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Monks’ Cave Cells

Updated: Jan 14, 2020

Monks withdrew from normal society to live a life of prayer and contemplation in solitude. The word “monk” comes from the Greek words for “solitary” (monakhos) and “alone” (monos). Retreat to a private monk’s cell, was a defining feature of the monastic life. Monks would sleep, live, and pray in cave rooms. As monks’ cells are an important aspects of monastic life in Cappadocia, this article explains the meaning and types of monastic cells.

The Purpose of Monk’s Cells

A monk’s cell was more than a living area. It was also a sacred space where monks performed their spiritual activities of prayer and contemplation in solitude. A monk’s retreat to a private cell was emblematic of monasticism. Many hagiographies narrate a monk’s spiritual journey to find a specific cell, and then Satan’s efforts to tempt and coerce the monk out from that living cell. Residing in one’s cell became a principle act of the monastic life.

Monk cells in Cappadocia are rooms carved out of the rock. Such rooms required no engineering skills or building supplies, just time and labor. The simple construction methods were one factor why monks were drawn to the volcanic region of Cappadocia. There are five types of monk cells in Cappadocia: stylite cell, church hermitage, dormitory room, regular cell, and undiscovered caves.

The Types of Monk’s Cells

1. Stylite Cell

A stylite ascetic was a monk who lived on top of a pillar (Greek, stulos). This was a common monastic practice in Syria, Turkey, and Greece in the sixth century. The practice of stylite asceticism started with St. Symeon the Elder (d. 490), the famous ascetic saint in Syria who lived atop a small pillar for 37 years. He inspired many other Christians to adopt such a unique form of asceticism. These stylite ascetics were revered as holy men. Many people visited them to share food or request their prayers. Stylite monks lived high above the ground to symbolize their renunciation of the world. They had rejected the ways of the world and (physically) oriented themselves towards heaven.

Stylite monks typically built rock towers with a room or perch on top. But in Cappadocia, they simply carved rooms at the peak of isolated fairy chimneys. The most popular examples of stylite hermitages are St. Niketas (Grape Church, Red Valley) and St. Simeon (Paşabağ). Other examples of stylite cells at the peak of the fairy chimney with St. Sergios Church (Göreme) and various fairy chimneys at the Rose Valley Monastic Area (Güllü Dere).

St. Sergios Church (Goreme), monk's cave at apex

The solitary cells are typically small rooms, each with a window and a cross carved on the wall. Access to the cell is difficult, if not impossible. Most stylite cells have churches at the base of the fairy chimney, usually built in honor of the monk.

2. Church-Connected Rooms

Some monk cells are connected to a church. Such a privileged space provided a direct view into the church and was the home of an important monk, such as a famous healer or the abbot of a monastery. So church hermitages each have a well-placed hagioscope (i.e., sacred window) with a direct sightline into the church apse. These spaces were strategically designed so the monk had visual access into the sanctuary for meditation and prayer.

The upper most room at Karabaş Church (Church 4) was a monk’s cell. The secluded space has three small apse windows for light and a carved tunnel entrance. The church space was built as the monk’s eventual burial location (as indicated by the burial chapel and paintings). The (now-broken) wall had a small hagioscope. Through this sacred window, visitors could talk with monks and the monks could look into the apses of the other churches.

The monk’s cell at Buckle Church (Tokalı Kilise, Göreme) was the original space and main reason for the multiple churches built on the site. Though dismissed as an unfinished storage room, the space on the left was a small dwelling for a solitary monk. Old and New Buckle Churches were then built around the monk’s cell. The angles of construction allowed the monk to view both churches through the window.

At Keşlik Monastery, 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 cone of Sarıca Church 2 near Ürgüp has churches stacked on four layers. The final and largest church in the middle was built adjacent to previous churches and directly below isolated monk’s cell. The unique ceiling (half-flat and half-barrel vaulted, only possible in rock-cut architecture) afforded the prominent monk a direct view into the apse of elaborate new church with ornate carving and three apses.

Ayvalı Church (Rose Valley) is a double-nave church, with an upper hermitage connected through a large hole. The church dates to 913/14, but the monastic cell appears centuries older. (See this MA thesis.)

These hermitages have different designs, but all are connected—physically and visually—to a church. In most instances, the church was built after (and typically below) the monk’s hermitage. The presence of a hermitage actually explains the irregular architecture of the churches connected to hermitages—e.g., crooked north wall of Old Buckle church, half-flat/half-barrel-vaulted ceiling of Sarıca Church 2, topless dome at Keşlik, ceiling hole at Ayvalı, and four parallel churches at Karabaş.

