I‘m standing at the bottom of a broad meadow where sheep and donkeys graze. Everything appears calm and in order. But it isn’t long before I realize that I’m in one of those places where the world seems fraught with surprises and mysteries. For a few paces ahead there is suddenly a crack in the earth’s surface, and I discover the 100-120 meter deep Ihlara Valley, bedecked with flowers, trees, a river, and frescoes!
Formed in the Quaternary, the Ihlara Valley is the serendipitous result for nature and history of the rifts and depressions that were created when the lava spewed out by a nearby volcano cooled down. And the Melendiz River that flows past the churches carved into the rocks all along the canyon is also a product of one of those tectonic depressions. Known in antiquity as the Potamus Kapadokus, or Cappadocia River, the river takes the name Uluırmak near Aksaray before emptying into the Salt Lake. In other words, it is a river that gives life to the region, to Ihlara in particular. Inspired by the meandering course of the Melendiz, the Ihlara Valley, 40 kilometers from Aksaray and 7 kilometers from the township of Güzelyurt, was dubbed ‘Peristremma’, which means ‘people of the winding river’.
CHURCHES CARVED IN THE ROCKS
Due to its geomorphological properties, the Ihlara Valley became an ideal place of retreat and worship for monks and priests in the early years of Christianity. And the many churches carved into the soft rock along its length lay bare before our eyes how the foundations of a religion were laid.
Thanks to its natural structure, Ihlara was eminently suited to serve as a secure and secret shelter, becoming an important monastic center from the 4th century onwards. As a place where new ideas and beliefs developed, this deep valley is therefore deserving of the epithet, ‘valley of deep thoughts’. The churches, precise dating of which is not possible, are in the form of single or double nave structures on the closed Greek cross plan.
The churches and shelters concealed on either side of the 14-kilometer long valley harbor not only the story of a religion but an art of decoration that commenced in the 6th century and persisted to the 13th. The churches in the region remained in use right up to the population exchange of 1924. Among them, the best frescoes are to be seen today in the Ağaçaltı, Eğritaş, Yılanlı, Sümbüllü, Direkli, Pürenliseki and Kokar churches.
EXPOUNDING A RELIGION THROUGH PICTURES
A picture is worth a thousand words and has been so since time immemorial. Since the days of hieroglyphics anyway… The frescoes on the rocks here at Ihlara were the best way of explaining the new religion to the people of many different language backgrounds who were just becoming acquainted with Christianity. Low literacy rates and the fact that Latin was not widely known made the spread of the new religion difficult. So, the monks and priests started depicting all the Biblical stories on the walls, ceilings and doors of the churches. While Biblical stories like the Birth of Jesus, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Flight into Egypt, and the Last Supper were first depicted in a rather linear and dry manner, as the centuries passed different styles melded together until a more sophisticated art of painting began to emerge. With fifteen of its one hundred original churches still intact today, the Ihlara Valley is therefore a place where history and nature intermingle.
THE IMAGES IN THE CHURCHES
Three hundred and eighty-two steps lead down into this deep valley. At the bottom stands the first church, the Ağaçaltı or ‘Church Under the Tree’, said to have been named for a tree that once grew here affording direct descent from above. The frescoes in this church, which dates to the 9th-11th centuries, include scenes from Revelation, as well as the Annunciation, the Birth of Jesus and the Flight into Egypt, the Baptism of Jesus and the Death of the Virgin. Christ’s Ascent into Heaven is depicted in the dome. The frescoes, which exhibit Syrian and Iranian influences, are very different from their counterparts in Cappadocia.
Another church in the same direction as the Ağaçaltı is the Pürenliseki Church, which takes its name from a variety of heather, ‘püren’, that grows in the vicinity. Consisting of four sections, it has frescoes depicting Biblical scenes such as the Prophesies of the Old Testament Prophets and from Ecclesiastes, as well as images of the Virgin Mary.
But the most interesting frescoes in the valley are those in the Yılanlı or Snake Church, so-named for its frescoes depicting four sinning women being attacked by snakes. This church is also the one most frequently visited. It built on a cross plan with a cradle vault and a single apse, has a chapel on its northern wall with the graves of monks. Images of the saints are depicted in the other parts of the church, as they are in the other churches in the valley.
FLOWERS, RIVER AND HISTORY
The Sümbüllü or Hyacinth Church, the Direkli Church near the village of Belisırma, and the Bahattin Samanlığı Church all date to a more recent period. Byzantine influence is immediately evident in the scenes depicted in their frescoes. The two-storey Sümbüllü Church, one of the largest in the valley, is so named for the hyacinths growing around it.
The 12th and 13th centuries were a period when Christianity had long since become the official religion, a period when countless churches were built and frescoes painted in Italy, Istanbul and Anatolia and a variety of different styles developed. Workmanship, refinement and mastery of detail, and use of color were at their peak in the years referred to as the ‘Imperial Style’, and these influences are also evident in some of the churches at Ihlara.
The Direkli Church, whose entrance faces the village of Belisırma, is built on a cross plan and rests on six natural pillars. Images of the saints are depicted in two rows on each of the columns of this monastery church. The images of the saints and the apostles are flanked by inscriptions in Greek.
Selime Cathedral and Eğritaş, Kale Manastırı, Kırkdamaltı, Karagedik, Kokar and Ala are the other churches in and around the valley.
If you climb back up the steps at Ihlara and have a look around the valley, you’ll be amazed first at nature and then, when you consider what you saw down below, at the humans who shaped this site. It is as if nature opened up a place within itself and then human beings came along and patiently worked their beliefs into the rocks. Forced to hide here for years living a life of seclusion, they laid the foundations of a new religion.
As we leave Ihlara, Hasandağ, the extinct volcano that is the real hero of the Cappadocia region, the giant fairy chimneys, and the vast and desolate geomorphological terrain where some scenes from ‘Star Wars’ were shot persuade us that Ihlara deserves to be far more than a minor detour on the usual Cappadocia tour.