Eğri Taş Church in Ihlara Valley is a large, half-collapsed cave church with extensive burial chambers. The church painting shows Eastern influences. The site became a popular cemetery complex for Christian burial. The graves date to around 900AD, and the church was carved and dedicated to Mary Theotokos in the 800s.
The name in Turkish means “Leaning Rock,” as the outer rock walls have collapsed, offering an open view into the interior spaces. Eğri Taş Church is the northernmost church in Ihlara Valley, about 200 meters upstream from Dark Castle.
The original shape of Eğri Taş Church differs from its current version. The steep cliff face has broken off, providing an open view into the otherwise closed rooms. The original carved space was the single-nave church. Then, over time, various burial rooms were added around the church. The most unique was the burial crypt carved underneath the church. In the original design, the uncarved living rock separated the two spaces. When this rock layer collapsed, builders constructed another floor with wooden crossbeams inserted into the slots on the side walls. This second floor eventually deteriorated, leaving the large open space you encounter today.
Seven meters wide, Eğri Taş Church is noticeably larger than other Ihlara churches, even with the back half missing. The single nave is broad and well-carved. An unexplainable trapezoidal, painted room was carved off the right (south) wall of the nave.
The large horseshoe apse has a square niche painted in yellow. The damaged painting was Deesis, with Church Fathers standing around the base. The images are barely visible due to graffiti, water damage, and the bleeding of colors.
The full painting program on the side walls has largely been destroyed. A thick layer of straw-mud with a thin layer of lime plaster covered the rock wall. Slabs of the mud remain on the side wall and throughout the lower crypt.
The barrel vault features a large painted ceiling cross decorated with geometric jewels. Such ceiling crosses in Ihlara Valley date to around 900AD. The arms of the Roman cross have double gold bands with circular and diamond jewel shapes. The bright white edging has a red-brick frame. The arms appear like Ionic columns with round ornaments.
The painting programs feature the life of Christ. The remaining scenes on the front half are damaged from rock-throwers.
The painted program on the ceiling includes three registers of continuous narrative, similar to Old Buckle Church (Göreme). The ceiling narrative of Eğri Taş Church is sprawling and inconsistent. For example, Annunciation and Visitation are squeezed into narrow frames while Nativity stretches along the entire register. The painter used deep yellow, orange, and green pigments. The background of each register has three colors, with tan usually in the middle. Jesus’s Infancy is the focus in five of the six bands.
Upper Register (under the arms of the cross)
(Right/south) Annunciation, Visitation, Mary Standing
(Left/north) Mary Enthroned between Archangels (a rare, early form of Nativity)
(R) Nativity: Three Magi on white horses presenting gifts to Mary, Mary lying on mat, an ox looking at the swaddled Jesus, two ladies bathing Jesus, and the shepherds (named with the Sator-Rotas Square).
(L) Annunciation at well, Magi in green robes and red hats bring gifts separately to Jesus during three phases of his life, three Magi standing together.
Lower Register (just above walls)
(R) Joseph’s Dream, Flight to Egypt, Presentation
(L) Denial of Peter, Washing Feet, Gethsemane Garden with sleeping disciples, Jesus bowing in prayer (in two appearances)
(R) ?, ?, Entry to Jerusalem
(L) Mary approaches an angel at the empty tomb
The unique elements of the painting program (i.e., Mary enthroned in the birth sequence, emphasis on Magi) reflect an Eastern influence. Christians from Syria or Egypt fled to central Cappadocia in the seventh century as Islam overtook those regions, and they introduced new artistic styles to the Byzantine Greeks of Cappadocia.
The donor image and dedicatory inscription appear immediately right of the apse. The inscription (written in black letters on a yellow square) says that a prominent man named Christopher dedicated this church to the Theotokos. In the panel image below the inscription, Christopher (painted half-sized to indicate humility) wears a white robe and red sweater. Based on the colors and style, a different artist painted this donor panel. The object in Christopher’s hand is damaged but was perhaps a model of the dedicated church. A large peacock stands above the dedicatory inscription.
A network of burial spaces, both small chambers and large rooms, was connected to the church, similar to St. George Church downstream. The rooms are multileveled and extend along the rock face. The ad hoc construction indicates that the rooms were carved individually, without a masterplan for the complex. Most date from the late 800s through the early 900s.
Each room has tomb niches and floor graves, which contained paintings and inscriptions. The painted Greek inscriptions around the graves are formulaic sayings from Byzantine culture, such as statements about death or a prayer. Some inscriptions even identify the deceased person, such as one grave that mentions a priest named Peter.
North Burial Chamber
A broken burial chamber north (left) of the church contains many painted tombs. The outer tombs are square niches with a single grave. Their inner walls have notches for apparent shelving; either they were used for multi-level family burials or they are the remnants of a storage closet converted into a burial space.
The central burial chamber is one of Cappadocia’s most decorated burial areas. Architectural elements are painted onto the wall of the barrel-vaulted space, and three floor graves line the floor. A yellow and red braid functions as molding above three large arches. On the left wall, Jesus sits enthroned in the central arch, while a female donor in red bows at his feet. The side arches have bejeweled crosses. In place of an apse on the front wall, Mary with the Christ-Child sits upon a golden throne. An angel in pink garments stands in service at their sides.
The ceiling cross appears significantly off-center. Without having sketched out the painting in advance, the artist painted unsymmetrically from the bottom of the walls. The Maltese cross has alternating jewel patterns on the arms, which end as Ionic columns with scroll-shaped ornaments. The central section, now heavily scratched out, was likely a bust of Jesus, looking down on the saints. Irregular yellow tiles with dots form the background. The ornate painting program suggests a prominent burial area.
The largest burial chamber sits immediately below the church. The walls are lined with burial niches. The room had even more tombs lining the floor, based on paintings at the base of the walls. This lower room may have originally been the storage room for church icons and furniture, and then later been converted into a burial space.
The large chamber under the apse contains three graves under a painted cross. While most burial arcosolia are round, the square shape allows for multi-level shelving. Graves were never carved inside the apse, though some are located above (Çanlı Kilise) or behind the apse (especially masonry churches). Here, the prominent burial location appears under the apse, as a crypt. The yellow panels on each side of the large red cross were images of the patrons buried here.
Other Burial Rooms
More interconnected burial spaces extend south of the church. From the lower crypt, a doorway on the south wall leads to a square, flat-ceilinged room with some 20 burial spaces, including three arcosolia on the upper walls. A tunnel staircase leads into another room similar to the church. This split-level space was a barrel-vaulted hall above a large burial chamber.