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Architectural Survey of the Byzantine Settlement at Selime-Yaprakhisar in the Peristrema Valley, Cappadocia, Turkey

Veronica G. Kalas, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Project Grant 2004–2005


The aim of this project is to obtain primary documentation from the Byzantine settlement in and around the Turkish villages of Selime and Yaprakhisar. These villages are at the northern opening of the Peristrema Valley (also known as the Ihlara Vadisi or the Melendiz Suyu Vadisi), located in the province of Aksaray in western Cappadocia. This is a non-intrusive architectural survey focused on measuring, drawing, and photographing all the standing and visible architectural remains from the Byzantine period. Fifteen rock-cut courtyard complexes are carved into the volcanic rock at Selime and Yaprakhisar, and a fortification wall is built on top of Selime's high limestone plateau. Most of this material is unpublished and documented here for the first time. The 2004 survey continued work from the 2003 survey of the same settlement. I have published preliminary articles on my research in Cappadocia and plan to publish the full documentation from this survey in a forthcoming book entitled House and Society on the Byzantine Frontier. All drawings and photographs will be used toward a fundamental reevaluation of Cappadocia's art and architecture from the middle Byzantine period (9th to 11th centuries AD). I also hope that this work will contribute toward the preservation of the material remains from the Byzantine period in present-day Turkey.

Cappadocia in the medieval period bordered on the Byzantine, Arab, and Transcaucasian cultural realms and thus presents one of the most intriguing and historically dynamic provinces along the shifting boundaries of Byzantium's eastern frontier. Ever since European travelers and explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries came upon Cappadocia's peculiar landscape of volcanic rock formations, scholars interpreted Cappadocia as an area of monastic settlement during the medieval period. In the twentieth century, researchers focused on the paintings found inside the region's numerous rock-cut churches. Because monasteries were known to attract the most devout in Byzantine society, and Byzantine painting is mainly religious in content, a direct correlation between paintings and monasteries emerged. Cappadocia continues to be regarded as a land of monasteries as scholarship on the region maintains its focus on painted churches. My work concentrates on architecture and the wider physical environment in which Cappadocia's churches can be placed. I offer a secular and residential interpretation for many of the region's rock-cut settlements, including the relatively large example at Selime-Yaprakhisar. This settlement is especially significant for our knowledge of Byzantine domestic architecture and secular use of space, which is otherwise poorly documented and understood.

At least fifteen courtyard complexes are carved into the volcanic rock at Selime and Yaprakhisar in the Peristrema Valley, the most fertile river valley in western Cappadocia. Each complex includes a variety of rooms, such as churches, halls, kitchens, and stables, arranged around courtyards. Most of the churches remained unpainted. Several funerary chapels throughout the settlement are not attached to any complex and are located at the outer limits of the settlement, to the north and to the south of the main concentration of rock-cut residences. These residences once belonged to the region's landed, military aristocracy of the tenth to eleventh centuries AD. The masonry fortification wall built on top of Selime's high limestone plateau supports this interpretation and demonstrates that Selime was once a strategically sited military installation, although its medieval name remains unknown. When the Byzantine Empire regained its eastern territories after the devastating Persian and Arab invasions of preceding centuries, powerful Byzantine magnates and their families settled Cappadocia. They secured the region and integrated it back into the empire. Though these historical events are well known, the actual settlements that provide the material evidence for this dynamic process have only recently being investigated.

Selime Kalesi

Selime Kalesi is the largest and most elaborate complex in design and decoration of all the examples recorded thus far in Cappadocia. It is the most important structure at Selime-Yaprakhisar and provides substantial evidence for understanding the region as a frontier zone occupied by powerful magnate families of the tenth to eleventh centuries AD. The complex is carved into the volcanic rock cliff at Selime, 50 meters above the level of the river valley and 100 meters below the limestone plateau and the fortification wall. From the high elevation of Selime Kalesi at the northern entrance to the Peristrema Valley, the entire settlement can be surveyed while the entrance to the valley can be guarded. At Selime Kalesi, rooms are arranged around two courtyards. A large kitchen, two ceremonial halls, a bathing area, and a basilica church are among the most important examples. These interior spaces, together with the outdoor courtyards, spread out 3,000 square meters within the rock. Our goal has been to record this structure before it collapses and disappears.

