Treasure and mystery in Byzantine Cappadocia.

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Before the Romans, other ancient civilisations, notably the Achaemenid Empire, once inhabited the mountainous region of central Anatolia called Cappadocia. In the Christian era, as early as the 4th century, important monastic settlements began to form in this largely semi-arid region. Set amongst a spectacular landscape, formed by volcanic ash and lava and eroded by weather over time, you will find a panoramic view of ‘fairy chimneys’ and the rock-cut churches, chapels and ruined monasteries of monks. It is important to note that apart from the seemingly abundant display of churches and monasteries on hand to visitors today, Cappadocia once prospered with many urban and small towns, which included its capital Caesarea. All of these centres, as they began to truly prosper and grow, helped support the many seats of Christian Bishops.

Interestingly, Cappadocia’s famed monastic lifestyle was accredited originally to Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379). The Greek bishop was an influential theologian, who wrote the basic rules for Orthodox monasticism. Monks in Cappadocia generally lived out their lives in three forms of Byzantine monastic life. In situations where monks worked and worshiped together for the benefit of their monastery, this was called koinobia or cenobitic monasticism. The opposite of communal life was eremitic monasticism, where monks lived out their lives as hermits, usually to the desert or an inhospitable landscape. The compromise of both of these was lavra the third form of monastic life, where monks lived by themselves isolated, only coming together once a week for communal worship.

With the Sassanid Empire firmly knocking at the door of the empire in the fourth century, Cappadocia was lucky enough to still be firmly situated within the empire’s frontiers. However, from the seventh to the early ninth century, the situation had deteriorated when the Sassanid and later the Arab incursions into Cappadocia lay waste to the area. Beginning with the Macedonian dynasty, Cappadocia once more began to prosper, as the empire regained its strength, pushing its Arab enemies on the far side of the Taurus mountains. Relatively secure from attack between the 9th and 11th century, Cappadocia once again prospered, as large communities settled in the area, carving out homes and underground refuges. 

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The Aciksaray or Open Palace is a complex of monasteries, churches and residential site in the Gulsehir region of Cappadocia.

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This is a view of a large chamber many levels down into the underground city of Kaymakli.

There are several underground cities in Central Anatolia that make Cappadocia truly an amazing place. The Kaymakli and Derinkuyu underground cities, for instance, are connected through miles of tunnels. Derinkuyu is said to be large enough to shelter a staggering 20,000 people together with their food stores and valuable livestock. During times of conflict, especially during the Byzantine-Arab wars, the Cappadocians took refuge in these underground cities, often blocking entrances with heavy stone doors and setting traps for intruders.

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A heavy stone door in the Derinkuyu underground city.

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Göreme Open-Air Museum.

Formed out of the soft volcanic rock were also countless numbers of churches, monastic and private chapels and burial chapels. Today, nestled in the Göreme Valley on the Anatolian plateau, the wonderful cave churches at the Göreme Open-Air Museum are a reminder of what life was like in the monastic settlements of Cappadocia. Richly decorated with colourful frescoes, it is no wonder why they are listed as one of Turkey’s UNESCO World Heritage sites, as some of the finest examples of Byzantine art from the post-iconoclastic period. Many of Göreme chapel frescoes are illustrated with saints and elaborate narrative scenes from the bible which include the Last Supper, the Miracles and the Passion.

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A fresco of the crucifixion on the ceiling of the Tokali Kilise, Göreme.

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A very worn and damaged fresco in the Azize Barbara Kilisesi, also known as the Church of St. Barbara,  Göreme.

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A richly decorated fresco of the Christ Pantocraptor on the ceiling of the Karanlik Kilise, also known as the Dark Church, Göreme.

In my discovery of rock-cut complexes in the Göreme region, many seem to be small and intimate which probably only served a handful of monks up to a dozen. Other small chapels also seemed to indicate that monks, for instance, in Göreme practiced a hermit lifestyle. Overall research suggests that most monks in Cappadocia probably chose to live in isolated communities (lavra), but that they also came together regularly to worship. The Tokali Kilise cave church is one of the finest examples at Göreme that may illustrate where large groups of monks might have gathered as a commune.

Life here for most Byzantines changed late in the 11th century when the Seljuk Turks overran and conquered Anatolia for good. However the archeology evidence of the area and the greater complex as a whole at Göreme, for example, makes Cappadocia both engaging and interesting in understanding Byzantine monastic life.

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The amazing facade of the Carikli Kilise, also better known as the Church of the Sandals. It is part of the Göreme Open-Air Museum. 

Photo Credits: All images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license, except for the Kaymakli underground city image, which is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike International 4.0 license .

Notes and Further Reading:

William M. Johnson (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Monasticism: Vol 1 A-L, Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.

Robert G. Ousterhout, A Byzantine Settlement in Cappadocia, Dumbarton Oaks, 2005.



Categories: Archeology

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5 replies

  1. Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    Check out this very informative and visually stunning article from Robert Horvat’s “History of the Byzantine Empire” blog. This article takes us to Cappadocia, one of Byzantium’s richest and most important provinces, and showcases some of the beautiful historical, architectural, and cultural treasures that this magical place has to offer. Wonderful job as always!

  2. Was there for a visit in 2010. Truly amazing – as is all the history of Turkey.

  3. Great stuff. Cappadocia has always fascinated me.

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