This history-rich, 14 km gorge is a testimony to incredible human resilience, tenacity and courage powered by faith. And a haunting account of Christian survival in the face of Roman persecution. Sixty churches and monasteries, some over 1600 years old, are carved into reddish gray volcanic rockcliffs along with dwellings. The valley stretches from Selime Monastery (west) to Ilhara Village (east). The twisted fairytale-like poplars hugging the cliff base are lovely in Spring, and you’ll also see blooming pistacho trees, vineyards and farms along the swift-rushing Melendiz River. It’s about 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes’ drive from Goreme, Uchisar or Nevsehir .
It’s not to be missed for anyone interested in the history of Western civilization. Its a cool way to explore cave churches in the wild, unlike the manicured and sterile Goreme open air museum. BUT be warned that all the lovely frescoes and murals are incredibly damaged, almost viscously so, as they are within easy reach. I found it dispiriting and couldnt bring myself to take photos at the worst of the vandalized paintings.
Its a pleasant hike as the area is lush compared to other arid cave churches locales, ranging from short 2 and half hour to over five hours. Most important to note when planning the duration of the hike, is to choose between four entrances to this massive park/route. Checkout the map (west at the top; east at bottom).
You can pick and of the group tours on offer but I advise a private tour or hire a driver to take you to any one entrance, dropping off at one and picking up at another entrance (depending on churches you want to see and length of hiking you want to do) then driving onto lunch at Belisirma village and onto spectacular Selim Monastery and you have time, hit the charming town of Guzelyurt. You can make this part of a a full day tour – first touring Derinkuyu Underground City for two hours, driving 40 minutes to Ihlara etc. for an additional five to seven hours.
The entrance and ticketing offices from east to west –
- Ihlara Village Entrance (on the right of map below)
- Ihlara Vadısı Turistik Tesisleri is the second Ihlara entrance,
- Belisirma Vilage
- Selime Entrance (on far left of map)
The most popular and crowded entrances are the second Ihlara and the Belisirma because most of the important and striking churches lie between them. Tour buses drop off and pickup at either end and stop at Belisirma village as a charming lunch venue. If you want quietude, use at the other entry ticketing offices. Note that the least rewarding and longest hike is between Belisirma and Selime.
Ihlara Village Entrance is a 3.2km (two hour’s) walk to the second Ihlara entrance. Major churches located here –
- Curved Stone Church (Egritaş Kilisesi)
- The walls of Fragrant Church (Kokar Kilise) are filled with frescoes – Mary’s Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, Last Supper, and Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial. Facing the entrance, there is a door leading to a burial chamber.
- Dark Castle Church (Karanlik Kale Kilisesi) is a large, austere monastery
- Hyacinth Church (Sumbullu Kilise) another monastery church has a better preserved facade
- Snake Church (Yilanli Kilise) is named for its graphic depiction of a three-headed snake torturing sinners.
- Pine Needle Terrace Church (Purenli Seki Kilisesi). It’s a climb up to the chapel but worth the hike as every spare inch of the nave is heavily frescoed with themes of the new testament. Saints are portrayed in a Mediaeval manner while their clothing is reminiscent Muslim Syrians and Persians of the 10th century.
- Church Beneath a Tree (Agacalti Kilise) – A domed church at the bottom of the stairs at the second ticket office. Also known as St Daniel’s or Pantassa Church, its frescoes are strikingly different from the Byzantine and Cappadoccian styles. free-flowing and an almost child-like hand. The church is named for the image of St Daniel among the lions, opposite the entrance. The influence of the late Roman Empire lends an eastern portrayal to its saints’ garb.
The second Ihlara entrance has has 300 steps to the bottom of the gorge. From here to to Belisirma entrance it is 3.7km (two and a half hours’ walk). Important churches in this section of the hike –
- Church of the Dark Breach (Karagedik Kilisesi)
- Church of St George (Kirk Damalti Kilisesi) built around the late 13th century features a Byzantine influenced frescoes, including one of St George slaying a three-headed dragon.
- Church with Columns (Direkli Kilise) was built in the late 10th century and named for the columns between its trio of apses. The frescoes are also Byzantine.
- Frescoes in High Church (Ala Kilise) , or Mottled Church, date back to the 11th century
More on History of Ihlara
Ilhara’s monasteries and dwellings carved out of volcanic rock represent the first Christian settlement in Cappadocia during fourth century. The valley became a religious center for early Christianity and some of the greatest theologians – Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus – studied here. Early Christians settled in these secluded areas to avoid persecution by the Romans, and this valley was an especially ideal location, providing ample water and refuge. The earliest churches were built in the Roman era, more were established later in Byzantine period and even during the Muslim Seljuk rule of the region. The frescoes detailed in the churches fall roughly under two influences. The ones around Belisirma are Byzantine while those closer to the Ihlara ticketing entrances are in the unique Cappadocian style. The interior walls and ceilings of many are painted with colorful biblical frescoes and the lives of saints, using natural dyes.
Belisirma Village is great for a lunch riverside with charming, cushioned pontoons over a rushing river. The food is reasonably priced, tasty and quick at any of the restaurants. Then head off to Selime Monastery
Fascinating Selime, at the western end of Ihlara valley, is a sprawling fortress and monastery complex with a warren of cave dwellings that you can explore at your own risk. It’s the largest religious building in Cappadocia. Built in the 8th and 9th centuries, it was a leading seminary for clergymen as well as a military center. Representing the conflict and rich culture of the region, Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks and Ottomans occupied the edifice.
For something hollowed out of rock with primitive implements, it’s size jaw-dropping. Two grand rows of columns divide the cathedral building into three sections. Unfortunately, its more elaborate frescoes are obscured by soot of Turkish families using the space as a kitchen while the older, simpler frescoes are still visible. Separate monks’ quarters, kitchens and a stable are on either side of the cathedral. Warning – the climb up to Selim is steep and treacherous, with a nasty narrow section.
Amazingly, camel caravans of traders climbed all the way up to the monastery as a safe stopover. Walls and trenches in the upper structure clearly shows its military function. You can walk winding, steep rock stairways and passages to the upper level – some are hard to find but persevere for stunning views. Its the coolest jungle gym for history buffs….
Guzelyurt, is one of the most authentic towns in Cappadocia. It’s 15 minutes’ east of Ihlara and should be your first stop if you’re coming from Derinkuyu, but I advise stopping here last as the other sites above are more historically significant. This scenic place has a poignant history. Greeks founded the town, naming it Kaballa, in the Ottoman era and they prospered as goldsmiths and farmers. But the ancient ommunity was forcibly repatriated after WWI, while Muslims from Greek towns of Kastoria and Kozan settled here in the exchange, renaming it to mean Beautiful Home. But it remained underpopulated with many buildings left empty which served to retain their original appearance. The government has passed laws to preserve this.
Visit the Church of St Gregory of Nazianzus, which has been converted to Büyük Kilise Camii (the Great Church Mosque ).