In addition to the five cave hermitages, three rock-built churches in Aksaray province have attached hermitages. The masonry churches Çanlı Kilise (Akhısar), Karagedik Kilise (Ihlara Valley), and Kilise Cami (St. Gregory Church, Güzelyürt) have two-story narthexes. The upper level functioning as a monk’s cell. Reclusive hermits dwelled in the upper-narthex space, with a window looking into the nave and sanctuary. This was common among the monastic churches at Mt. Athos (For more, see Nebojsa Stankovic’s Ph.D. dissertation At the Threshold of the Heavens). In terms of cave churches with an upper-narthex for monks, St. Basil’s chapel (Göreme Open Air Museum) has a large cavern immediately above the large narthex. The size of the broken room approximates most other monastic cells, but there is no other physical evidence (such as a relief cross or sightline into the apse).

3. Dormitory Rooms

Several monastic complexes had a dormitory (i.e., dorter). These were small shared rooms with a few beds carved into arches along the walls. Pillows were carved into the rock and beds were generally short (4.5 to 5 feet in length). Monks slept on the rock platforms on their straw mats. Compared to the individual hermitages for reclusive monks, these areas were for communal (coenobitic) monks living as a group.

The elongated dormitory room at Zindan Church contains four beds along each wall. The poor carving suggests that it was built after the church. Although the dorm room has only eight beds, the monastic site is large and well-developed.

A small monastic complex in Rose Valley (Güllü Dere) has a square room with five beds, nicely carved into arches along three walls. The room lies at the center of the monastic complex.

Rock beds at Rose Valley monastic area

The finest dormitory room in Cappadocia connects to Three Crosses Church (Red Valley). The spacious room has five beds. Carved crosses and ornate trimming decorate two beds. The room has direct access to the church nave and an animal manger.

Another dormitory room exists below Nikephorus Phocas (Cavuşin) but is now closed for restoration. The large, irregular room has three beds on one side. The upper room at Eski Gümüsler and the two-level hall at Selime Castle both have such beds set in recessed arches. However, these may not have been monk cells, as they have other elaborate features.

4. Single Rooms

The standard monk’s cell was a small, rectangular room with a flat, shallow roof. The rooms generally had a window, bench/bed, and shelf. One recognizable feature is the notches carved inside the doorframe. The notches supported a wooden beam, from which the fabric door hung.

Keşlik Monastery has about 20 monk’s cells, most of them located on the hillside behind the main church. One privileged cell was connected to the central dome of Archangel Michael’s Church. This allowed the monk to view both apses and hear the performed liturgy.

The monastic complex of Buckle Church (Soğanlı) contains two monk’s cells behind the formal hall. One cell has three oval windows, while the other has a decorated square recess in the back. Other sites with single monk cells include Nikephorus Phocas (Cavuşin) and Sandle Church (Goreme OAM), both accessed by a vertical shaft above the church.

Buckle Church (Soğanlı), monk's cell interior

5. Undiscovered Rooms

Researchers and visitors today must acknowledge an obvious fact—many monk’s cells in Cappadocia are still undiscovered. For several reasons most cells are simply unknown. For one, the remains of a monk’s cell is far less recognizable than a church or monastery. Monks may have resided in any of Cappadocia’s countless caves, but we shall never know because no obvious evidence remains. The lack of identifiable remains is perhaps because monks occupied a simple, undecorated cave, like a crab moving into an abandoned shell. For example, monks at Dark Church (Göreme) likely resided in one of the plain rooms, or lived off-site in unmarked cells. Monks at Sandal Church (Göreme) may have lived among the undecorated cave rooms high above the courtyard complex, but there is no direct evidence.

In other instances, centuries of later agricultural use—e.g., a pigeon house, hay storage, or animal stable—damaged evidence of the space’s original purpose. The cells are now recognizable.

And many monk’s cells (as well as churches and underground cities) that have not yet been discovered, even after centuries of exploration. As Rodley notes, “[T]he anchoritic habit itself is inconvenient for the archaeologists, for the hermit who succeeds best at removing himself from the world leaves no trace.” Hermit monks wanted their cells to be hidden. Finally, considering the nature of Cappadocia’s soft volcanic tuff, we should assume many monk’s cells have simply eroded away and no longer exist.

