The cave basilica of St. John the Baptist in Çavuşin is one of Cappadocia’s oldest, largest, and most prestigious cave churches.
The church dates to the early 500s, a time of church expansion in the Byzantine Empire. The large church was the central place of worship for the local community. According to the inscription trimming the front arch, the church was dedicated to John the Baptist. The church of St. John the Baptist is a fine example of early Christian architecture in Cappadocia.
The church is set in the ancient cliff-side village of Çavuşin. From the center of Çavuşin, you will hike 15 minutes up through the abandoned village to the church. Follow the marked path behind Fairyland Cave Hotel. The church is always free and open to enter.
The large fallen rocks below the church are the result of over-carving. The unsupported rooms, including the church’s narthex (entry room), have collapsed. Older pictures show a prominent narthex with large columns. Only portions of the narthex floor with burial graves remain.
Visitors today enter through the side room of the church. The small south room has detailed geometric patterns. At the center of each design is an encircled flower. The center carving has a large, encircled Maltese cross. Framed diamonds encompass the outer two flowers. All the objects are rock relief, created by cutting away the surrounding rock.
The church has a basilica-shaped nave—a central hall with small side aisles. The area is spacious, although the nave is noticeably short. Basilica churches typically had tall arched roofs in the central nave, but the roof at St. John is low and flat, perhaps because of a preexisting space above. The church’s width (an uncharacteristic 20 meters) is obscured by the blockaded walls. These features illustrate the ways in which Cappadocian artists adapted and innovated architectural forms when carving cave churches. The width allowed more rear windows for lighting, thus compensating for the impossibility of high windows in the side walls.
The horseshoe apse is one of Cappadocia’s broadest sanctuary areas (6 by 5 meters). A deep bench (synthronon) and a massive central chair (cathedra) line the back wall. The bishop and the supporting clergy sat here during the liturgy. A large cross within a circle was carved above the bishop’s chair. The sitting arrangement reflects the painted image—a central figure seated on a throne flanked by others.
The cross-shaped hole on the apse floor was a crypt for storing sacred objects like the bones of saints. A wooden altar was placed over the crypt. People would have reached into the space to touch the relics and obtain a spiritual blessing. This crypt may have enshrined the legendary bones of John the Baptist (to whom the church is dedicated) or St. Hieron (a famous martyr buried in the area). Such relics would have made this cave church a famous site for pilgrimage and veneration.
Heavy arcades separate the three aisles. Two heavy columns have broad pedestals and flat crowns. The entire arcade is raised on a thick bench. The arches had large arched passageways (the rock walls were added later for animal storage), but the low rock barrier blocked passage into the (far) north aisle. The back wall has three arched windows and a large framed doorway. The architectural precision of the walls creates the illusion of a masonry church interior. The rock is uncharacteristically hard, so has restrained its perfect shape.
The large north aisle functioned as a separated church. The large space (6 by 3 meters) had a dedicated raised altar. People entered the north aisle from the (now collapsed) narthex entrance. Priests could enter through the passageway directly into the side apse.
The weathered paintings are barely visible. While the church dates to around 500 AD, the paintings were completed centuries later. The painted program is mostly in the front section of the church. The back wall has a few pairings left of the door.
The narrative begins on the top half of the left (north) wall—Annunciation, Visitation (faded in the upper right corner), and Nativity (Jesus’ bathed in the lower right corner). The faded scenes on the lower register are: Judas’ Betrayal (scratched out), Pilate Washing Hands (wearing a red floral robe), and Simon Carrying the Cross (a small red figure on the far right). The narration continues on the front wall with Crucifixion (Jesus stands tall in red, while Mary and John the Baptist watch).
On the right side of the arch, the lower scene is Resurrection. Jesus tramples upon an oversized Hades and pulls a sickly Adam by the wrist. The unique style suggests an early date for the painting, perhaps the seventh century. The scene above is Ascension. Mary stands in the middle of the apostles while angels elevate Jesus’ mandorla to heaven.
The far-right wall contains two more scenes. On the upper half, the resurrected Jesus stands among his apostles and Thomas reaches out to touch Jesus.
The lower scene is the beheading of John the Baptist (Mark 6:14–29). The Roman king Herod (far left figure with a grey beard) sits at the round table with guests. His niece (middle) dances while holding musical instruments. Two servants (far right) hold John the Baptist's head on a platter. This scene is very rare, but fits with the dedication to John the Baptist.
The apse scene was Christ in Glory, with saints standing below and seraphim angels in the corner. The voluminous apse includes two scenes from Christ’s life—Baptism (lower left) and Transfiguration (lower right). These appear in the apse because they are two instances in which God’s glory was manifested through Christ. The underside of the arch has eight Old Testament figures in braided circles.
The people of Çavuşin lived in the cliff-side settlement until 1963. After two people died due to collapsed rock, the Turkish government moved people into regular homes. The architecture and painting remain in decent condition, despite farmers’ later adaptations. French scholar Jolivet-Levy has identified Cavusin as Kodessanè, the Byzantine city which housed the relics of St. Hieron.
With precise architecture, rare frescos, an early dating, and a unique setting, the church of St. John the Baptist is one of the finest cave churches in Cappadocia.