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Pancarlık Church

Updated: Oct 18, 2019

Pancarlık Church is one of the longest used church spaces in the world. Christians worshiped here for nearly 1400 years. The church’s eccentric architecture, theological depictions, and ridge top-setting make it a worthy destination. The church, just southeast of Ürgüp, was part of a larger monastic settlement.

Pancarlık Church, front facade

Visiting Info

The church is located between Ürgüp and Ortahısar (about 1 km west of Kepez/Sarıca Churches). The GPS location is 38°36'50.9"N 34°53'33.8"E. The location on Google Maps is 200 meters south of the actual church. With decent signage, you can reach this church from the Ürgüp-Mustafapaşa road or from Ortahısar.

The church costs 10 TL (in 2019) to enter, payable to the elderly Turkish man in the wooden shack. The church is open everyday, 9am–5pm. The church is in a remote location, so the majority of visitors come as part of their touristy “Jeep Safari” through the local valleys.

The Long History

Pancarlık Church has developed over many centuries. Here is a rough timeline of the church.

  • 500’s—The church was originally carved. This date is inferred from the inscription style and the four medallions carved in the church (discussed below).

  • 900’s—The church is recarved then plastered and painted. The rear half of each side wall was indented to create the water basin and pulpit (ambon). Then the entire church was plastered and painted with a series of images from Jesus’ life. The church, in its entire history, was painted only one time.

  • 1100’s—A side chapel is carved next to the church. The craftsmanship and design are clearly second rate. The external entrance cut away half of the cross in the external funerary niche, and the inside entrance cut through the painting program.

  • ~1800’s—The church was significantly recarved. The lower half of the apse was set deeper into the rock to create an altar, thus cutting off several figures in the apse scene. The entire front wall of the church was set back and left unpainted. The floor was lowered, creating two wavy steps before the sanctuary area.

  • 1920’s—The church remained a place of worship for local Greek Christians until 1923. After this point, the church was profaned and destroyed. Paintings on the lower portions disappeared, and the stone iconostasis (wall separating the sanctuary) was smashed.

  • 1990’s—The church becomes a tourist stop.

Eccentric Architecture

Pancarlık Church has many unconventional architecture features compared to other Cappadocian churches. Visitors get the impression Pancarlık Church is the product of an eccentric (half-brilliant, half-crazy) creative. The unique elements include:

  • a recut apse that destroys the expansive painted scene,

  • wavy steps leading to the sanctuary,

  • a row of small niches on the upper portions of the back wall but only on one side

  • a large window over the doorway with a painted scene,

  • a preaching platform (ambon) along the wall,

  • sidewalls with multiple depths and angles,

  • large three-dimensional roundels with crosses (on each side wall and the conch),

  • a nave split into two sections, and

  • two levels of benches on each side of the floor.

Despite the idiosyncrasies, the general floor plan of Pancarlık is fairly standard. The room is a single-nave, flat-ceiling space with an east-facing apse. A deep grave is carved in the back corner, perhaps for the founder of the church/monastery.

The original apse was smooth and flat, coming down straight to form a throne chair with side benches. These details are still evident on the front of the recut alter. The original alter, as in most Byzantine churches, was a freestanding wooden structure located over the reliquary (pit in the floor for sacred relics). But apparently, this wooden alter was insufficient, so the apse was recut to make a stone altar.

Front Façade

Pancarlık Church, funerary niche

The entrance area of the church is severely damaged. The new courtyard area hides the original landscape. Three graves remain in front of the church, one on the left inside a niche (acrosolium) and two other graves located on the right in an arched room. The wall has a Maltese Cross inside an etched roundel and a funerary inscription that reads:

The death of monk John. I ask therefore, O beloved brothers, that you, on account of the Lord and the Archangels, not open my resting place until the coming of our Lord and Savior. For he comes with myriads of archangels and angels, with Michael and Gabriel trumpeting the resurrection of the those who have fallen asleep.

This inscription indicates the church was built in the 500’s (based on the language and carving) to serve a monastic community. The motif in this short inscription—Jesus’ return with angels and the final resurrection—echoes imagery in the apse program, thus providing a window into the functional theology of the community.

A grouping of rooms stands above the main church. They are inaccessible and may have been a hermitage—a private cell for a recluse monk (hermit).

An Apse for Worship

The image of Christ in Glory (Latin: Majestas Domini) appears on the conch (top round part of the apse). Jesus rests his feet upon an elevated stool and sits on a bejeweled throne. He is enthroned in heaven, reigning with glory and power. Jesus’ torso has largely flaked away, because the plaster over the original cross-roundel crumbled with time.

Pancarlık Church, Christ in Majesty on apse

Four animals are around Jesus: a man, lion, eagle, and ox. These animals appear in scenes of worship throughout the ancient Near East and Greco-Roman world. They represent the most-powerful domestic animal (ox), most-powerful wild animal (lion), most-powerful flying animal (eagle), and the most-intelligent animal (man). Together, they portray how all creation worships Jesus. These are the “four living creatures” in the heavenly visions of Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1, and Revelation 4. The words next to each creature—“saying,” “shouting,” “singing,” and “crying out”—explain what the four creatures do. These verbs also describe what Christians are doing during the liturgy, thus connecting the worshippers with the scene of heavenly worship. Early in church history, Christian theologians equated the four creatures with the four evangelists. Through the gospels they wrote, they bore witness to the glory of God incarnate, pictured in the declaration of the animals.

All the figures are inside a large circle (mandorla), a symbol of holiness and distinction. The zigzag lines forming the mandorla represent God’s sanctifying light.

