Eski Gümüs Monastery is a breathtaking rock-carved complex, located just outside Niğde. You enter through a tunnel into the courtyard of a huge, subterranean fortress with towering rock walls. A gigantic cube (15m wide x 14m long x 11m tall) was carved from the surface level to create this four-sided courtyard, from which other rooms are carved out. This subterranean living complex was hidden and thus was more secure.
The complex features many rooms, and itself is part of a sprawling rock-cut settlement in Eski Gümüs (“Old Silver”) village, about 10 km northeast of the city of Niğde. The village of Eski Gümüs has a 500-meter long, 15-meter high outcrop of volcanic rock, honeycombed with many caves. The monastery is located at the far (northern) end of the outcropping.
The current frescoes were painted around 1050 A.D., and under the plaster are yet earlier paintings (i.e., geometric red designs). Since the complex was obviously carved before these paintings, a start date sometime in the 900’s is likely. So this complex is around 1,200 years old.
The northern wall is the most ornate, designed to create a positive first impression on visitors as they entered.
A series of nine tall arches decorate this wall. The upper portions of the arches are well decorated and sheltered by an overhang. The legs of each arch (pilaster) originally extended to the ground, but are now severely damaged. Perhaps the harsh Anatolian winters or courtyard livestock caused the erosion. But more likely, residents cut away the lower arches to make a wood structure in the courtyard. The holes in the facade held timber beams for a roofing structure. This reconstruction was likely post-Byzantine (after 1453), when Ottomans reshaped the premises for their purposes.
The north wall has several entrances. The far left door goes into a plain, rectangular room, perhaps a cooking area. The decorative door in the middle is the focal point of the entire facade, as it leads to the church entrance (narthex). The far right entrance is now bricked-up, but goes into the central space of the church (naos). These two rooms are discussed separately below.
Above the narthex door is a strange, irregular entrance. Originally, a small arch-shaped window served as the room’s source of lighting. That window was later expanded (with sloppy craftsmanship) to make an external entrance into the upstairs room. To complete the entrance, builders constructed external stairs up to the doorway.
The design and function of this upstairs room is particularly curious. The careful carving indicates it was original to the complex, not a later addition. The original access to the room was only by ladder up from the plain room below. The room has two arched recesses, containing apparent sofa beds with rock cut pillows. The beds appears small, but remember ancient Romans were only 5ft (1.55m) tall.
The wall pictures are scenes from Aesop’s Fables, moral stories from an ancient Greek storyteller. These pictures were common decorations in the monastic communities. Byzantine Greek Christians used Aesop’s Fables for moral instructions, just as many societies continue to do today.
Scholars propose different functions for this room. Rodley suggests a secret, special room for the monastery, such as a treasury or library. Ousterhout sees the complex as a secular estate, so suggests this space was a sitting room from which the master watched over the courtyard. Without written sources, we depend the architectural elements to deduce the purpose. The two beds in arched recesses offer a helpful clue. Such arcosolium beds only exist in monastic dormitories (e.g., Zindan Monastery, Rose Valley, St. Symeon's Hermitage, Three Crosses Church), and never in secular residences. The raised beds in the rock walls indicates a monk's cell.
Church Entrance (Narthex)
The external church entrance (eco-narthex) is impressively carved, yet unfinished. The barrel vaulted ceiling starts from a high band (cornice), and the walls have tall, skinny arches. The wall above the exit has an equal-armed Greek cross cut in relief. Between the doorways to the church and courtyard, the legs of two arches (pilasters) were removed to create a larger panel area for painting a fresco. The scene features archangels Gabriel (L) and Michael (R), dressed in royal robes and prepared to serve. The central figure is Mary, identified here as “the mother of God.” As usual, she is front facing, wearing a head covering, and holding the Christ-child.
Church (Nave, Apse, and Frescos)
The church at Eski Gumus is unique and well preserved. Overall the carving is detailed and smooth. Tall, round pillars dominate the church’s interior space. The pillars are black with a white geometric pattern. The roof extends higher than normal, so the interior spaces feel disproportionate. The ceiling follows the pattern “cross-in-square” floor plans—a central dome, rounded barrel vaults on the four arms, and lower domes in the four corner bays. The church has burial graves on the left (north) and rear (west) walls.
The paintings are remarkably well-preserved, perhaps due to the exceptionally thick layer of plaster. Except for water damage on the right side, the apse sense is entirely preserved, even the Church Fathers' feet in the lowest portions.
The sanctuary conch (rounded part of apse) shows Jesus seated in majesty on the royal throne of heaven, as described in Revelation chapter 5. Mary and John the Baptist, along with a serving angel, stand at Jesus’ side. There was surely a second archangel on the right where the plaster has crumbled away. The scene combines Deeis (Mary and John making petition) with Christ in Glory (heavenly scene with living creatures), a unique artistic move.