Preservation Concerns

The entire cliff at Selime will subside in its entirety within our lifetime (Adil Binal, "Investigation of the Instability Mechanisms Observed in Volcanosedimentary Rocks at Aksaray-Ihlasa Valley," Master's Thesis, Hacetteppe University, Ankara, 1996). The cliff at Selime erodes on a daily basis, and Selime Kalesi will eventually collapse together with the cliff. New cracks throughout Selime Kalesi continue to appear every year. In addition, the number of visitors to Selime has steadily increased over the past few years, and they have caused much of the damage at Selime Kalesi. Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent the natural erosion of Selime's cliff; however, it is possible to regulate the manner in which tourists visit the site and treat the monument. I offer some suggestions to help in preventing further harm.

In 2003 we observed that visitors willfully damaged Selime Kalesi by writing their names on the walls of the complex and especially on the church where Byzantine paintings are preserved. These graffiti contribute to the structure's erosion and spoil its aesthetic appreciation by tourists and specialists alike. In 2003, I suggested that the guards who have been placed at the entrance to the valley and who sell tickets to tourists change the position where they stand. During the day they stand at the bottom of the valley near the tunnel that leads up to the complex. If they were to stand above, where the complex is located, they could pay greater attention to visitors and advise them not to touch the structure.

In 2004, we observed that the gallery areas on the upper level of Hall One are structurally unstable and will soon collapse. While we worked at Selime during the high summer tourist season, we noticed about 60 or 70 visitors daily to Selime Kalesi. These visitors walk randomly around the complex, and in particular they enjoy wandering into the gallery area because of its intriguing design. The structure was not originally meant to hold the weight of so many people, and we believe that the large crowds have caused most of the damage to the gallery. As a safety precaution for visitors and as a preservation strategy for the structure, people should not be allowed to enter the gallery. There are two entrances to the gallery. If iron gates or grilles were erected at these two doorways, then no one would be able to enter the unstable area. These entrances can easily be blocked. It is a simple and inexpensive solution for an important preservation and safety problem at Selime Kalesi.

Survey Work and Results

During the 2003 survey, we measured and drew a state plan of Selime Kalesi and the fortification wall that is built directly above it on the high limestone plateau. During the 2004 survey we measured and drew sections of the major spaces of the complex using a theodolyte and a digital camera. A hand-held laser distance measurer was also used. These drawings include two sections each of the following: Kitchen, Hall One, Hall Two, and Church. For the second hall and the basilica church two-dimensional digital photogrammetry was implemented together with the more traditional method of measuring sections. With these section drawings we offer an understanding of the structure in dimensions additional to those provided in plan. In fact, Cappadocia's complexes have never been documented before in elevation. Eventually these measurements may be used to generate a three-dimensional model of Selime Kalesi.

In addition to measuring and drawing the complex, I have kept a detailed notebook of important observations about the structure that may help to reconstruct its original shape. Observations include where the structure appears to have been carved in a secondary phase of use, and where rock-cut furnishings are located. With these notes, I hope to assess the original function of each room and the manner in which the various spaces relate to one another and to the complex as a whole. This year we were particularly interested in noting cuttings on the rock surfaces around the entrances to various spaces. These cuttings on the walls, floors, and ceilings around doorways show that wooden beams, now lost, were erected as frames for installing wooden doors. Additional cuttings throughout the complex show evidence for other kinds of lost wooden furnishings, like shelves in niches or grilles to block windows. This year we also recorded systematically the number, kind and size of tandır (a type of oven structure, or heating device) found carved on the floors of rooms throughout the complex. Tandır are still used today in Cappadocia for both heating and cooking. At Selime Kalesi it is difficult to determine which examples belong to the original, Byzantine phase of the complex and which to subsequent phases of reuse. Finally, in three different rooms (4, 12, and 22) of the complex we have found four examples of a rectangular pit with a seat to one side carved into the floor. Post-holes for erecting a wooden frame appear on either side of the pit and along the wall at the back of the pit. These features belong to the original phase of the complex and appear to have been pit-looms, where a frame is erected above the pit and the weaver sits in the pit to one side. These features provide substantial material evidence for household production of textiles in Byzantium, a subject that has not been documented or studied very well. These observations on the original fittings of Selime Kalesi contribute to our understanding of the form and function of a middle Byzantine aristocratic house. They may also help in the future to generate a reconstruction model of the complex.


