05 July 2015

The ‘fairy chimneys’, hot-air
balloons and cave churches
in Cappadocia of the Fathers

A hot air balloon flight over the ‘fairy chimneys’ and villages of Cappadocia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

I spent some time after Easter in Cappadocia in south central Turkey. Although it snowed for part of the week, I did all the normal tourist things, including a hot-air balloon trip and visiting the “fairy chimneys,” the cave dwellings and the troglodyte underground cities.

The ‘fairy chimneys’ are part of a spectacular landscape of Cappadocia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia look like sets for an episode of Star Wars or a destination for a school outing from Hogwarts. I was staying in the small town of Göreme where the “fairy chimneys” are part of a spectacular landscape. At every twist and turn in each and every backstreet in Göreme, there is yet another surrealist view of these strange geological formations that have often been the homes over the centuries to churches or families and now to hotels, bars and restaurants.

The formation of this strange landscape started 65 million to 2 million years ago, when three volcanoes on the edges of the region began erupting frequently. They deposited ash, lava and basalt that laid the foundations for the landscape, and earthquakes and persistent erosion helped form the valleys and the “fairy chimneys” as the rock below crumbled away leaving isolated pinnacles.

Troglodyte villages and subterranean cities were also carved into the rock formations, making striking cave-dwelling complexes.

An ancient people

A Roman tomb is carved into the soft volcanic rock of a ‘fairy chimney’ in Göreme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

However, my first reason for visiting Cappadocia was my interest in Patristic studies. This is the region that has given the Church the Cappadocian Fathers – great writers, theologians and thinkers in the fourth century such as Saint Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, his younger brother, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, and their friend, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, who became Patriarch of Constantinople. They advanced many developments in theology, particularly the Creeds and the doctrine of the Trinity.

Patristic relics … Saint Onuphorius, covered with a fig leaf, with Saint Thomas and Saint Basil in a cave church in Göreme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The first caves in the soft volcanic rock in Cappadocia may have been built by the Phrygian people in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. There were Greek-speaking people in Cappadocia for thousands of years, and Xenophon provides the earliest written account of these underground cities.

On the first day of Pentecost, the good news is heard by a variety of nationalities and ethnic groups, including people from Cappadocia. Some of the rock-hewn churches and monasteries in Cappadocia date back to the Roman Empire. By the end of the second century, there was a large Christian community in Cappadocia, with two bishoprics were formed in area, one in Caesarea (present-day Kayseri) and one in Malatya.

Saint George slaying the Dragon … a Cappadocian martyr depicted in the chapel of Saint Basil in Göreme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Many of the surviving dwellings, villages, convents and churches date from the 4th century to the arrival of the Seljuk Turks in 1071. They look like fossilised remains from the Byzantine Empire, and are the surviving relics of a long-disappeared civilisation.

Tunnels leading into the depths of Derinkuyu, the largest excavated underground city in Turkey (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Early one morning, I descended into the depths of Derinkuyu, the largest excavated underground city in Turkey. This multi-level city goes down 85 metres underground and was large enough to shelter 20,000 people, with their livestock and food, churches and chapels, schools, wine presses, wells, stables, cellars, storage rooms, refectories and even a burial chamber.

Derinkuyu was fully developed by the Byzantine era and was fortified against Arab invaders in the Arab-Byzantine wars (780-1180). In all, 200 underground cities, each with at least two levels, have been discovered in the area between Kayseri and Nevsehir. They continued to be used by the Greek-speaking people for centuries.

Rock-hewn monasteries

The clustered monastic buildings and the rock-hewn churches on the outskirts of Göreme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

On the outskirts of Göreme, the clustered monastic buildings and the rock-hewn churches include some unique examples of pre-iconoclast frescoes in the Byzantine world. They include churches, chapels, a dining room, kitchen, rooms or cells for the monks who lived here and connecting tunnels.

A six- or seven-storey rock-hewn mass is known as the “Nunnery” or Monastery. The monks probably used ladders or scaffolding to reach the higher levels.

In the barrel-vaulted 11th century chapel of Saint Basil, an image on the south wall represents Saint George slaying the Dragon. Saint George’s parents are said to have been from Cappadocia, and he said to have died a martyr’s death when he was beheaded in Lyda in 303 AD.

Little daylight enters the Dark Church in Göreme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

A larder, kitchen and refectory side-by-side in one massive area of rock are linked by tunnels. At one end of the long table in the refectory that may have seated up to 40 monks, is an image of the Last Supper. A narrow stairs leads up to the courtyard in front of the Dark Church, where the richly-coloured frescoes have been preserved because little daylight enters it.

The Church of the Holy Cross is also known as the Sandals Church because of two footprints at the entrance beneath a fresco depicting the Ascension, said to be an exact copy of one in the Church of the Ascension in Jerusalem.

The Church of the Buckle, restored in the 1980s, is richly decorated with frescoes, many predating the iconoclast controversy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The largest church in Göreme, the Church of the Buckle, was restored in the 1980s and is divided into four sections: the Old Church, the larger New Church, the Parakklesion, and the Lower Church. Some of the frescoes in the Old Church, including the Murder of Zacchariah and the Flight of Elizabeth, are based on stories in the apocryphal Gospel of Saint James, illustrating the semi-isolation of this part of Cappadocia.

The Melendiz River flows through the Ihlara Valley, a 16 km gorge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The small town of Ihlara, near Güzelyurt, provides access to the Ihlara Valley, a 16 km gorge. The Melendiz River flows through the valley, and the canyon walls are honeycombed with hundreds of churches and dwellings hewn into the rock in Byzantine times.

