The most famous site in the region of Cappadocia is the Goreme Open Air Museum, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the first stop of the most visitors who visit Cappadocia and why not, it represents the history and evolution of the region. So, it can easily be said that your visit to Cappadocia is incomplete if you don’t visit his historic site.
Cappadocia is known for the cave churches and Goreme Open Air Museum has the best collection of ancient churches with frescoes and paintings. You can take an audio tour that guides you through the famous churches and cave houses.
The museum is located in the famous Goreme town. Just 1 mile away from Goreme city center. It’s just a 20-minutes walk from the town center to the museum. You can take a taxi as well. If you are coming from the town of Urgup, the distance is about 4 miles. The Zemi Valley Hike and the Meskendir Hiking Trail are within walking distance from the museum.
Exploring the museum is one of the best things to do in Cappadocia. If you take the audio tour, you can learn about the history of the churches and the lifestyle of the monks living in the monasteries in a better way. There are a lot of stops along the way and you will visit the sites in a numbered order and at each number, you can press the play button to listen to the audio explaining the historic fact related to that site, painting, or cave. You will have to pay for the audio tour, but it’s worth it.
The museum includes churches, dining halls, chapels, and sitting rooms, etc. You can see some ancient frescoes and paintings that are still in great condition. Some of the paintings date back to the 10th century, but as compared to the paintings at other sites of the region, they are in a better condition.
Located in the center of the Goreme, the museum has a short route and it would take you around 1.5 hours to visit the entire museum. So, even if you are visiting in the summer, it wouldn’t be a problem for you.
The museum is a vast monastic complex, with monasteries located next to each other, each having its own historic church. It gives an impression of a small cave city. It was declared as the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. The government of Turkey built roads, shops, and parking lots to preserve this site and allow visitors to access it easily. Many visitors just visit the sites within the museum and ignore the churches nearby. But, to better understand the history of the churches and the area itself you need to understand the geographical context of the Goreme Valley.
The museum is a small part of the valley and outside the museum, there are many chapels, refectories, and churches. There are around 60 churches in the valley and several other painted churches are also located near the valley, such as El Nazar Church, Ayvali Monastery, and Zindan Church. The huge number of churches indicates that the valley was the center of religious activities.
It was a burial location and had rock-carved tombs in pre-Christian Roman times. Then, small monasteries were formed by the monks around the 9th century. The monks were looking for an area, to protect themselves and worship freely and they found the perfect place. It was an ideal place for the monks who considered this region “sacred” because some prominent saints were buried there. They were able to construct cave houses and churches easily.
Soon, the area became populated with hermits and monks, and common Christians began to visit the churches and receive prayer. The high number of pilgrims played an important role in the development of the valley, but the decisive role was of the Buckle Church (Turkish: “Tokali” Church).
The Tokali Church was a simple dwelling of a monk, but in around AD 915 Old Tokali Church was constructed next to the dwelling. Then, the New Tokali Church was carved in 961 AD that had immense importance. The sacred apse in the old church was demolished, expensive blue pigments and real gold was used, and the whole church was painted. It’s not only the largest church in the region, but the most beautifully decorated church as well. Why did someone invest so much in this church? The reason could be that the old church became an over-crowded site, because of the presence of the holy monk. So, a rich patron decided to build a large and decorated church to facilitate the visitors and the monk. The New Tokali Church played a great role in making the valley a popular site for monasticism. It’s one of the oldest churches in the region, other painted churches were built 50-100 years after this church.
Based on the interior art styles, the churches can be divided into three categories: plastered, paneled, and basic.
The most beautiful churches fall into the first category i.e. they are fully painted. Dark (Karanlik), Sandal (Carikli), and Apple (Elmali) is an example of that. You can see paintings in the entire church. All three churches have a similar style, so it can be assumed that the same team built all three. The Dark Church was painted around 1000 AD and then the Sandal Church and Apple Church were painted by the same team. The Dark Church is similar in color and shape to the other two churches, but as compared to those two churches, its paintings are more accurate and detailed. You need to pay to enter the Dark Church, but it helps in the restoration of the paintings and it’s also less crowded due to the fee.
Five churches in the museum fall into the second category i.e. they have isolated panels on the interior. The five churches are St. Basil, St. Barbara, Snake Church (Yilanli), St. Catherine, and Pantocrator Church. The St. Basil church is dedicated to St. Basil, one of the most prominent religious figures in Cappadocia. The St. Barbara Church is located behind the Apple Church. If you head uphill, you will get to the Snake Church, where you can see frescoes that date back to the 11th century.
The walls of the churches were carved from rocks, with panel paintings. The most common image is St. Basil, followed by Saints Theodore and George. The five churches that lie in the third category are simple and plain with most of them being locked.
Today, the museum is the number one attraction in Cappadocia and it attracts around 3 million visitors every year.