Yaprakhisar is located across the river from Selime and to the south. In a massive volcanic rock outcropping that resembles the one at Selime we have recorded five rock-cut courtyard complexes (Yaprakhisar 10–14). Yaprakhisar 13 was left unfinished and provides evidence for the working methods of the medieval carvers. Yaprakhisar 12 is badly eroded and difficult to record. Yaprakhisar 10, 11, and 14, however, exhibit well preserved, sculpted façades on the courtyard wall that leads into the main hall of the complex. These façades at Yaprakhisar 10, 11, and 14 display their ful1 lengths and heights. They are monumental in scale (13, 17, and 21 m. long, about 10 m. high) and are the most spectacular examples of façades recorded thus far in Cappadocia. The original façades of most other complexes in Cappadocia have collapsed, so that only interior features remain. The examples at Yaprakhisar offer a rare glimpse into Middle Byzantine architectural elevation that is non-ecclesiastical.

For each façade, a series of superimposed registers display two types of layouts. At Yaprakhisar 10 and 11, pilasters divide the registers into an odd number of bays, and blind niches decorate each bay. At Yaprakhisar 14, a blind arcade consisting of an odd number of arches decorates each register. The principal entrance into the main hall of each complex is placed in the central bay or central arch of the lowest register of the façade, so that the façades are designed in exact symmetry. The style and execution of Yaprakhisar's façades point to sources and influences from architectural traditions of the Islamic Near East, which is central to the discussion of the cross-cultural context of Cappadocia during the medieval period.

Preservation Concerns

At Yaprakhisar, local villagers use the courtyard complexes from the Byzantine period for dwelling and for storing produce, hay, and farming equipment. The façades suffer not only from natural erosion but also from re-carving by the local population for the purpose of installing doors and locks. The interiors of these complexes are almost entirely destroyed because of reuse over time. Only the exposed areas of the courtyards have thus far been accessible for exploration and recording.

Survey Work and Results

In 2003, we recorded the façade at Yaprakhisar 11 by using the technique of two-dimensional digital photogrammetry to generate a measured elevation drawing. In 2004, we continued this process by recording the façades at Yaprakhisar 10 and 14. Because the façades at Yaprakhisar are designed in exact symmetry, the measured drawings obtained from this survey can be used easily and accurately to generate reconstruction drawings of each example. It is the first time a select group of Cappadocia's rock-cut façades has been accurately measured and systematically recorded.

Additional Work Plans of Churches, Courtyards, and Utilitarian Rooms; Digital Photography of the Various Complexes; Additions and Corrections to Site Diagram

In 2004, our priority was to record the sections of Selime Kalesi and the additional façades at Yaprakhisar. This work lasted approximately one week. During the second week of the survey, we recorded other parts of the settlement. We were able to make several additions and corrections on the Selime-Yaprakhisar Site Diagram by visiting all areas of the settlement. We photographed, with a digital camera, all fifteen complexes that have been previously recorded only in slides and black and white prints. During the last days of the survey, we recorded in state plan the following structures:

  • Three churches to the north of Selime
  • A utilitarian room named Ambar Oda near Selime Kalesi
  • The Derviş Akın Kilise associated with the area around Selime 4
  • Two churches at Gullukkaya 6
  • One church at Aleydinbasi 9
  • Kitchen at Yaprakhisar 11
  • Courtyard of Yaprakhisar 13

Aerial Photograph and Site Map

During my time in Ankara before and after the site survey, I obtained an aerial photograph and a survey map of the Peristrema Valley from the Department of Maps of the Turkish Military Service. This aerial photograph is scaled at 1:40; the survey map is scaled at 1:25 and includes survey lines that indicate changes in surface elevation at every 10 m. By combining the photograph with the survey map we have produced a kind of site map for the settlement. This is a valuable addition to the documentation of Selime-Yaprakhisar. The Site Diagram I have produced is not scaled and is designed to show in a readable fashion the make-up of rooms for each complex and the location of each complex relative to one another in the settlement. Measured distances between the complexes and their relative elevations, for example, are not shown in the diagram.

The aerial photograph includes the area of Selime-Yaprakhisar, and the fortification wall is clearly visible, located on the plateau above Selime. We used the measured drawing of the fortification wall to re-scale the aerial photograph so that it matches the survey map at 1:25, and the area around Selime-Yaprakhlisar is shown in greater detail. We then superimposed the survey lines from the map onto the photograph so that the resulting image shows all landscape features of the settlement together with the survey lines at 10 m. changes in elevation. We can now place each of the complexes of the settlement onto this site map. In this way, we have generated a kind of site map that shows measured distances between the complexes and their relative elevations in the landscape.


The 2004 survey completed the immediate and necessary work for recording the most important parts of the site. Full results of the 2003 and 2004 survey will be published in my forthcoming book, House and Society on the Byzantine Frontier. For the moment, I do not intend to return to the site for additional work. For a fuller, illustrated report, see DOP 60 (2006).