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Top 5: Cave churches

Forget gazing at steeples and spires that reach for the heavens, these subterranean places of worship have a raw beauty that really rocks

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Sainte-Marie Madeleine, France. Image: Alamy

Sainte-Marie Madeleine, France. Image: Alamy

01 Sainte-Marie Madeleine France
The legendary retreat of Mary Magdalene after she fled persecution in the Holy Lands, this cave in Provence’s Massif de la Sainte Baume has since become a prime pilgrimage spot for everyone from popes to French kings. Come here on Pentecost Monday to join worshipful masses from across the world.

Church of St John the Baptist, Turkey. Image: Alamy

Church of St John the Baptist, Turkey. Image: Alamy

02 Church of St John the Baptist Turkey
Lesser-known than the churches of Cappadocia’s cave-studded Göreme, this frescoed, fifth-century Christian chapel in nearby Cavusin is set in a remote hilltop village largely abandoned since the Greece-Turkey population exchanges of the 1920s.

Maryam korkor, Ethiopia. Image: Corbis

Maryam korkor, Ethiopia. Image: Corbis

03 Maryam Korkor Ethiopia
This spirit-lifting cave church, carved out of sandstone on a sheer-sided escarpment some 6,500ft up in the Gheralta Mountains of northern Ethiopia, dates from between the 13th and 17th centuries and can only be accessed by a vertigo-inducing scramble along scree-strewn paths.

Piedigrotta Church, Italy. Image: 4Corners

Piedigrotta Church, Italy. Image: 4Corners

04 Piedigrotta Church Italy
Oh we do like to be inside this seaside cave chapel in the Calabrian town of Pizzo. Packed with intricate — slightly kitschy — statues carved out of the soft rock in the 19th and 20th centuries, this cave was dug out in the 1600s by shipwrecked sailors, grateful to have survived a storm.

St Samaan Church, Egypt. Image: Getty

St Samaan Church, Egypt. Image: Getty

05 St Samaan Church Egypt
Named after Coptic Orthodox saint Simon the Tanner, who was credited with moving nearby Mokattam Mountain, this Cairo cave church is one of the Middle East’s largest. It’s part of the Monastery of Saint Samaan the Tanner, which features a 20,000-capacity amphitheatre — ample space for the hundreds who come here for a weekly exorcism.


Published in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)