These various factors for undiscovered monk’s cells remind us that what is is not what was. The 10-century landscape of Byzantine Cappadocia remains only in part.

Why were caves so important and significant? What caused Cappadocian monks to retreat into monastic cells? Asceticism and remote caves have a long history in the Bible and Church history.

The Desert and Caves in the Bible

The word “hermit” comes from the Greek eremites, itself from the word for “desolate, uninhabited area,” such as desert or wilderness. So the etymology of hermit is “desert-dweller” or “wilderness wonder.” This term evokes a common motif in the Bible—in the desert/wilderness, God grants his provision and presence to those who seek him. The infinite God of life reveals himself in barren places.

After the Exodus, God revealed his glory to Moses in the deserts of Sinai and then sustained Israel in the wilderness for 40 years. King David often from protection from evil forces in desert caves. Elijah fled to a desert cave at Mt. Sinai and heard God through “the still small voice” (1 Kings 19:9-18). The New Testament Gospels begin with John the Baptism living like an ascetic hermit monk. He wore camel clothes, ate locusts, and lived in the Judean desert/wilderness (Mark 1:4–7). Jesus also has significant moments in the wilderness, such as overcoming Satan’s temptation. He also retreated to the wilderness to commune with God in solitude. John the Baptist and Jesus likely slept in caves during these desert stays.

The desert/wilderness, though characterized as lifeless and barren, was a symbol of God’s presence and life. Caves were typically used for burials, but in key moments served as a place of divine protection and revelation. The word of God comes to people in the wilderness, and here people fight against Satan. The lives of solitary hermits in 3C. Egypt continued the biblical motif of seeking God in the wilderness.

Cave Cells in Monastic Literature

In later Christian history, two famous hagiographies—Life of St. Antony and Life of Onuphrius—depict the theological and spiritual importance of caves cells. St. Antony (250–356AD), a hermit in the deserts of Egypt, is famously known as the Christianity’s first solitary monk. St. Onuphrius, another hermit in 4th-century Egypt, is the most commonly painted monk in Cappadocia (Keşlik Monastery, Meryem Ana Church and Snake Church in Göreme).

As popular monastic figures, the ideals and descriptions of their hermetic lives shaped the everyday practices and values of Cappadocia monks. These literary documents help us understand the function and importance of a monk’s cave cell. In terms of historical value, these hagiography are more informative for medieval monastic than the actual 4th-century lives.

A monk’s journey to a particular, divinely-ordained cave room is a decisive event in their life. The monk’s cell—not the church, monastery, or even Jerusalem temple is the location of God’s presence. The cave is where faithful monks fight against Satan and his demons. Before Constantine, Christians contended against evil by bearing witness before Caesar. But once the empire Christianized, the battle against evil forces moves from the public to private solitude. Persevering in ascetic practices, and resisting the temptation to descend from the cave back into the world, became a spiritual virtue of prime importance. The spiritual significance of monastic caves is evident in both stories.

Monks’ Caves in Life of St. Antony

Antony “ persuaded many to embrace the solitary life. And thus it happened in the end that cells arose even in the mountains, and the desert was colonised by monks, who came forth from their own people, and enrolled themselves for the citizenship in the heavens. But when he was obliged to cross the Arsenoitic Canal2 —and the occasion of it was the visitation of the brethren—the canal was full of crocodiles. And by simply praying, he entered it, and all they with him, and passed over in safety. And having returned to his cell, he applied himself to the same noble and valiant exercises; and by frequent conversation he increased the eagerness of those already monks, stirred up in most of the rest the love of the discipline, and speedily by the attraction of his words cells multiplied, and he directed them all as a father.” (14-15)

So their cells were in the mountains, like filled with holy bands of men who sang psalms, loved reading, fasted, prayed, rejoiced in the hope of things to come, laboured in alms-giving, and preserved love and harmony one with another.… So that any one beholding the cells again, and seeing such good order among the monks, would lift up his voice and say, ‘How goodly are thy dwellings, O Jacob, and thy tents, O Israel; as shady glens and as a garden by a river; as tents which the Lord hath pitched, and like cedars near waters. (Num 24:5-6).’(Ch. 44)

Antony, however, according to his custom, returned alone to his own cell, increased his discipline, and sighed daily as he thought of the mansions in Heaven, having his desire fixed on them, and pondering over the shortness of man’s life. And he used to eat and sleep, and go about all other bodily necessities with shame when he thought of the spiritual faculties of the soul. So often, when about to eat with any other hermits, recollecting the spiritual food, he begged to be excused, and departed far off from them, deeming it a matter for shame if he should be seen eating by others. (45)

