The Monastery of the Holy Cross outside Mustafapaşa includes a large, five-aisled church in a gorgeous ravine. The church, which integrates cave and masonry architecture, resulted from a long history of development, from the sixth to the twentieth centuries. The name comes from Medieval graffiti on the walls that reference the “Holy Cross” (Greek, Timios Stavros).
The Monastery of Holy Cross perches over a carved settlement in Üzgeni Valley, two kilometers southwest of Mustafapaşa, here on Google Maps.
The layout and form of the church are quite peculiar. Most notably, the church mixes two distinct building methods—rock-cut and masonry. The northern sections were carved from the rock (negative cave architecture), while the southern spaces are formed by stone walls and arches (positive masonry architecture). The two styles jigsaw together, so the transition in method occurs at different levels and locations throughout the interior. For example, in the central aisle, different sections inconsistently alternate between rock-cut and masonry. Holy Cross Church is the only Cappadocian church with such an idiosyncratic mixture of building styles. However, Byzantines did often build churches over sacred caves, such as the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The piecemeal and continual development of Holy Cross Church, along with its large burial graves and square loculi, suggest that this was a revered site. People were drawn to the sacred church, and so wanted to expand its size. The vast network of carved spaces on both sides of the ravine suggests that a significant local population accessed this community church.
The church contains five aisles, each of which has a unique form and function. Built in an ad hoc fashion, the aisles do not relate to one another in any coherent manner. Rather than being a single church, the site has five discrete sections set parallel to one another, as explained below.
The first aisle functions as an entrance room (narthex) to the interior. The exterior wall was the latest addition, built in the 1800s by local Greeks. Built from local tuff rock (instead of harder stones like the main aisle), the wall remains only in part. A gabled wooden ceiling once covered the area. Two uniformed arches, built with repurposed stones, lead into the main nave (Aisle 2).
In the central aisle, masonry rock walls jigsaw with rock-carved sections on all four walls. A barrel vault with bands, evident on the side walls, once covered the space.
The wide horseshoe apse and tall conch, plastered in white, composed the main focal point. The lower portions of the sanctuary (side pillars and lower apse wall) are living rock, while the upper portions (arches and apse conch) were made from masonry rock. The only apse furniture is the deep arched prothesis niche on the north wall, which has its own side niche. Erosion opened a hole in the conch. On the side, doorways communicated into the side aisles (#3 and #4). With stepped cornices, two arches, one large and one small, transition into Aisle 3.
The third aisle is the most peculiar. Carved entirely from rock, this space has three sections (bays), each with a unique ceiling. The front (east) section has a flat roof instead of a rounded apse.
The painted scene is Ascension (cf. Acts 1). Jesus, presented here as the Ancient of Days (cf. Daniel 7) with elderly white hair, sits upon an arch. His hands hold a Gospel book and he blesses the viewer. Jesus’ outer red garment is jagged around the bottom, layered over his white undergarment. The double red mandorla around Jesus is a plain circle, not the typical jagged diamond pattern. Curiously, Jesus’ feet and halo extend beyond the sacred mandorla circle. Blackened sections—the undergarment hem, midsection, cruciform halo, and floral outline—resulted in discoloration; a certain pigment did not age as the painter intended. Eight angels surround Jesus. Two are on the bottom, blowing a horn and elevating Jesus to heaven. The other six angels, with curly red hair and raised wings, stand on the side. As in Baptism, they hold out towels as an act of service. (But, who needs a towel at the ascension?) Below, Jesus’ 12 disciples stare forward with stoic demeanors. Their names were inscribed in small black letters. In a perfect row, they sit and hold a bejeweled Gospel book with both hands. The stylized red olive trees between each apostle locate the scene on the Mount of Olives, from which Jesus ascended into heaven.
Each straight wall has a carved element. The left (north) wall has a small rounded niche, later extended to the floor. In the east wall, in place of an apse niche, a square framed chamber (loculus) housed the bones or burial urn of a popular saint. An arched doorway connects with the main apse.
