In Pictures: Meet the Muslim caretakers of Turkey’s Christian cave churches

Ismail Genc adjusts a guide rope inside Agacalti church, which is thought to date from between the seventh and ninth centuries. Frescoes on the walls and ceiling are done in the Byzantine style and were added later.

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.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to In Pictures: Meet the Muslim caretakers of Turkey’s Christian cave churches
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today