The central band under Jesus are busts of his apostles. The lowest section features several church fathers. In the middle is Mary, and to her immediate right are the Cappadocia Fathers Basil and Gregory of Nazianzos, here called “the theologian.” This visual layout of the apse represents the order of the universal Church—Jesus Christ (on top) is the founding head of the church seated in heaven; then apostles (in the middle section) reveal the good new about Jesus to humanity, and church fathers (lower panel) shepherd and serve the church on earth. This heaven/Jerusalem/earth layout in the apse fresco was a common pattern for church frescos in the Middle Byzantine period (roughly 700-1,100 A.D.).
The left apse has a unique fresco known as “smiling Mary.” The art work is unsophisticated, but the subject of Mary smiling is rare, making it a popular feature of the church. The right apse features John the Baptist.
The left (northern) wall has two elevated grave spaces built into a deep niche. This space was for the financial donors (patrons) who funded the church’s construction. The painting and architecture show this space was certainly original. The surrounding wall narrates three parts of Jesus’ birth. On the bottom section, Annunciation spans both sides of the arch. The archangel Gabriel announces Jesus’ birth to the young Mary. The busy scene in the middle combines several narratives.
From left to right, the picture involves the actual birth, the adoration of the three magi, the angelic choir, the shepherds who came to worship Jesus, and the first bathing of Jesus. The upper scene is Presentation, when Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus to the priest Simeon in the Jerusalem temple. These scenes reflect the supernatural origins of the incarnation, teaching when and how God became human in the person of Jesus. The opposite (south) wall typically featured Jesus’ crucifixion, as Byzantine churches juxtaposed Jesus' incarnation and crucifixion—the pinnacles of divine revelation. But in this church, the south wall has a staircase exit, presumably to the second level in the courtyard constructed of wood.
Why are so many walls unpainted? Most likely, the church was never finished. Scholars date the existing paintings to 1030–1070 AD. There is no written documentation, so this is a rough estimate based on comparative artistic styles. In 1071 Seljuk Turks defeated and captured the Byzantine king at the Battle of Manzikert (far east Turkey), and within a few years overtook Cappadocia. This political change meant Byzantine Christians at Eski Gümüs were unable to finish the fresco program. Painting had started in the 1050’s or 1060’s, but was not finished before the unexpected Seljuk conquest.
At the front left of the church, another doorway leads to a small funeral chapel. This room has a simple apse and large grave pit in the floor. The chapel was added later, as you can see from how the doorway was later carved through the back of a carved seat.
Dining Hall (Refractory)
The well carved room connected to the church is a hall. The large space is 10x5 meters. The roof is barrel vaulted, starting from a simple cornice band. The far wall has a large rectangular arched apse and two small side niches. On the wall space above the apse (lunette) is a "Maltese cross,” which means each arm of the cross has two pointed fingers.
This large room was the main gathering place. The community gathered here for meals. On the front right there may have been a rock table with benches. The design of this table is a bit different—as the foot well was dug down into the floor to create the sitting bench and central table. So the table is at floor level (not raised) so was created as an afterthought.
Many graves are cut into the floor of this room. The graves, along with the dining halls location next to the church, suggests this space was the monastery refractory. A monk in Constantinople once requested to be buried in the monastery refractory because the room was special to him. The apparently happened in this Cappadocian monastery, as the room is lined with graves. The large deep pits held large earthenware jars (pithoi) of water and wine.
South and West Walls
The entrance tunnel in the south wall is a cross-shaped hallway. On the upper level above the entrance is a kitchen, uniquely carved to allow ventilation. The other spaces are nondescript, functional areas for everyday. The left (west) side of the rock complex features a network of informal rooms which connect to the larger complex.
Purpose and Function
A Christian community constructed and used this space in the middle Byzantium period. The church and hall were the most important spaces, as their fine architecture indicates, so church worship and meal gatherings were defining practices for the community. The residents were monks who lived together in community.
Eski Gümüs is significantly larger than other complexes, so probably housed well more than 20 monks. Though without written records, we can not tell how many of the existing rooms were part of the original monastery.
In the 1900’s local Turks used the facility for grain storage and animal shelter—a common secondary usage of rock-cut architecture. In 1962-64 Michael Gough lead restoration efforts to clean and conserve the church frescos. Gough removed soot from the walls and repainted scratched frescos. If you examine the frescos closely, you can see the touchups. This link shares more of his story: https://biaa.ac.uk/research/item/name/eski-gumus-monastery-restoration. Today, Eski Gümüs is a public museum site operated by Turkey's Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Access and Entrance
Eski Gümüs Museum is open year around, 9 am–5 pm. You pay 7TL at the entrance booth (or use your MüzeKart), then walk through a tunnel entrance into the impressive courtyard. The site has signage from the main road, so it is easy to find. The view looking into the courtyard from above is worth the short hike to the top. The path up begins outside, a few meters uphill from the ticket booth.
Gough, M. 1964: ‘The Monastery of Eski Gümüş - A Preliminary Report’ Anatolian Studies 14: 147-161, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3642470
Gough, M. 1965: ‘The Monastery of Eski Gümüş – Second Preliminary Report’ Anatolian Studies 15: 157-164, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3642507.