The Historical Sites of Cappadocian Fathers

In Christian history, Cappadocia is famous for two things—the 4C Cappadocian Fathers (i.e., Basil, Gregory of Nysa, and Gregory of Nazianzos) and the medieval cave churches. Unfortunately, these two periods share no overlap in the historical record. We have many texts from the Cappadocian Fathers, but none of the physical structures from that era. The opposite is true for the medieval period—hundreds of chapels, churches, monasteries, residences, and other rock-cut spaces remain from the 9-11C, but zero texts from or about Cappadocia exist from that period. This discrepancy is a historical riddle. Many people assume the rock-cut sites in Cappadocia relate to the Cappadocia Fathers, but there is no evidence to prove this. That said, a few sites are related to the Cappadocian Fathers, particularly the locations where they lived and ministered. This post explains the history and location of those places.


1. Caesarea (Kayseri)


The modern city of Kayseri is built over ancient Caesarea. In the Greco-Roman era, the city of Caesarea was on top of the hill Beştepeler (now a picnic area, with only a few poor Roman-era remains). Basil used his inheritance to build a large church complex “outside of the city” around 370 AD. When famines came, Basil’s area was so popular that the urban population, in effect, moved from the hilltop site to the plain around the Basiliad church complex. Over time, this area became the new city center. The Basiliad became Basil’s martyrium and a common destination along the Pilgrim’s Way from Constantinople to Jerusalem. In the early 6C, Justinian built a fortress around the area, which remains today as the Kayseri Castle. Nothing remains of the Basiliad, but you can visit the location (inside the castle) where it would have been. After 1600 years as the city center, everything from Basil’s day is deep underground. Around 2018, authorities restored the Justinian-era castle. Within the castle walls, they created an open-air park/museum and built an underground archeology museum.


2. Annesi (Ülükoy/Amasya)


Basil’s parents fled to the Black Sea region during persecutions, then settled in the city of Annesi. Basil, Gregory of Nysa, Macrina, and their other siblings grew up here. Today, Annesi is the small village of Ülükoy (formerly Sonsusa), about 45 km east of Amasya. Nothing remains in the village from the Roman or Byzantine period.


3. Basil’s Monastic Retreat


Near Annesi, Basil founded a quiet monastic retreat center for himself. Based on information included in his letters with Gregory of Nazianzus, this is located at a bend in the river 7 km due east from Annesi. Though no remains are visible, the serene topography makes it a pleasant visit. For the historical geography, see Silvas’ article, “In Quest of Basil’s Retreat.” You can easily view the location from the road on the north side of the river. To visit the actual site, you’ll have to park along the road on the south side of the mountain, then hike about 1.5 km over the hill through bushy terrain. (The pillars of the Roman bridge stand at the confluence of rivers near Kaleköy; another Seljuk bridge is on the way to Niksar.)

site of Basil's retreat center

4. Neocaesarea (Niksar)


In the mid-200s, Gregory Thaumaturgus (“The Wonder-Worker”) studied with Origin in Caesarea Maritime (Palestine) and then began his ministry in Neocaesarea, which is modern Niksar/Tokat. His miracles and evangelism led to large conversions in Cappadocia, which prefigured the Christianization of the region during the Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory had a large influence on Macrina the Elder, the mother of Basil and his siblings. A few Roman-era ruins remain in Niksar, including an arsenal and castle.


The above four sites are related to Basil. The other two sites became the namesakes of the two Gregories.


5. Nazianzos (and other Gregorian towns)


The historical geography related to Gregory of Nazianzos is complicated. He is associated with five small towns for which information is sparse because they did not survive past the 7C. They are all in the same area in western Cappadocia, around the Ihlara Valley/Aksaray.


Nazianzos was Gregory’s hometown, where his father was the first bishop. The city maintained a bishop for two centuries. Early travelers located Nazianzos at the sprawling ruins at Viranşehir (modern Helvadere), but that site is now identified at Mokisos, the city that Justinian built in the 6C as the capital of Third Cappadocia. Since William Ramsay, Nazianzos has been linked with the village of Nenezi (modern Bekarlar, opposite Nar Gölü), in which Roman remains are scattered about.


Gregory’s family had a large estate at Arianzos, where he was likely buried. This is usually located in the mountain valley near Sivrihisar above Gelveri. The nearby Red Church often gets associated with Gregory as a possible mausoleum due to the added burial nave. The church dates to circa 500 and was a pilgrimage site, so perhaps it housed Gregory’s relics.

Red Church, near Sivrihisar

The estate in Arianzos was near the ancient town of Karbala. This is usually identified as Gelveri, a 19C Greek town renamed Güzelyurt after the population exchange. Kilise Camii in the ravine below the town was a medieval church perhaps built over a late antique church, but it was heavily repaired in the 18C and converted into a mosque in the 20C.


Güzelyurt, ancient Karbala

These are the three main cities associated with Gregory, but two more also appear. For reasons of church politics, Basil appointed Gregory as bishop of Sasima, but Gregory was disillusioned by Basil’s political maneuvering and left after one year. Sasima is perhaps Hasanköy/Niğde. The town of Diokaisereia, also connected with Gregory, is likely Tilköy, near Derinkuyu.


map of Cappadocia, from Ousterhout article

For more about the cities of Gregory, see R. Ousterhout, “Searching for Gregory Nazianzus in Cappadocia,” in Image of the Byzantine World (Ashgate, 2011).


6. Nysa


Gregory (Basil’s brother) was the bishop of Nysa, which remained an important bishopric. Popular accounts identify it as Nevşehir, but this is not accurate. Nysa was between Ankara and Aksaray, now 1 km north of Harmandli/Aksaray, inside the north quadrant of the highway intersection (pin drop). The site consists of two tels with no visible remains.


Here would be my recommendations if you want to visit these sites.

  • Caesarea (downtown Kayseri) when flying in/out of Kayseri. Allow 2 hours to visit the castle and museum.

  • The sites of Basil’s families are located between Amasya and Tokat. Spend the night in Amasya (one of my favorite Turkish cities), then visit the sites the next day and end in Tokat.

  • You can visit Gregory’s towns on a day trip from Nevşehir. Güzelyurt (a charming old Greek town) and Red Church are worth an hour each. A 5-minute drive through Nenezi suffices. You can also hike through the nearby Ihlara Valley and Selime Castle to make it a full day.

  • Nysa is not worth a stop; view it as you drive by on the freeway.