Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia

“In a spectacular landscape, entirely sculpted by erosion, the Göreme valley and its surroundings contain rock-hewn sanctuaries that provide unique evidence of Byzantine art in the post-Iconoclastic period. Dwellings, troglodyte villages and underground towns – the remains of a traditional human habitat dating back to the 4th century – can also be seen there.” (www.unesco.org)

The Goreme National Park (Open Air Museum) and the rock sites of Cappadocia were classified by the UNESCO in 1985. Under continuous human occupation for at least 16 centuries, Goreme has a rich cultural heritage. Human dwellings were carved out of fairy chimneys and exposed cliff faces between the 4th and the 13th centuries AD to form churches and other chambers, which served as refuges, residences, and places of worship.

The Open Air Museum is essentially a monastic complex of rock churches and chapels covered with frescoes. The abundance of churches in the area indicates Goreme’s importance as a religious center rather than an agricultural settlement. By the end of the 2nd century, there was a substantial group of Christians in Cappadocia, mainly centered around Kayseri and Malatya. Many hermits lived in the rock dwellings, surviving off of the charity of the monks and of those who respected their lifestyle.

Though Goreme had been a large monastic settlement since the 9th century, most of its churches were built between the 10th and 13th centuries, during the Byzantine and Seljuk periods. Only one church dates back to the 6th-7th centuries.

Many of the churches are built in the shape of a cross, with a central cupola supported by four columns. You can see many cut-rock tombs in the churches. The bedrooms, kitchens (with their chimneys and still-black ceilings), refectories (eating rooms with long stone benches and tables carved out of the rock), and storerooms all indicate a monastic lifestyle.

The frescoes in the rock churches are varyingly primitive and monochrome or elaborate and polychrome. Most of the designs in the 11th-12th century churches are geometrical designs and crosses painted in red ochre on bare rock or plaster. The ochre was made from vegetable roots. The majority of Goreme’s churches are small, single-room affairs.

The golden period of Byzantine art is found in the pillared churches of the 11th century, when the churches were painted in the so-called “aristocratic” style, differing from the rest of the churches in religious theme and architecture.

The most interesting churches are the Yilanli (Serpent) Church, which shows the damned entwined in serpent coils and the killing of a dragon by the Cappadocian saints Georgius and Theodorus, and the St. Barbara Church. The latter is dated by some to the Iconoclastic Period (725-842 AD), which prohibited the drawing of images. There are, however, some very faded frescoes of the Virgin Mary and Saint Barbara. But most of the designs in the church are extremely primitive, so much so that they look as if they were drawn by young children. There are a lot of stick crosses painted in red ochre on the ceilings and walls, and signs like triangle, columns, medals, and unidentified animals. It is hypothesized that these designs were drawn by the first rock carvers to protect themselves from ill omens. There is the drawing of a turtle, which symbolizes good luck; a rooster, which symbolizes alertness and the betrayal of St. Petrus; and the drawing of a grasshopper moving towards a cross, which is thought to symbolize the christening of various peoples. Because the meaning of these mysterious symbols is quite obscure, this church remains the most disputable.

We visited the Open Air Museum on our last day in Cappadocia. Considering that we had already visited the Ihlara Valley and its rock churches, we weren’t as impressed with the Goreme Museum. Perhaps mostly because it was a museum, which meant that there were paved walkways and metal staircases to reach the churches, metal grills to cover the graves and to keep you from falling through holes in the floor, and large groups of tourists. It was less natural than in Ihlara, where you had to climb over boulders and up mountains to see the churches, wade back and forth across the rocky river, where you could find musty caves and cobwebs, where you needed a flashlight to see in some of the churches, where you had to watch your step so that you didn’t fall through a hole in the floor down to the next level, and where you could find a mass grave full of old bones.

That being said, the Open Air Museum is still impressive because of the way the churches and monasteries blend harmoniously into the landscape. The sheer number of churches in such close proximity (an average of a 30-second walk between churches) is impressive. The ochre-toned frescoes of the Byzantine churches reflect the natural hues of the surrounding landscape.

The most direct threat to the natural and cultural heritage comes from Nature herself. Nature has created the environment, and man has contributed to it, but Nature also continues to change the environment and slowly destroy the cultural “residue” as new formations are created and rock settlements collapse because of wind and rain erosion.

Work has been undertaken to conserve the natural and cultural merits of the site. “The area was established as a historical national park in order to protect and develop the national and cultural elements of the area for scientific and aesthetic reasons. The protection of identified important areas is achieved by land-use zoning and by restriction and regulation of building and the preservation of traditional values. Management of Göreme depends greatly on the indigenous population maintaining traditional agriculture and lifestyles. The master plan proposes only nominal disturbance of the traditional pattern of life of the present day park residents.” (www.unesco.org).

It is harder today to convince people to retain traditional lifestyles and agricultural activities when, since the 1980’s, tourism has become one of the principal economies of the region. The Goreme National Park receives, on average, over 600,000 visitors per year.

The most serious difficulty, however, is the serious damage caused to the churches and paintings by water erosion, which is staining and damaging a number of chapels. Natural erosion and earthquakes add to the damage, and collapsing walls and falling rocks are not uncommon in the more remote areas of the park.