An extra room extends towards the apse. A small reliquary (small hole for sacred objects) lies before the step up to the broken apse.

  • A back area has a niched water basin and steep staircase. Since the church is located high atop the rock’s peak, you could not enter from ground level outside. The staircases allowed worshipers to ascend from the lower church.

  • A large burial chamber with graves exists on the right (south) side of the church. The area has been walled off with stones. To accommodate modern visitors, an entrance was broken in the front (originally a small side burial space).

  • The front left has a miniature chapel for private worship. From the adjoining hall, a small window leads into a formal burial chamber. On the nave’s left (north) wall in front of this burial chamber is the picture of Myrrh-bearers—the ladies who came to Jesus’ tomb to perfume his corpse. The angel at the entrance points towards Jesus’ empty tomb, which overlays the actual grave chamber with the deceased Christian, awaiting his own resurrection. In an ironic historical twist, the actual grave was looted, which was the rumor Roman guards fabricated to explain Jesus’ missing body (cf. Matthew 28:11-15).


The large internal dome aligns with the external dome. The dome extends straight up from the flat ceiling, and ends with a flat top. The extended drum has two rows of standing figures. Three windows allow light to enter. The Ascension painting has faded. The most visible parts are Jesus’s body and the angels’ hands raising his mandorla. The painting of Christ’s Ascension typically involved a window (e.g., El Nazar Kilise in Göreme, Pancarlık Kilise in Ürgüp). The intruding light visualized the heavenly glory to which Jesus ascended.


Another church appears at the lower level, connected with Kubbeli Church 2 via a staircase. This lower church is spacious but unpainted. The three aisles are divided by two pillared arcades (rows of arches). The triple apses are elevated by three steps. The floor was carved for burials. The lower church has a tall central aisle.


Based on the basilica form and the staircase’s position, the lower church was built first. Then the builders skillfully carved another church into the tight space above. This two-story layering also appears at Balkan Deresi (Ortahısar), Old Tokalı Kilise (Göreme OAM), and Sarıca Church 2 (Ürgüp).

Kubbeli Church 3


Kubbeli Church 3 is the lowest church, situated downhill from Saklı Kilise. The façade has three prominent arches. This is only the external “church wall” of any Cappadocian cave church. Without a narthex, you enter directly into the nave. (The current entrance is through the broken apse.)


The nave (2.5 by 3 m) has a trapezoidal shape, narrowing towards the apse. A broad bench surrounds the room, leaving a small floor section. Two floor graves were carved into the side benches.


The apse is now destroyed, providing a direct view of Karabaş Kilise across the valley. Only the upper part of the arch remains. The floor holes near the apse were later carvings.


The ceiling is a shallow barrel-vault framed by a flat band painted with geometric patterns. This unique design is structurally impossible with masonry architecture, but permitted in Cappadocia’s cave architecture. The roof is shallow so that it did not break into the pre-existing room above. Large dentils line the edge of the ceiling trim.


The church was fully plastered and painted. The only intelligible picture is on the back wall—Constantine and Helena holding the True Cross.


The rock outcropping with Kubbeli Church 3 has several other carved spaces. Unfinished spaces and many graves cover the fairy chimney cone. The area layout appears ad hoc, developed over several generations.


Another tiny chapel is directly above the church. This room was likely the original space in the fairy chimney, and served as a hermit’s cell. The room’s entrance is inaccessible, creating a purposeful separation. The church below would have been built in honor of this hermit. With this room at the top, Domed Church 3 technically does not have a “dome,” but has clear external architecture.


Conclusion


The three domed churches are one of Cappadocia’s most unique church sites. Most churches in Cappadocia are non-descript and discrete. At Kubbeli Kilise the external domes and flattened walls create an intentionally public sacred space.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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