Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Travel Journal (10)--Soganli

In so many ways, Cappadocia defies description. I hope the pictures posted on this and subsequent posts will convey some sense of the area. Much of the region is like an eerie moonscape, complete with bizarre volcanic rock formations; so much so that a few scenes from the original Star Wars movie were shot here. From on high, the region looks uninhabitable, but the gorges hide lush, productive valleys where all sorts of crops are grown. In the past, Cappadocia was heavily forested, but generations of sheep-herding have taken its toll.

From time immemorial, Cappadocians have carved dwellings in the soft volcanic rock. These cave homes provide cool relief in the summer, and warmth in the winter. Christianity came to Cappadocia early on (Acts 2:8). In time, cave churches and monasteries dotted the area. These sites and their frescoes are, after Istanbul, Turkey's most popular tourist attraction. I am glad Turan and I started with the Soganli Valley. Some of the more popular Cappadocian destinations can become overrun with tour buses. Not so, Soganli. We had it much to ourselves--a great introduction to the region.

We visited 4 churches in this valley. Their original names are lost, but Turks have identified them either by some notable fresco or some physical characteristic. So the churches are known as the Black Hat Church, the Church of the Snake, the Church of the Dome and the Hidden Church. The frescoes are in generally poor condition. They have been damaged in 2 ways: first, intentionally by Muslims who gouge out the eyes of these "images," and second by graffiti. And before we work up too much anger over Turks destroying the frescoes by their graffiti, I might add that most of the graffiti is in Greek. The cave churches had ceased to be used actively long before the expulsion of the Greeks in 1923. Turan explained that there was a rural superstition that held that if you scratched your name on one of the icons, collected the paint dust from the scratching, and then mixed it with your bath water, then that saint would bless you. So, at least in the Soganli Valley, the damage by graffiti was largely by the pre-1923 Christian community itself.

Of course, the Muslim Turkish community was not without its own destructive superstitions. These cave churches have depressions all over their floors. These are shallow graves that have been emptied. In a period of drought, the local Muslims determinied they were being punished by having the graves of these "unbelievers" in their midst. So, they dug up all the graves and threw the bones of the "infidels" into the river. Turan was telling me of one instance, however, where they dug up the grave of a nun and found her in a remarkable state of preservation. This was so amazing to them that her body was preserved and is now on display (sadly) at the museum in Nigde. I tried to explain to Turan the Orthodox belief on this sort of phenomenon (to the extent that I myself understand.)

The "Black Hat Church" was the center of a substantial monastic complex. In addition to the chapel, stables, a refectory, a baptismal pool, wine cellar, cells for the priests, and any number of other rooms filled out the compound--all in caves. The Church of the Snake was so-named from the fresco of St. George and the serpent. While we were looking around, we noticed a 30ish couple on the site along with us. They were quite friendly, asking where we were from, as we Americans are wont to do. I was surprised to find that they were fellow Texans, though had spent their post-college years in Baltimore. He was pleased to learn that I was familiar with the small town of his heritage in Texas, located about 100 miles southwest of my home.

We continued on around the valley, crossed the willow-shaded stream with the adjoining pumpkin patches, and circled up the other side of the valley. Turan is very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of Turkey, stopping to inspect some flower, or introduce me to the hoo-poo bird. We poked around the Hidden Church and the Church of the Dome and then made our way down the valley to the village. Here we stopped for some tea (spelled cay, pronounced chai). The Baltimore couple was at the next table and they were easy conversationalists. We found ourselves laughing and telling East Texas stories. Weird.


Hilarius said...

Love the icon/fresco of the circumcision of Christ. Is that in the St. George church (the "Snake")? Any idea of its age/history?

Interesting story about the nun's remains . . . wonder who she was, but praise God for the impression it made.

Wonderful stuff, John!


Eric John

John said...

This fresco is in the Kabasas Kilesi (Black Hat Church). I don't know the particular age. Although the frescoes in some churches are thought to date from before the pre-Iconoclastic controversy, most date from immediately after that period until the Muslim conquest of the region--9th, 10th, 11th centuries.

Mimi said...

It's interesting to imagine those vistas as heavily forested, and so beautiful to see where so many saints have walked. The icons are gorgeous, and I love the "nicknames" of the churches.

Anonymous said...

Having read a little (very little) of Gregory the Theologian, it is wonderful to be able to see the area where he lived. What I have read of his is beautiful. I doubt that I will ever be able to travel there!