The Cappadocia region of Turkey has become famous for strange looking rock formations. Yet Cappadocia is more than a quirk of geology, it plays an important cultural role in the early spread of Christianity. And any visit to Cappadocia involves a visit to the Goreme Open Air Museum.
Goreme lies in Central Turkey, downwind from the Mount Erciyes volcano. After the last massive eruption, hardened lava rock was left on the surface, with soft ashen rock below. Over the centuries, the ashen rock was eroded leaving strange rock formations. Locals call these fairy chimneys.
However, the soft ashen rock proved to be a godsend to the people of the region. It is easy to carve out caves from the ash rock. And that’s exactly what the people did: carving cave complexes that serve was homes, churches and now hotels. The churches that survive from this Byzantine period are some of the most unique in the world. And you find them at the Goreme Open Air Museum.
The Goreme Open Air Museum is a large collection of cave dwellings and early Christian churches in a shallow valley from the monastic period in the Christian tradition. Early Christians decorated their churches only in crosses, but did not include images of people. The churches at the Goreme Open Air Museum document this transition from strictly symbolic decorations to more literal imagery. Because of its importance to early Christians, Goreme, Turkey is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The highlight for me was the Dark Church with its stunningly restored frescos. I was able to be alone there for nearly 15 minutes before other tourists arrived. It is an impressive place to ponder.
After exploring the cave dwellings of the Goreme Open Air Museum, we recommend heading to Pasabag, or the Valley of the Monks. Nestled at the base of the mountain looking out across the plain in the direction of the town of Avanos, these are the mythic fairy chimneys of the postcards. If you see a picture of Cappadocia, it’s probably Pasabag. With giant mushroom heads, these fairy chimneys invite the obvious phallic comparisons, but if you can get past that, they are extremely picturesque.
The final stop on any visit to Cappadocia is the Zelve Open Air Museum. This valley stretches up the valley and the hike can be quite steep at times. The community of Zelve is more built up than Pasabag, but from a later period than Goreme. Zelve tells the story of the people of Cappadocia continued to adapt to their surroundings. The Zelve valley was inhabited until 1952 and it is amazing to think that people lived in these small cave dwellings.
The town of Goreme makes a great base for exploring Cappadocia, Turkey. The small town is tourism central and you can find vendors selling excursions, lots of restaurants and many hotels. If you are going to spend any length of time in Cappadocia, Goreme is more centrally located than Urgup and Avanos. Cappadocia can take a bit of effort to visit from the capital, but is completely worth it. And the Goreme Open Air Museum is the highlight of any visit to Cappadocia.
Cappadocia, Turkey Visiting Information
Goreme Open Air Museum
Located on Museum Road outside of the town center of Goreme. Hours are from April to October 8:00am-7:00pm and from November to March from 8:00am-5:00pm. Be sure to allow at least 2-3 hours for your visit. Admission is lira 20; the Dark Church requires a supplemental ticket of lira 8; parking is lira 6). There is a small café on site for any snacks or a light lunch.
Located on the road to Zelve (east of the main Goreme-Avanos roadway). The site is generally open during daylight hours. We read in guidebooks and heard from other travelers that there is supposed to a lire 8 fee for parking, but we couldn’t find anyone to pay and just walked right in. The roadway is lined with numerous concession stands selling all manner of Turkish food and also cheap souvenirs.
Zelve Open Air Museum
Take the Zelve road and follow the signs (it is well marked). The Zelve site is supposed to keep the same hours as the one in Goreme (April to October 8:00am-7:00pm and from November to March from 8:00am-5:00pm), however, some visitors have reported finding the site closes early. Admission is lira 10, plus another lira 2 for parking. There is a small café near the parking lot.
If you’re looking for other things to do in Cappadocia, be sure to take in a hot air balloon ride!