The Ihlara Valley and the Churches of the Ihlara Canyon

A hike through the canyon is an opportunity to see the Cappadocia of more than 1,000 years ago. Only 49km (30 miles) south of Nevsehir, the austere landscape of the Ihlara Valley splits open to reveal a 15km (9 1/3-mile) fissure created by the force of the Melendez River. In contrast with the scenically dusty expanses of the rest of Cappadocia, the bottom of the canyon, nourished by the riverbed, is verdant with vegetation supporting village life much as it did centuries ago. Local women wade along the banks of the river, their traditional baggy trousers trailing in the river's edge as they do the day's washing.

As residents are drawn to Ihlara's canyon fertility, so were the earliest Christians: The canyon is home to over 100 churches and an estimated 4,000 dwellings sculpted into the soft rock face of the valley.

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The canyon descends over 90m (295 ft.) in some places, twisting and turning at the beckoning of the river along wide trails lined with poplars and pistachio trees or narrowly navigable paths. There are a number of official entry and exit points along the canyon, past modest yet viable troglodyte villages. Official entry and exit points at the villages allow for either full-day or abbreviated hikes, but you should leave time for detours to the area churches and to pet the donkeys tied to a tree along the river's edge.

The most common starting point to a hike into the valley is the southern entrance near the village of Ihlara, down an endless man-made serpentine stairway 400 steps to the bottom. About 3.5km (2 1/4 miles) away, over sometimes-rough terrain, is the village of Belisirma, an ancient center of medicine before Selçuk Sultan Kiliçarslan II transferred the school to Aksaray. The process of mummification was extensively practiced in this part of the valley; a mummy of a woman found here is on display in the Nigde Archaeological Museum.

The churches, some of which are difficult to reach, date from the 8th or 9th century while the decorative frescoes date to a later post-Iconoclastic period, somewhere between the 10th and 13th centuries. The styles of the churches are generally grouped into two categories: those with an Egyptian or Syrian influence mainly found around the main entrance, and those reflecting a typical Byzantine style bunched around Belisirma.

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The first church encountered at the bottom of the steps from Ihlara is Agaçalti Kilisesi, or the Church Under the Tree, also known as the Church of Daniel or the Church of Pantassa. Designed on a Greek cross plan, the interior, which has succumbed quite a bit to the elements, may appear a bit primitive at first, but a closer inspection reveals a strong Eastern influence, visible through the use of checker patterns, medallions, and rosettes. An interesting detail is in the depiction of the Nativity; notice that the Magi are seen dressed in Phrygian-style caps. The scene of the Dormition of the Virgin recalls the mosaics of St. Savior in Chora in Istanbul, with a depiction of Jesus holding the soul of Mary in the form of an infant.

Other churches in the vicinity of the Ihlara entrance and worthy of note are the Pürenli Seki Kilisesi (the Church with Terraces), and the Kokar Kilisesi (the Church That Smells!), both to the right of the steps as you descend into the canyon.

Considered the oldest church in the valley, the Egritas Kilisesi (the Church with the Crooked Stone) was probably a funerary chapel. The vaulted chapel has a single apse and a burial chamber below, much of which has been damaged by erosion and rockslides. The badly decaying frescoes, depicting scenes from the life of Christ, are distinctive for a style that recalls Eastern pre-Iconoclastic art.

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On the other side of the river over a wooden footbridge is the Yilanli Kilisesi (Church of the Serpents). The church is named for the scene on the western wall, showing serpents in the act of punishing four female sinners. Women as the source of evil is a common Eastern theme taken up by later monks, and in this case, the representations probably symbolize the sin of adultery, disobedience, and slander. The most graphic of the punishments shows the fourth female sinner with two snakes biting her nipples, probably for her failure to feed her children.

Back on the left bank of the river heading in the direction of Belisirma is the Sümbüllü Kilisesi (The Hyacinth Church), distinctive for its ornate facade of pillars and arched niches carved directly into the rock. A set of steps leads up to the church, passing the wild growths of hyacinths that give the complex its name. The church is actually a monastery complex hollowed out of the cliff; there are spaces for both living and worship. The few surviving frescoes include a well-preserved Annunciation and a Dormition.

Kirk Damalti Kilisesi (the Church of St. George), one of the latest of the region, is interesting from a purely social aspect. A portrait of the donor, a female in Byzantine dress, is pictured with her husband, a man in typical Selçuk costume. The inscription reads: "This most venerable church . . . decorated through the assistance of the lady Thamar, here pictured, and of her Emir Basil Giagoupes, under his Majesty the most noble and Great Sultan Masud at the time when Sire Andronikos reigned over the Romans." It is thought to be an expression of Christian gratitude for the religious tolerance of the Selçuk Turks and dates the church to the late 13th century.

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Taking on the Ihlara Valley -- The main entrance to the valley is a little over 1.6km (1 mile) north of the village of Ihlara, allowing entrance to the main gate leading to the long stairway down. The cliff walls are dotted with churches and abodes on both banks of the river, with most of the sites of interest clustered around the wooden footbridge at the base of the main entrance and over near the village of Belisirma. The 3.5km (2 1/4-mile) hike from the main entrance to the village of Belisirma is a relatively easy one, and many people choose to have lunch at the restaurant near the riverbed and call it a day. It's also possible to begin the hike at the village of Ihlara following the left bank of the river, adding on about 3km (1 3/4 miles) to the total. The shorter hike takes about 1 1/2 to 2 hours, depending on your level of fitness, while a hike up the entire canyon will take about 5 hours.

If you come by private car, you'll probably have to leave it in the parking lot at the main entrance, which doesn't do you much good way over at the opposite end of the canyon in Belisirma or Selime. An easier way is to take a guided tour; this will make seeing the valley a whole lot richer, giving you the background information necessary to appreciate the rock churches, rather than taking just a lovely walk through the gorge. Not to be overlooked is the bonus of having someone waiting for you at the end of the canyon, thus saving you the long hike back. (You can also hike up and out to the main road and catch a rare dolmus back to the main entrance.) Guides are expensive, though, so if you've got the stamina, then by all means, go it alone.

It's a 1 1/2-hour drive from central Cappadocia to the Ihlara Valley. From central Cappadocia, follow the road through Nevsehir, to Aksaray, and then to the village of Ihlara. The traditional hike begins at the main entrance about 1.6km (1 mile) outside the village. It is not advisable to take a dolmus (the only choice for public transport), because doing so will require three separate dolmuses plus a taxi from the village of Ihlara to the entrance to the valley.

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Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.