Paşabağı, a small monastic area near Zelve, features three pillar hermitages with monks’ cells and cave churches. The central hermitage, named after the resident monk, St. Symeon, is Cappadocia’s most famous stylite cell. Paşabağı (Turkish, “the general’s vineyard”) is often called “Monk’s Valley” on tour itineraries.
Both beautiful and accessible, Paşabağı is a common destination. However, visitors rarely locate the hermitages because of inadequate signage. In 2019, Paşabağı became an official “Open Air Museum,” so an entrance ticket is required. The hall of vendors at the entrance is a profit-sharing co-operative formed by the nearby village of Çavuşin.
St. Symeon’s Hermitage
The famous hermitage of St. Symeon is located in the large solitary cone with three heads in the middle of the open plain. The entrance to the elevated monk’s cell on the southeast has severely eroded. The current entrance area was actually a room entered through the incline tunnel.
From the ground level, a steep tunnel and vertical shaft with footholds ascend to the second floor. The top of the shaft has a wide mouth for a rock lid to secure the entrance. The antechamber has an irregular form and a collapsed southern wall. The initial area features a religious prayer carved in red and three rock crosses, which are common features of monastic residences.
The main monastic cell is located through a tunnel staircase on the “third floor” of the cave complex. The large oval room has two beds for the senior monk and his disciple. The junior monk slept on the western bed, which is 30 cm lower and positioned “at the feet” of the superior. In the church below, graffiti addresses someone named “St. Symeon,” the hermit who lived in the hermitage cell.
The irregular surfaces and niches on the southern wall served as an altar, table, and stovetop. The architectural elements permitted the monks to cook, eat, and even pray. These apartment-style features provided a greater degree of independence and reclusiveness. This space was more than a platform for spiritual contemplation.
The small chapel carved at the base of the fairy chimney is locked. In 2019, a consortium of Japanese universities began restoration efforts. The barrel-vaulted narthex (entrance room) has a prominent arcosolium and infant grave in the doorway. The door frame and panel saint are the only painted portions. The large arched entrance has a shallow molding, like the first arcosolium to the right of the entrance. The other arcosolium was hastily added later.
In the single nave, a large relief cross is carved on the flat ceiling. The apse has a central altar and side seats, but no templon barrier. A secondary window shaft cuts through the right side to the outside, where the external carved frame has been painted.
The interior of the chapel has multi-colored paints on plaster but is now in poor condition. The apse had Christ in Glory in the conch; underneath Jesus, apostles flanked Mary and John the Baptist. As an indication of the monastic activities here, the painting program has images of the famous stylite monk, St. Simeon the Elder, and graffiti from later visitors petitioning St. Symeon. The monastic cell on the third level preceded the church, which remained a popular pilgrimage destination because of the monk.
The Second Hermitage of Symeon
The second monastic cell and church lies in the narrow ravine about 100 meters to the east.
A small inaccessible church was carved four meters above the ground. The single-nave, barrel-vaulted church has faint paintings from the eleventh century. The western façade of the church has collapsed, exposing the ribbed-vaulted narthex, flanked by two arcosolia. The right arch has a raised bed. The left arch has a burial space with red inscriptions on white plaster. The lengthy poem with biblical references and pious reflections says:
I was formed an infant in my mother’s womb. For nine months not consuming, I was nourished. I came out of my mother. I saw the creation, and recognized the creation. I learned the divinely-inspired Scriptures and understood those sent to me, who came as Sons of Adam, the first-created, that he had died, and all the prophets. Still living, I prepared an excavated grave. So, tomb, receive me too, like (my namesake Symeon) the Stylite. The servant of God, Symeon the monk, died on June 9, the year (unreadable).” From Rodley, Cave Monasteries, 192.
The monastic cell, presumably for Symeon, is located in the large cone opposite the church (above the stable room). This rectangular room has precise carving. The single arcosolium bed has painted inscriptions of prayers and reflections. Two inscriptions read: "As the world ends here below, the fate of the world will also have an end. The fire of death pursues us all, death which sends us naked into the world beyond," and "Christ is the door of those from here below, he drives away sadness and spreads joy.” A small corner bench has three small basins, perhaps for food preparation or storage. A square shaft in the ceiling leads to another monastic cell. Post-Byzantine residents added a large winepress. This cell, carved at the same level as the church, is not accessible. More carved rooms, likely monastic cells, honeycomb the slender ravine.
What is the relationship between the two Symeon hermitage sites at Paşabağı? The first church (in the isolated cone) appears to be earlier based on its artistic style, suggesting that the monastic cell was built first. One scholar (Joliet-Levy) proposes that the local monk named Symeon built the second cell to be more accessible as he aged. Another scholar (Ousterhout) suggests that the sites housed two separate monks, both coincidently named Symeon. With such limited evidence, we can only guess the exact history at this site.
A Third Hermitage
A third hermitage near the museum entrance is easily missed. The complex is the pencil-necked volcanic cone with a Turkish flag. The lower room, now a Jandarma office, was a monastic cell with an arcosolium bed and a niched shelf on the northern wall. The precarious upper room has a small, now inaccessible room, which could only have been a stylite cell. The adjoining rock stump has a small church, entered from the south. The single nave had blind niches on all three walls and an apse with a rock altar. A raised burial slot, located between the cells, faces the church. The raised road conceals the lower portions of the rock. The overall layout is unique. However, the presence of a chapel, monk cell, and grave in an isolated cave suggests a small hermitage.
Two Other (Hermetic?) Churches
Isolated cones to the east house two more churches. A cone on the southern bank of the road has a single-nave church at ground-level. Only the apse and northern wall remain, with slight traces of the original iconography and architecture. An acrosolia grave was carved on the cone’s northwest face.
The other church, farther east along the old road, has an entrance three meters above the ground. The small nave had an articulated apse with a window and two side graves.
The isolated fairy chimneys housing these two churches are severely eroded. Perhaps they were once similar to the other three hermitages at Paşabağı—hermitages with stylite cells, but whose remains have eroded away. The irregular concentration of three stylite cells in proximity suggests the possibility of more.
Paşabağı is a remarkable cluster of stylite towers. The surreal valley offers a unique view of Cappadocia’s monastic practices and spectacular fairy chimneys.