Koramaz Valley (Kayseri)

Koramaz Valley is a serene valley with Roman and Byzantine ruins. Situated 15 kilometers northeast of Kayseri, the 15-kilometer-long valley stretches through seven Turkish villages and features an array of fossil beds, waterways, underground cities, Byzantine churches, and Roman graves.


Rainwater from Koramaz Mountain (elevation 2000m, east of the valley) has eroded the volcanic tuff rock, carving a meandering valley through the landscape. Because of intensive agriculture in the villages, only a mere creek runs through the valley.

With steep ignimbrite cliffs, chunks of fallen rock, and abundant carved dwellings, Koramaz Valley mirrors the more popular Ihlara Valley at the other end of the Cappadocia region. For people eager to explore a new area, Koramaz makes for a wonderful outing.


Visiting


The valley is free to visit and always open. A maintained dirt road runs the entire course of the valley (upon the dried river bed). That means you can drive along the entire river bed. Local officials have placed helpful road signs along the way.


Serious hikers may enjoy walking through the valleys. However, most visitors should plan to drive to various parts, then explore on foot. The recommended route is as follows. Enter the western portion of the valley from the Kayseri-Sivas highway at the village of Bağpınar/Ispıdın, and explore the three cave churches. Drive up the valley to Ağırnas, the valley’s only town with several sights to see. Then drive across to Gezi and visit the Roman-era columbaries (in the Bahçelı neighborhood here). Each stop is explained below.


Cave Churches


The official website of Koramaz Valley claims that the area has 38 rock-carved churches. In general, the churches are small in scale, have no painted iconography, and are poorly preserved. Because of their poor condition, none of the churches in Koramaz Valley have been published or studied. The following churches are notable.


Bağpınar/Ispıdın, three cave churches

Bağpınar/Ispıdın features a series of three burial chapels, located halfway up the northern cliff face, here on Google Maps. The entrances are accessible once you climb up. All three churches are simple, single-nave chapels of the Middle Byzantine period, so they date from around AD 1000. Their most interesting feature results from later Turkish modification. Local farmers added a large “chimney” to each church by carving a shaft through the rock into the ceiling and then piling rocks to extend the chimney upward. This transformed the space into a dovecote. Pigeons could freely enter down the chimney and roost in the carved niches along the wall.


A rare underground church stands just behind the entrance of the Ağırnas Underground city. See below for a full description.


Ağırnas


Ağırnas, the main town of Koramaz Valley, was the birthplace of Sinan, the legendary Ottoman architect (Turkish, mimar). He oversaw all imperial construction during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror/Lawgiving, the zenith of Ottoman civilizations. Sinan built many of the grandest structures and mosques in İstanbul.


In the 1990s the local municipality built “Sinan’s House” over a local underground settlement. The site functions as a mini-museum of Sinan (mostly in Turkish) and offers a few undefined underground caverns to explore.


Ağırnas Underground City, situated near the main bridge crossing the valley, represents one of the finest underground cities in Cappadocia. Built into the sloping river bank, the first initial rooms include a church, refectory table, kitchen, cistern, stables, and living rooms. Such complex spaces suggest a permanent settlement, likely monastic in function.


Ağırnas Underground City, cave church

Located just through the initial room, the single-nave, barrel-vaulted cave church measures 3 by 5 meters. This church is significantly larger and better carved than the chapels in other underground churches (Mazı and Kaymaklı). The apse raises one step through the tall rock templon barrier, which had two arch windows. A small arched niche surmounts the rock-cut altar attached to the back wall, flanked by two seating niches. In the nave, a tall barrel vault springs from the simple cornice. Three deep key-hole-shaped niches articulate each side wall, and two decorate the back (west) wall. Rectangular burial shelves were carved in the eastern niches (closest to the apse) for privileged entombments. On the northeast niche appear remnants of colored icons on white plaster—perhaps funerary icons of the church patron buried below.


The east portion of the church is a large open hall with several carved rooms. These include a refectory table on the left (apparently split-level ala Keşlik Monastery, with a room below), a kitchen space on the right (with a large conical ceiling for air ventilation), a cistern in the back for storing water, and animal stables in the back sections. The narrow tunnel continues 80 meters to another suite of rooms, from which you exit.


A typical nineteenth-century church also stands in the middle of Ağırnas, northeast of the main traffic circle.


Roman Burial Grounds


Roman columbaries appear in and around Koramaz Valley, especially in the town of Gesi. The Latin word columbarium literally means “pigeon-house.” These were rooms carved into the volcanic soil, with the interior lined with triangle-shaped niches. These spaces were originally mass graves in the Roman era. Family and friends would cremate the deceased, place the ashes in an urn, and then place that urn in one of the niches of the underground room. Because the walls of some rooms are not fully carved, the niches were likely carved as needed. Compared to a large Roman sarcophagus or stone burial monument, this was a more affordable burial method.


Roman columbaries in Gesi

In Columbarium Tombs and Collective Identity in Augustan Rome, Dorian Borbonus says that such Roman columbaries defined a group through collective commemoration. Group burial was an active strategy to construct community, belonging, and status. Burial by relatives or association members was an important aspect of Roman society. Such social groups ensured the proper burial and continual (or at least annual) remembrance of the deceased. A hole carved through the upper layer of the underground room allowed survivors to “commune” with the dead; they would picnic above the columbary and drop food through the hole for the deceased. These Roman burial rooms are the oldest securely-dated carved rooms in Cappadocia.


Later generations, either Byzantines or Ottoman-era Turks, transformed the Roman columbaries into true pigeon houses. The room was already carved with perfect roosting niches. Therefore, the farmer had only to block the entrance and build a large rock-cut chimney over the hole above the underground chamber. This chimney prevented animals from entering, while pigeons could easily fly down the shaft.


The rock-built chimneys are pronounced, square-shaped structures dotting the landscape. About 100 of the structures appear in the Bahçelı neighborhood, here on Google Maps. The three Byzantine cave churches were converted to pigeon houses with the construction, as the farmers used uncut stones to construct a round chimney.


More Info


Local municipalities have created an extensive website in Turkish—http://www.koramazvadisi.com/.This details many of the valley’s features, but it is not user-friendly for visitors. Unfortunately, no map of the area has been produced.


Ali Yamaç, a professional speleologist, produced this helpful visual display, “Cliff Dwellings of Koramaz Valley (Kayseri).” He created the map below.


Map of Koramaz Valley, by Ali Yamaç

© 2019 Jason Borges

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