This is the time of year when the parking lot beside the Göreme Open-Air Museum starts to fill up with tour buses as the crowds flock to admire some of Cappadocia’s finest frescoed churches.
Over in Zelve, however, a second open-air museum attracts far fewer visitors even though it offers three valleys’ worth of fine rocky scenery and an intriguing glimpse at what was once a full-on troglodytic lifestyle. On the way there you can also visit the roadside church at Çavuşin and the dramatic fairy chimneys at Paşabağ.
Zelve Open-Air Museum
Tucked away out of sight off the main road from Avanos to Göreme, Zelve was until 1952 a living community where ordinary people went about their daily life, grinding bulgur at the seten (mill), pressing grapes for pekmez (molasses) in the şaraphane (winery), rearing pigeons for their fertilizing manure in the güvercinliks (pigeonhouses) and bedding their animals down for the night in the cave-cut ahırs (stables). In that sense it was always a very different place from what is now the Göreme Open-Air Museum, which was a religious settlement inhabited by Byzantine monks and nuns, and was only unofficially lived in in later years after the population moved down the road to what eventually became Göreme village.
A newly laid path winds its way through the three valleys of Zelve with signs pointing out the otherwise easily missable evidence of the old lifestyle hidden away inside the caves. Don’t miss the millstone that would once have been turned by donkeys, nor yet the winery with a large niche in which the grapes would have been trodden, a hole in the corner allowing the juice to drain into jars set up beside it.
Zelve was not without its monastic community, which is thought to have lived in the area marked by three huge arched recesses in the third valley. They are currently roped off for safety reasons, which means, sadly, that you won’t be able to inspect one of the huge rolling stones that used to be used to close off tunnels from intruders as in the underground cities. The recesses overlook what used to be Zelve’s main square. Not surprisingly this has a small mosque to one side. From the outside this looks as if it was built conventionally out of locally quarried stone but if you peek inside you’ll see that the back part is cut straight out of the rock, as is the dainty little mihrab.
For those keen on seeing some of Cappadocia’s famous rock-cut churches, Zelve has a few tricks up its sleeve, including the Balıklı ve Üzümlü Kilise (The Church of the Fish and Grapes) in the first valley and easily recognizable by the damaged frescoes of angels over its entrance. Inside the grapes look suspiciously like giant strawberries, and the fish keep a very low profile. The same cannot be said of the prominent carved and painted crosses on the walls of the Kutsal Haç Kilisesi (Holy Cross Church) in the second valley. Finally, in the third valley the Direkli Kilise (Columned Church) has largely collapsed so that it looks more like a cave than a church.
For children, Zelve will seem like one giant adventure playground with endless holes to pop in and out of and lots of space in which to run around. Of course there’s still some risk from rockfall as attested by a pile of recently tumbled boulders in the third valley. What was once a dark and scary tunnel that ran from the third valley into the second, emerging abruptly on a ledge, has also been closed, presumably for safety reasons.
The clues to an all but lost way of life at Zelve may be intriguing, but many people will probably come away with just as vivid a memory of the site’s peaceful beauty with knobbly rock formations topping the steep sides of the valleys and great views opening out towards Avanos from on high.
As you turn off the road from Avanos towards Zelve you will see to the left-hand side of the road a single unusually square fairy-chimney rock formation that it’s easy to imagine is a highwayman lurking in wait for his prey. Shortly afterwards a clutter of souvenir stalls signal your arrival in Paşabağ (the Pasha’s Vineyard), which boasts some of the most striking conical rocks in all of Cappadocia.
In the Zemi Valley behind the Tourist Hotel in Göreme the most famous and most photographed fairy chimneys are undeniably phallic-shaped. At Paşabağ, however, they come in all shapes and sizes, many of them double or triple-headed so that they resemble weird monsters from an episode of “Doctor Who” that you could almost imagine sprouting arms to snatch you as you walk past.
Here, too, there is a rock-cut church dedicated to St. Simeon, one of those strange medieval holy men who spent much of his life perched on top of a pillar. It hunkers down amid smooth-sided rock walls covered with a top layer of rock that looks almost as if someone had run a cheese wire along it ready to lift a slice onto a plate.
Don’t leave without noticing the office of the local Jandarma (police), housed inside a fairy chimney, of course.
Leaving Zelve and Paşabağ, you will probably be heading for Avanos or Göreme. On the road to Göreme it’s worth stopping to admire the Church of St. John the Baptist right beside the road at Çavuşin and clearly visible because its façade has fallen away, leaving two huge frescoed archangels on display.
The church at Çavuşin has breathtaking frescoes covering its walls and barrel-vaulted ceiling. Many of the stories they depict will be familiar to Christian visitors since they show the events of Jesus’ life. Worthy of note, however, are the line-up of soldiers that run along the bottom of the north wall. They represent some of the unfortunate 40 Martyrs of Sebaste (Sivas) who were supposedly driven out onto an icy lake to freeze to death after refusing to denounce their Christianity.
Poet John Ash’s wonderful travelogue “A Byzantine Journey” has more to say about this many-named church, which is known to locals as the Great Pigeon House but is also called the Church of Nicephorus Phocas. In 964 the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus Phocas paid a visit to Cappadocia, which lay on the frontline between his empire and the encroaching Arab world, and the northern apse of the church is decorated with portraits of the emperor and his lovely but scheming wife Theophano. A picture of a man on horseback may well depict not one of the military saints George, Demetrius and Theodore, who often appear on the walls of Cappadocian churches, but Phocas’ nephew and killer, John Tzimiskes.
As Ash describes her “a figure wrapped in the smoke of rumor and slander,” Theophano had previously been married to the Emperor Romanus II and had become empress at the age of 18. A few years later her husband died, leaving her regent for a son aged just 6. Theophano quickly asked Nicephorus Phocas, an ugly but successful Anatolian warrior, to marry her, but the alliance turned into a disaster, with Phocas alienating everyone who mattered. In 969 he was murdered by his dashing young nephew Tzimiskes with whom Theophano is believed to have been in love. Sadly for her, Tzimiskes then bowed to pressure from the Church and, instead of marrying her, exiled her to what is now Büyükada in İstanbul.
Inland from the church Old Çavuşin, abandoned like Zelve for safety reasons, is now a third open-air museum, an entire rocky ridge of old cave houses with, hidden in amongst them, a second Church of St. John, huge, soot-stained and decorated with sturdy pillars. It makes a fitting place to end a tour of this corner of Cappadocia.
WHERE TO STAY
Green Motel, Çavuşin. Tel.: 0 (384) 532 70 50
Turbel Cave Hotel, Çavuşin. Tel.: 0 (384) 532 70 84
Village Cave Hotel, Çavuşin. Tel.: 0 (384) 532 71 97
There’s a wider choice of hotels
and pensions in Göreme and Avanos.
HOW TO GET THERE
Every two hours a bus links Avanos with Ürgüp and vice versa, passing through Paşabağ on its way to Zelve. It transits Çavuşin, which can also be visited using the hourly buses between Göreme and Avanos.