Part of our package in Cappadocia included a local guide for two days which meant that our movement around the key sites of the area was time efficient. Cappadocia is a series of valleys worn away by eons of time and weather leaving bizarre geological remnants that seem inexplicable when compared with some of the dull landscapes of our own dry continent. We were collected from Ayvali and driven northward past Urgup to a valley that is marked on the map to the left as ‘Pasabaglari’. The name seems to struggle with its identity as I found three versions of it so I will simply use the English version, ‘Monks Valley’. The ‘geological remnants’ referred to above are called ‘fairy chimneys’ here with multiple stems and ornate caps
Humanity over the millenia has chosen not just to gaze in wonder at these stone chimneys but to also carve homes out of them. During the fourth and fifth century it become common practice for Christian monks to look for more demanding ways to self-isolate and pray, undistracted from the society of their less-driven towns folk. Retreating to the desert like Jesus was a response but a desert with rock pillars was even more popular with the local saints in Monks Valley. All the local tourist information about this valley refers to the large group of three chimneys that has rooms chiseled out of it as “Dedicated to St Simeon” (left image above). It is repeated so often that a casual tourist might believe that Simeon was local to the area.
However Simeon lived north of modern day Turkey in Syria near Aleppo and is often referred to by the name of St Simeon Stylites, the pillar saint, for his practice of living on top of a stylite, a ‘pillar’. The above mage is the way St Simeon is usually depicted in art over the centuries. So the saintly monks who lived in this valley many centuries ago were followers of St Simeon and they carved their homes in the chimneys of Cappadocia all over the valleys of the region. Many of them are very inaccessible and would have originally needed long ladders to reach their home.
One of the local names for this valley is ‘Pasabag’ which literally means Pasa’s vineyard. One of the curious features of our walk around this valley is that we kept encountering parts of the vineyard in small protected valleys. It felt like there were little pieces of paradise hidden in the valleys of this curious stone desert.
GOREME OPEN AIR MUSEUM
The history of the rise of Christianity is inextricably linked to Cappadocia, particularly the monastic movement. As mentioned in regard to churches and shelters dug out in Monks Valley, followers of St Simeon in the fourth and fifth centuries were prominent as well as those inspired by Basil the Great, Bishop of Kayseri. From the eighth century the monks and their monasteries had to resist the inroads of Arab invaders in the so-called Arab-Byzantine Wars and this was where underground shelters were expanded to protect citizens from these invaders. From the Monks Valley we travelled to the much more contained complex of the Goreme Open Air Museum. It is here that the impact of Christianity on Cappadocians can be seen most clearly as this is a site with nine churches gathered together, carved out of the same curving, weathered hillside. It looks like a monastic complex and there are eleven refectories (dining areas) carved into the hill sides to service the monks and nuns that would have been associated with particular churches at various times. However another theory about its overarching purpose, despite the many refectories, is that it may have just been a pilgrimage site for Christian travellers.
These churches were built between the 10th-12th centuries. The complexity of the site and its high preservation explains why it is a key reason for the area to be listed by UNESCO as being worthy of preservation as World Heritage. Two of the criteria used by UNESCO are worth reading bearing in mind the Goreme Open Air Museum…
“Criterion (i): Owing to their quality and density, the rupestral (made within or placed on rock surfaces) sanctuaries of Cappadocia constitute a unique artistic achievement offering irreplaceable testimony to the post-iconoclastic Byzantine art period…
Criterion (iii): The rupestral dwellings, villages, convents and churches retain the fossilized image of a province of the Byzantine Empire between the 4th century and the arrival of the Seljuk Turks (1071). Thus, they are the essential vestiges of a civilization which has disappeared.”
Walking around the Open Air Museum was a wonderful but challenging experience. All our usual expectations of churches and religious art were turned on their head. Even the fact that the first ‘Church’ we encountered on our path up to the centre of the complex was a Nunnery, built around the 11th century. It was almost the equivalent of a cathedral being 6 to 7 storeys high. (Image left.). Only a few rooms in it on the first and second floors can be visited. Throughout the different levels of the Nunnery there are Millstone Doors that were used to close off the tunnels so that if the nuns were under attack, they could retreat upwards and wait out the marauding infidels.
The map here of the Goreme Open Air Museum is very helpful in making sense of this enclosed valley where different communities set up their churches in the most defensible positions they could find. From the entrance of the complex, we strolled past the nunnery with our guide and headed towards St Barbara’s Church. One theory suggests this church from the 11th century church was carved out of the rock by Byzantine soldiers in honour of their patron Saint.
Clearly a lot of the information about the people who built these rock churches has been lost over the centuries, given the unusual names that some of the chapels have received in modern times. The nearby Church with Apple has been called so due to a mistake made about the nature of a globe held by the archangel Gabriel in one of the ceiling paintings in this church. The Church with Snake which is number 5 on the list of Churches contains a painting of St George killing off his ancient foe, the dragon. Apparently this was mistaken by modern locals as a snake. An untested theory of my own about this lack of detailed information about the original backgrounds to these rock churches is probably due to the societal gap that developed after the conquest of Turkey by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century. With the enforced changes of religious practices, Christian usage of these hillside caves may have been seen as useless information
The above photo shows the upper section of the Open Air Museum containing the last three churches, the most famous being the so-called ‘Dark Church’ due to its lack of windows. However, it is full of colourful frescoes and significant finance has been spent on restoring this chapel. There is an entrance fee for this church that is intended to limit the number of visitors which no doubt assists in the continued preservation of the frescoes
The image on the right below shows a side section of the Open Air Museum where the cliff face shows the evidence of another aspect of humanity’s need to dig out the rock walls of Cappadocia’s valleys. These are the pigeon lofts that locals have been building here and in other neighbouring valleys to attract pigeons to nest in places where their homes can be accessed. One key factor in this kindness to pigeons is to harvest their guano to fertilise the barren soil of the district.
CAPPADOCIA…Day 2 (Part 2)
Kaymakli Underground Town