Cappadocia and Turkey’s Christian Past

In Cappadocia, the Islamic call to prayer is heard through loudspeakers during a Friday sunset. My parents and I do not understand the prayer times; the Arabic language is incomprehensible to my Anglophone ears. Yet the call to prayer lasts no longer than a minute. Sunset, in Islam, is for the Maghrib prayer—one of the five mandatory salahs during the day. New travellers to Turkey quickly become accustomed to the call to prayer. My family are neither Muslim nor Turkish. We are Roman Catholics from Australia. We know we are in a Muslim country with a Christian past. Our intellectual curiosity—and passion for history—has taught us the importance of being diplomatic when encountering cultures that are not ours. There’s plenty to adore about Turkey: the turquoise coast, Ephesus, Ottoman palaces and Gallipoli are all terrific and worth seeing, even if the lira keeps inflating. The Turkish people are hospitable and lively.

We walk down a steep hill, past the cave hotels and taxi ranks, careful about the heavy rain. Water thrashes into our path like beach waves from Bondi. Tourists enter the bars and shops. Many, I imagine, plan to take a hot-air-balloon ride in the following week. These joyful scenes cement Cappadocia as a place of escapism, romance and wonder. A contemporary traveller may even believe Cappadocia was always like that and nothing more. Such is the deceptive power of the present.

This memoir appears in the current Quadrant.
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Cappadocia is a region in central Anatolia that includes the towns Göreme, Uçhisar, Ürgüp and Derinkuyu, all oozing with tourists, as well as numerous valleys where the rocks form into cones and chimneys, as seen in the Devrent Valley. These spectacular sights are transformed into impressive Instagram campaigns and glossy videos from travel bloggers. Cappadocia, in the public gaze, is an outdoor splendour.

Yet this is one side of Cappadocia. The other is found in underground cities and abandoned caves, for Cappadocia’s significance also stems from history, theology and war. Great empires have ventured across the sand dunes, from the Achaemenids to the Ottomans, and of course, the Romans, whether crowned in a Corona Civica or a Monomachus built from Byzantine gold. Cappadocia, therefore, as well as Turkey and the wider Black Sea region, are the relics of once great, but now dead, civilisations. Herodotus acknowledged this in The Histories. The Cappadocians earnt their name from the Persians, while the Greeks preferred “White Syrians” to describe the various tribes in the region. Centuries later, a Greek presence grew in Asia Minor. The accomplished geographer Strabo theorised the lands that make up the Mediterranean region and Europe. He wrote during the time of Augustus, one of the greatest men of antiquity, and the founder of Imperial Rome.

Flavius Josephus, the controversial Roman-Jewish military leader and historian, further explored the ethnic ambiguity in Cappadocia. The Antiquities of the Jews declares: “the Mosocheni were founded by Mosoch; now, they are Cappadocians”. Mosoch, as per Genesis 10:2, is the son of Japheth, who is one of the three sons of Noah. There are other Judaic references, too. Both the Mishnah and Talmud reference Cappadocia. Christianity also placed a special emphasis on Cappadocia: the Church fathers, including Saint Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, linked Christendom with Cappadocia. Here, Saint Basil dedicated his life to theology and rhetoric, thus helping to establish the critical principles of the Trinity. By the seventh century AD, Christians had migrated to Cappadocia in significant numbers. Cities and churches were formed out of the volcanic stone. Many of the tiny churches can fit only a few people at a time.

This is particularly the case in the Göreme Open Air Museum; it’s not uncommon for queues to form outside the cave entrances. Outside, a gift-shop sells Christian trinkets of icons and saints. The urban layout and demographics of Cappadocia may not initially suggest a Christian region. The call to prayer, the many mosques, and the neighbouring Konya with its madrasas all indicate Islam. Yet Christianity isn’t banished here; it just exists in gift-shops, in museums, and in books fit for a coffee table. Turkey, therefore, is a Muslim country with a Christian past.

