Hallaç Monastery

Hallaç Monastery is a mammoth courtyard complex with large halls and a spacious cave church. The three-sided residence was carved into the side of a rock plateau. The entire complex was carved at one time in the eleventh century.

Hallaç Monastery, courtyard

The site is in a serene valley, located just northeast of Ortahısar, here on Google Maps. There is no charge to visit and explore the site. Avoid the afternoons, when hordes of Jeep Safaris blitz the area.

In the 1980s, the city of Ortahısar renamed this site “St. Paul’s Hospital Monastery.” Such tourism marketing has no historical basis. The site has no association with St. Paul and was never a hospital.

Courtyard

The central feature of the Hallaç complex is the three-sided courtyard. The large-scale open area measures over 20 by 20 meters. The side walls and façade have carved crosses and blind niches two floors high. The upper rock face above the courtyard was flattened to impress visitors as they approached from the south. Some pigeon houses remain on those upper levels. Over one meter of silt has accumulated in the courtyard, thus concealing the lower portion of the walls.

The north end of the courtyard had a long vestibule hall. An open arcade supported a barrel-vaulted transverse hallway (e.g., Belha Monastery in Özkonak), but this has completely collapsed. This reception area is evident from the arches on the east and west walls.

The north façade has a blind arcade with five large horseshoe niches, separated by pilasters. Windows for the later pigeon house have marred the initial façade, so only the outer edges remain. The central bay contains a square doorway leading to the main halls.

Main Halls

Behind the north façade, two square rooms measuring 4 by 4 meters flank the long central hall. The three halls connect via internal passageways. The west room contains elaborate recessed niches set between pilasters and decorated with red Maltese crosses. Later carving converted the space into a pigeon house and animal stable.

The central hall, though not a church, follows the basilica plan—a barrel-vaulted central hall flanked by flat-ceilinged side aisles. To divide the spaces, five stout pillars with square bases and decorated crowns support the six short arches. The rounded ceiling springs from the protruding molding. The side aisles have shallow niches, aligned between the pillars. At the north wall, an arched recess creates a plain apse. The function of these large rooms is difficult to discern. They were likely living spaces, stylized with formal architectural forms to project status.

Hallaç Monastery, main hall

The west (left) side of the complex has two poorly-preserved rooms. The large room (8 by 8 meters) in the northwest corner was entered from the vestibule corridor. The plan—cross-in-square with a central dome—imitates nave architecture. However, this room was not a church because it lacks an east apse. The stout pillars (with round bases and trapezoidal crowns) are pushed toward the corners. This design miniaturizes the corner bays to useless proportions but enlarges the transept arches, which spring from the upper cornice. Flat pendentives undergird the shallow central dome, which has now eroded away.

Hallaç Monastery, side hall

A strange Spiderman-like figure hangs from the east arch. He wears a tunic robe and a pointed hat. This is the only carved human figure in Cappadocia. Such elements appear in Georgian architecture, so this may be the result of masonry workers who immigrated from the east.

Another large room, largely eroded away, appears to the south. The square space was a kitchen with a conical ceiling as a smoke hole. More rooms dot the upper level.

Church

The entrance to the Hallaç Church is through the final carved panel on the east wall. The location far from the central halls suggests marginal importance. However, Hallaç Church ranks among the largest cave churches in Cappadocia. Erdemli and Selime are the only other courtyard complexes with churches of comparable scale.

The church has tall proportions because of the nave’s elaborate, soaring vaulting. The cubical church measures about eight meters in all directions. The elevation begins with elaborate pillars and split-level arches but terminates with bland domes. The articulation simplifies with elevation.

