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 fourth 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. Unfortunately, life in Cappacodia for most Byzantines changed yet again late in the 11th century, when the Seljuk Turks overran and conquered Anatolia for good.
Today, we are very lucky to still be able to glimpse what life was like in Byzantine Cappadocia. Formed out of the soft volcanic rock are an untold number of churches, monastic and private chapels and burial chapels. Nestled in the Göreme Valley on the Anatolian plateau, the wonderful cave churches at the Göreme Open-Air Museum are some of the best reminders of what life was like in the monastic settlements of Cappadocia. These churches are richly decorated with extremely beautiful and colourful frescoes, some of the finest examples of Byzantine art from the post-iconoclastic period. It is no wonder why they are listed as one of Turkey’s UNESCO World Heritage sites! Many of the Göreme Valley chapel frescoes are illustrated with saints and elaborate narrative scenes from the bible, which include the Last Supper, the Miracles and the Passion.
In my brief discovery of the Göreme region’s rock-cut complexes, many seem to be surprisingly small and intimate, which probably only served a handful of monks up to a dozen at the most. 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 illustrates where large groups of monks might have gathered as a commune.
There are also 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.
There is, of course, so much more that we can say about the treasure and mystery of this wonderful landscape and its bustling settlements that made Cappadocia so unique. But for now, please enjoy some of the collated images found below.
The Aciksaray or Open Palace was once a complex of monasteries, churches and a residential site in the Gulsehir region of Cappadocia.
This is a view of a large chamber many levels down into the underground city of Kaymakli.
A heavy stone door in the Derinkuyu underground city.
Göreme Open-Air Museum.
A fresco of the crucifixion on the ceiling of the Tokali Kilise, Göreme.
A very worn and damaged fresco in the Azize Barbara Kilisesi, also known as the Church of St. Barbara, Göreme.
A richly decorated fresco of the Christ Pantocraptor on the ceiling of the Karanlik Kilise, also known as the Dark Church, Göreme.
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 used 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.