St. George Church in Ihlara Valley is an irregular cave church built inside a burial grotto. Finished around 1290, this was the last cave church built in Cappadocia.
St. George Church is on the northern end of Ihlara Valley, just before Belisırma village. The church is on the west side of the river, up a tall flight of stairs. This church is often called Kırkdamaltı Kilise. The church was restored in 2018 by the Aksaray Museum, so that all the floor graves are visible, but visitors can only look into the nave without physically enter.
Architecture and Graves
St. George Church has an irregular and haphazard architectural plan. The space may have originally been a burial grotto that was later converted into a church.
Because of rock collapses, visitors now look into the nave through the side (north) wall. One-third of the rounded apse remains on the left side. The shape of the remaining walls is determined by pre-existing graves and burial chambers, not by a formal design based on architectural conventions. The original entrance was immediately next to the apse, as evidenced by the large notch disrupting Ascension on the flat ceiling.
Similar to Eğri Taş Church upstream, St. George Church functioned as a funerary chapel and Christian cemetery. About 100 graves line the church floor and nearby burial chambers. The graves appear on various levels, inside both the arcosolia and tomb chambers, and in multiple sizes, illustrating the variety of Christian burial practices. Most graves predate the church. This means the church space was originally a burial grotto. Then, around 1290, the donors gave money to create a more sacred burial space. They converted the room into a church by carving an apse and painting common church scenes.
The now missing northern wall is not the result of the rock face collapsing. The original north wall was not rock-cut, but a masonry wall constructed from ashlar stones. The strange painting patterns on the north edge of the ceiling indicate that the rock did not continue down to form a wall, but originally existed in its current shape. So the builders would have made a stone wall (with an entrance) to enclose the nave. Interestingly, two cut stones with plastered paintings lie along the back wall, and more stones fill the graves; perhaps those were from the original north wall.
The artist creatively accommodated the non-conventional shape of the space. A maroon and white border divides the wall surface into odd-shaped panels. For example, the Ascension scene on the flat roof fills a pizza-shaped panel. The four angels raising Jesus’ mandorla are squeezed together to avoid the large carved notch. The 12 disoriented disciples (in red and white robes) stand in a semi-circle with two angels underneath. Due to limited space, each disciple is identified by only the first letter of their name. The artist filled the obtrusive notch with Sts. Kosmas and Damian, complete with a painted border along the edges. Under the apse arch, the long rectangular panel reaches to the notch.
Transfiguration and Crucifixion fill the smaller panels on the far side of Ascension. On the back walls, Dormition (left of the donor panel) and Nativity appear side by side. Despite the creative positioning and artistic skill, there is no overall structure to the painting program. The independent scenes highlight the fragmented physical space. In one inscription, the painter, without any sense of modesty, noted the challenges of this irregular space: “This church was decorated magnificently despite the difficulties.”
The partial apse contains parts of Deesis—John the Baptist standing and Jesus’ head. Between them appears a seraphim angel covered with eyes. The base of the apse contains three unidentified Church Fathers. A series of archangels (symbols of divine presence) line the entrance of the apse—the bust of Raphael under the arch, Uriel inside the red halo on the conch, and Gabriel with Michael standing on the edges of Deesis.
St. George, the patron saint and modern namesake of this church, appears in four paintings. One, he is the oversized military saint in the donor panel. Two, immediately to the right of the donor panel, St. George rides a galloping white horse. Three, on the back wall left of the Nativity scene, St. George appeared on the white road, opposite the red horse with St. Demetrius.
The fourth appearance is outside the church nave, in an arched niche above the entrance. The painting style is noticeably different. The figure of George is damaged but he wears a red cape, orange military gear, and green boots. His customary white horse has a braided tail. St. George and his horse trample upon the two-headed orange snake. Such imagery borrow from artistic styles of Seljuk Turks from the era. This icon was perhaps painted over an arcosolia burial niche, once elevated up the rock face but now damaged due to collapsed rock.
An interesting and significant donor image appears on the west wall, opposite the apse. The two donors face St. George, an oversized figure with military attire.
The Counsel Basil Giakoupes (left) wears a turban and white wrapped robe. This traditional Seljuk attire on a Byzantine donor suggests a high degree of cultural accommodation. At this point in history (~1290AD), Seljuk Turks had ruled Cappadocia for 200 years. The socio-cultural context had certainly changed and local Christians practiced their faith as "exiles" under Turkish rule kingdom.
The Georgian princess Tamar (right) wears a long green robe. She presents a model of the church in her hands. This was a common scene in Byzantine church art. Donors built the church as a gift/sacrifice in honor of the saint. The artist depicted this cave church as a typical masonry church. The reason is that one cannot depict a cave church, which has only a carved interior and no exterior. The masonry church represents the cave church, serving as an “icon” of the sacred space.
A second inscription on the roof mentions Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II and Seljuk Sultan Musad II, whose reigns overlapped (1282–95). This means that St. George was painted around 1290AD, making it the latest dated church in Cappadocia.
Graffiti, smoke, and later re-use have damaged the church. The outer wall of the church has collapsed. Despite the poor condition, St. George Church is notable for its unorthodox layout, abundant graves, and significant donor panel.