Hallaç Monastery, church ceiling

The ceiling is ornate and varied. Of the four original piers, the two near the apse have collapsed, which reveals the superfluity of such architectural elements in cave architecture. The cruciform piers have double capitals; corner vaults spring from the lower capitals, while the main arches for the central dome spring from the upper capitals. The various support elements are (overly?) decorated with remarkable detail. Various blind recesses occupy the lunettes all around. The carved elements are abundant and detailed, but not uniform. For example, the ceilings differ in all four corner bays—barrel vaults in the north bays and groin vaults with embossed crosses in the south bays. The double capitals on the piers and pilasters also significantly differ, with assorted fluting, bulges, zigzags, and animals. Above the central arches, proper pendentives support the shallow dome with a small rim. The four smaller transept domes emerge from flat ceilings and have flat tops.

Three apses are raised two steps above the nave. The central horseshoe-shaped apse is set deep. The attached altar was destroyed. The tall arched niche on the south side was the bishop’s seat. The sanctuary has no niche, bench, or templon barrier. The small corbel (supportive protrusion) inside the arch supported a cross beam for the iconostasis. The south apse is unfurnished; the north apse has an attached altar with a niche.

Hallaç Monastery, church apse

The church is sparsely painted, which is typical of churches in courtyard complexes. The nave has sparse red lines around arches and capitals. The only multi-color, figural painting is the framed panel in the main apse. The wall was not smoothened with plaster, but simply whitewashed with lime, and so it retains the rough carving. Three figures are set on the dark green background. In the center, Virgin with Child sit upon a diamond-patterned throne and large cushion. Both figures are erased; only their halos remain visible. The Greek abbreviation MP ΘV (Mother of God) identifies Mary. On the left side, an archangel with imperial clothing holds a staff and orb. The better-preserved figure on the right is St. Basil of Caesarea, wearing the omophorion (cross-decorated scarf) over clerical vestments and holding a bejeweled Gospel book. Letters of Basil’s name—ACHΛ—appear next to his halo. The inclusion of St. Basil in the main apse scene suggests that the church, if not the entire complex, was dedicated to St. Basil. His name is also vertically inscribed on the southwest (back right) pillar. This served an invocatory/dedicatory purpose.

An irregular tomb chamber lies in the southwest corner. A small arcade with three arches created an impassible east aisle. The east wall has three corresponding niches. The nave portion of the tomb chamber has two domed sections. Rudimentary geometric painting accentuates the carved capitals and arches. Three grave pits line the floor. The space has no inscriptions but was likely the final resting place of the person who financed the church and some relatives.

The Purpose

Who lived at Hallaç Monastery? And why did they carve this impressive structure?

The residents of Hallaç Monastery designed the space to impress. They employed established architectural forms to signify prominence and status. Such features include a monumental external appearance, magnificent halls, and a spacious church. But whose status was being displayed? Was this a secular residence of a rich landowner projecting his own social status? Or was this a monastic residence designed to communicate divine grandeur?

An article by New York University Professors Matthews and Daskalakis-Matthews, “Islamic-Style Mansions in Byzantine Cappadocia and the Development of the Inverted T-Plan” (1995), proposes that Hallaç’s inverted T-configuration (a long hall with a transverse hall) follows the domestic architecture found in medieval Islamic residences. If true, courtyard complexes such as Hallaç had a secular function, serving as the elite residence of a local land baron.

However, the interior architecture suggests another function. All the main halls follow established church plans. The principal rooms follow the floorplan of basilica, cross-in-square, and single-nave churches, minus the east apse. The builders, while using the general T-shape for the overall layout, designed the interior of the rooms to signify spiritual spaces. This fact suggests a spiritual, monastic function.

Form and function are not entirely coterminous. At Hallaç Monastery, the architecture may suggest options, but cannot confirm the original function of the space. The architectural is equivocal, and we lack historical documents or written inscriptions. To complicate our interpretations, medieval Byzantine Christians did convert domestic residences into monastic centers for spiritual and economic reasons. So, Hallaç could have served both secular and monastic purposes during its short life in the eleventh century.

In the end, we do not know who lived here and for what purpose. However, the builder, whether a rich landowner or monastic community, obviously did incorporate specific forms to express their Christian spirituality.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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