Karabaş Church

Updated: Nov 20, 2019

Karabaş Church is a sprawling monastery complex with four adjoining churches in Soğanlı Valley. The courtyard space was the valley’s most famous monastic center. Multiple generations of residents (from 900–1070 AD) developed the area with a series of sporadic rooms.

Karabas courtyard

To reach Karabaş Kilise in Soğanlı Valley, continue straight (north) after the entrance gate and go 300 meters. The complex will be on your right, directly across the river from a heavily carved rock outcropping.


Courtyard Spaces


Like other courtyard complexes in Cappadocia, Karabaş has three sides and multiple rooms. These were functional living spaces of the original community, but the original function and appearance has been lost to erosion and later human changes.


A flat façade once extended high up the rock face. The courtyard floor was built after the churches, as it sits a full level lower than the church. The builders wanted to add a spacious hall near the pre-existing church, but they had to lower the floor to allow enough space inside the fairy chimney for the tall ceiling.


The main room is the central hall. This transverse (sideways) room is large and impressive. Three entrances lead into the hall’s three sections, which are subdivided by the bands on the rounded ceiling. The lunettes on the side walls have candle-stand designs. Two plain rooms were later added in the back. In Cappadocian courtyard complexes, the central halls never have storage rooms openly attached like this. This central hall was the main space for socializing and entertaining.

Karabas hall

A large wine press room stands in the back corner. The threshing space and collection vat are carved into the wall. The open room provided work space for handling (and perhaps storing) the grapes and wine pots. An animal stable with five stalls sits on the left (west) side of the courtyard.


Churches


The most curious feature at Karabaş, and perhaps in all of Soğanlı Valley, is the series of four attached churches. The churches are set parallel to one another, though at different heights and angels. Why (and how) did they group the churches like this? What was the process and intention of such a unique design? The architecture and painting help answer these questions. We discuss the design, origin, and purpose of each church.


Church 1


The main church is up the steps and through a narthex with side graves. The interior of Church 1 is striking for two reasons—the architectural shapes are boldly pronounced, and the painting is a chaotic mirage of overlapping images.

The painting is hard to assess. Multiple layers blurring together, blackened soot from fires, and white lines of graffiti confuse and overwhelm the eye.

Karabas Church, nave and apse

Cappadocian cave churches were rarely repainted like this. The best explanation is the monastery acquired a new patron who wanted to “upgrade and rebrand” the interior. And, of course, the donors made themselves prominent parts of the wall paintings. Over the thousand years since then, the layers have faded and blurred together, leaving a psychedelic impression. Moreover, a thick layer of dark soot from campfires has blackened the walls, and white graffiti from Greek pilgrims mars the space.


Despite the poor condition today, the artwork at Karabaş reflects a highly skilled painter. The figures are graceful and detailed. Faces are turned at an angle to create a sense of participation and dynamism, but without concealing their expressions. Facial details are emotional and dynamic. The clothes drape down in a circular and dramatic fashion. The image of Presentation displays the quality of painting; especially in the faces, doves, and draped towels.

Karabas Church vault, Presenation

The bold architectural features are well preserved in this spacious church (3m x 6x). The side walls have three deep keyhole niches, which shape two pillars. The right wall now opens to Church 2, but the painting shows these were originally blind niches like the left wall. A double-lipped cornice transitions to the rounded ceiling. The sunken floor creates a bench under the niches and contains five graves of various sizes.


In front, a thick arched frame, low templon wall, and stepped entrance separate the spacious apse. The apse interior was ornately furnished with a free-standing alter and window (now blocked to keep out rain). The thin bench (synthronon) was more decorative than functional as a seat, but stops before the end walls to allow for two usable seats.


The apse scene is Communion of the Apostles. Jesus is the priest behind the alter handing the bread and wine to his disciples, six on each side. The apostles’ faces are serious and intense, and their height decreases moving towards the center. Although Jesus instituted the Eucharist meal on the night before his death, Jesus never administered communion. And nor where there two Jesuses. This scene makes a theological point. The picture interprets the activities that occurred at the altar below. When receiving communion from the priest, the worshipper receives the same exact grace that Jesus gifted his apostles. The apse scene provides historic continuity and theological meaning during the eucharistic liturgy.

Karabas Church conch painting

The original apse scene Christ in Glory is the conch (top of apse) above. After a millennium, the mixtures of paint have turned Jesus’ hair bright orange. Below are 12 standing figures—Jesus and Mary in the center, and five Church Fathers on each side. The yellow under layer exposed on the right side is the 40 Martyrs of Sebastia.


Based on the inscription and above the doorway, the final layer was decorated in 1060 at the expense of three donors: Michael Skepides (a military figure, and relative of John Skepides of Geyikli Church nearby), a nun Catherine (maybe Michael’s wife, or mother), and a monk Nyphon. They were relatives and affluent members of the Soğanlı community. At the end of their life they retired to the monastery, providing money to repaint the church. They obviously thought highly of themselves, as their depictions are full-sized and finely dressed. The inscription mentions three donors, but nine are painted, along the walls inside the niches. The main patron, Michael Skepides, is in the front right niche facing the apse. He wears an elaborate robe and turban hat. The pronounced facial features depict a strong, commanding leader. The other patrons are in the niches on the left wall.

