When we decided that we wanted to visit Cappadocia, Turkey, we knew that we wanted to stay in the town of Goreme for easy access to the Goreme Open-Air Museum. A one-mile walk from the center of town, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a must-see if you’re in the region and is a great way to pass a few hours, as we did yesterday. It’s a Christian religious complex with nunneries, churches, houses, dining rooms, kitchens and more that was built — or, in this case, carved — between the 10th and 13th centuries and has long since been abandoned.
The caves and fairy chimneys with carved-out rooms are certainly amazing, but you’ll find those throughout Cappodocia. What makes the Goreme Open-Air Museum stand out is its collection of rock-cut churches with well preserved Medieval frescoes which are known as the Painted Churches. While some of the decoration is a bit primitive, most of the murals are brightly colored and gorgeous.
The first Painted Church you’ll come across is Aziz Basil Sapeli (aka St. Basil’s Chapel). The frescoes in there are nice, but the ones we saw in nearby Elmali Kilise (Apple Church) are much better. St. Basil’s Chapel has an interesting interior — you can still see the graves. The best frescoes are in Tokali Kilise (Buckle Church). The oldest and largest of the churches, it happens to be outside the entrance of the museum, so you’ll need your ticket to get in.
Don’t get tricked into paying the 8 TL supplemental fee required to go into Karanlik Kilise (Dark Church) – that’s on top of the 15 TL you’re already paying for the Goreme Open-Air Museum. Supposedly it has the best preserved frescoes of any of the churches. They were certainly very nice, but they didn’t seem any better than Elmali’s or Tokali’s. Ironically, the lights went out while we were inside of the Dark Church, so it lived up to its name. The guard said we could come back in 30 minutes to see if the lights were back on, but we didn’t need to. None of the churches are very big.
The only reason to go into the Dark Church is if the other structures in the museum are really crowded, as I have a feeling that the fee must keep the visitors at bay. When we were at the Goreme Open-Air Museum yesterday, no part was crowded which made climbing around and exploring the nooks and crannies really fun. At times we were the only ones in the churches or in various rooms. (It was a sweltering hot Wednesday afternoon at 2 PM.) This added considerably to the atmosphere and made us feel like we were back in time — but with our digital camera, of course. What really makes the museum special is not the frescoes — I’ve seen plenty of religious art from that era in the Metropolitan Museum – but that you are able to view them in their original setting, which happens to be a spectacular one at that.