Below the enthroned Jesus, a host of heavenly creatures, angels, and prophets worship before him. These figures have theological significance in both biblical and Byzantine history, alluding to layers of symbolic meaning. The figures also evoke a sense of reverence, awe, and contrition in the viewer. All of creation joins in worship before the throne of Jesus, thus inviting the viewer into the worship.

The scene of worship is symmetrical. The center image is the sea of glass explained in Revelation 4:6, “Before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.” The sea of glass symbolized God’s sovereignty over all creation, echoing back to Genesis 1 when God tames the waters at creation. The forces of death, chaos, and evil have been tamed at Jesus’ feet. Identical figures flank each side of the sea of glass—two angels, two prophets, then four angels.e

  • Two Angels. The first angel attends to the sea of glass. The second is a six-winged seraphim angel, who proclaims “holy, holy, holy” day and night before the throne of God.

  • Two Old Testament Prophets. Jeremiah and Isaiah are on the left, Daniel and Ezekiel on the right. They are the Major Prophets of the Old Testament. Their books recorded their prophetic visions of divine glory, and those visions are the basis of John’s later vision of heaven in Revelation 4–5, which is the literary basis of this apse scene. In the painting, Jeremiah receives his scroll to eat, and Isaiah receives a burning coal on his lips. Interestingly, the Greek word for coal (anthrax) also refers to the Eucharist bread, thus creating another liturgical connection between the worshipper and painting.

  • Four Angels. The first angel has many-eyes, a symbol of their insight into heavenly truths. This angel is also a tetramorph (Greek, four-formed), which refers to the angel’s four heads—man, lion, ox, and eagle—that also surround the body. The second angel is an archangel (Gabriel and Michael) in royal attire holding an orb and scepter. The third angel is similarly dressed, with long jeweled scarfs. The final angel has flowing robes and raised hands. The inscription above the final angels reads, “Prayers (deesis) of angels.” The words on the right side run backwards, creating a mirror image of the left side. In ancient times, this mirrored script was a form of spiritual communication, a sacred symbol. And on the far edges of the apse scene, the encircled moon and sun symbolize the entirety of creation now before Jesus.

A prominent inscription lines the base of Jesus’ mandorla. This epigraph reads, “Small is the image, great is the reverence; seeing the image, honor the place.” This phrase was a common jingle/proverb in ancient Greek. In the context of worship, the phrase roughly means, “Even though the painting of Jesus is physically small, it deserves great reverence and veneration from all peoples, so upon seeing the image of Jesus, properly honor the scene as though you yourself are participating in heavenly worship.” The apse scene, with both visuals and words, elicits reverence and worship. Viewers should join with the angels in calling out, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Ezekiel and Isaiah had supernatural visions of God’s throne, but now Christians directly experience that reality. As worshipers receive Eucharist bread and perform the liturgy, Christians join in the heavenly worship of the exalted Jesus. (Cf. Sitz, “Great Fear,” Gesta [2017])

Painting Program

Pancarlık Church features a narrative fresco program. Twenty-nine paintings recount the story of Christ’s life. The entire front half, both ceiling and walls, displays the birth of Jesus. The incarnation (God becoming a human) was a core tenet of Eastern Christianity. For since God became a human, then humans could be restored to God.

Pancarlık Church, north (left) wall

Pancarlık Church, south (right) wall

Pancarlık Church, ceiling program

The back half of the nave features Jesus’ life and death. Miracle stories appear most prominently. The upper walls include eight miracle stories—four food miracles and four healing miracles. This quantity of miracle stories compares to Buckle Church (Göreme). The location of the miracle scenes above the passion sequence enhances the prominence of these miracles, thus adding to the theological message of the church space. This selection of pictures highlights the humanity of Christ.

The final event of Jesus’ earthly life—his ascension to heaven—is in the window above the entrance. The natural light from behind the image creates a visual effect of Jesus “leaving to glory.” Within the architecture space of the church, Jesus reappears “in heaven” on the opposite wall in the apse.

Images of saints appear along with scenes of Jesus’ life. The rows of round icons on the roof in front are the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste. The underside of the apse arch (soffit) has 6 Old Testament prophets—Solomon, David, and four unidentified. Saints Theodore and George appear on the bottom of the right (south) wall.

Painting Style

The style of Pancarlık Church is rather standard. Dark reddish-brown colors dominate, creating stark, harsh images.

Despite the long architectural history of the church, the painting program resulted from one hand. The same painter (workshop) made all the images, and there was no later restoration. All the painting is completely original from the 900’s.

The painter visualizes evil in two scenes. In the temptation scene, Satan is pasty yellow and blurred. In a miracle scene, the demonized man whom Jesus heals is grossly oversized. Both images use “abnormality” to convey demonic evil.

Other Spaces

From the courtyard, many other carved rooms are visible down in the valley. These were likely elements of the monastery compound, although they are not close to the main church nor could have been enclosed by a wall.

On the western slope of the valley are two finely carved rooms. The first is an ornate wine press. Rock borders and painted patterns frame both sections on the back wall. The main stomping area has a framed channel for grape juice to flow to the collection pit on the right. The detail of this room suggests a more formal purpose—perhaps the production of the Eucharist wine.

Around the corner from the wine press room, a spacious single-nave church was converted into a large pigeon house. The sanctuary area is horseshoe-shaped. Above the high synthronon are three prominent niches. The sanctuary floor (bema) is two steps up from the recessed floor. The floor has three burial graves—a full sized pit in the back corner and children’s graves in the bench on each side of the entrance. Later, two side rooms and niches for a dovecoat were finely carved. The pigeons’ niches do not extend into the apse, as that space became a wine press.

The east side of the hill has a cluster of rooms stacked upon one another. These spaces were living cells.

In sum, Pancarlik Church is one of the most architecturally eccentric, theologically dynamic, and continuously used cave churches in Cappadocia.


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