In these times, Cappadocia played a critical role in the development of Eastern Christianity. Numerous churches and settlements survive from this period, although none can be clearly associated with the formation of monasticism and few with recorded historical events. The masonry architecture is particularly striking. On the mountain Sivrihisar, near Güzelyurt, the elegant Red Church (K’z’lkilise) stands in an isolated mountain valley, its tall dome still intact (above). On Hasan Dagái, the site of Viransehir has been identified with the ancient town of Mokissos, which was rebuilt by Justinian (according to Procopius) and subsequently abandoned. The site, recently surveyed under the auspices of the German Archaeological Institute, preserves the remains of hundreds of small rubble houses and several churches.

The evidence for rock-cut architecture and fresco painting is more limited in the early Christian period. In the Balkan Dere (Balkan Valley), two partially preserved carved spaces date to this early period. One of the rock-cut spaces contains a domed hall that preserves some finely carved architectural decoration, including modillions (a type of ornamentation on cornices), roundels with crosses, and a unique image of a palm tree. Nearby is a burial church, its floor lined with graves. The church’s walls and ceiling were decorated with painted geometric patterns on a white background, with standing figures depicted on its tiny dome.

By this period in Cappadocia’s history, the most difficult to reconstruct, plagues, wars and natural disasters had depopulated the Byzantine Empire. During the so-called Iconoclast Period (726–843), representation of figural images was outlawed in Byzantine churches, and cultural production was minimal. At the same time, Cappadocia suffered incursions by the Arabs, who destroyed or captured most of its major centers. No churches can be securely dated to this period. Sometimes churches without figural decoration, such as those in the Güllü Dere (Pink Valley), are called Iconoclast, but without solid basis.

A short period of revival followed the Cappadocian Dark Ages. The painted churches from this time apparently were built without contact with the major Byzantine artistic centers, especially Constantinople. A group of churches in the Ihlara Valley, including the Egári Tas Kilise, the Agáa Alt’ Kilise and the Kokar Kilise, contains frescoes painted with narrative scenes and geometric patterns—all rendered in bright colors.

Many churches from this time were barrel vaulted, their interiors painted with stories from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, organized into horizontal bands of continuous narration. In the Sogáanl’ Valley, south of Göreme, several churches known as the Kubbeli Kiliseler (above) have domes carved and painted on the exterior as well as on the interior.

A change in the decoration of churches and the appearance of a new kind of church in this period suggest that there was renewed contact between Cappadocia and Constantinople. The earlier, continuous narrative scenes on frescoes now tend to give way to framed iconic images of the Byzantine church’s major feasts. These images are often rendered in brilliant colors, oddly contrasting with the simple architecture of the churches themselves. The architecturally conservative Tokal’ Kilise in Göreme, for example, mixes bands of narrative with isolated images, all set against a brilliant blue background; the painter of these frescoes, some scholars believe, came from Constantinople. The Church of St. Barbara (above) in the Sogáanl’ Valley, securely dated by an inscription to the early 11th century, also retains a relatively conservative architectural form, but its barrel vault is decorated with large framed scenes.

Cappadocia was at its height during this period. In the monastic settlement in the Göreme Valley, for example, we find many churches following a new architectural type, with a centrally positioned dome rising above four columns. In the churches known as Karanl’k Kilise, Elmal’ Kilise and Çar’kl’ Kilise, decorative frescoes are arranged to conform to the architectural framework of the buildings. A bust of Jesus appears in the dome; a deesis (Jesus represented with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist) in the apse is surrounded by a “feast cycle” of scenes from the lives of Jesus and the Virgin, along with images of individual saints. The fine style of these churches reflects numerous contacts with Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. These churches were attached to monasteries, with complexes of related spaces carved together, including refectories with carved tables and benches for monastic dining. Large stones rolled across passageways separated sections.

There are also numerous examples of masonry architecture from this period, such as the large Karagedik Kilise, which was destroyed by rocks falling from the cliffs above, near Belisirma in the Ihlara Valley. Nearby, the elegant brick and stone church known as Çanl’ Kilise (the “Bell Church,” shown above, along with a large rolling stone used to block one its passageways) was the centerpiece of a large rock-cut settlement, which is currently being excavated. In addition to the main church, there are as many as 25 large rock-cut houses and perhaps 30 churches and chapels. This flurry of construction is indicative of the prosperity of Cappadocia at this time.

Prosperity came to an end in the 12th century, and Cappadocia’s Christian communities declined. Virtually no monuments can be securely dated to the 12th century. Nevertheless, the impact of the Seljuks is disputed. Did artistic production simply cease? Probably not completely, but the disruptions of the 12th century did not encourage art. In the Göreme churches, for example, we have graffiti from the 12th century, but no securely dated paintings.

A few churches have come down to us from the 13th century, however. According to an inscription at Belisirma, for example, the church of St. George was carved and painted (above) at the behest of Basil Giakoupes and his wife Tamar during the reigns of the Seljuk sultan Masud II and the Byzantine emperor Andronicus II (c. 1182–1195). (Basil Giakoupes was a Greek in the service of the Seljuk ruler.) But the last painted churches in Cappadocia are a far cry from their contemporaries in the Byzantine capital, which was undergoing a cultural and artistic revival. They also stand in sharp contrast to the fine Seljuk art and architecture of the 13th century, with its monumental caravansaries and elegant mosques. In this final period, the Christian art of Cappadocia is clearly provincial, cut off from the splendors of Constantinople.