With our heads still firmly in the clouds after our epic hot-air balloon ride, we set off for a casual stroll to the Goreme Open Air Museum. It looks like it might rain, nevertheless, we take a chance because our trusty guidebook tells us that it’s a short walk from Goreme that shouldn’t take us more than fifteen minutes. Huh! Clearly the person who timed this walk was on a route march and never stopped to admire the views.
Say “museum” to me and I zone out, my mental picture is of dusty displays and long dry texts full of dates charting the history of the artefacts. Goreme Open Air Museum is definitely not a museum in the traditional sense, instead we find ourselves roaming around a vast rock-cut monastic complex of refectories, each with their own adjoining cave church or chapel.
We join a queue of pushy tourists off one of the many tour buses on a frenzied schedule to tick off as many places as possible before the lunch-stop. I hope that it will be worth the wait. Cappadocia was one of the first areas to embrace Christianity and the museum has some of the earliest Christian churches ever built. But, I half expect these cave churches to be dark, dingy dugouts with a rudimentary rock carved altar and a couple of Christian symbols.
Finally, it is our turn and we enter our first church. It’s astonishing and worth the wait! This is no mere cave dugout, it is a reverently designed space with arched vaulted ceilings and columns over a cross shaped floor. We find ourselves absolutely dumbfounded at the accuracy of the early builders who hollowed out these perfectly aligned spaces to the glory of their God. How did they do it?
But it is the beauty of the abundant frescoes that simply blows us away. At first, we are slightly overwhelmed. A quick consultation with our trusty guidebook serves as an aide-memoire to our childhood years of routine Sunday school attendance and we begin to recognise some of the frescoes that portray key events from the Christian Bible. Slowly, it dawns on us that the purpose of these frescoes is to instruct and encourage the congregation on matters vital to the welfare of their Christian souls.
Walking around this vast museum complex is like entering a time capsule of byzantine artistic endeavour. The older churches are decorated with uncomplicated images and symbols, and the same, but more complex and vibrant images and symbols adorn the walls of the newer churches.
Despite the museum curator’s best efforts, light pollution has, and will continue to destroy the frescoes, so for this reason they do not allow any photography inside the churches.
I am absolutely appalled at the number of tourists who believe that they are special and that this rule doesn’t apply to them. I watch as they attempt to take surreptitious photos, which let’s face it are going to be crap, and will never do the beautiful frescoes justice. I want to kick them in their sensitive spots and when they are lying on the floor writhing in agony say, “Buy a postcard, you selfish cretin! And protect these marvellous echoes of a community long gone.”
Phew, now that I have got that off my chest…
It has started to drizzle and we seek shelter in what is undoubtedly the most beautiful of all of the cave churches, the Karnalik Kilise or Dark Church. We ascend a dimly lit, narrow staircase that leads us deep into the heart of the hill, emerging in a shadowy dark room. High above us, a single tiny window provides the only light source. It takes a moment or two for or eyes to adjust to the apparent gloom, and when they do adjust, we are simply stunned… finding ourselves inside an astounding jewel box of brilliant frescoes that are simply breath taking in their simplicity, vibrancy and beauty.
It does cost extra to enter the Dark Church but is worth every Turkish lira and free if you have a museum card. On the plus side it is pretty empty, maybe we were lucky, and the rain sent the tourists scurrying back to their buses, but I suspect that insufficient time in their tour bus schedules and the extra cost deters them.
Every blog and website about Cappadocia will tell you that the museum is a must visit and they are so right! But on the down side, dealing with the steady stream of tour buses emitting mainly rude and grumpy tourists can be a bit much. But fortunately, we are in no hurry, we have no schedule to keep to, so we step back, find a bench and wait for gaps in the tourist herds.
In many ways they did us a favour, granting us time to take a deep breath and absorb our surroundings. It dawns on us that centuries ago, another couple might have sat together in this same spot, pausing for a break from their daily work. We speculate about them, an ordinary man and woman who once lived, loved and worked here, in support of those living a life of monastic piety in this remote and other worldly place, that is Cappadocia.
Good to know:
It is an easy stroll from the town of Goreme to the museum, it took us about half an hour, stopping to gawk at the landscape along the way.
It is worth buying a museum card. It is cheaper, you can access almost all of the historical sites in the area and you have the added bonus of avoiding long ticketing queues. You do still however have to go through the security check queue.
If you choose not to go on a guided tour do arm yourself with a good guidebook in Goreme. You can purchase guidebooks at the museum, but at a significantly higher price than in the nearby town of Goreme.
And, allow yourself time. We spent an entire morning roaming around the complex and don’t forget to take a water bottle with you.
Inside one of the caves, discretely tucked away at the back of the complex and somewhere near the top is a delightful coffee shop decorated with Turkish carpets and cushions. A welcome traditional brazier takes the chill out of the air. It’s a perfect place to reflect on what you have seen while sipping a muddy Turkish coffee.
Have you been to the Goreme Open Air Museum? What did you think? Drop me a line in the comments below.
DISCLOSURE: All photographs, experiences and opinions expressed in this blog post are my own.