Zelve is spread out over three valleys, of which two are connected by a tunnel. The complex contains innumerable rooms and passages which also house many pointed fairy chimneys with large stems, at about 40 feet above the valley floor.
The valley was a monastic retreat between the 9th and 13th centuries. Christians moved to Zelve during the Persian and Arab invasions. Cappadocia's first seminaries to train priests are located here at the monastery. Dating back to the early years of monastery life in Zelve is the Direkli Church (with the famed columns). Direkli is located at the bottom of the slope. The main decorations are iconoclastic-doctrine high relief crosses. The valley also contains the Balikli Kilise (Fish), Üzümlü Kilise (Grapes) churches and the now totally collapsed Geyikli Kilise (Deer church). These churches date to the pre-iconoclastic period.
The area was inhabited until 1952, when the last inhabitants moved to the new town Yeni Zelve ("New Zelve"), 2 km away. In 1967, Zelve was turned into an open-air museum.