As most visitors to Cappadocia never get beyond the well-worn Nevşehir–Avanos–Ürgüp triangle, southern Cappadocia is far less charted and trampled. There’s a reason for its obscurity – the two major towns, Aksaray and Niğde, leave a lot to be desired as tourist centres, and much of the scenery is a depressing mixture of scrub or barren steppe. That said, the area does have its fascinations – most notably, the Ihlara valley, between Aksaray and Niğde, where the Melendiz River has carved a spectacular narrow ravine with almost vertical walls. Also easily accessible from Niğde is a small enclave of beautifully painted rock-cut churches belonging to the Eski Gümüşler monastery. South and east of Niğde, the spectacular limestone spires of the Aladağlar Mountains rear from the plateau, affording excellent trekking and climbing.
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At the valley’s southernmost point, the Ihlara village offers two separate entrance points to the valley. One is in the village itself, and the other at the Ihlara Valley Visitor Centre, a car park and information point around halfway along the main road between Ihlara and Belisırma. This latter entrance provides direct access to the area that holds most of the valley’s churches, via a precipitous but manageable descent of several hundred steps that plummet 150m to the valley floor. Walking from either village to this point offers a tremendous sense of solitude; easy trails run in both directions, each taking about one and a half hours.
The monastic occupation of the Ihlara valley, or Peristrema as it was originally known, seems to have been continuous from early medieval times until the fourteenth century. It would seem from the decoration of the churches, whose development can be traced through pre- and post-Iconoclastic periods, that the valley was little affected by the religious disputes of the period; the paintings show both Eastern and Western influence.
The most interesting of the churches are located near the small wooden bridge at the bottom of the steps from the visitor centre. A plan down here shows all the accessible churches, most of which are easy to find. To the right of the bridge, on the same side as the steps, is the Ağaçaltı Kilise (“Church under the Tree”). Cross-shaped with a central dome, the church originally had three levels, but two have collapsed, as has the entrance hall. The magnificent frescoes inside depict the Magi presenting gifts at the Nativity, Daniel with the lions (opposite the entrance in the west arm) and, in the central dome, the Ascension.
The Pürenli Seki Kilise – 500m beyond, 30m up the cliffside, also on the south bank – can be seen clearly from the river below, although its frescoes, mainly depicting scenes from the life of Christ, are badly damaged. Another 50m towards Ihlara, the Kokar Kilise is relatively easy to reach and showcases the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Flight into Egypt and the Last Supper in the main hall. In the centre of the dome, a picture of a hand represents the Trinity and the sanctification.
Perhaps the valley’s most fascinating church is located across the wooden footbridge, 100m from the entrance. The Yılanlı Kilise (“Church of the Snakes”) contains unusual depictions of sinners suffering in hell. Four women are being bitten by snakes, one of them on the nipples as a punishment for not breast-feeding her young. Another is covered in eight snakes, while the other two are being punished for slander and not heeding advice. At the centre of the scene, a three-headed snake is positioned behind one of the few Cappadocian depictions of Satan; each of its mouths holds a soul destined for hell.
Another church worth exploring is Sümbüllü Kilise (“Church of the Hyacinths”), just 200m from the entrance steps. Its attractive facade is decorated with horseshoe niches, while its badly damaged frescoes show Greek influence.