My tour guide narrates the history of the Cappadocian caves: first, Christianity and community, then war. The caves acted as refuges and shelter for Byzantine Christians during the first millennium AD. Limited in resources, the Cappadocian Greeks relied on simple methods for bathing, cooking and sleeping. Yet their devotion to Christianity was lavish. I step into individual caves—old churches—and see stunning Christian iconography all over, from the cave-top to the bottom. Many notable figures from Christianity appear: Jesus, Mary, the twelve disciples, the early Church fathers, Constantine the Great, and St John of Chrysostom. They are colourful, too. In chalk and paint, these figures are decorated in many shades, from blue to yellow. A favourite is the Tokali Church; the travel writer Mustafa Uysun describes it as “one of the biggest rock-cut churches in Cappadocia [with] the best-preserved mural painting. It must have once been the principal church of a large monastery.” Uysun’s conclusion is apt. There are four chambers inside: the Old Church, the New Church, the Paracclesion, and the Lower Church. Through visuals, the walls narrate the Gospel story from the Annunciation to the Crucifixion in fine detail. There are also tombs in the church.

One is reminded of the blue interior of St Petersburg’s Church of Our Saviour on Spilled Blood, where the Orthodox use of icons offers a transformative experience in which it is easy to feel the presence of not only Christianity, but also history. The Cappadocian caves mirror this in a remarkable and beautiful way. The wall paintings narrate the New Testament but also bear the damage from vandalism. Yet the volcanic rock from Cappadocia proves a suitable canvas for Byzantine Christianity. Whereas Constantinople—now Istanbul, once the seat of the Ottoman empire—has thoroughly suppressed its pre-modern religious roots, Cappadocia offers an alternative narrative about Anatolia’s religious heritage. Christianity illuminates the caves like smoke from a candle. Whilst visiting, I understood why these caves became shelters for the Cappadocian Greeks, particularly in the Middle Ages, when Christianity clashed with the Caliphates.

The Cappadocian Greeks, whilst limited in space and resources, succeeded in creating these wonderful churches. There’s a theological interpretation from this: God’s glory is found everywhere, even in the cramped and dusty corners of Cappadocia. Yet my visit proves bittersweet. These cave churches are not active and are in a museum. The walls, whilst bursting with colour and Christianity, suffered from iconoclasm—the destruction, and ultimate rejection, of religious imagery as heretical. Byzantium experienced iconoclasm in the eighth and ninth centuries. In some caves, the face of Christ is washed out into white. It’s not uncommon across Cappadocia to encounter scratched faces and icons. The region, after all, witnessed the clash of various ideas and peoples over the centuries. The Cappadocian Caves—and their history—are evidence of this.

Late antiquity and the early Middle Ages saw the rise of Islam in Asia Minor. Cappadocia submitted to Turk rule in the twelfth century; the Seljuks, under the Sultanate of Rum, made significant conquests throughout Turkey. Later, the dissolved Seljuk clans formed the Ottoman empire, who, under Mehmed the Conqueror in the fifteenth century, captured Constantinople and finally destroyed the once domineering Byzantine empire. The incredible Hagia Sofia—once the largest interior in the world during antiquity and a treasure of Christendom—morphed into a mosque, as did Chora Church. The Church of the Apostles, built by Constantine the Great and second to Hagia Sofia for grandeur, was demolished by the Ottomans in 1461, replaced by the opulent Fatih Mosque. Tragically, this church once hosted the bodies of previous Byzantine emperors and patriarchs of Constantinople.

The Ottoman threat spread over the next centuries across Europe. Under Sultan Mehmed IV in 1683, the Ottomans encroached onto Vienna, the heartland of the Holy Roman Empire. The combined forces of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire stopped the siege. A fantastic example of Catholic power under Pope Innocent XI, the Battle of Vienna proved the seriousness of the Ottoman threat since Constantinople’s fall. Vienna, after all, is over 1500 kilometres from the minaret perched by Mehmed the Conqueror outside Hagia Sofia’s domes. Later, other countries in Europe would learn the Ottoman threat: Malta, Italy and Hungary could not become complacent when invasion loomed.