In the central section of Aisle 3, a tall barrel-vaulted ceiling extends up two floors. Strips of plaster in the corner suggest that the entire ceiling was painted. The upper portion breaks into the hermit’s cell on the second floor. Because the raised ceiling destroyed the corner walls of the preexisting cell, a masonry wall re-divides the cell and church. The hermit likely had a window for viewing and hearing the liturgy performed in the church space(s) below. The cell was later expanded for agricultural purposes, but its notched doorway remains visible on its eastern edge.
The rear (west) section of Aisle 3 has a tall, flat ceiling. The doorway to the outside is now walled off. This section may have been the narthex to the original cave church in Aisle 4.
Because of its irregular features, Aisle 3 was not a “church” space for conducting the liturgy. Rather, this transitional aisle joins the three principle spaces of the church complex—the original cave church (Aisle 2), the large main church (Aisle 4), and the upper hermitage.
Aisle 4 was likely the original cave church in the site; this aisle has the most “normal” church plan. The space is set abnormally deep into the original cone. However, this location situates the apse directly below the upper hermit’s cell, a pattern in Byzantine churches (cf. Sarıca Church 2).
This aisle has three sections, including a proper apse. The east sanctuary includes a raised templon barrier under the low arched entrance. The bema platform, raised three steps, has peculiar furniture, including a prothesis niche that cut through the painting, an attached altar (recently destroyed), a small bishop’s seat, and a small opening to reach the square loculus on the east. Standing over the apse are five oversized Church Fathers—St. Nicholas, John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, ?, and Gregory the Theologian. Their heads meet near the green Maltese cross at the conch apex. Another square loculus appears to the right of the apse, on the wall between Aisles 3 and 4.
The nave has two sections. The center section has a shallow barrel vault and burial grave in the northwest corner (similar to the middle section of Aisle 3). The rear section has a large arcosolium, barrel vault, and niche with bowel. This basin contained water for worshipers to perform the “little baptism” upon entering the church through the south arch.
The fifth and deepest aisle is a small funerary chapel. Raised one step, this area imitates and truncates the floor plan of Aisle 4. A large arcosolium and floor pit fill the small nave.
The arches separating aisles 1 and 2 provide an important historical clue. The low cornices (molding) on the central pillar and side pilasters feature four decorative styles: square dentils, wavy dentils, blind arcade, and straight-edged. The builders used these stones from previous buildings (spolia) to construct this section of Holy Cross Church. Such hard rock was valuable, especially because it cannot be locally quarried.
In addition to Ascension (Aisle) and the Church Fathers (Aisle 4), pairs of saints fill the underside of each archway. The figures are hardly preserved, but the features and colors are Middle Byzantine (AD 800–1100). The painting style under the arches dates to the tenth century.
If the arches and supporting walls were built in the 900s, the repurposed stones must originate from a much older church. Minimal construction occurred in AD 600-800 because of eastern invasions, so the original church likely dates to the 500s, which was a period of Byzantine expansion and significant architectural investment in Cappadocia. Moreover, the dentil cornice appears in other sixth-century churches (e.g., Balkan Deresi, Ak Kilise in Soğanlı). This reused cornice evinces a prior sixth-century masonry church, whose exact location is unknown.
The entire painting program dates to the tenth century. This period of monastic revival and Byzantine expansion allowed for the construction and decoration of this church. The main tenth-century church (Aisle 2) postdates the three cave aisles (3, 4, and 5), which themselves postdate the hermit’s cell. So, how can we reconstruct the chronology of this space? Here is a plausible sequence:
500s—a rock-cut church, somewhere in the vicinity.
??—a hermit cell carved in a cave.
early 800s—a single-nave church (Aisle 4) carved under the monk’s cell.
late 800s—a mini chapel (Aisle 5) added for burials, and a side aisle (Aisle 3) added to connect the lower church with the upper cell.
900s—a large main church (Aisle 2), built with spolia from the sixth century. A church, plastered and painted, was built next to popular cave churches.
1700s—local pilgrims scratch graffiti on the wall.
late 1800s—the Mustafapaşa community rebuilt the southern wall to enclose Aisle 1, which became the new entrance as the original west entrance deteriorated
The Church of the Holy Cross had a sacred reputation and long history. Considering the Cappadocian topography, expansion of this holy cave required imaginative architectural solutions, as displayed throughout the building.