Suitcase and World: The Göreme Open Air Museum.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Göreme Open Air Museum.

Painted frescoe in Karanlık Kilise (or the Dark Church) built in the 11th century.

fter we had settled into our room at the Kelebek Pension, we headed out for the Göreme Open Air Museum which is a complex of 10 painted cave-churches and chapels carved out by Orthodox monks between 900 and 1200 AD.

From Kelebek, we instinctively headed down the head towards the village of Göreme - about a 10 minute walk. Göreme itself is a very cute village - only about 2000 residents and given that it's in the heart of Cappadocia, there's really not much tourist infrastructure, not even an Information office. You do have the usual complement of souvenir shops and restaurants serving overpriced Turkish food but at it's heart, it's a Turkish village going about its daily life. After the chaos of Istanbul, the relative peacefulness of Göreme was a welcomed break.

In the center of town is the Roma Castle (Roma Kalesi) a fairy chimney with a rock cut Roman tomb. Oddly, you see the column tops but not the bottoms.

From town, it's about a kilometre or so walk to the Open Air Museum. The cones and pinnacles of volcanic tuff that dotted the landscape along the way were so unusual, it's difficult to describe with words.

Along the way, we passed horsemen and horses galloping in the Kiliçlar Valley also known as the "Valley of the Swords" for the jagged formations that seem to slice into the sky. I thought to myself - horseback - what a wonderful way to explore the landscape.

....and I saw my first dovecote. Pigeon manure is commonly used as agricultural fertilizer in Cappadocia and so area farmers carve out these holes into the cliff walls to encourage pigeons to inhabit them so they can gather the bird droppings. We moseyed along on our walk, snapping lots of photos, so it was nearly an hour before we arrived at the Museum.

Once we arrived at the Museum, we bought our tickets and proceeded on the marked path to visit each of the churches and chapels.

Because the churches and chapels are carved into caves high up, there's a lot of climbing to do. Sometimes, there's a metal staircase and other times, just notches in the soft stone. Ceiling heights are often very low and passages between rooms narrow - you have to scrunch down a lot!

Some of the spaces also served as living quarters. Slabs of stone served as tables, niches carved into cave walls as sideboards and holes cut into exterior walls served to ventilate smoke.

The decoration inside most of the churches and chapels was very simple and modest - painted or carved crosses. Small niches were often carved out to provide a surface for holding food, candles and religious objects.

Then we came to the Dark Church(Karanlık Kilise) which was built in the 11th century and is so named because it had few windows to let the light in. As a result, the richness of the paint pigments has been preserved over the centuries. History has it that until the 1950s, the Dark Church was used as a pigeon house and that it took 14 years of scraping pigeon droppings off the walls to uncover the frescoes which depicting scenes from the New Testament. Laid out in the shape of a cross, the church even has vaulted ceilings - reminiscent of a Byzantine cathedral. The church itself occupied a relatively small cave but it was so stunning - just amazing that this has been preserved for 10 centuries!

After left the Dark Church, we continued to wander through other churches and chapels and even a convent that housed nuns. Then we came to the Church with Sandals (Çarikli Kilise) which takes its name from the two imprints on the floor inside the entrance. As with the Dark Church, the Church with Sandals is carved into a simple cross plan with vaulted ceilings. The frescoes are also from the 11th century and depict the Nativity, the Baptism, the Adoration of the Magi, and other New Testament themes. What spectacular art work!!

The Göreme Open Air Museum is a sizeable complex - I think it took Lei and I nearly two hours to make our way through it. This museum is unlike any that I've ever visited and is truly a heritage treasure worth a visit to this part of the world. I know that there are still a few churches that I did not get to see. All the more reason to pay a return visit someday :-)