Selime Castle

Selime Castle is the largest and most elaborate cave complex in Cappadocia. The multi-level Byzantine settlement includes an enormous kitchen, two halls, a basilica church, and other rooms sculpted around two adjacent courtyards. The enormous size and prominent location indicate the importance of Selime Castle, which was built in the 900s.

Selime Castle, entrance and plateau

Selime Castle (Turkish, Selime Kalesi) sits between the villages of Selime and Yaprakhisar, at the southern end of Ihlara Valley in the Aksaray province. The site is an official museum that requires an entrance fee.


Courtyards


The complex is set high up a cliff face, about 50 meters above the Menderes River. This location is easily defensible and offers a commanding view of the valley.

The initial rooms at the base of the cliff, left of the path, are stables. Visitors would leave their horses here, then ascend through the long, curved tunnel. This entry maximized the security and status of the complex. From the initial landing area, a steep tunnel staircase leads into the lower courtyard. This first courtyard contains the main living areas (kitchen, bathing room, and hall #1). Further east and slightly higher, a second courtyard contains the more elaborate hall and churches, and would have had a defensive wall. The multiple levels, elaborate wall decorations, and commanding views of Selime Castle replicated and perpetuated the inhabitants’ social hierarchy.


The double-courtyard complex extends over 100 meters across the cliff face. Although the interiors are elaborate, the exteriors lack any overall layout or prominent façade. The site likely developed over time; people added rooms ad hoc as finances became available.


Kitchen


The large room on the west (left) side of the courtyard was a kitchen. The decorated façade (usually for Cappadocian kitchens) draws attention. Cooks used the mushroom-shaped ovens to bake bread on the upper shelf. Large tandir pits in the floor supported a large iron pot. The fire burned inside the pit while the side slit oxygenated the fire and allowed the cook to stoke the coals. The tall pyramid ceiling with a central chimney in the roof allowed smoke to exit the room. The high row of ornate niches and large wall niches functioned as shelving. The large dimensions (8m by 8m) and multiple attached rooms indicate that a large population lived at this complex. The kitchen is far removed from the living spaces and churches—a typical aspect of Cappadocian settlements.


Selime Castle, kitchen

Several utility rooms extend from the back wall. A pit loom is located in the room behind the kitchen (and in the two halls). A weaver would sit against the wall with their feet in the rectangular pit. Postholes around the pit supported the loom’s wooden frame in front of the weaver. This was how the local community produced textiles.


Hall #1


Selime Castle has two prominent halls connected by a thin tunnel. The first hall (labeled “Monastery”) sits directly before the tunnel entrance. This large space (14m by 8m) has a flat roof and a unique two-level design. The lower section has six arched alcoves, each with an arched niche and a bench for sitting and sleeping. Only in one alcove (middle right) has the bed survived undamaged. The upper-level arcade opens to a wrap-around gallery, accessible by a staircase in the back corner. The upper arcade contains thick horseshoe arches while the left side has a low protective barrier.


Selime Castle, hall 1

The large size, abundance of arches, and network of passageways reflect the social activity that once enlivened this hall. One can sense people sitting on the benches, others peering from the upper gallery, and the community head sitting in the arched apse during a communal gathering


The hall was repurposed after the tenth century. Later occupants carved a loom pit, several tandir pits, and animal troughs. A thin yet exact tunnel, once divided by a thin rolling rock, connects to the second hall.


Hall #2


The second barrel-vaulted hall has gigantic proportions—17 meters deep, 6m wide, 8m tall. This was the main hall for receiving visitors and conducting ceremonial meals. The high arched window and broad door permit abundant lighting. A step divides the long hall (visually and socially) into two sections. The upper section, reserved for the most honored members, retains a blind arcade on thick pilasters, thus imitating the upper gallery of the other hall. The entire hall was plastered, with several layers in the upper half. The black roof is the result of later cooking pits.

At the back of the room is a cross-shaped room with a carved ceiling cross. The room, with a private toilet in the tunnel, had large swinging doors that allowed the head of the household both privacy (for eating or sleeping) and a ceremonious entrance into the main hall.


The hall’s 10-meter external porch extends forward three meters. The (pretend) door lintel and ornate carving mark the formal space.


Selime Basilica Church


The basilica church (labeled “Cathedral”) in the upper courtyard is one of Cappadocia’s largest and most articulated churches. Based on wall paintings, the church (and, thus, the complex) dates to the early 900s.


The basilica-style church has two arcades dividing three aisles. The architectural features indicate great skill and planning. The pillars alternate between square piers and round columns. Each pillar features a monumental base and capital. Additionally, the church was positioned to accommodate a window into two apses. Above the arcades, a barrel-vaulted ceiling springs from the molding. Side aisles contain blind arches and terminate with unique apses.


