Tuesday, May 5, 2009


About half way through our week in Istanbul we took courage and made a plan to go east to Cappadocia. At one time, Cappadocia was a hotbed of Christianity. Living and worshipping in relative safety here, Christians retreated from the danger of persecution into the caves, tunnels and underground cities that lined the canyons and riddled the tall tufa "chimneys" in this volcanic landscape. When danger threatened, the inhabitants rolled large rocks resembling millstones across the entrances to the cities. The inhabitants could live for a month or so without leaving the safety of their citadel as even the water wells were inside the chimneys.

So far 26 cities, innumerable cave houses some still inhabited, and hundreds of cave churches have been discovered. It is believed there are many more. The unique soft volcanic tufa landscape is constantly changing with rain, wind and exposure, new chimneys forming under foot as the tufa crumbles and is washed away, some huge vaulted chambers, sheltered for centuries suddenly exposed as a cliff side falls away for lack of strength. Once a unique and useful defensive location along the Silk Road, the principal trade route across Asia, some of the caves and cities have existed from the time of the Hittites while later Christians adapted the cities, carving into the soft rock multi-storied networks of tunnels and ventilation shafts sometimes reaching 8 or more stories underground.

A striking feature of both the cities and the smaller cave houses is the number of churches found among them. Ranging from small chapel-like structures with simple red line decorations to large barrel vaulted multi-story basilicas complete with frescoes, the number of churches is estimated to be around 600 in this area. Sometimes high up in the canyon wall, and sometimes far below ground, each one is different having served a unique community. The largest and grandest churches among them however are no bigger than the Nave of St. Peter's.

There is one church that puzzles me still. As we approached the chimney from the outside, there was no hint of what lay inside the cave. We walked up 2 stairs cut into the rock entering a five domed basilica, its geometry perfect, the 5 hemispheric roofs were cut and smoothed supported on classical columns. The architecture of the space echoed the grand architecture of imperial courts and urban design. What confused me was the contrast between the architecture and the painted decoration. Primitive red line drawings and stepped graphics abstractly represented Father, Son and Holy Spirit. A rooster, crosses and a figure that looked like a turtle standing on its hind legs decorated the domes. Whoever decorated the church drew freehand lines representing stone blocks on the arched entrance vault overhead. As I looked at the drawings, I felt a need to know who drew these red line drawings. The work of the their hands lay so near the work of their heart I could almost see the painter. He or she is many centuries gone now, but part of the painter survived to speak to me. It is these works of the hand that pull at my heart strings - the ones that show not the skill of the artist, but the human hand and the human heart that made them.

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