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Sarıca Church

Sarıca Church is a cluster of tenth-century cave churches in the Kepez Valley south of Ürgüp. The open valley has multiple churches and halls, suggesting that a community populated this sacred area. Sarıca Churches 1 and 2 are located inside isolated volcanic cones in the lower section of the open valley. Sarıca Church 3 is part of the upper courtyard complex.

Sarıca Church 1, cone

From the Ürgüp-Mustafapaşa road, follow the signs toward the churches, located here on Google Maps. The unattended site is free to visit, though Church 3 is locked.

Sarıca Church 1

Sarıca Church 1 is the lower church carved into an isolated cone. The western section has collapsed, providing a splendid cross-section view of the church. The internal nave, apse, and upper dome are visible from the outside. A recent restoration removed one meter of silt from the nave, as seen along the damaged lower walls.

This is Cappadocia’s best-carved cave church. The carver was obviously familiar with masonry construction techniques, as the interior space is perfectly shaped and proportioned. The master mason detailed the space as a rock-built church and included 15 semi-circular niches.

The cross-in-square nave measures five meters in both directions. Four pillars divided the interior into nine sections, although only the front two pillars remain. The base from the rear pillars shows their location.

In the side transepts, barrel-vaulted ceilings spring from decorated cornices. The back wall, instead of extending straight to the ground, has an apse-like curve. This tri-conch model, popular in Greece, mirrors that of St. Theodore (Tağar). After the initial carving, arcosolia burial chambers were added to accommodate two large graves on each side. The four corner bays, much lower in elevation, feature elaborate cross vaults with painted floral designs.

The horseshoe sanctuary, raised a short step, had no templon barrier. A thin bench around the sanctuary connects the three semi-circular niches. A long painted shaft about the bishop’s chair illuminates the apse. The rock dome is windowless, so light entered only through lateral openings (i.e., apse window and door). The eastern corner bays have raised niches in place of side apses.

The most impressive feature of Sarıca Church is the central dome. Proper pendentives transition from the arched transepts to the molding. The tall drum has eight semi-circular niches. The faint remains of one halo suggest that standing saints/apostles occupied each segment. Most likely, a painting of the exalted Christ (i.e., Ascension or Pantocrator) decorated the plain drum. At eight meters above ground level, the dramatic elevation creates reverent awe in the worshipper looking upward.

Sarıca Church 1, nave

The painting program, faint and covered in soot, remains only on the soffits. The pendentives bear part of the original interior design—Maltese crosses etched into the surface and colored with simple red and white. Then, around AD 1000, the church was fully plastered and painted.

The narrative program begins in the front (east) transept with Annunciation and Visitation, then continues with Nativity on the south conch. Joseph sits on the left and Angels to the right. The arch has Dedication and Presentation.

The north (left) arm has Hospitality of Abraham on the arch. The rounded conch has Koimesis; the angel with red towels flies above Jesus’ head and Mary’s soul.

The main apse had an oversized Diesis scene. The crown of Jesus extends past the conch apex, so his face is looking directly down, not toward the nave. Jesus’ abbreviated name, IC XC, flanks his shoulders.

The main church of Sarıca 1 was part of a larger structure with other spaces. A rectangular hall was carved underground to the southwest. The red-painted molding is Byzantine in style, so it was contemporaneous. The east side of the cone has a broken single-nave church. The banded barrel vault has eroded, and the north wall contained the entrance and prominent arcosolia grave. A rough shaft on the back connects with the hall below. Considering the original dimensions of the churches, the cone once stood much wider and taller.

Sarica, nave behind Church 1 and cone of Churches 2

Sarıca Church 2

Fifty meters to the north is Sarıca Church 2, set in a large cone with four churches on three levels. The design of the church reveals a complex history.

The small chapel at the base of the tower, Sarıca Church 2a, is an inferior copy of Sarıca Church 1. The builders imitated the cross-in-square shape with shallow, cross-vaulted corner bays and a towering dome. However, the proportions and detail are far inferior. The interior was never plastered and painted; only the red folkloric style remains.

Sarıca Church 2a, vault

The cruciform narthex to the south features a ridged dome with elaborate geometric painting. Two side burial chambers, now filled with dirt, flank the entry room. The large barrel-vaulted west chamber connects with the narthex. The east chamber has a separate entrance and small apse. The three south chambers and decorated façade create a formal entrance. As the volcanic cone splits, a large crack cuts through the south rooms.

The cross-in-square nave has four stout pillars and arched transepts. The main apse, raised three steps through a boarded templon, is irregularly deep. The back wall was opened because silt filled the original entrance. Only the upper window and side seat remain.

Excavations in 2004 removed two meters of dirt from the nave. Now visitors can enter the space and observe the original size.

The cone’s main church, Sarıca Church 2, stands at the middle level. The large transverse nave has precise carving. Three tall keyhole-shaped niches decorate the sidewalls. Double-trim molding edges the ceiling. A tall bench lines the entire floor.

Sarıca Church 2, nave

On the east wall, the three prominent sanctuaries, all raised one step above the bench, have arched entrances with tall templon barriers. The broad east wall appears like an arcade with stout pillars and arches. The smaller side apses had tall, attached altars. The central nave has a square window shaft but no evidence of rock-cut furniture.

The church does not have any evidence of painting. The south half of the church has broken, with the south wall separated and leaning outward. At a later date, the central and north apses became a winepress, and several tandir firepits were carved in the nave.

The distinguishing feature of Sarıca Church 2 is its irregular ceiling. The transverse nave combines two ceiling types—barrel-vaulted in back, and flat in the front. If constructed with stones, this design would have instantly collapsed, but it is possible to carve from the volcanic rock. Sarıca Church 2 has this irregular ceiling because it was built between two preexisting chapels. The same artists built these two churches, which both have a small dome with red paint, notched drums, and embossed pendentives.

One chapel was the small cruciform church in the northwest corner. The apse was opened to make this space the narthex of the new, larger church, as seen by the templon markings and break in the nave arcading. The other chapel occupies the upper level, above the southeast corner of the nave. This church is attached to a barrel-vaulted narthex space, a burial chamber with two graves, and a tunnel entry passage. Now half-collapsed, this multiroom space was a small hermitage. Another monk’s cell is 20 meters away on the western portion of the large cone. The rectangular room with elevated entrance has an arched bed with a rock-cut pillow and east niche.

Why does this fairy chimney have (at least) four churches? The area became popular enough, perhaps because of the resident hermit, that a wealthy patronage financed the excavation of yet another church into the rock (similar to Tokalı Kilise in Göreme). However, to connect the two preexisting chapels, the new church had to have a broad nave. The flattened ceiling cuts below the upper hermitages, and also aligns the apses below the upper chapel and venerated tombs.

The architectural history of Sarıca Church suggests that this particular cone was popular and sacred among local Christians. People were eager to squeeze new churches into this location, even when that required unorthodox building plans.

Sarıca Church 3

Sarıca Church 3, courtyard

The courtyard complex on the upper ridge contains Sarıca Church 3. Despite the fine restoration (completed in 2004) and self-congratulating signage, the church is never open.

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