Keşlik Monastery outside Ürgüp is a sprawling cave monastery complex with two churches (St. Michael and St. Stephen), a large refectory hall, a sacred spring, and endless cave rooms. Located in an idyllic garden setting, this is the most expansive monastery in Cappadocia.
This site has been used and developed in many ways throughout the course of 2,000 years. This area was a gravesite in pre-Christian Roman times, a large communal monastery during the Byzantine era, a functioning Orthodox Church in the 20th century, and now a tourist site in modern Turkey.
The church is located 15 km south of Ürgüp, just past the village of Cemil. The site is correctly marked on Google Maps. The monastery is open April through November and costs 10 TL to visit (in 2019). The Turkish attendant, Camil, is very helpful and has meticulously overseen the site since its restoration in 1999. The site is sometimes called Cemil Archangel Monastery in Keşlik Valley.
Courtyard and Rooms
The central courtyard area has an irregular shape, formed by natural erosion. The designers made little effort to square its appearance or create any type of external façade. Over the centuries, rooms were added in a sporadic fashion. The complex lacks any overall design pattern.
The entire site has more than fifty rooms for various purposes. The most significant spaces were the two churches and the refectory (described below). About half of the carved rooms were small cells for monks. Most of the cells are located on the upper level behind the courtyard. The rooms often have a window, bench, and/or shelf. The easiest way to recognize a monastic living cell is by the notches carved on top of the internal door frame. Monks lived, worked, and prayed in these private rooms.
The most prominent cell is directly above St. Michael’s church, connected through the central dome. This room had a large rolling door, a window into the courtyard, and a direct view into both apses below. The room was later carved into a pigeon house.
The site also has many typical functional spaces—kitchen, animal barn, beehive, pigeon house, winepress, and cistern. These spaces make Keşlik Monastery the largest, most developed monastery in Cappadocia.
A sacred spring (hagiasma) is on the left side of the courtyard, under the terrace entrance of the church. Below the steps in the cave, a (modern-era) rock canopy covers the spring (which runs in spring and summer). People in Roman and Byzantine times built sacred/religious sites near springs. This spring supplied the monastic community with water, and attracted pilgrims from afar.
Several halls (including St. Stephen Church) were carved in the eastern rock. The hall on the far north has the finest carving of all the rooms, but actually faces away from the central area. The exterior has a blind arcade and painted Maltese cross (similar to the façade of Karanlık Kilise, Göreme OAM). This is the only decorated façade in the monastery.
St. Michael’s Church
This church was used by local Greeks until 1920, so the dark black layer of soot is the result of candles and incense from 1,000+ years of liturgical services. This church was a large, parish church (katolikon) for the community.
The current double-nave church with multiple interconnections is not the original design. The single-nave on the right (south) was first built in the 800s with a small narthex. Then, around 1200, the church was significantly expanded with a second nave and spacious narthex. Based on the inscription, local patrons financed the expansion and completed the re-painting in 1217/18 AD.
After the repainting, the two naves were connected by a tall conical dome and an arched doorway between the apses. The dome connects to an upper-level living cell—the home of a prominent monk such as the monastery leader or a renowned hermit.
The original (right/south) church is a single nave with a barrel vault. The rectangular nave (5 by 3 meters) has a tall ceiling (4 meters). Thick, detailed molding separates the tall walls from the shallow vault ceiling.
The apse has a tall step and a destroyed templon. The conch scene (Deesis) has a large Jesus holding a golden book. A kneeling donor joins John the Baptist and Mary in petitioning Jesus. Below Jesus stand ten (not twelve) figures. The central window is flanked by two side niches with unusual images—a young Jesus (left) and an elder Jesus (right). Other niches and the lower section (perhaps a bench?) were carved out.
The images in the nave are well-painted and preserved. The figures are scaled large to fill each scene. Soot darkens the images, but a cell phone flashlight makes them more visible. The white specks are the result of kids throwing rocks at the faces.
The Ascension scene occupies the front third of the ceiling. At the apex, angels lift Jesus to heaven while his apostles stand on each side. The middle section contains Crucifixion and Transfiguration (carved away by the arched passageway). The images in the back are Baptism and Resurrection. The back wall contained Nativity, but only Joseph and two angels remain on the left. The entrance arch has Jesus Healing the Paralytic (Matthew 9:1-8). The image emphasizes the lame man on his mat and the hole dug by his friends. The nearby image facing the entrance is Jacob wrestling with an angel (Genesis 32).
The left (north) nave is slightly wider and has sloppy carving. The walls morph into the arched ceiling without any cornice (molding). The horseshoe apse is deeper than the other apse. Only one side of the low templon barrier remains. The conch scene is Christ in Glory. A full-length Jesus sits on his heavenly throne. The heads of the four living creatures emerge from behind. Two angels prostrate on each side. All the figures have more cartoonish facial features, such as large eyes and tender faces. Below Jesus is the Apostle’s Communion. Jesus (represented twice, flanking two angels ) stands at an altar and serves communion to the apostles. The left Jesus hands bread to Peter, while the right Jesus hands the wine chalice to Paul.
The middle section has eight standing figures. Mary and John the Baptist flank the niched seat. The six other figures are unidentified Church Fathers.
