Nearby Ihlara Valley the ancient rock-hewn Eski Gümüşler Monastery , about 10km east of Niğde, has some of the best-preserved frescoes in Cappadocia and is well worth a visit. The monastery was only rediscovered in 1963. You enter via a rock-cut passage that opens onto a large courtyard surrounded by rock-hewn dwellings, crypts, a kitchen and a refectory with deep reservoirs for wine and oil.
A small hole in the ground acts as a vent for a mysterious 9m-deep shaft beneath. The lofty main church has wonderful Byzantine frescoes painted between the 7th and 11th centuries. The charming Nativity looks as if it is set in a rock-caved structure like this one, and the striking Virgin and Child to the left of the apse has the elongated Mary giving a Mona Lisa smile – it’s said to be the only smiling Mary in existence.
About 45km southeast of Aksaray is Ihlara village, at the head of the Ihlara Valley. Once called Peristrema, the valley was a favourite retreat of Byzantine monks. Dozens of painted churches carved from the rock have survived and hikers can follow the course of the stream (Melendiz Suyu) as it flows for 16km from the wide, shallow valley at Selime to a narrow gorge at Ihlara village.
Because the valley is a bit far from main destinations you may consider joining one of the popular tours in Cappadocia to include this fantastic valley in your itinerary easily. Green Tour is a good option and another version of Green Tour with more Trekking is also possible.
It’s an unforgettable experience, thanks to the sea of greenery – alive with birds – hugging the banks of the stream at the base of this beautiful canyon. Many people visit on day tours I’ve mentioned above from Göreme. Especially good times to visit are midweek in May or September when fewer people are about. roughly midway along the valley, at Belisırma village, The presence of a swathe of restaurants along the riverbank means that you needn’t come weighed down with provisions.
There are four entrances along the Ihlara Valley. If, like most people, you only want to walk the short stretch with most of the churches, then enter via the 360 kneejarring steps leading down from the Ihlara Vadisi Turistik Tesisleri, perched on the rim of the gorge 2km from Ihlara village. Alternatively there are entrances near the Star Otel in Ihlara village (take the path behind it), at Belisirma and at Selime.
It takes about 2 and a half to three hours to walk from the Ihlara Vadisi Turistik Tesisleri to Belisirma, and about three hours to walk from Belisırma to Selime. You’ll need seven to eight hours if you want to walk all the way from Ihlara village to Selime, stopping in Belisırma for lunch along the way.
If you’re planning to walk all the way, it’s best to start early in the day, particularly in summer, when you’ll need to take shelter from the fierce sun.
Along the valley floor, signs mark the different churches. Although they’re all worth visiting if you have the time, the following list includes the real must-sees:
Kokar (Fragrant) Kilise This church has some fabulous frescoes – the Nativity and the Crucifixion for starters – and tombs buried in the floors. Sümbüllü (Hyacinth) Kilise This church is noteworthy not so much for its frescoes, or what’s left of them, but for its well-preserved, simple but elegant façade.
Many of the frescoes here are badly damaged, but it’s still possible to make out the fresco outlining the punishments doled out to sinners, especially the three-headed snake with a sinner in each mouth and the nipple-clamped women (ouch!) who didn’t breastfeed their young.
It’s a scramble to get to, but the views of the valley make all the puffing worthwhile. The frescoes are quite badly graffitied, but above the entrance you can see St George on a white horse, slaying a three-headed snake.
This church has some of the best-preserved frescoes in the valley. It’s named after a local who used to store grain here. Frescoes show scenes from the life of Christ, including the Crucifixion, Massacre of the Innocents and Baptism scenes.
This cross-shaped church has six columns, hence the name. The large adjoining chamber originally had two storeys, as you can see from what’s left of the steps and the holes in the walls from the supporting beams. There are burial chambers in the floor.
The monastery (hdawn-dusk) at Selime is an astonishing rock-cut structure incorporating a vast kitchen with soaring chimney, a church with a gallery all around it, stables with rockcarved feed troughs and other evidence of the troglodyte lifestyle. The admission price is supposedly included in the Ihlara Valley ticket. The entrance is just opposite the Ali Paşa Tomb (1317).