Another great power in Europe, Imperial Russia under the Tsars, sought to become the “Third Rome” and protector of all Orthodox Christians living in the Ottoman empire. By the nineteenth century, Europe enjoyed a renaissance of Neo-Byzantine architecture with spectacular examples being St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg and the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris. The Greek War for Independence chipped away at Ottoman power and enjoyed support from the Russians, the British and the French. The Sultans were now the sick man of Europe. Nationalism in the nineteenth century meant the ascendancy of the Balkans; the Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian identities formed from religious and ethnic lines. This led to the establishment of various autocephalous jurisdictions for Eastern Orthodoxy, one being the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Turkish people also became nationalistic during modern times. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the fiery statesman and the first president of Turkey, enforced Turkification across Anatolia upon the collapse of the Ottoman empire. The Greeks, whether in Cappadocia or Çanakkale, faced a harsh and unwelcoming future.

The Cappadocian Greeks suffered persecution and pressure from being both Greek and Orthodox Christian in an increasingly nationalistic Turkish state. The historian Gülen Göktürk has since questioned the romantic narratives—often from those sympathetic to the Ottomans—that the empire supported religious diversity and difference. The fate of the Cappadocian Greeks ultimately concludes in tragedy; in 1923, they were forced to abandon central Anatolia due to a population transfer with Greece, which saw the denaturalisation of over one million Greeks across Asia Minor. Today, Christians do not make up more than 1 per cent of the population in Turkey. This is partially due to the Treaty of Lausanne from 1922-23, which stipulated the population transfer of Muslims in Greece and Christians in Turkey.

The collapse of Cappadocian Greek culture is tragic for several reasons. One, the Greeks had lived there for thousands of years. Two, this population transfer came at a volatile time in Balkan history with the end of the First World War and rising ethno-nationalism in Yugoslavia. From Sofia to Split, the south-eastern parts of Europe had suffered under various empires: the Russians, the Ottomans, the Austro-Hungarians, the British and the French, all viewed the Balkans as the playground for their imperial interests. These games, however, occurred in a graveyard.

Yet that is not the most miserable aspect of the Cappadocian Greeks’ expulsion from Anatolia. The population transfer—whilst an obvious violation of their rights and dignity, bordering on ethnic cleansing—was almost necessary to avoid future violence. The Pontic Genocide between 1914 to 1922 involved the slaughter of Greeks across the Ottoman empire; Syriacs, Assyrians, Armenians, and Chaldeans were also persecuted. This hatred, being both ethnic and religious, put the Cappadocian Greeks in an unfortunate situation, and it’s logical to conclude more violence would have followed if they hadn’t left for Greece. The Turkish nationalists, responsible for many of these massacres, cannot excuse their crimes against the Cappadocian Greeks with this truth. It is a stretch to portray the population transfer as the sincere result of Turkish nationalists holding the best interests of Cappadocian Greeks at heart.

My visit to Turkey comes a century later. Here, I encounter Kayaköy (above) near the Turkish riviera. This is a ghost town. The houses have long been abandoned. Only the bugs bother to nestle within the shabby walls and churches. The terrain is hostile to walk around—I require help from my tour guide and fellow travellers. Sunlight gleams onto my eyes as if the sun were watching me. Yet we are alone. The Greek presence has faded and left nothing but the quiet. Those now in charge of the ghost town offer no signs about the buildings and the history behind the museum. Only the tour guides—I’m fortunate to have one—can illuminate the past. 

Anatolia has always been the battleground where civilisations go to war. Whilst the Ottoman legacy and that of Atäturk reign supreme, it is impossible to ignore the presence of previous civilisations and kingdoms found in Cappadocian caves, archeological museums and underground cities. Istanbul’s famed centre, the Sultanahmet district, boasts the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace, the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, and of course, the Hagia Sofia mosque. The latter has famed Byzantine Christian mosaics—our tour group cannot visit them due to restoration works, and thus, our gaze turns to the Arabic signage and Muslims reciting their prayers. 

Islam cloaks Turkey like snow. It takes effort to see the relics of pre-modern civilisations across Asia Minor. Many travellers are content with just hot-air-balloon rides and cruises on the Bosphorus. Yet those keen on history—and alert to the rise and fall of great powers, whether Christian or Muslim—would be wise to visit Cappadocia, where the cave churches are the remains of a people long gone.