Many of these rock-hewn churches hold well-preserved and richly-coloured frescoes, and this is one of the few places in the Byzantine world with images from the pre-iconoclastic period before the use of religious images or icons was banned, from 726 to 787 and again from 814 to 842.

The Ascension, with Christ surrounded by angels, the apostles and prophets, in the dome of the Daniel Pantanassa Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

At the entrance to the valley, the Daniel Pantanassa Church has frescoes from the 9th to the 11th centuries, including depictions of the Prophet Daniel in the Lions’ Den, the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, the Baptism of Christ and the Dormition of the Virgin Mary.

Inside the dome there is a colourful depiction of the Ascension, with Christ surrounded by angels, the apostles and prophets.

Selime, dating from the eighth and ninth centuries, is the biggest religious building in Cappadocia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Selime, at the end of Ihlara Valley, was known to Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines. A steep and slippery hill leads up through tunnels and corridors to the monastery, with secret passageways, and a series of twisting, ever-steeper rock stairways and ladders.

This is the biggest religious building in Cappadocia, dating from the eighth and ninth centuries. Inside the cathedral, the frescoes date from the late tenth and early 11th centuries, but are barely visible under layers of soot that cover the surfaces since the Turks used the cathedral as a cooking room. The monastery complex includes the monks’ quarters, a large kitchen and a stable. But their survival is threatened by continuing erosion of the rock.

From Selime, we travelled on to Uchisar, where Uchisar Castle towers above the valley below. Many rock-cut churches have been found on the outskirts of the castle and inside it, but most of the rooms on the north side of the castle are now used as pigeon houses or dovecotes.

Ottoman conquest

Elegant stone mansions built by 19th century Cappadocian Greek merchants are being restored in Göreme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The Ottoman Turks conquered Cappadocia in the 15th century, and after the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus in 1571 Sultan Selim I moved large numbers of Greeks from Cappadocia, particularly the Kayseri region, to Cyprus.

Many people accepted the Turkish vernacular and were known as Karamanlides. But the people in the countryside remained largely Greek, and they kept their language, their religion and the original names of their towns and villages.

The town known as Hagios Prokopios in the Middle Ages was renamed Urgup, but was known to the local Greek people as Prokopion. Güzelyurt continued to be known as Karvali, Mustafapasa as Sinasos, and Derinkuyu as Malakopea.

Some Cappadocian Greeks later migrated to Constantinople, working in the caviar trade or as wine merchants. By the 19th century, many Cappadocian Greeks were wealthy, educated and westernised; some built large stone mansions and others published novels and literary works in Turkish using the Greek alphabet.

By the beginning of World War I, however, the Greeks of Anatolia were besieged by the Young Turks. It is estimated about 750,000 Anatolian Greeks were massacred and 750,000 forced into exile.

Rafet Bey, a Turkish official active in the genocide in Anatolia, stated in November 1916: “We must finish off the Greeks as we did with the Armenians … today I sent squads to the interior to kill every Greek on sight …”

A few weeks later, in January 1917, the German Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, reported: “The Turks plan to eliminate the Greek element as enemies of the state, as they did earlier with the Armenians … exposing them to death, hunger, and illness. The abandoned homes are then looted and burnt or destroyed. Whatever was done to the Armenians is being repeated with the Greeks.”

In 1922-1923, the remaining Cappadocian Greeks were expelled to Greece as part of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne, and towns were emptied of Greek communities that had survived for thousands of years. The exiles named their new villages and towns in Greece after their homes in Cappadocia, including Nea Sinasos on the island of Euboea, Nea Karvali in northern Greece, and Neo Prokopi in central Greece.

A small number of Cappadocian Greeks continued to live in Constantinople, where they had settled in enclaves in the Ottoman era. But even these migrated to Greece in large numbers after the anti-Greek pogroms in Istanbul in 1955. Today, there are significant Cappadocian communities throughout Greece and throughout the Greek diaspora.

Forlorn and forgotten

The former Greek village around the base of the monastery at Selime stands empty and abandoned (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Behind the car park below Selime, the houses of the former Greek village that had grown up around the base of the monastery stand empty and abandoned. High above Çavuşin, the abandoned Greek Orthodox basilica of Saint John looks down on the mosque and the modern Turkish town.

The abandoned Greek Orthodox basilica of Saint John looks down on the mosque and the modern Turkish town of Çavuşin, north of Göreme (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Each town and village in Cappadocia now has a Turkish name today. But everyone remembers its original Greek name too.

As I emerged into the daylight from the underground city and tunnels of Derinkuyu there was a stark reminder that the town above was known to generations of Cappadocian Greek residents as Malakopea. Across the square from the entrance to the underground city stands the lonely and forlorn Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Theodoros Trion, like a sad scene in an Angelopoulos movie.

This once elegant church was built in 1858-1860, but has stood abandoned since 1923. Its walls have started to collapse, and inside the frescoes are probably crumbling. The promised restoration of the church and its bell-tower has been abandoned, reminders of a forgotten community and culture, and of forgotten promises.

The lonely and forlorn Church of Saint Theodoros Trion in Derinkuyu (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This feature was first published in July 2015 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory)


liz read said...

Great Stuff. Any idea of the date of St George and Dragon? Always wondering about origins of 'our' patron saint...wasn't expecting to find him here and implication that he is probably quite early?????

Patrick Comerford said...

The frescoe of Saint George seems to date from the 11th century, which is quite late as the story is much earlier, and he is said to have been martyred in the fourth century. Patrick