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Açık Saray, Fatih Mahallesi, Gülşehir/Arapsun, Nevşehir. October 2021; December 2023.

Açık Saray is an open settlement with nine prominent courtyard complexes and fifteen cave churches, all carved into the volcanic landscape. This large Byzantine site was developed around A.D. 1000. Korat states that the monastic settlement was active in 6th century, but lost its importance in the 10th century when the religious center of gravity shifted to Göreme. The complexes are near the small creek running through the valley, about one kilometer before the large Kızılırmak (Halys River of the ancient).

The main complexes are three-sided courtyards with similar plans. The elaborate façade, decorated like multi-story architecture with multiple levels of horseshoe niches, is visible and impressive. The monumental architecture projects status and power. Internally, most complexes follow a T-shaped pattern with two formal spaces—a horizontal vestibule behind the façade and then a perpendicular main hall. Other side rooms are smaller and less decorated. Most courtyards have functional spaces, such as dovecotes, kitchens, and/or horse stables.

Inside, above the main entrance of Area 1 complex, there is a relief of a pair of fighting bulls. Their heads are missing because of a window that was opened on the wall. The presence of the bull motif in Açık Saray (the only known example in all of Kappadokia) hints at the Hittite influence. Bulls were sacred by the Hittites, as well as the neolithic cultures of Anatolia. The courtyard complexes are similar in design. This indicates that they were built contemporaneously some time in the 900s. However, the complexes are not identical. The carver-architects creatively adjusted the standard plan to the local topography in each instance. The courtyard complexes are in close proximity on the west side of the creek.

Besides the prominent courtyards, the settlement has fifteen churches. Three of the churches are within a courtyard complex (Areas 3, 5, and 8), but the others were carved into isolated cones along the northern and southern boundaries. Most churches are small and unpainted, so they were noticed only recently.

Burial graves, often scattered and sporadic, dominate Kappadokian settlements such as Göreme Valley and Soğanlı Valley. However, at Açık Saray, more than fifty burial graves appear in one centralized cemetery, located on the bluff above Area 3.

There are no written inscriptions or documents that shed light to the function and purpose of the settlement. Architectural forms provide the only hints. Researchers have offered many interpretations for Açık Saray. Certainly, Byzantine Christians occupied this area around A.D. 1000. In light of the abundance of prestigious courtyard complexes, Açık Saray was not a standard community, such as a village or small town. There have been four main proposals.

Until the 1980s, scholars identified Açık Saray, like most Kappadokian settlements, as a monastic community. A community of Byzantine monks lived in each complex. They prayed at a nearby church and shared their meals in the large halls. The carved decorations include many crosses, and some rooms are cross-shaped.

While Areas 3, 5, and 8 feature prominent churches and the area is home to at least twelve solitary chapels, the complexes have a curious lack of refectories with rock-cut tables, and burial chambers—all common features of Byzantine monasteries.

The excess decoration of each complex projects status and importance. The monumentalizing of social capital was a significant aspect of each area. The symbolic architecture suggests a certain political or military community—the sort of people who display their self-importance. Açık Saray could have been the residence of a regional lord or military commander. Historical sources do mention other garrisons in the other, and the ancient city of Zoropassos (modern Gülşehir) was located at a strategic junction. The east-west road along the Halys River intersected with the large military road heading south through Cilician Gates into ancient Syria. Açık Saray could have been a military station during the Middle Byzantine period as Constantinople expanded eastward toward Persia. This would explain the extravagant architecture. However, the open area has no fortification or protection, so it would have been vulnerable as a military compound.

Recent scholarship favors an agricultural interpretation, i.e., Açık Saray was an upscale farm for breeding horses. Large stable rooms are associated with many of the areas. These barrel-vaulted rooms have high mangers for large livestock. Horses were tied to the rock and ate from the individual mangers. Near their entrances, each stable has an arched bed for the night guard. In this area, horses had plenty of grazing land and a fresh-water creek.

Kappadokia is known today as “the land of beautiful horses” (though this is based upon incorrect etymology). Historically, the Persian Empire (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.) demanded tens of thousands of horses from Kappadokians as an annual tribute, and horse breeding was an important part of the Byzantine society and economy. For internal and external reasons, this interpretation of a stud farm is attractive. However, horse breeding does not explain the massive upscale complexes. Did the horse farmers need such ornate housing structures? Such a massive investment is not essential for raising horses. While the stables are large, there are only four stables (in Areas 1–4), which together fit only fifty to sixty horses. Such a small herd could not have been the principal reason for the construction of nine elaborate courtyard complexes and fifteen churches.

Another proposal interprets the animal stables as evidence of a prominent caravansary. This was a secure trading site where traders could house their pack animals and barter with each other. Such a proposal explains the stables and the prominent dwelling complexes. The various courtyard houses belonged to competing businessmen, who grew rich from the trade they facilitated. Kappadokia did become a prominent route along the Silk Route a few centuries later, as Seljuk Turks built a string of large enclosed hans. However, the proposal of a caravansary is speculative and has no Byzantine-era comparison.

The large settlement of Açık Saray, in theory, could have worked as a monastery, military barrack, horse farm, or caravansary. However, all these proposals have drawbacks and lack compelling evidence. In the end, we conclude that Açık Saray was a Byzantine settlement for important people around the year A.D. 1000.

The settlement remained populated into the Seljuk era (A.D. 1070-1300). Two of the churches have thirteenth-century paintings, similar to nearby St. John’s Church (Karşı Κilise), which dates to A.D. 1212.

Açık Saray was later used for Islamic purposes. Two mihrab (niches indicating the direction for Islamic prayers) appear at Area 5 and a nearby detached hall. The local museum identifies these spaces as a mosque (cami). Also, hagiographic legends recount that Hacı Bektaş Veli, the famous local founder of the Bektaşı Sufi sect, visited the area twice in the 1400s.

Cappadocia History.
G. Korat, Kapadokya, Taş Kapıdan Taçkapıya, 2003.
F. Pekin, Kapadokya: Kayalardaki Şiirsellik, 2001.

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Category:Travel and Places
Subcategory:Middle East
Subcategory Detail:Turkey