One of Turkey’s World Heritage Sites, the Göreme Open-Air Museum is an essential stop on any Cappadocian itinerary and deserves a two-hour visit. First an important Byzantine monastic settlement that housed some 20 monks, then a pilgrimage site from the 17th century, the cluster of rock-cut churches, chapels and monasteries is 1km uphill from the centre of Göreme.
From the ticket booth, follow the cobbled path until you reach Aziz Basil Şapeli , the chapel dedicated to Kayseri-born St Basil, one of Cappadocia’s most important saints. The grate-covered holes in the floor were the graves of the chapel’s architects and financiers; the small boxes contained less-affluent folks’ bones. In the main room, St Basil is pictured on the left; a Maltese cross is on the right, along with St George and St Theodore slaying a (faded) dragon, symbolising paganism. On the right of the apse, Mary holds baby Jesus, with a cross in his halo.
Above Aziz Basil Şapeli, bow down to enter the 12th-century Elmalı Kilise (Apple Church), overlooking a valley of poplars. Relatively well preserved, it contains both simple, red-ochre daubs and professionally painted frescoes of biblical scenes. The Ascension is pictured above the door. The church’s name is thought to derive from an apple tree that grew nearby or from a misinterpretation of the globe held by the Archangel Gabriel, in the third dome.
Byzantine soldiers carved the Azize Barbara Şapeli (Chapel of St Barbara), dedicated to their patron saint, who is depicted on the left as you enter. They also painted the mysterious scenes on the roof – the middle one could represent the Ascension; above the St George representation on the far wall, the strange creature could be a dragon, and the two crosses, the beast’s usual slayers. The decoration is typical of the iconoclastic period, when images were outlawed – red ochre was painted on the stone without any images of people or animals.
Uphill, in the Yılanlı Kilise (Snake Church or Church of St Onuphrius), the dragon is still having a bad day. To add insult to its fatal injuries, it was mistaken for a snake when the church was named. The hermetic hermaphrodite St Onuphrius is pictured on the right, holding a genitalia-covering palm leaf. Straight ahead, the small figure next to Jesus is one of the church’s financiers.
The museum’s most famous church, the stunning, fresco-filled Karanlık Kilise (Dark Church), is definitely worth the extra outlay. The supplementary fee is due to its costly renovation, and an attempt to keep numbers down and preserve the frescoes. One of Turkey’s finest surviving churches, it took its name from the fact that it originally had very few windows.
Just past the Karanlık Kilise, the small Azize Katarina Şapeli (Chapel of St Catherine) has frescoes of St George, St Catherine and the Deesis.
The 13th-century Çarıklı Kilise (Sandal Church) is named for the footprints marked in the floor, representing the last imprints left by Jesus before he ascended to heaven. The four gospel writers are depicted below the central dome; in the arch over the door to the left is the Betrayal by Judas.
Downhill, the cordoned-off Rahibeler Manastırı (Nun’s Convent) was originally several storeys high; all that remain are a large plain dining hall and, up some steps, a small chapel with unremarkable frescoes.
When you exit the museum, don’t forget to cross the road and visit the Tokalı Kilise (Buckle Church), 50m down the hill towards Göreme. Covered by the same ticket, it is one of Göreme’s biggest and finest churches, with an underground chapel and fabulous frescoes painted in a narrative (rather than liturgical) cycle. Entry is via the 10th-century ‘old’ Tokalı Kilise, through the barrel-vaulted chamber with frescoes portraying the life of Christ. Upstairs, the ‘new’ church, built less than a hundred years later, is also alive with frescoes on a similar theme. The holes in the floor once contained tombs, taken by departing Christians during the population exchange.