Tavşanlı Church is an elegant, single-nave church near Ortahısar. This tenth-century church is part of a multi-story monastic complex with two other churches and various living spaces. The rooms are carved into two isolated volcanic cones at multiple levels. Tavşanlı (Turkish, “with a rabbit”) is one of Cappadocia’s most isolated complexes.
The site is located in a branch of the remote Gomeda/Üzgeni Valley, between İbrahimpaşa and Mustafapaşa, here on Google Maps. A dirt farm road leads directly to the church, but the final kilometers are treacherous and windy. Tavşanlı Church The principal church at the site is Tavşanlı Church—the open single-nave church with a painted narrative cycle. The western portion of Tavşanlı has collapsed, including the west wall and possible narthex. Considering the size and sophistication of the site, the saddle area between the cones likely had other rooms for a more formal entrance that has since eroded away. Now the church has a steep approach and open entrance. Three arcosolia graves occupy the back (north) side of the cone. The broad nave, measuring about five by four meters, tapers toward the back. Three tall arched recesses line the side walls. The shallow barrel-vaulted ceiling springs from the corbeled cornice, which has a white band with a black dedicatory inscription sandwiched between two geometric red bands. The church was decorated on March 20 during Constantine Porphopogenetos (Greek, “the one born in purple”), who reigned AD 913–20. The inscription also mentions a certain Bishop Leo, perhaps the leader of the church in Prokopios (Ürgüp). His name is actually listed before that of the emperor—a risky breach of imperial protocol.
The artistic style of the paintings is rather basic. The artist struggled with shading and body forms, especially the faces. Simple peach and gray tones dominate the space. The icons are damaged, with the best preserved on the east, away from the collapsed doorway. The barrel vault has two bands of continuous narration, beginning in the southeast (front right) and looping around in a U-shape. Three of the four registers depict Jesus’ birth. Scenes from Jesus’ ministry are entirely omitted. Each band had three or four scenes. --South upper band—Annunciation, Visitation, Proof of Virginity (at Jerusalem temple), (Journey to Bethlehem?) --North upper band—Nativity (only Jesus’ infant body), Shepherds (two men with two upright goats), Flight to Egypt, --South lower band—Joseph’s Dream, Massacre of the Innocents (Pilate sitting in white on left) --North lower band—Crucifixion (only Jesus’ abs), Descent from the Cross Transfiguration on the east lunette was the most visible icon for worship in the nave. The arch shape provides a mountain-like setting, with Jesus at the top-center in glory, and the disciples at a lower level on the sides. At the crown of the vault, eight braided roundels have primitive-looking Old Testament prophets. Faint Church Fathers and saints stand on the nave’s lower walls. The apse scene is Christ in Glory, the prophetic vision of heaven. The multi-colored mandorla with Jesus was located farther back, so it looks into the nave. Jesus sits on the stippled throne with a green back and red cushion. The four living creatures emerge from behind. Only Jesus' upper body and two of the creatures (human and eagle) remain visible.
The small apse entrance creates a large east wall, used for standing saints. A small prothesis niche appears on the left side. The sanctuary area is raised a step, behind the broken templon barrier. Inside the horseshoe apse, two arched niches flank the central rectangular niche. No other furniture is evident. Heavenly hosts flank Jesus’ mandorla. Each side has three angelic figures of increasing size: a small four-headed tetramorph, a six-winged seraphim angel, and then a towering archangel in military attire guarding the apse entrance. They stand against a blue-gray background and on green ground. The two encircled busts are labeled “sun” and “moon.” This apse scene parallels that of Three Crosses Church in Rose Valley. Cruciform Church A spacious church, now dark and blackened, was cut into the lower south portion of the same come. This rough-cut church has large architectural elements, such as oversized inposts and broad arches between bays. Cruciform in shape, the center bay has a flat room and not a central dome. The deep apse contained a tall synthronon bench flanking the bishop’s chair and apse window. Secondary architectural usage has altered and damaged the space. Other undefined rooms are attached to the church’s narthex area.
The West Cone The majority of rooms appear in the west cone, at four different levels. The builders left one meter of rock floor between the levels. This has proven to be enough to support the entire complex. The first level was the cooking and living area. The space has some formal architectural elements, but has been recarved and repurposed over time. The upper floor has an entry room, accessed from a shaft below or the raised doorway from Tavşanlı Church. The area includes a tiny chapel. Entered via the south wall through a broken doorway, the single nave’s barrel-vaulted ceiling springs from a thick cornice carved with alternating blocks. Six arched niches occupy the nave—three small and raised for storage, and two elongated for sitting. The apse arch has no templon, but a triple-lip inpost. Inside the apse, two semi-circular niches flank the destroyed attached altar and small window. The walls remain rough, but bold architectural features fill the compact space. The space has no burial spaces, so did not have a funerary purpose. This could have been the private worship space of of the community’s more privileged residences.
Other room was carved into the upper portion, just below the tip of the volcanic cone. The room is only accessible by the faded external staircase leading to the rectangular opening, and was likely a stylite’s cell. The cone has a simple external appearance on the south. A smooth façade on the second level surmounts the wide arched entrance, which is no longer accessible. This external appearance, albeit simple and two-dimensional, created some semblance of a courtyard effect. The small cone immediately south of the two main cones has collapsed room at the apex. Based on the east-facing, arched window, this was originally a living space. The cones further south across the valley have arcosolia graves with crosses etched into the lunette. Other spaces appear around the main complex. The short isolated cone in the valley had a square room with storage niched carved in the apex, likely a private/monastic residence. Fifty meters further south, another cone has arcosolia grave niches with crosses etched above.