On our fourth day in the central Anatolian province of Aksaray, we’ll diverge from the main attractions and explore two very underrated ancient sites in the area
*The fearued photo: The Bell Church is one of the main attractions at the ancient city of Mokissos in Aksaray province, central Turkey. (Photo by Argun Konuk)
On my fourth day in Aksaray, I visited the ancient city of Mokissos (also known as the ancient city of Nora) and spent two great hours solo exploring remote rock-cut structures and the ruins of the enormous Bell Church, located on an isolated hill in the vast central Anatolian plains.
In today’s article, we’ll trek through the ancient mountaintop Byzantine city of Mokissos, often called the “Ephesus of Cappadocia.” Afterward, we will get to explore the Bell Church (Çanlı Church) and the mind-blowingly mysterious monastic and residential cave complexes located high up in the hills, in the middle of nowhere.
Ancient city of Mokissos
The ancient city of Mokissos is located in Aksaray’s suburban town of Helvadere, which stands right at the northern foothill of the dormant volcano, Mount Hasan.
Mokissos left me awestruck. On my way to this site, as I was driving along the narrow roads that offered ineffable scenes of Mount Hasan, I had the expectation of visiting a small-sized settlement. To my surprise, Mokissos was vast. There are around 1,000 dwellings in the city. In addition to these dwellings, there are numerous other structures that once served as churches, state buildings, wells and more.
Since I was on a tight schedule, I told myself, “I will spend no more than 45 minutes here,” but it still took me two hours to complete my visit. There is a lot to see in this ancient site, so make sure you plan your day in advance to allow yourself the time you need.
Even though Mokissos is not that popular of a tourist spot, I was impressed by the organization of the site. The tourist information boards about the ruins were very informative and elaborate. Also, the path circling the area was made using the stones recovered from the ruins, which certainly contributes to the authentic atmosphere of Mokissos. It made me feel as if I were walking around the city prior to its discovery.
A brief history of Mokissos
Mokissos was the capital city of the Byzantine state Cappadocia III and a very important religious and political center during the era of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. Moreover, this ancient city was the archiepiscopate of the vast region covering the south of Kızılırmak River (Halys in Ancient Greek).
The ancient city of Mokissos was first mentioned in history by Byzantine historian Procopius in the 550s. The way this prominent scholar talked about this city helps us envision the past:
“There was a very dilapidated castle on a plain in Cappadocia named Mokissos. The emperor Justinian I had it demolished completely and built strong fortifications on the steep lands that are to the west of the castle. He also built many churches, bathhouses and other structures to reflect the opulence of the city. Subsequently, Mokissos became a metropolis and the Romans started calling it the most important city of this large area.”
Mokissos’s prosperity and fame did not last long, however. This short-lived ancient city was deserted in the eighth century, just two centuries after its foundation. Mysteriously, the reason behind its abandonment is not known for certain.
What to see in Mokissos?
Here are the five main attractions to see in this ancient settlement:
A group of structures comprising of churches, residential units and cisterns that are scattered over central Mokissos are presumed to be the episcopal complex of the city.
Along with the Vaulted Church, the Dark Church is one of the best-preserved structures in this city. However, only the walls of the apse of the church have survived the centuries. On the northern part of the Dark Church, there is a large room half-buried under the soil that is worth checking out, as well as many frescoes.
Even though the city’s residents left Mokissos in the eighth century, the Vaulted Church continued to serve as an active religious center for the Ottoman-Greeks in the latter centuries. The Orthodox Greeks who lived in the town of Helvadere used this church to celebrate Easter and St. George’s Day well into the 1900s.
The most intact examples of the masonry in Mokissos are at the northwestern district. These houses, built with large, uncut boulders, prove that in comparison with the other ancient cities, the population density of Mokissos was very high.
A little further down from the ancient dwellings, you will see the Roman necropolis with 50 pagan graves which remain from the era before the city was rebuilt by Emperor Justinian I.
Bell Church (Çanlı Kilise)
After I left Mokissos, I took a 25-minute drive toward the second and last stop on my day’s itinerary, the Bell Church.
The Bell Church is located between the villages of Akhisar and Çeltek, which are to the southwest of downtown Aksaray.
The moment I passed Akhisar, I was all alone on the mountain road and there was not even a single house around me. I drove for a few kilometers and reached the Bell Church, or at least I thought I did. Before my visit, I did not look at the photos of this church, so I had no idea what it looked like. The site that I assumed to be the Bell Church turned out to be one of the many residential cave units that are spread around the Bell Church. Also, the location of the church is marked 200 meters (220 yards) before the actual site on Google Maps, which can cause confusion.
I spent half an hour briskly trying to find something that resembled a church inside the cave dwellings. After driving a little further, I finally reached the place I had intended to. If you happen to visit the Bell Church, I suggest that you keep this in mind.
When I parked on the side of the road near the Bell Church, I noticed that, to my right, there was a stunning view of Mount Hasan and, to my left, there was the glorious Bell Church defying time and refusing to erode away into history. “How lucky I am to have been born into the most valuable land in the world, Anatolia,” I thought. Every step I take in this country, I find myself at a different historical spot. It is a great privilege.
What makes this church stand out?
As you probably know, almost all of the churches in Cappadocia are rock-hewn. However, the architectural style of Bell Church shows strong disparities with the rest of the religious structures in the region. The most characteristic difference is that this 11th-century church is not built by shaping rocks; it was constructed in traditional Byzantine masonry style.
In the first article of the Aksaray mini-series, we learned about the mummies that are on display in Aksaray Museum. Well, some of these mummies were unearthed at the burial room of the Bell Church.
Exploring Bell Church
In contrast to its massive external size, the interior of the Bell Church is not that big, yet the structure is very impressive. Despite the fact that this spot is the main attraction in the area, it is the place that requires the least time to visit. In less than 15 minutes, I had covered all parts of the church. The Bell Church was known for having amazing frescoes on its walls. Unfortunately, today, besides a few very faint paintings, there is nothing left of this artisanal wall art.
On the back side of the structure, there is an underground vaulted burial room where the mummies were recovered. It is now visible on account of its ceiling having collapsed. Here, you can see some partially eroded frescoes.
Residential cave complexes
After I visited the church, I wandered around for about an hour and explored many of the underground houses, residential caves and other rock-cut structures. Mostly, the structures are easy to navigate through. However, there are also many dark tunnels and very deep underground chambers that I did not dare go into.
Large-scale comprehensive archaeological studies were conducted in the area in the 1990s. Professor Robert Ousterhout, who led the excavations, concluded that around the Bell Church, there are “25 residential units, 30 rock churches and chapels, two outlying settlements, several small underground cities, seven cemeteries …”
Can you imagine how many ancient sites that are just as big as this church or perhaps bigger might remain undiscovered in Anatolia? The lands we live in abound with mysteries.
If you visit the Bell Church or any remote area in Cappadocia, I advise you to abstain from being “too brave.” A considerable number of these ancient structures have weak foundations, which can be too perilous to walk on. Another point that you should pay excessive attention to is that some of the tunnels and chambers have very deep pits that were used as water wells or ventilation holes in the past. Especially in the dark sections of the ancient sites, these pits can become very menacing booby traps. Remember, these types of places are only fun if you are being careful.
Sadly, as I was roaming, I saw many freshly dug holes and tools left behind. Apparently, due to the remoteness of the area, this site has become a common haunt for illegal treasure hunters.
Next week, at the risk of giving spoilers, we’ll be covering the most underrated town in Cappadocia and exploring the churches in the second-largest valley in the region after Ihlara Valley.
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