Zelve is an open valley with a large cave settlement. The small area has fifteen Byzantine-era cave churches and remained a Turkish village until 1960. Today, Zelve is an open-air museum open to the public.
The Zelve Open Air Museum is located 5 kilometers south of Avanos, here on Google Maps. You drive straight up to the entrance gate, which has a small gift shop and several cafés. Entrance is 20TL/person (in 2020), and free with a MüzeKart. Zelve is just 1 kilometer east of the Paşabağı Open Air Museum, whose famous fairy-chimney hermitages are also worth a visit.
Zelve makes for a great destination. Nice walking paths lead you to the main churches. The 2-kilometer walk through the Y-shaped valley offers chances to explore various cave rooms and to enjoy Cappadocia’s stunning terrain. Picturesque cones and enchanting caves line the two ravines. The fallen rock provides a cross-section view of the rooms.
Compared to the Göreme Open Air Museum, the Zelve churches are not well-preserved, so far fewer people visit. This means it can be far more pleasant. If you visit in the morning, you might enjoy the park all alone. Spring is the best time to visit, as the flowers are in bloom and birds soar above.
Zelve was a Byzantine-era settlement. The oldest churches date to the 500s. Cappadocia has only a few such sixth-century churches, but half of them are concentrated at Zelve. We have no documents or external history about Zelve, so the architectural style is our only clue for dating.
Most likely, Zelve was a small troglodyte village in Greco-Roman times, and was then Christianized by Greek-speaking Romans in the fourth and fifth centuries. The area’s Roman/Byzantine name is unknown.
The function and nature of the Byzantine community are hard to determine. Throughout the site’s long history, many rooms have been repurposed, and many areas have collapsed. Besides the churches, there is a noticeable lack of form spaces. The area has no courtyard residences or large halls, and so has no sign of an elite social class. There are no remaining refectories or monks’ cells to suggest a monastic function. Most rooms were carved without any planning or architectural elements; they are plain and functional. The many dovecotes and winepresses suggest that Zelve was a simple agricultural village. For sustenance, people cultivated the fields at the valley opening.
After the Byzantine era, Zelve became a Turkish village in the Ottoman empire. The community inherited and expanded the carved spaces. The Turks even built a rare rock-cut mosque and centralized cemetery. They converted some of the churches into agricultural spaces, but left most of them untouched.
In 1951-2, the families of Zelve resettled in Aktepe, a newly built village 1 kilometer to the northeast. The falling rock and collapsing rooms became too dangerous for human living. The breaking point occurred when rock collapsed onto visiting guests, killing an eleven-year-old girl. At that point, village leaders decided to relocate the residents and built traditional homes, for which the Turkish government provided assistance.
In the 1960s, Zelve became an official open-air museum and a UNESCO World Heritage site. To enhance Zelve’s allure and draw more tourists, the official narrative of Zelve became exoticized—this was an ancient monastic community with monks crawling through cave holes.
The official museum does not narrate the Turkish history of Zelve, which lasted some eight hundred years. Such traditional lifestyles have no place in Turkey’s new national identity, defined by progress and development. According to the new narrative, Turks are modern and civilized, not cave-dwellers. Ironically, visitors walk blindly through this “forgotten” Turkish history to enter the official museum. The cafés and shops just outside the museum are operated by Zelve’s past residents and their families. Now, they make a living by offering basic services—i.e., fresh juice, a public toilet, touristy trinkets—to foreign tourists who are visiting this historical museum, which is their former home. For more about this modern history, see “Tourism and the Loss of Memory in Zelve, Cappadocia.”
Zelve has fifteen Byzantine-era cave churches, though half are in poor condition. The several sixth-century churches are notable for the rock-relief decorations carved into the side walls. However, most of the Zelve churches date to the ninth and tenth centuries—the period when most Cappadocian churches were built. None of the churches dates to after AD 1100. Therefore, there is no (architectural) indication that Byzantine Christians and Ottoman Muslims lived together in the village.
Several features characterize the churches at Zelve. Compared to other Cappadocian churches, the churches at Zelve, in general, have:
fewer graves, so they were not funerary chapels,
split naves, which each segment decorated differently,
few multi-color icons painted on plaster; rather, they are decorated mostly with rock-cut and ochre-painted crosses, and
an early, often sixth-century, date.
The numbering system for the churches is unclear. The first researcher (i.e., Jerphanion in the early 1900s) found and identified six churches, and so named them “Zelve Church No. 1,” “Zelve Church No. 2,” etc. Subsequent researchers have found more churches, and so have named them 1a, 5a, 5b, 5c, etc., based on their proximity to the named churches. Two churches on the road to Avanos were named 7a and 7b. Here is a quick description of the churches. The main churches have separate posts.
Church 1, a single-nave chapel with many relief crosses, is halfway to Paşabağı.
Church 2 (Holy Cross Church), a large 6C hall with a side funerary chapel, is up the east ravine.
Church 3 has collapsed, but was part of the cone in the middle of the park.
Church 4 (Grape/Fish Church), a large double-aisle 6C basilica church, is east of the gate.
Church 4b, a finely-carved cruciform chapel, is on the ridge above Church 4.
Church 5 (a and b), two destroyed churches, lie at the head of the east ravine, above the so-called “Column Church,” which is actually a Seljuk/Ottoman-era animal stable.
Church 6, a single-nave church with carvings, is outside the park behind the stands.
Church 7 (a and b), single-nave churches with unique shapes, lie on the road toward Avanos.