Photos show Muslim Turks caring for ancient Christian cave churches


Ihlara Valley, Aksaray, Turkey

In Cappadocia, a region in south-central Turkey, a river carved a deep cleft in the mountains and left behind a network of caves in the soft stone. Over centuries, people who dwelled here farmed the rich valley and built homes into the cliffs, which could be easily defended. Early Christians carved and hollowed out their own edifices, where they could worship unimpeded and hide in times of persecution from the Romans. Over the centuries, other Christian communities laid claim to the cave structures and often embellished them with frescoes.

Two caretakers share a cup of tea inside a small hut that serves as a break room. A team of five to six workers maintains the churches.

Today, these beautiful, crumbling, rock-cut churches are looked after by local Muslim Turks, as seen in this photo essay. Some of them worked as cleaners and security guards in museums.

They are paid by the Turkish government to maintain the churches for the enjoyment of local and international visitors alike.  

Why We Wrote This

Whenever people of one faith appreciate and care for sites sacred to another religion, they’re expressing more than simple tolerance. They’re recognizing, and acting on, a sense of shared humanity.

“It does not feel like a mere job,” says one of the caretakers, Mustafa, who did not wish to give his last name. “I come here and enjoy the prestige and history of this place. It is sacred to me,” he says.  

“These are very ancient and sacred places,” says another caretaker, Ismail Genc. “Everything needs to be done with extreme diligence.”

Caretaker Ali Yilmaz cleans the inside of Yilanli Kilesi (The Serpent Church).

A tourist emerges from a doorway to one of the caves. The Ihlara Valley is a popular destination, although the pandemic has reduced the number of visitors.

Layers of compacted ash from the eruptions of several volcanoes in the area eroded over time, creating cliffs that are honeycombed with caves.

Ismail Genc, who is Muslim, is part of the team of caretakers of ancient Christian sanctuaries carved into cliffs In the Ihlara Valley of Turkey. He says, “We take pride in our diverse history.”

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