The lowest section of the apse has a central niche for the priest’s seat (kathedra). The background of the niche was painted similar to Jesus’ throne above, creating a deliberate visual connection. The niche also has a painted cross and a dedicatory inscription. The synthronon bench around the base of the apse (where deacons sat) has been carved out.
The naked figure painted in the doorway is St. Onurphrius (also in Snake Church in Göreme OAM). He was a hermit in the deserts of Egypt around 400 AD. The nakedness symbolizes his zealous renunciation of all things. Old Testament kings David and Solomon stand in the apse soffit (underside of the arch) with an eight-armed cross between them.
The nave paintings are extremely misshapen. Characters in the same scene are of different sizes, and scenes are laid out in unnatural formations. Such flaws are noticeable in the Last Supper scene. The front section of the apse has Transfiguration (left) and Burial of Jesus and Women at Tomb (right). The rear section features Last Supper (left), Jesus Healing Jairus’ Daughter (upper left and lunette), and Judas’ Betrayal of Jesus (back right wall). The Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel (?) with open scrolls occupy the rear arch.
A transverse barrel-vaulted narthex connects both naves and opens to other rooms. The stone wall at the entrance was a 19th-century addition to repair the eroded wall. A large image of Archangel Michael, the church’s namesake, faces the entrance. The ceiling paintings recount the birth of Jesus. On the nave (east) side is Annunciation, Visitation, Presentation, and Jesus in the Temple. The only visible image on the back (west) ceiling is Flight to Egypt.
The monks’ dining hall is set at the rear of the courtyard. For several reasons, this is perhaps Cappadocia’s most unique refectory. The floor slopes up, making the rear significantly higher. This was not for water drainage but, rather, to elevate the leader’s recessed throne at the far end. The wider right hall was the original space. Then another parallel table was carved to seat more people. The left table snakes towards the throne in three stepped sections. The table is narrow and the interior bench sits between the arches. The rough carving job lacks the formal precision of most Cappadocian refectories.
An arcade wall divides the large hall (20m x 5m) into two sections. The arches are both abnormal and unnecessary for structural support, so they served a decorative or social purpose. Perhaps they symbolically separated the regular monks from visiting pilgrims. The most unique feature of the refectory is the double tables. This room could seat 100+ people, so the monastery hosted many pilgrims and visitors.
St. Stephen Church
St. Stephen is a single-nave funerary church with colorful paintings. The church stands separate on the eastern edge of the complex. The entrance is now through the broken southern wall. On the external wall are several Roman and Byzantine tombs. The internal painting is in poor condition and the multiple layers have blurred together. The back portion and narthex of the church have collapsed into the cistern below. Nine graves fill the back half of the nave floor.
The flat ceiling has three sections of geometric patterns. The front section is a Greek cross. The skinny arms have inlaid jewels, similar to the cross in the apse. Grapevines flow from the base of the cross and fill the yellow background. The vineyard represents Christ’s followers who have become God’s people through the cross (Isaiah 5; Psalm 80; John 15). Inset squares appear like tile in the middle section. The rear section has tight interlocking circles. An ornate braid (similar to those of churches in Red Valley) borders the entire ceiling.
Some date this church to the Iconoclastic period (700s) because of the floral pattern, but it probably dates to the 900s. The decorative pattern of ornate crosses and geometric shapes on the roof appears at other churches: St. Nitekas (Grape Church, Red Valley), Balkan Deresi (Ortahısar), Eğri Taş (Ihlara), and Ağacaltı (Ihlara).
The templon barrier has two steps and thick slabs with edges. The underside of the apse arch (soffit) has a floral cross in medallion with six Old Testament prophets. On the left side of the front wall are an unknown female martyr and the church’s dedicatory inscription.
The inside of the apse has a large central altar and three niches for the liturgical elements. John the Baptist and a Church Father are painted at the back of the apse. The flat conch (upper section) has a yellow bejeweled cross.
On the left (north) wall, five pilasters create shallow blind arches. The original figural paintings are now faint. From the front (near the apse), the niches include: a standing male saint, a military saint on a red horse, and Annunciation. The wall was later repainted with ornamental decoration.
The front half of the right (south) wall has collapsed and serves as the current entrance. The cistern carved underneath has destabilized the narthex and original entrance. The middle scene is Communion of the Apostles. On the left, Jesus gives communion to six apostles in yellow robes. Above the door are three primitive paintings of animals. In the back is Christ in Glory. Jesus holds an open book and stands beside a large white angel and above a lion. The location (back corner), style (upright on a red background), and size (a small Jesus) of this image are unique.
The site at Keşlik Monastery was developed over the course of many centuries. The area was first an ancient Roman burial ground built next to the spring. Around 900 AD, St. Stephen Church and other rooms were built as an early Christian settlement. A large expansion in St. Michael’s (and presumably other rooms) occurred in the early 1200s.
The area was abandoned around 1300, after it had served as a large Christian monastery for some 400 years. Then, in the late 1700s, local Greeks began revisiting the church and wrote graffiti on the church walls. In the 1800s, the community restored St. Michael’s as a parish church. Orthodox Christians came here on feast days to picnic as a church group. The area was abandoned around 1920, when Greeks left the region. Keşlik Monastery was rediscovered (yet again!) in the late 1900s and became a historic site for tourism.