El Nazar Church is one of Cappadocia’s most iconic cave churches. Carved into an isolated fairy chimney, the church stands in a surreal valley. This rarely-visited church makes a great destination.
This church dates to the late 900’s, a period of Byzantine political expansion and cultural renaissance. El Nazar is a fairly typical Cappadocian cave church in many regards¾a small, frescoed, cross-shaped church carved into a fairy chimney. Yet the iconic setting and some unique features distinguish El Nazar.
The painting style of El Nazar is soft and pleasant. On a dark blue background, the artist used soft red and light green paints. This gives a soft, pastel feel to the interior space. Frescos only remain on the upper portions.
El Nazar includes rows of saints under the arches and along the lower sections. The church originally had over one hundred saints, of which sixty-two remain. The long, flat, and serious faces create a cartoon-like appearance in the paintings. Writing is limited in the church interior. Some saints are labeled by name.
Floor Plan and Ceiling
El Nazar is a domed cruciform church. The middle section has a central dome, and four arms extend out. The unique geological shape of this vertical fairy chimney limits this size of El Nazar Church. The insides measures 7 by 7 meters and there is no entrance room (narthex).
The apse floor is horseshoe shaped. The three arms have arched roofs with a flat wall, ideal for combining frescos scenes. A unique features of El Nazar is the niche seats carved around the wall. The church originally had fourteen cutout seats, but only nine remain.
The cross arms are not symmetrical. The left (north) arm has an adjacent storage room, but the right (south) arm has a small, broken apse. Both extensions seem part of the original design work.
The main sanctuary area features Mary sitting on a throne shaped like a lyre (U-shaped harp). The Christ Child sits on her lap. The dark hand above Mary’s head represents the protection and blessing of God. Next to Mary are two archangels and two unidentified figures (perhaps deacons or martyrs). Mary's presence in an apse is rare for Cappadocian cave churches.
The underside of the front arch has ten saints. The first two are labeled Jonah and Ezekiel. The other unlabeled saints are likely Old Testament prophets as well.
The central dome rises from an irregular circle. The triangle area between the arches (pendentives) features the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The broad arches and pronounced molding (cornice) lead up to the dome.
El Nazar was designed to make the dome its central feature. With few windows, Cappadocian cave churches are naturally dark. Light enters laterally from the entrance and shines upon apse, making it the most visible and prominent space. The dome and arms are much less illuminated, but El Nazar’s features an elevated window that illuminates the dome. Such architecture emphasized the dome’s artwork, a fresco of Christ’s ascension in heaven forty days after his resurrection. The Bible explains, “As the apostles were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them"(Acts 1:5–6). The resurrected Jesus sits in a holy roundel, which four angels lifted from the edges. At Jesus’ feet, Mary stands flanked by two angels. The other twelve people are Jesus’ apostles. They look perplexed as their Lord departs to heaven.
The busy scene has fourteen humans and six angels, but the concentric circles and white apex draw attention to the exaltation of Jesus, the focal point of the scene. The dome’s round shape creates a sense of depth. Jesus appears visually exalted above others. As viewers look up at the dome, they join with the apostles in beholding Jesus ascension into the heavens. The architecture thus draws people into heavenly worship.
Right Side (South Arm)
The two arms of El Nazar juxtapose the birth and death of Jesus. In Orthodox theology, the incarnation (birth of God as a human) and crucifixion/resurrection (the rebirth of humanity) were climatic moments in divine salvation.
The right arm narrates Jesus’ incarnation in eight scenes. The story begins with the annunciation on the rounded roof above the small apse. An angel tells Mary, "You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus” (Luke 1:30). The narrative continues on the flat wall (lunette) with Jesus’ actual birth. Mary lies reclined on an ornate royal mat, and Jesus lies inside a decorated crib. The artist has mismanaged the spacing here, so squeezed the birth scene into an undersized area. Then opposite the annunciation, two midwives bath Jesus in a jeweled bath. Meanwhile, shepherds with their animals come to find Jesus.
The next four scenes wrap around the middle section of the south arm. Below the annunciation scene is Jesus’ dedication before Jewish priests. The flat wall shows the coming of the magi (left side) and the flight to Egypt (right side, with Jesus on a donkey pulled by his brother James). The final scene is an apocryphal story of Elizabeth hiding from persecution in a cave with her child John the Baptist.
Back Side (West Arm)
The west arm has two important moments from Jesus' life—his baptism and transfiguration. In both of these gospel stories, God says about Jesus, “My beloved son, in whom I’m well pleased.” This declaration affirms the supernatural nature of Jesus’ ministry. The third fresco is Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena holding the true cross. The two bearded men at the apex of the rounded ceiling are Abraham and his son Issac.
The arch immediately to the right of the entrance was a tomb, perhaps for the church donor. We could surmise the opposite wall had another burial space.
Left Side (North Arm)
The left side of the church depicts Jesus' death and resurrection. The main scene on the flat wall (lunette) is Jesus’ crucifixion. The destroyed section on the left probably showed Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The scene to the right is Jesus’ resurrection. He has gloriously emerged from the tomb, and now pulls Adam and Eve out of the pits of Hades, while David and Solomon look from behind.
Under the resurrection scene is a large figure holding a sphere and cross, flanked by two people. Their identify is unknown, but the large space indicates significance. The figures could be military saints flanked with the church patrons. The bottom quarter of the fresco has been effaced, revealing the red geometric design of El Nazar's original paintings.
The entrance of El Nazar was originally at ground level, but now the surrounding area is three meters below the entrance. The volcanic soil of Cappadocia erodes quickly, plus nearby farming and terracing has accelerated the process.
At some point the church was used to harvest pigeon manure. Many holes have been cut to hold branches for pigeons to perch. Birds who sat on the dome molding (cornice) brushed away the lower portions of the ascension scene.
In 1999 the church was heavily restored. The front right (NE) and back left (SW) corners of the church were completely eroded away. The reconstructed walls protect the interior and show the original shape. The floor has been smoothed over with cement. (Participants in the 1999 restoration told me there were no grave pits in the floor). A façade covers the fairy chimney to prevent further erosion.
Access and Entrance
The church is located at the mouth of Zemi Valley, between the city of Göreme and the Göreme Open Air Museum. Immediately past Tourist Hotel, you see yellow roads signs for El Nazar on the right. From the asphalt road, you can easily drive or walk 1 kilometer to the site. El Nazar is open 9 am-5 pm, April 15–December 15. Entrance costs 6 TL. The local custodian in the nearby rock room will open the door for you