Goreme Open Air Museum (Overview)

Updated: Feb 26

The Göreme Open Air Museum is the crown jewel of Cappadocia's rich history. This small area contains the best churches in Cappadocia and several monastic complexes. For this reason, the Göreme Open Air Museum is Cappadocia's most popular tourist destination. This article explains the broader geographical, social, and historical context of the Göreme Open Air Museum.

Goreme Open Air Museum (M. Gulyaz)

Göreme Valley: The Geographical Context


In 1985, the Göreme Open Air Museum was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site to conserve and properly display Cappadocia’s best cave churches. To facilitate thousands of tourists each day, the Turkish government built roads, parking lots, and shops along with the Open Air Museum. These measures were helpful and necessary, but they created a spotlight effect—visitors only notice the sites within the Open Air Museum, and thus overlook all the nearby churches. The churches of the Göreme Open Air Museum must be understood within the broader context of the entire valley.


The Göreme Open Air Museum occupies a small section, perhaps just 5%, of the river valley known as Göreme Valley. The Göreme Valley is one kilometer long, beginning at the Göreme Open Air Museum and extending northwest where it opens into a broad, sandy valley. The dry riverbed on the southern side of the asphalt ride intersects the valley. The broader valley is filled with many churches, chapels, and refractories.

Map of Goreme Valley (areas of major rock carvings circled)

Göreme Valley contains at least 60 churches, 45 refractories, hundreds of burials graves, and countless agricultural rooms. Several other painted churches are located near Göreme Valley, such as El Nazar Church, Saklı (Hidden) Church, Ayvalı Monastery, and Zindan Church. The high density of carved churches suggests Göreme Valley was a hive of religious activity.


The Reason for Church Growth


Why are there so many churches, chapels, refractories, and tombs in this small area? The answer is a combination of three interrelated factors—funerals, monasticism, and pilgrimage.


In pre-Christian Roman times, Göreme Valley was a burial location with rock-carved tombs. As the Roman Empire Christianized, the burial spaces became Christian in character.

Goreme Valley, various rock carvings in NW corner

Then, around the 800's, monks formed small monasteries in the area to pursue the contemplative life. The valley had several advantages for monastic living. Spiritually, the area was considered "sacred" because previous saints were buried there. Geologically, the surreal, desert-like topography created a mystical, spiritual context, a common feature in Byzantine monasteries. And practically, the churches and living spaces were easy to construct.


Once Göreme Valley became populated with monks and hermits, lay Christians came as pilgrims. They journeyed here to visit the monks, receive prayer, or behold a holy relic. The influx of pilgrims enhanced the sacred reputation of the region. This, in turn, meant more people wanted to build a memorial chapel or monastery here. Thus, the three motivations of sacred burial, monastic life, and spiritual pilgrimage reinforced each other. For these reasons, Göreme Valley has the highest concentration of Christian churches in Cappadocia.


The Role of Tokalı Church


In addition to the general factors behind the valley's development, Tokalı Kilise (Buckle Church) specifically played a decisive role in making Göreme Valley a popular area for Christians. The archeological remains of Tokalı Church suggest the following story. At first, Tokalı Church was a simple hermitage—a small remote dwelling for a solitary monk. Then around AD 915, Old Tokalı Church was carved immediately next to the hermitage. Mostly likely, a rich patron financed the church out of gratitude for the hermit's prayer or healing.

Then in 961 AD, the much larger New Tokalı Church was carved and painted. This New Tokalı Church was an extremely important church. This is evident by how New Tokalı Church (1) required the demolition of the sacred apse in Old Tokalı, (2) used costly blue pigments and real gold, and (3) featured the most theologically sophisticated painting program. What was the reason for this majestic new cave church? Most likely, Old Tokalı Church had become a busy, over-crowded pilgrimage site because of the holy monk living in his hermitage. This prompted someone with imperial resources to build an even larger church—the New Tokalı Church.

New Tokali Church, north wall (M. Gulyaz)

New Tokalı Church is Cappadocia's largest and most decorated cave church. Also, this church was one of the earliest churches in Göreme Valley, built around AD 960. The other painted churches in and around the Göreme Open Air Museum were constructed 50-100 years after New Tokalı Church. So, New Tokalı Church helped define the valley as a popular site for monasticism and pilgrimage. As people came to visit New Tokalı Church, they became inspired to build additional monasteries nearby, especially in the upper portion of the valley, which is now the official Göreme Open Air Museum.

The Göreme Open Air Museum


The Göreme Open Air Museum includes, in a very compact area, 15 churches and 11 refectories. According to best estimates, all the churches were built in the 11th century.

The churches can be classified by three different types of interior art styles—plastered (fully painted), paneled (a few squares with images), and basic (geometric shapes with red lines).


The most impressive churches— Dark (Karanlık), Sandal (Çarıklı), and Apple (Elmalı)—are fully plastered and painted. The painting program fills the entire church. These so-called "Column Churches" feature columns of a cross-in-square floorplan. Their uniform style suggests the same people made and painted all three. Most likely, the master and his team painted Dark Church around 1000 AD, then members of that team painted Sandal Church and Apple Church. The latter churches are similar in shape, color, and scenes to the Dark Church, but their paintings are not as accurate or detailed.

Dark Church ceiling (M. Gulyaz)

Five additional churches in the Göreme Open Air Museum feature isolated panels on the interior. This group includes St. Basil, St. Barbara, St. Catherine, Snake Church (Yılanı Kilise), and Pantocrator Church. The walls of these churches are mostly bare rock, with some rectangular panels of saints in standing position. These panel paintings were perhaps made by a Christian as the fulfillment of a vow—for example, "God, if you heal my daughter, I will paint an icon of St. George in that church." Unlike pictures in the fully painted Column Churches, the panel paintings are individual and unrelated to one another.

The most commonly painted image is St. Basil, followed by Saints George and Theodore on horses, slaying a dragon. These panel churches also utilize the red geometric lines to make cross designs and highlight architectural elements. There is no way to know for certain which church came first or whether they had the same artists.

The remaining group of churches in the Göreme Open Air Museum are plain and simple. They have no painted images, just basic lines. There are approximately five such churches, mostly unmarked or locked.


Modern History


After a period of extensive Christian usage in the 10th and 11th centuries, Göreme Valley was seemingly abandoned around 1100 AD when Seljuk Turks occupied the region. The area became a Turkish village community. Farmers carved holes into the floors to serve as winepresses and ovens.


In the early 1900's, the minority population of Greek Christians may have worshipped in some of the churches. There is no direct evidence for their presence in Göreme Valley, but they did worship at nearby churches in Ortahısar. In 1924, all Greek Christians in Turkey were relocated to Greece. After that point, the churches were no longer used for worship. In the period of 1930-1970, Turks had minimal interest in preserving Greek culture, as the country had just fought Greek invaders to gain their national independence. During this time, some rooms were used for agricultural purposes. For example, Dark Church became a dovecote to harvest pigeon manure (which actually helped to preserve the excellent paintings).

In the 1970s, interest in Cappadocia reemerged. Scholars came to analyze the cave churches and tourism increased. In 1973, the Turkish Government took steps to preserve and market Cappadocia. They declared Cappadocia a "Privileged Region for Touristic Development." Before that time, the churches of at the Göreme Open Air Museum were open and unprotected. In 1975, the nearby town of Avcılar changed its name to Göreme. This put the Göreme Open Air Museum under the town’s jurisdiction so they could receive 40% of all revenues. Then in 1985, the "Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia" was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today, the Göreme Open Air Museum is Cappadocia's main attraction, with over 1 million visitors every year.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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