Han is a spectacular rock-cut courtyard in Soğanlı Valley with two large halls and two elevated churches. The spacious halls and unique churches in this prominent, cliff structure are a remarkable site to visit. This courtyard complex dates to around 1000 AD, like the other churches nearby.
Han is easy to locate, but challenging to access. After the entrance, turn left in the village square onto the west branch. The area is four hundred meters down on the right side, directly across the creek from Geyikli Monastery. You must cross the creek to reach Han. You can cross straight from Geyikli Monastery, or go further up the road to St. Barbara and walk back downstream.
Pictures from the 1980s show all the entrances of Han were blocked with rock walls. Local farmers used the space as a dovecote (pigeon house to collect manure). Fortunately, the site has been opened and cleaned for visitors.
Courtyard and Facade
The courtyard area is large and monumental. This structure was intended to attract attention and project importance. The area has suffered from erosion and later re-cutting, but the original design remains visible.
The façade (outward appearance) has an arcade of seven horse-shoe recesses, framed by simple pillars upholding the arches. Tall arched doorways are located in the second arch from each end.
Later, farmers converted the halls into dovecotes (pigeon houses) by carving the three windows above the arches and blocking the entrances with rock walls.
There is a rough, two-meter high section above the arches and cornice. Older pictures show this was a frieze (horizontal band) decorated with small blind arches. Rainwater from the hillside has eaten away this impressive ornamentation. Han’s façade did not have a portico (rock overhang supported with pillars).
The doorways on the facade lead into the two main halls, measuring over 10m x 5m. The barrel-vaulted ceilings have two bands, which rest upon a plain cornice (molding) and simple pilaster piers. Small niches were carved around the room as shelves for candles, and later became roosting places for pigeons. There is only one significant difference between the two halls—the left (west) hall has a plain square recess at the far end for privileged sitting.
The large size creates a positive first impression, but a closer look reveals substandard craftsmanship—the side walls are bowed out, surfaces are rough, and there is no carved decoration.
Cappadocian complexes typically do not have identical halls side by side. The purpose of the double halls may have been functional (to host large crowds) or social (to project importance).
The Main Church
The main church is raised several meters above the courtyard floor in the right corner. The church’s southern half, including the central dome, collapsed long ago. Exposure to wind and rain have deteriorated the interior. The pillars are thin (with the front left pillar absent), and the original painting program is gone. The space is accessible now only by climbing up large rocks. The original entrance, now lost, was likely a staircase carved up the rock, from the courtyard to the narthex.
The church is a typical cross-in-square design. Four central pillars divide the interior nine bays (square areas). The side arms (transepts) are barrel vaulted. The corner bays have a flat ceiling. A carved dome rises above the central bay. The transition from pillars to dome is an unfeasible pendentive-squinch. The drum is pear-shaped, and then a vertical drum leads to a flat ceiling.
The left wall preserves a burial niche half way up. The corpse was lain here, and then covered with stones (perhaps with a small viewing window) and plastered over. Towards the front is a small niche and side apse, which functioned as shelves for the communion elements.
The eroded apse shows a central alter attached to the bench. Niches on the wall indicate the most prominent locations for seating. The church had a small narthex, which shows two burial spots in the uncollapsed portion.
The Side Church
Another church at Han was carved on the far left (west) side of the complex, outside the main courtyard. This church is also situated on the upper level. The location and abundant graves suggest this church was added later as a burial chapel. The entire southern section of the church (and the room below) has eroded away.
The church consists of two barrel-vaulted naves, divided by three plain arches. The left apse has remains of the templon wall and tall steps.
Graves are the most prominent aspects remaining in these churches. The left nave has four graves carved into the wall, and another four in the floor. The rounded acrosolium has one elevated burial in a square niche, and another on the floor in front. The two horizontal burial slots toward the apse interrupted the original painting program. The right (north) nave had at least three graves cut in the floor.
The Han courtyard complex is defined by the main façade, two central halls, and churches on each side, and yet the complex has other functional living spaces. An arched doorway on the left (west) wall leads to three rooms with arched roofs. The area on the right has largely collapsed, but beyond the church are more rooms, including the kitchen space. Beyond the courtyard area to the lower right (east) are three floors of dovecotes.
What was the purpose of this structure? Who lived here and why? The term han, Turkish for caravansary, refers to a lodge for traders with their pack animals. However, this area could not have been a caravansaray. The area is not enclosed, has no stables for animals, and is not conveniently located near trade routes.
Most interpret this building as a monastery—the residence of medieval Orthodox monks living as a community. However, recent scholars suggest courtyard complexes like Han were the private residence of an elite family, such as local landowners or political leaders. The family dwelled in this prominent location overlooking the valley, and then built Geyikli Monastery (within view across the creek) for their own retirement. This theory is feasible since courtyard complexes were used for private residences in Cappadocia. However, the other five courtyard complexes with churches in Soğanlı Valley are all clearly monastic, so without clear proof otherwise, we might assume Han was also monastic, even despite Han’s uniquely formal façade. Since no documentation or inscriptions remain, we will never know with complete certainty.
Han is the most impressive monumental architecture in Soğanlı Valley. When compared to the simpler complexes of St. Barbara and Geyikli nearby, this historic site demonstrates the ingenuity and skill of Cappadocian artists.