Selime Castle, basilica church nave and apse

The tall apse is recessed back and raised one step above the narthex platform. The remains of multiple divots for the iconostasis screen appear above the apse. Two cornices subdivide the apse into three registers. The upper conch features Christ in Glory—Jesus in a mandorla and the heavenly hosts standing below him. The apostles, flanking the arched window, stand in the middle section. The bottom register has a cathedra throne and a synthronon bench for church leaders, who would have sat among the Church Fathers on the lower wall.


The central aisle had smooth plaster and painted images. They are in poor condition and only faint outlines remain. Diamond and spade patterns outline the architectural features on the side walls, lending a royal air to the space. Scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary fill the upper registers on the ceiling. Each soffit has five saints in roundels.


The church has several unique features found in Georgian churches—the throne chair cut into a pillar, alternating pillar designs, and the donor scene above the door. These features appear in tenth-century Georgian churches but nowhere else in Cappadocia.


The large donor panel appears above the door (west wall). The image is difficult to see, raised high up on the wall and damaged by smoke. The central haloed figure is the Virgin Mary. She stretches out her hands to bless the figures on each side. Her hands rest on their heads, a symbolic coronation (or protection), often found in imperial images. The patrons’ fine robes confirm their aristocratic identity. Four smaller figures (likely relatives of the church patrons) appear on each side of the central group.


The church narthex was also plastered and painted. An extended inscription is painted on the molding above a niched grave to the left of the entrance. The Greek funerary poem (also at Eğri Taş in Ihlara) warns readers about the dangers of money—“Do not be misled by the desire for wealth; the love of money has destroyed many, for this flesh is earth and clay.” Such aphorisms often appear near Byzantine graves.


Next to the church is a single fairy chimney with three ornate (but unrelated) rooms. The lower room (mislabeled “Chapel”), on a rear lunette, has two bird-like creatures looking at a central pillar. In the uppermost room, a ceiling with registers of blind arcades leans into the ribbed domes. These spaces were for living and sleeping.


Around Selime Castle


Selime Castle did not sit alone in the valley but, rather, was the centerpiece of a larger settlement. Many other rooms, including mansions and cave churches, honeycomb the entire cliff.


A fortress once stood at the top of the plateau, about 100 meters above Selime Castle. A 200-meter-long defensive wall with a central gate, four round towers, and a mote/ditch closed off the end of the plateau. Many locals claim that a long, steep tunnel leads from Selime Castle to the upper bluff.


Five massive rock-cut courtyard mansions are located about 1.5 kilometers southwest of Selime Castle. These are across the river, on the eastern edge of Yaprakhisar village, at the base of the cliff. Today, local villagers use the unprotected Byzantine mansions for agricultural storage, so many rooms have been recarved and/or locked. The aristocratic homes contain four-story facades articulated with ornate blind facades. The elaborate facades do not correspond to the interior rooms. (The upper levels do not have rooms.) The ornamental carvings decorate the wall to convey the status of the household. Several of the large mansions have churches on the south (right) side of the courtyard.


A small cross-in-square church named Derviş Akın (aka, Meryem Ana Kilise) stands among other complexes, about 150 yards behind the castle. The church is located inside an isolated fairy chimney between two residential complexes. The donor image is that of Mary holding the Christ Child in her hand and blessing a small female figure—presumably, the donor. The burial inscription is another Byzantine funeral poem: “Why do you strive in vain, O people, in this short life?”


Purpose?


Art historian Veronica Kalas has conducted extensive archeological research in Selime. She theorizes that a local warlord constructed Selime Castle as a military installation. The powerful family controlled local land and maintained imperial connections to Constantinople, and so was responsible for protecting this Byzantine borderland from Arab/Persian invaders.


Her research highlights the domestic and defensive functions of Selime Kale but overstates its military significance. Though Selime Kale is impressive, this site was a blip in the backwater of the Byzantine Empire, not a frontier fortress capable of stopping Arab/Persian armies. The location deep in the valley indicates a local (not regional) function. Foreign groups could easily pass around the river valley without detection. Moreover, Selime valley was not on (or even near) any of the travel routes in Cappadocia. Invading armies would pass from Tyana (Niğde) to Colonia (Aksaray) and onto Iconium (Konya)—a route far south of Selime.


The military interpretation of Selime discounts the 17 churches in and around Selime. The collective presence of so many churches indicates the community’s religious nature. The fortified aspects of the site are ambiguous. The two other Cappadocian complexes with steep tunnel entrances—Karanlık Kilise and Çat Kilisesi—are both monastic in function.


On the other hand, the current signage overstates the religious function of the settlement. The room labels of “Monastery,” “Church,” “Chapel,” and “Cathedral” are not accurate. In fact, the only room with a correct label is the “Kitchen.” Claims that Selime Castle hosted “the first public mass” after the edit of Milan and then became “a center of religious instruction” have no historical basis.


The absence of any documentary evidence from Selime Castle prevents any definitive conclusion about its original purpose. Most likely, a prominent local family of Byzantine Christians developed Selime over several generations as their personal residence.

© 2019 Jason Borges

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