The ceiling narrates the life of Christ in the usual pattern. After Annunciation in front (on apse pillars), the narration goes to the front right and circles around in chronological order.

  • Front arch—Annunciation (with angels ascending)

  • Right (south) ceiling—Nativity and Temple Presentation

  • Back lunette—Transfiguration

  • Left (north) ceiling—Crucifixion, Empty Tomb, and Resurrection

The scenes are large and crowd in to each other. All the figures stand tall and full-sized. The dramatic, detailed style reflects the obvious talents of the artist, a professional hired by the Skepides family to visually remodel this monastic church in 1060.


However, the church was originally built for a nearby monk in the early 900s. The colors of the original layer are simple and bright (as in Churches 3 and 4). This layer is visible on middle sections of the pillars. The first painting layer includes a faint silhouette of a hooded monk named Roustiakos (left wall, rear niche, right arch face, now faded white plaster). He was perhaps the hermit dwelling in a nearby cave. Because of his fame, the Karabaş church was first carved (around 900 AD) as a place for visiting pilgrims to visit. As the hermit and monastery grew in fame, rooms were added, much like the story of Tokalı Kilise (Buckle Church, Göreme OAM).


Church 2


Church 2 is basic and unfinished. The skinny barrel-vaulted nave leads to a raised, framed apse. The layout imitates Church 1, though on a smaller scale. The room has no finished paintings or burial graves, only a few red designs on the front wall. The crisp features suggest this church never got used.

Karabas Church 2, nave and apse

Church 2 was built last (around 1065 AD) as a passage way between Church 1 below, and the Churches 3 and 4 above.


Church 3


A tunnel passage from Church 2 leads up into Church 3, which is different than Churches 1 and 2 in key ways: the angle is different, the elevation is raised, and the ceilings are flat. The steep raise in elevation between Churches 1 and 3 required two steep staircases.

Karabas Church 3

The most innovative aspect of Church 3 is the front apse. The sanctuary space has no templon barrier, so it appears quite open. Three ridges stretch around the base. As in Church 2, this bench is decorative, not a functional synthronon for seating. In recent times, the floor was covered with concrete and the window was bricked up, masking the original look of the apse. And most uniquely, the apse painting scene (now lost) was the donor named Kosmos bowing in petition to St. Sophia. Humans saints and patrons rarely appear on the upper portions of the apse. This most sacred space is typically reserved for Jesus.


Church 3 also has a peculiar room on the back (west) side. Originally this was the narthex for entering the church nave. The room later became a burial room with two floor graves and an acrosolium (raised burial niche).


Church 3 and Church 4, both at the same angle and same level, were built together as a Hermitage Church. These were unconnected to Church 1 for 150 years (900s–1060). Then Church 2 was carved as a passage way to connect the spaces (as per Ousterhout’s theory).


Church 4


Church 4 is the last and smallest of the four churches. The apse has three windows to allow light into the back reaches of the dark cavernous complex. Two more graves were carved on the floor, and another two into the cavity on the right (north wall).


The main feature of Church 4 is the burial alcove on the left side. The original form had three burial graves on the floor with only a small window from Church 3. The floor graves were stripped out and the wall entirely opened in the 1980s (so modern visitors would have to crawl through the tunnel).


In the front left corner two monks are painted (and two other monks were painted on the wall). The monks are holding a cross while wearing monastic robes and hats. One monk prepared this church for his own burial. The nearby inscription says, “I, Bathystrokos Abbas, labored in this church, now lie here. I died in the month of ____.” The sentence remains unfinished, so he apparently died elsewhere, or his fellow monks forgot to complete the date. The chamber has decorated crosses painted on the back wall and roof.


Karabas Church 4, burial corner with monks

The window into Church 3 was the monks’ only means of communication. This peephole allowed them to look into the other churches, all the way into the apse of Church 1, to participate in the liturgy. The small window also allowed visitors to petition the monks for prayer. Isolated monks (hermits) dwelled here to contemplate and pray. The curved tunnel passage way accentuates their seclusion. This dwelling--a small dark, secluded space with several graves--testifies to the zealous spiritual devotion of ancient hermits. Though perhaps extreme in their voluntary asceticism, they were determined to renounce the world and worship God.


Conclusion


In addition to the four monastic churches and main rooms, dozens of nooks and doorways liter the Karabaş complex (though most are walled off now). Rooms rise up several floors, go under the church, and even extend behind the right side of the complex. The unorganized and complex layout reveals how Karabaş served a vibrant monastic community over an extended period of time. The haphazard development plan shows the creative ways people adapted the Cappadocian landscape for their purposes.

© 2019 Jason Borges

photo credits

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