And when at last the persecution [against the Christians in Alexandria] ceased, and the blessed Bishop Peter1 had borne his testimony, Antony departed, and again withdrew to his cell, and was there daily a martyr to his conscience, and contending in the conflicts of faith. And his discipline was much severer, for he was ever fasting, and he had a garment of hair on the inside, while the outside was skin. (47)

When therefore [Antony] had retired and determined to fix a time, after which neither to go forth himself nor admit anybody, Martinian, a military officer, came and disturbed Antony. For he had a daughter afflicted with an evil spirit. But when he continued for a long while knocking at the door, and asking him to come out and pray to God for his child, Antony, not bearing to open, looked out from above and said, ‘Man, why do you call on me? I also am a man even as you. But if you believe on Christ whom I serve, go, and according as you believe, pray to God, and it shall come to pass.’ Straightway, therefore, he departed, believing and calling upon Christ, and he received his daughter cleansed from the devil. Many other things also through Antony the Lord did, who says, ‘Seek and it shall be given unto you.’ For many of the sufferers, when he would not open his door, slept outside his cell, and by their faith and sincere prayers were healed.

And once being asked by the monks to come down and visit them and their abodes after a time, he journeyed with those who came to him. And a camel carried the loaves and the water for them. For all that desert is dry, and there is no water at all that is fit to drink, save in that mountain from whence they drew the water, and in which Antony’s cell was. (54)

Antony [was] renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of God no one will deny. For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who makes His own known everywhere, who also promised this to Antony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue. (93)

The Cave in Life of Onuphrius

The author of Life of Onuphrius, Abba Paphnutius, recounts his first encounter with Onuphrius which functions as an introduction to the hero for the reader.

I am called Onuphrius, an unworthy sinner, and I have been living my laborious life in this desert for nearly seventy years. I have the wild beasts for company, my regular food is fruit and herbs, I lay my miserable body down to sleep in mountainsides, in caves, and in valleys. Throughout all these years I have seen no one except you, and I have not been supplied with food by any human being. (3)

[Onuphrius departed from the group monastery], trusting in the guidance and goodness of God to show me a place where I might live. As I went from that monastery in the mountains into the desert where I intended to remain, I suddenly saw a shining light in front of me on the way … "'Fear not,' he said, 'I am your guardian Angel, whom God has assigned to you right from the beginning, to be with you by God's command and to lead you into the desert. Be perfected, walk humbly with God, labor joyfully, keep guard over your heart at all times, live uncomplainingly, persevere in good works. Rest assured I shall never leave you until such time as I shall bear you up into the presence of his Majesty most high.' "Thus spoke the Angel, who became my companion at the beginning of my journey. (4)

We went on for about six or seven miles until we came to a rather insignificant looking cave. I went closer to see if there were anyone inside, and as is the custom of monks I humbly called out to ask a blessing. I suddenly saw a most holy man emerge…I went in and stayed with him for many days, eager to know what he did, wanting to find out about his solitary life. He knew what it was I wanted to know, and in words of most loving kindness gave me some wonderful advice about how to counter the snares of the devil. "'Arise, my son,' he urged me, after I had spent some days with him. 'Depart from me now. It is time for you to go into the inner desert, and there dwell alone in some other cave. Fight bravely, and you will overcome all the temptations of the devil. It is God's will that you be tested in this desert, to see whether you can fulfill all his commandments.…He traveled with me for four days into the inner desert. On the fifth day we came to a place in Calidiomea, where there were some palm trees. "'See, brother,' said the man of God, 'here is the place which God has prepared for you.' " (7–8)

[The narrator’s concluding explanation of the famous cave.] And I suddenly heard the voice of a multitude of Angels praising God, as the most holy soul of Saint Onuphrius departed. …I wept profusely, I groaned inwardly, rivers of tears flowed down, I beat my breast over and over again. … I tore my tunic in half, keeping half to cover my body and using half in which to wrap his blessed body. I buried him in the natural tomb of a cave in the solid rock. I was alone, I wept afresh. Still weeping, I made as if to enter the cave where he had lived, but as I stood in front of it, it collapsed with a mighty roar, and the palm trees were torn up by the roots and lay prostrate. And then I knew that it was not God's will that I, Paphnutius, should live in that place. (16)


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