Madeleine Rose Jones contributed “The False Promises of Reconciliation” to the March 2023 issue. She visited Cappadocia in April 2023


6 thoughts on “Cappadocia and Turkey’s Christian Past

  • Ian MacDougall says:

    “In Cappadocia, the Islamic call to prayer is heard through loudspeakers during a Friday sunset. … New travellers to Turkey quickly become accustomed to the call to prayer. My family are neither Muslim nor Turkish. We are Roman Catholics from Australia.”
    A very well written and informative piece. My congratulations, Madeleine.
    Many westerners are captivated by the muezzins calling the Islamic faithful to prayer from high on their minarets. What is perhaps less known is that there is no pope in Islam, to sit atop its Sunni-Shia-etc divides and arbitrate disputes between the clerical factions. Every imam in his mosque is a private businessman, touting as best he can for the patronage of the Faithful. So the marvellous minarets are in their own way the counterparts of the neon signs around, say, Sydney’s King’s Cross and similar parts of other Australian cities.
    When my wife and I visited Istanbul, we stayed at a place next door to what we might call a clerical startup. It was nothing like anything out of Lawrence of Arabia, just a converted shopfront occupied by some enterprising beginner-imam, who would call his congregation of the Faithful together over his public address system, with its volume turned up to full-blast

  • Botswana O'Hooligan says:

    They seem to be Moslems after the fashion of the Tartars from The Crimea and quite unlike Moslems from other places. That observation comes from someone “done” for Khalwat or close proximity in one of the more strict countries caused by being thrown against a resemblance of an extremely black clad female posing as an antbed?? in a rattle trap bus hitting a pothole the size of an excavation. Luckily, the local gendarmery took note of my uniform and all was sorted out. I went to Turkey the first time when my wife surprised me with a mystery holiday to escape mother Russia for a while and was the odd one out as in woodpile references amongst a bunch of Russians so the tour guides thought I was aslo Ruski. Interestingly enough, the tour guides spoke well of the ANZACS in WW1 oblivious to my nationality hence my high opinion of the Turkish people in general. Of course on one visit there when an extremely large Earthquake happened, the locals on finding out my nationality produced plenty of cold beer despite no electricity. I tend to think that I may have been given half the country had I told them that my grandfathers and great uncles who wore Emu feathers in their hats, went there in 1915. One irony of the place was that the opulence of an Alexander the Great palace in a Greek extravaganza was destroyed many centuries ago by time and earthquakes but the public outhouses from that time remained intact. One wonders if that will happen to Canberra in times to come?

    • Brian Boru says:

      The words of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on his memorial in Canberra.
      “Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.”

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    It is true that the Orthodox heritage of Turkey is second to none, but that and an amazing Islamic heritage aren’t all that Turkey has to offer. Going further back there are the Roman remains at Ephesus, Greek remains at Pergamon (at least what the Germans left behind), the Trojan remains at Troy (ditto), the Hittite remains at Hattusha, one of the world’s oldest towns at Catal Hoyuk (7500 to 6400 BC), and the world’s oldest (yet discovered) temple at Gobekli Tepe (9500 to 8000 BC). More pre-agricultural stone age settlements, such as Karahan Tepe, are being discovered as time goes on.
    I recall an Egyptian guide telling me how he had teased a Jordanian colleague about the depth of his country’s archaeological heritage, but for deep time, Turkey beats them both easily. See it while you still can.

    • David Isaac says:

      Removing archaeological treasures to the safety of European museums was hardly a pastime limited to Germans, as any visitor to the British Museum or the Louvre would attest.

      • David Isaac says:

        Not that I would wish to censure those who rescued these items from the Ottoman Empire, which only one hundred and fifty years eartlier had been at the Gates of Vienna. The bulk of the Ottoman domain was “stolen” from the Hellenic eastern Roman Empire in the first four centuries of the last millennium. The Greeks tried to retake Asia Minor after WWI but were thwarted by lack of support from war weary England and France. Constantinople was meekly handed back to the Turks by England in 1923

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