Ihlara Valley is a deep river canyon in Western Cappadocia with stunning nature and medieval cave churches. The Melendiz River flows year-round through a 14-kilometer valley floor. The flowing river, lush vegetation, historic churches, and towering cliff faces make Ihlara Valley (Greek, Peristrema Valley) a top destination in Cappadocia.
The valley lies below the northern foothills of Hasan Dağı, the ancient volcano whose eruption formed Cappadocia’s famous volcanic rock. The Melendiz River carved through the volcanic rock (ignimbrite). The pink-brown rock breaks from the cliff face in large chunks, now piled along the river. The resulting canyon provided a lush micro-environment and secure refuge for Byzantine Christians in medieval times (800–1300AD).
The most popular portion of Ihlara Valley is the first five kilometers from Ihlara village to Belisırma. This section contains most of the churches and 100-meter-tall rock faces. From Belisırma, the Melendiz River continues another nine kilometers to Selime but this section has no churches or cliff faces.
Hiking trails on both sides of the river are well-maintained. Ihlara Valley is an official museum in Turkey, with an entry fee of 50 TL (in 2020). You can enter the valley at three points.
Entrance #1—In Ihlara village, where the valley starts on the southern end. Few people enter here because no churches are nearby.
Entrance #2—The middle entrance, situated two kilometers north of Ihlara village. From the parking lot, you will walk 100 meters down a massive iron staircase into the middle of the valley. This is the main (and recommended) entrance.
Entrance #3—In Belisırma village, where the road crosses the river. This entrance at Belisırma has a large parking lot with vendors and riverside restaurants. Most visitors exit the valley here.
Serious hikers will enjoy walking the full 14 kilometers but, for most people, a five-kilometer stroll with a few churches is sufficient. We recommend three potential routes for experiencing Ihlara Valley.
Route #1—Enter through the middle entrance. Walk down the steps and visit Ağaçaltı Church. Walk one kilometer upriver to Kokar Church. Cross the river on the wooden bridge to visit Dark Castle and Eğri Taş Church. Walk back downstream, 100 meters past the entrance. Visit Hyacinth and Snake Churches, opposite each other. Then ascend the staircase to your car. This three-kilometer hike will take two to three hours. You will find restaurants and bathrooms only at the top; there are none in the valley.
Route # 2—Enter in Belisırma. Walk one kilometer upstream to St. George Church, then 200 meters farther to the Tea Garden for a snack. Walk back to your car and visit Column Church and Bahattin Hayloft Church, both 100 meters uphill from the parking lot.
Route 3#—Enter through the middle entrance and descend the steps. Visit Ağaçaltı, Hyacinth, and Snake Churches near the landing. Walk 1.5 kilometers downstream to the Tea Garden and St. George Church. Then continue downstream to Belisırma. From the Belisırma parking lot, take a taxi (about 50TL in 2020) back to your car.
Churches—Layout and Architecture
The churches of Ihlara Valley feature a great deal of architectural variety. The valley includes a large cross-in-square monastery church (Ala Kilise), a church with large funerary complexes (St. George and Eğri Taş), a small single-nave chapel (Bahattin Hayloft), a residential complex with an ornate façade (Hyacinth), a masonry church (Karagedik), and much in between. Two churches built by the same donors and the same artists—Karagedik (a large rock church) and Bahattin Hayloft (a small cave church)—highlight the architectural variety of churches in Ihlara. The various designs suggest that the churches had multiple functions: liturgical, funerary, and monastic. The general layout of the churches is unclear; the churches are isolated and do not relate to one another.
Near all the churches are various sorts of additional carved rooms. As you explore the churches, consider how the carved spaces interrelate.
The unique canyon setting in Ihlara Valley required innovative architectural forms. For churches on the west side of the river, the apse (which always faces eastward) is closest to the rock faces. However, because people could not enter through this sacred space, the builders carved tunnels that emerge in the back of the nave. This occurs at Kokar, Ağaçaltı, and St. George Churches. Today, the apses of these churches have collapsed, so visitors now enter directly through the broken apses.
A few housing complexes were scattered about the valley. People settled there for more than just monastic/religious reasons. However, the lack of farmable plots in the valley would have limited the population to a few hundred residents. People probably lived in villages above the canyon and paid visits to the churches/monasteries on the valley floor.
Unique Painting Styles
Churches on the southern end (near the middle entrance) have a more eastern/Persian painting style. Christians from Syria immigrated to Byzantine Cappadocia around the eighth century, bringing with them new artistic and theological influences. Churches on the northern end (near Belisırma) follow Byzantine/Constantinople styles.
Several churches in Ihlara Valley have large crosses painted on their ceilings. These are composed of stark colors and geometric patterns. The mural-like paintings are possible because these churches have open ceilings (either flat or barrel-vaulted) instead of a central dome. Also, Ascension is an important icon in several churches: Ağaçaltı (dome), Snake (apse), Kokar (ceiling), and St. George (ceiling).