The Ihlara Valley (or Peristrema Valley) is a canyon which is 15 km long and up to 150 m deep in the southwest of the Turkish region of Cappadocia, in the municipality of Güzelyurt, Aksaray Province. The valley contains around 50 rock-hewn churches and numerous rock-cut buildings.
The canyon was formed in prehistoric times by the Melendiz River. It lies between the villages of Ihlara in the southeast and Selime in the northwest. At the north end of the village of Ihlara, there is a stairway with almost 400 steps, which descends over 100 m down into the canyon. From the 7th century AD, the valley was settled by Byzantine monks who dug their houses and churches out of the tuff stone, which had been deposited by the eruptions of Mount Hasan.
THE SACRED CANYON OF MONKS
Due to its geomorphological features, the Ihlara valley has been a suitable retreat and place of worship for monks and priests. The reasons such as the fact that it cannot be seen on the horizon line, the ease of access to water and the easy carving of the rocks have increased its preferability.
Aksaray has been an important religious center in the early years of Christianity. Sect founders such as Basilus of Kayseri and Gregorius of Nazianzos were born in the 4th century. They were also raised here. They determined the rules of a monastic life separate from the Egyptian and Syrian system. Thus, the Greek and Slavic system was born. The place of this new understanding was Belisirma. Gregorius put forward ideas that strengthened the views of the Nicaean meeting in the discussion of the deity of Jesus by bringing a new explanation to the belief in the trinity. Thus, he became a leading saint in the history of Christianity. The rocky region where Gregorius grew up (Belisırma, Ihlara, Güzelyurt (Gelveri)) became a group of churches carved into the rocks, in line with the monastery spirit. When the defensive fortresses in Hasandağı resisted the Arab raids, these churches continued to be active centers of worship.
Today, it is a touristic area in the middle of Asia Minor which offers a wonderful inspiring route for tourists and trackers. Byzantine and Seljuk eras could be followed. The area was the settlement of Byzantine monks for a long period and they have carved dozens of churhes and other sacred places in the rocks. When Byzantine Empire is over and Seljuk Turks started to rule the area, they didn' interfere the population in the canyon too much on cultural and religious aspects. Possibly, this approach helped the sacred areas remain protected untill today.
Due to the valley's plentiful supply of water and hidden places, this was the first settlement of the first Christians escaping from Roman soldiers. In the Ihlara Valley there are hundreds of old churches in the volcanic rock caves. The best-known churches are Ağaçaltı Church with cross plan, Sümbüllü Church, Pürenliseki Church, Kokar Church, Yilanli Church, Karagedik Church, Kirkdamatli Church, Direkli Church, Ala Church, Kemerli Church and Egritas Church.
Churches located along the valley can be divided into two groups:
The murals of the churches close to Ihlara have an eastern influence, far from the Cappadocian art.
The areas near Belisirma are decorated with Byzantine type wall paintings.
The number of inscriptions known from the Byzantine Period in the Ihlara Region is quite low.
The Seljuk Sultan II. Mesud (1282 -1305) and Byzantine emperor II. There is an inscription on a 13th century fresco containing the names of Andronikos.
This inscription proves the existence of the tolerant administration of the Seljuks, who held the region in their hands. Among the churches whose history has been determined:
Pillared Church (976-1025) Pürenli Seki Church belongs to the beginning of the 10th century and the 12th century. It belongs to the years of Saint Georges (1283-1295). The Dark Castle Church is dated to the 10th-11th centuries. In the middle of the 10th century, new churches were built in the Ihlara region after the Byzantines recaptured the Taurus and Cilicia regions.
Bahaeddin Samanlığı Church, Hyacinth Church, Mast Church, Examples of Byzantine art in the early 11th century:
Ala Church, Canli Church, (Akhisar) Karagedik Church, Some Byzantine type paintings were added to the old churches later on.
This behavior ends with the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century.
But the religious life in the region continues. The church life in the region ends with the population exchange in 1924.
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