The dramatic Ihlara Valley gorge, cut by a small stream (the Melendiz Suyu) through the volcanic Cappadocian landscape 45 km (28 miles) southeast of Aksaray (map), holds about 60 Byzantine churches, chapels, monasteries and hermits’ caves dating from the 11th to 13th centuries.
Come to the Ihlara Valley, once called Peristrema, as much for the scenery and the hike as for the churches, which are small and mostly semi-ruined. The best way to visit the valley is on a day-trip excursion which includes one of the Underground Cities, the mountain town of Güzelyurt, and the Seljuk Turkish caravanserai of Ağzıkarahan near Aksaray. More…
The valley has four approaches (map):
2. Ihlara Valley Touristic Installations (Ihlara Vadisi Turistik Tesisleri), the visitor center with car parking, ticket booth, restaurant, toilets and souvenir shop high on the valley’s western wall 2 km north of Ihlara village;
3. Belisırma, a village about 4 km north of Ihlara village on the east side of the valley;
4. Selime, the village at the northern end of the valley, 16 km (10 miles) north of the southern end.
Most of the churches are located between Ihlara Villageand Belisırma. If you don’t mind stairs, you can see the most churches in the shortest time by entering from the Ihlara Valley Touristic Installations by descending the 360 steps, spending a few hours hiking and looking at churches, then re-climbing the steps (one to three hours).
That’s 720 steps in all. Your knees may never forgive you!
An alternative is to descend the steps, see the churches, then hike south to Ihlara Village to meet your driver (two to four hours).
Or you can start from behind the Star Hotel in Ihlara Vlllage and walk north all the way to Belisırma (five to six hours). Here’s what you’ll see:
Curved Stone Church (Eğritaş Kilisesi)
In quite poor condition.
Fragrant Church (Kokar Kilise)
Good frescoes of New Testament scenes, including the Nativity and Crucifixion.
Dark Castle Church (Karanlık Kale Kilisesi)
A large monastery complex with minimalist decoration.
Hyacinth Church (Sümbüllü Kilise)
A monastery church, the facade if which is in particularly good condition, and the paintings in a finer style than those of the nearby Tree Church.
Snake Church (Yılanlı Kilise)
Named for a fresco showing a three-headed snake torturing sinners, the many frescoes—some quite gruesome—are in vivid colors and more oriental in style.
Pine Needle Terrace Church (Pürenli Seki Kilisesi)
More New Testament scenes, including the Annunciation to Mary, the Magi (Wise men), Jesus’ nativity, his entry into Jerusalem, the crucifixion and burial.
Church Beneath a Tree (Ağaçaltı Kilise)
A domed church with abstract decoration reminiscent of the Iconoclastic period, located near the bottom of the long stairway (360 steps) up the steep canyon wall to the Touristic Installations.
Coming from Ihlara Village, you reach the Church Beneath a Tree and the stairway after about two hours’ walking.
Another 2-1/2 to three hours’s walk north brings you to Belisırma. If you have a car and driver, the driver can meet you there, but only after you’ve passed these churches:
Church of the Dark Breach (Karagedik Kilisesi)
Kırk Damalı (or Dam Altı) Kilise (Church of 40 Checkers/Roofs)
Also called the Church of St George, it features a badly damaged fresco of St George slaying the dragon (a three-headed serpent). On either side of St George are Basil Giagupes, a Greek minister of the Seljuk Turkish Sultan Mesud II, and Basil’s wife Thamar, who paid for the frescoes. The church is thought to have been built between 1283 and 1295.
Church of Bahattin’s Straw Rick (Bahattin’in Samanlığı Kilisesi)
Mr Bahattin stored his straw in this small church which has vestiges of older 9th-century decoration.
Church with Columns (Direkli Kilise)
So named because of its three apses separated by columns. Decoration is from around the year 1000.
Highest, or Spotted, Church (Ala Kilise)
With a cross-in-square floor plan, the church was decorated probably in the 11th century, and bears some Iranian influence.
To walk the entire valley, you’d continue north from Belisırma for another two or three hours past the Selime Monastery (now thought by some to be a Byzantine mansion) to Selime, a long day’s hike, about seven or eight hours in all.
If you’ve come from the underground cities and Güzelyurt on the day excursion, your next stop is the AğzıkarahanSeljuk Turkish caravanserai. Go north from the Ihlara area toward the Aksaray–Nevşehir highway (map). The Agzikarahan is 16 km northeast of Aksaray on the old highway which runs parallel to the new one.
Distances & Driving Times (from Ihlara Village)
Aksaray: 45 km (28 miles) W, 45 minutes
Derinkuyu: 80 km (50 miles) E, 1.5 hours
Göreme: 120 km (75 miles) NE, 2.25 hours
Güzelyurt: 14 km (9 miles) E, 15 minutes
Kaymaklı: 90 km (56 miles) E, 1.75 hours
Nevşehir: 110 km (68 miles) NE, 2 hours
Selime: 16 km (10 miles) N, 20 minutes
Ürgüp: 133 km (83 miles) NE, 2.5 hours
—by Tom Brosnahan
|Excursion: Underground Cities & Ihlara|