Grape (St. Niketas) Church

Grape Church (Turkish, Üzümlü Kilise) is a cave church is set in a singular fairy chimney in Red Valley. The single nave church has beautiful floral frescos and a stunning natural context.


Access and Entrance


This church is free to enter, but it does have a locked door. The key is kept in the kitchen of the nearby cafe area, so you can ask at the counter. To reach the church, go to the Sunset/Panoramic viewpoint (3 km north of Ortahisar). From the cafes on the road, follow the signs for Grape Church 200 meters down into Red Valley. You can view the location on Google Maps here. This church is also called St. Niketas Church.


Purpose and Function


Grape Church also provides a historical glimpse into ancient Cappadocia monasticism. This fairy chimney was the hermitage for St. Niketas, the ascetic hermit who lived here in solitude. Niketas was known as a “stylite,” a type of ascetic who lived atop a pillar (or in this case, atop a fairy chimney). Stylite asceticism started with St. Symeon (d. 490), the famous ascetic saint in Syria who lived atop a small pillar for 37 years. He inspired many other Christians, including this Niketas in Cappadocia, to adopt such a unique form of asceticism. These stylite ascetics were revered as holy men and attracted many visitors


Compared to other Cappadocia churches, we know a lot about the function and purpose of this church. Based on the architecture and inscriptions, we can infer a stylite hermit named Saint Niketas lived in the upper cell and worshiped at the church. The donor inscription for this church (next to St. Symeon's pillar) refers to “the most glorious Eurstratious,” who was a military leader in the Tarsus mountain range (about 170 km southeast of this church). 


Here is the probable story. Niketas came to this site as a stylite monk in the mid 800’s. He became a popular holy person who attracted many visitors. One such pilgrim was the military leader Eurstatious, who was appointed by the Byzantine emperor to protect a mountain pass from Arab invaders. Eurstatious visited Niketas to pray for military success. After a victory, Eurstatious was grateful for Niketas’ answered prayer. So he donated a generous amount to carve and paint this church at the base of Niketas’ living cell.


General Info and Date


This is a single nave church, measuring only 8 meters by 2 meters. The carving is rather plain. There are no extra borders, trims, columns, or seats carved from the rock. The church dates to the 800’s, based on the stylized flower and prominence of the cross throughout the frescos painting.


Entry Room (Narthex)


The small entry room into the church has a rounded, barrel vaulted room. The space features a large rock cut tomb (acrosolium) on the left. Perhaps St. Niketas, or the church’s patron, was buried here. On the roof is a geometric patterned cross, with vines of lily flowers flowing from its base.


Ceiling


In the main room of the church (naos), a stunning cross and flower design covers the ceiling. More ornate than the narthex ceiling design, this jeweled cross has an abundance of acanthus flowers and grapevines. This is why the church is called Grape Church.


In the Bible, vineyards and grapevines symbolized God’s people (see Isaiah 5; Psalm 80). Jesus said in John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” The ceiling design of grapes coming from the cross visualizes a core theological belief—Jesus’ death (the cross) was the basis of God’s new covenant people (the vines).


Around the cross are seventeen interlaced circles (roundels). Inside each roundel is a Maltese cross and peacock feathers. The background is a detailed grid with dots. The pinkish red with yellow coloring creates an interior space far brighter than most other cave churches. Because the paint was water based, frescos have faded significantly. The non-figurative patterns represent an “orientalizing” of the standard Byzantine artwork. Because of political shifts in Cappadocia at the time, Persian (and perhaps Arab) art styles influence the patterns coming from Constantinople.


Front Wall


The small space above the arch (lunette) has a crucifixion scene. Water damage and human defacement has marred the scene, but there are many revealing elements. On the cross, Jesus wears a robe and shows no sign of death, both uncharacteristic for Cappadocia churches.


On the far left is St. Simeon, the original stylite hermit, who coincidently was born in Cappadocia. His bust sits inside a pearled medallion, set atop his famous column. To his left, the church dedication reads: “For the prayer and salvation and the forgiveness of sins of Niketas, stylite, the faith of the ascetic . . .” This reveals the historical context and purpose of the structure (explained below). Between St. Simeon and Jesus is Mary, labeled in Greek O Agios Theotokos, meaning “The Holy God-Bearer.” To the right of Jesus is an unidentified person, perhaps the apostle John. On the far right is a huge image of John the Baptist. The text of his scroll reads, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” This verse from John 1 explains the theological significance of Jesus’ death on the cross—forgiveness and life for all people.


Back Wall


The space above the entry arch (lunette) has four figures. From left to right, they are: St. Damianos, Kosmas, Panteleemon, and St. Anne (Mary’s mother who was known for healing powers). Also on this wall is Christian graffiti from later pilgrims who came to pray in this church. For example, one person etched into the wall, “These are the doctors who heal by the power of Christ.” Other writings are prayers to Mary the Theotokos.


Side Wall


On the left (northern) wall, Jesus’ followers stand under a row of arches. The first is Simon Peter. His squared brown hair is an aberration from his standard gray, curly beard. Then, from Peter to the right, stand Thomas, Mark, John, James, and finally Paul. The inclusion of Paul is rare, as he was neither one of the twelve apostles nor one of the four gospel writers. All of the figures hold a book or scroll, which signifies their roles as witnesses of Jesus’ life and channels of divine revelation. The lower part of this wall was later carved out to create another non-descript room.

The right (southern) wall has another six apostles, but no identifying names. The five roundels of Maltese crosses below are faded, but show how the other wall probably looked before the extra room was carved. 


Apse


The space in the front sanctuary is poorly developed. The central picture is Mary (small) on a padded throne with the Christ child on her lap. Their small figures were wedged between a ceiling design and a small niche, which was used for the bread and cup of communion. On the left is the archangel Michael with an orb, and archangel Gabriel stands on the right with a lance. A busy background of bright yellow peacock feathers overshadows the scene.


Upstairs Residence


At the top of the fairy chimney is a small living cell. The space is inaccessible now because of severe erosion, but probably had an outside staircase. The cross on the roof and several niches/windows remain visible. This room was Niketas' living space, high up to signify his renunciation of the world. The harsh Cappadocia winters would have been miserable here, but ascetics have a penchant for self-inflicted punishment. 


Surrounding Area


The hermitage does not stand by itself in Red Valley. This was a popular and active area in history. You notice other rock-cut architecture around the valley from the church.

  • small chapel sits behind the cafe kitchen. The original structure was a basic, single nave church. A tiny grave appears on the right wall of the nave, most likely for an infant burial. The apse had two niches that housed the communion elements. The original plaster appears around the edges. Later, a second small room with an alter was added to the left side.

  • The area has several clusters of rock tombs (acrosolium). A row of five tombs lies 80 meters to the south. And more appear 100 meters to the west as you look down the valley.

  • Agricultural rooms fill the fairy chimney just opposite the church entrance. The lower room is a winepress. Juice pours from the press area on the left into the external vat. The upper (and now inaccessible) room was a bee house, as indicated by the rows of small holes.


Modern Use


The walls of this church contain graffiti from generations of Byzantines pilgrims. Visitors would etch their prayers and petitions into the frescoed walls. The amount of inscriptions indicates Niketas was indeed a famous hermit and this church remained popular for centuries.


In more recent times, the space through the apse was dug out for animals. Feeding troughs and anchors for tying animals are dug into rock. The right side of the apse was rebuilt to block the eroded hole. These days there is a cafe on site, which sometimes hosts overnight camping groups. 

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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