A Self-Guided Hike to the Hidden Byzantine Churches of Cappadocia
I got a taste of the hidden churches of the Cappadocia region on our first visit to Turkey in 2013 when we visited the Göreme Open Air Museum and the Selime Monastery. We returned the next year on a self-guided mission of Byzantine discovery, hiking the valleys for two days, admiring the surreal landscape and wandering into dozens of seventeen-hundred-year-old churches.
Kapadokya (Cappadocia) is a large region in Central Anatolia that encompasses the town of Göreme, where we stayed. It is considered one of the earliest centers of Christianity, with the apostle Paul visiting many times. The area thrived in the 300s under the leadership of the Cappadocian Fathers, who were Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianus. There are many, many churches and monasteries in the valleys of Cappadocia, as the area housed many anchorite communities founded under the instruction of Saint Basil. The landscape hid many of these chapels throughout the centuries, preserving them from political upheaval.
The most famous chapels are at the Göreme Open Air Museum, a monastic complex area consisting of at least 10 chapels that have been protected by the government, operating as a museum. Just outside the museum is the Buckle Church which has some of the best preserved frescoes of the region. However, there are chapels all over the valleys, and even if they aren’t well preserved, it’s still super exciting to be out on a hike and happen upon a Byzantine era church that you have all to yourself.
There are many valleys for hiking around Göreme, but the Red Valley and the Rose Valley have the best churches. The Soganli and Zelve Valleys are also great options to see churches but they would require driving to another town. For our two days, we decided to stay in the Red and Rose Valleys and we also visited the nearby towns of Çavuşin (pronounced Chavushin) and Uçhisar.
We started our hike from the road that leads to the Göreme Open Air Museum. There is a horse ranch on the right side of the road and a pottery shop on the left. That valley on the left (to the north) is the Rose Valley and leads to Çavuşin village, where you’ll find the St. John Monastic Complex from the 5th century. This is a huge complex that is open to roam freely, but can be very dangerous as the soft rock has caused a lot of collapsing in the walls and floors.
We hiked back to Göreme again through the Rose Valley and came upon a few churches. Basically, if you see a doorway carved into a fairy chimney, you should go check it out. We found many churches this way with remnants of paintings on the walls. Our hike to Çavuşin from Göreme took about 1 hour, and on the way back took a little longer as we explored the Rose Valley a bit. You should expect to spend about 4 hours on this hike. There may be random stalls set up in the valley with refreshments for sale but you shouldn’t count on it! Take the water you need for at least 6 hours as there is hardly any signage and it is very easy to get lost.
We rented an ATV and drove to Uçhisar to climb the Roman era rock-cut castle. This is the highest point in the region and can be seen from all the nearby towns. Entrance to the castle requires a 3TL admission fee. It’s much safer than St. John’s from the previous day with nice stairs leading to the top (still, be careful on these stairs as I slipped on the gravel and got a nasty bruise)!
After Uçhisar, we drove back to Göreme and back to the Red Valley to search for some churches I had read about and wanted to find. Haçlı Kilise (Cross Church) is in the Red Valley. Üç Haçlı Kilise (Three Crosses Church) is in the Rose Valley. There are some signs, but you really need to have a good sense of direction or you could very easily get lost and/or end up walking in circles.
Kolonlu Kilise (Columned Church) is another major church in this area that we didn’t get to see as we started running out of daylight. We still had the time of our lives driving and hiking around the area. I mean, where else can you stumble into Byzantine chapels like this, alone, for free?
If your Cappadocia visit doesn’t allow for a lot of free time, but you would like to see Byzantine era chapels, the Göreme Open Air Museum is definitely your best bet. You can also do a guided hike to some of the valley churches that we saw—a very good option if you don’t trust your sense of direction. They will take you to the best spots so you don’t waste any time retracing your steps. But if you have some free time to spend, and you prefer to be alone rather than in a group, and if you need something to do that’s free, then strap on your hiking shoes, grab your water and get out there!
Have you explored the Red and Rose Valleys? Did we miss any awesome chapels? We’d love to hear about your experience!