The Zelve Valley, now known as the Zelve Open Air Museum, is among the earliest-settled and last-abandoned monastic valleys in Cappadocia.
The Zelve Open-Air Museum, which once housed one of the largest communities in the region is an amazing cave town, honeycombed with dwellings, religious and secular chambers. Zelve is situated about 10 km out from Goreme on the Avanos road. Here, the Christians and Muslims lived together in perfect harmony, until 1924. Then Christians had to leave the Valley because of the exchange of minorities between Greece and Turkey, and the Muslims were forced to evacuate the Valley in the 50’s when life became dangerous due to risk of erosion. They left the site to set up a modern village, a little further on, to which they gave the name Yeni Zelve (New Zelve).
Now old Zelve is a ghost town and the erosion still continues. The three valleys in the Zelve open air museum offer a heaven for the rock climbers. It takes at least two hours for a good trekker to walk through these valleys, which also house the oldest examples of Cappadocian architecture and religious paintings.
Start your excursion by visiting the first valley on the right taking the stamps in the second valley, then turning right. While walking along the path, you will see on the right some paintings on the surface of the rock. These frescoes are what remain from the now totally collapsed Geyikli Kilise (the Church with the Deer) and afford examples of the oldest paintings displaying the principal religious symbols of Christianity, like the Cross, the deer and the fish. On entering the first valley you will see a rock-cut mosque on the left, with a lovely minaret. You will then notice a monastery complex on the right resembling an upside down bowl cut of the rock. Immediately opposite, there is a rock-cut complex accessible by a metal ladder and connected to the second valley by a long, cave tunnel.
On leaving the first valley you can enter the second valley by following the path in front of the Mosque. Before leaving this open-air museum, be sure to pay special attention to the rocks at the entrance of the third valley. Here you will find a rock-cut mill with a grindstone which remained in use until the 50’s. Recently, its entrance has collapsed.
Its churches are not as many or as impressive as those at the more famous Göreme Open Air Museum, but Zelve has its own attractions: the topography is even more dramatic, with crags and pinnacles and steep valleys, and there’s more freedom to climb around and look at all the caves, nooks and crannies.
If you are coming to Cappadocia on your own (not part of a group tour) you might want to add Zelve Open Air Museum to your itinerary.
But then again, you might not. I will paint the picture for you and you will have to decide.
I pulled into the parking lot and paid my 2TL to park and got my 8TL museum ticket and off I went.
I did not see a layout of the park and asked if there was a brochure or a map to which the museum employee pointed and showed me a map 50 meters ahead on the path.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
“Would it be just like the open air museum of Göreme”, “How would it be different”, I asked myself.
First of all, save for one, there were no frescoes remaining in the caves. Secondly, apart from the two other couples I saw, there was nobody at this park (but I did go in the winter when crowds are small everywhere). Thirdly, Zelve had a great mix of professional restoration while maintaining a natural feel.
Roughly four times as big an area as Göreme’s Open Air Museum, Zelve Open Air Museum has four churches. However, only one of these churches has any of the classic paintings that you would find in Göreme. So if you are looking for the amazing frescoes of Byzantine history you will not find them at Zelve.
The fact that there are far fewer people who visit Zelve Open Air Museum should be a draw. Unlike the other open air museum, at Zelve it is possible for you to “have the place to yourself.” Take as long as you like at one of the churches, there is no one behind you waiting to get in. Want to see the grainery where they crushed the wheat into bulgar? No problem, there is no waiting in line for people to leave so you can have a space.
VALLEYS OF ZELVE OPEN AIR MUSEUM
The best thing that Zelve offers that Göreme does not is the valleys. Zelve consists of three valleys. Unlike Göreme, contained in a relatively small area, Zelve is a meandering 1.5 kilometers of sightseeing. I was impressed with the brick pathways and bridges the government has put in, along which you find historical markers explaining what you are seeing. But one does not need to stick to the paved path. There are plenty of roads-less-traveled to be explored. And for this reason alone I think Zelve is worth a visit. It is not just a museum; it is a hike. The plethora of trails to innumerable caves will keep you discovering for hours. I was in no hurry and stayed for 1.5 hours. I left half a valley unexplored. If you have kids they will enjoy climbing the rocks and imagining what it would have been like to live in the caves.
After the rendezvous with history inside the museum, I connected with the present drinking tea in one of the cafes outside the park. I sat and talked for two hours with some of the people of Zelve.
PLACES TO VISIT IN CAPPADOCIA
- Goreme Open Air Museum: cave churches with frescoes
- Pasabag: mushroom-shaped fairy chimneys, monks valley
- Devrent: animal-shaped fairy chimneys, imagination valley
- Ihlara Valley: the deepest gorge of Anatolia
- Uchisar: Roman rock-cut castle
- Ortahisar: Roman rock-cut castle
- Avanos: center of pottery since the Hittites
- Zelve Open Air Museum: a cave town with churches
- Kaymakli Underground City: the largest underground city
- Derinkuyu Underground City: the deepest underground city
- Hacibektas: center of Bektasi sect of Islam
- Gulsehir: first settlements in Cappadocia
- Cave Churches: churches located in the valleys
- Caravanserais: 13th century hotels on the silk road