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Middle East Abeja Dispatch

Is This What They Mean By "the Rock of Ages"?
March 18, 2000

Even though I chose a hostel with central heating, it is still too cold to get out of bed this morning! One brave arm reaches out from under the warm blankets to pull back the curtain. Small, delicate snowflakes fall quietly in the morning light, as I look out over the most bizarre town I have ever seen-Goreme, in Cappadocia, Turkey. Goreme is home to some of the most amazing rock formations I have ever seen-miracles born of centuries of wind, water, heat and cold acting on the rock. Goreme is a town built around-and-with these crazy rocks. These rocks are made of soft, volcanic stone, which made it easy for rooms and tunnels to be carved out of them since ancient times.

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Yesterday, I hiked around the nearby valleys, exploring the many caves, tunnels, homes, and imagining what it would be like to live in one of them. Today, if I can get out of bed, I plan to visit the "Goreme Open-Air Museum," which is the site of an ancient Christian community that carved its buildings out of stone. Supposedly, Christians moved here in the 4th century, to escape persecution for their strange new beliefs, and they carved these monasteries and convents into the soft rock. That way, they could easily defend themselves from hostile armies by just rolling a stone in front of the door!

Ok, ok, I'm up! I have to dress myself in layers of the warmest clothes I have. "How did the ancient civilizations of Anatolia survive this weather before polypropylene and Gore-tex?", I wonder to myself as I step out into the snow. I have to keep my camera inside my coat, because the alkaline batteries don't work when they're cold!

It's not so bad, once I'm out here. The scenery takes my mind off the cold, and soon, I'm standing in front of a huge rock with seven stories of rooms and churches carved into it! This was the convent, where the nuns lived. Up the steps to my left is half of a small church, with frescoes of Jesus and other scenes from the Bible painted into the half dome that remains after all these years. Time has worn away the soft stone, and many walls have collapsed over the centuries.

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larger view
Before exploring the rest of the churches and dwellings, I climb to the top of the hill, and look out over this small community and the hundreds of other carved rooms that are scattered throughout the hills. A gray fox runs by in the distance, oblivious to my presence. A red hawk dives and calls overhead, and a light snow continues to fall. Ahead of me, I can see the remains of the Dark Church, the most famous of all the "buildings" here. It was a huge, traditional monastery, with many levels of living quarters and chapels. It was designed after typical Byzantine church buildings except, instead of starting from the ground and building up, they started from the outside and carved in!

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Unfortunately, the huge, open central room made the structure less stable, and the outside wall collapsed long ago, so there is only half a room left. Still, the main church, which was carved even further in, remains standing, and that's where I am headed.

I work my way down the hill and back up the other side, peeking into smaller churches and rooms along the way. Some of them are painted red and have simple designs. I don't mean to be sacrilegious, but it was nothing a kindergarten student couldn't have done-if he was tall enough. I enter one church where there is already a group of Japanese tourists with an English speaking guide, who is pointing out a fish, a cock, and several crosses in the red jumble. I was glad to be there then, because I never would have noticed the designs otherwise.

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larger view
The guide goes on to explain that these are from what is known as the "iconoclastic" period. "Icon" meaning a symbol or image used in religious worship, and "clast" meaning "to destroy"; so, the iconoclastic period, in the 8th and 9th centuries, was characterized by simple art that avoided representations of people and things that might be worshipped as "icons." Other sources say that these churches aren't as old as that, and that the red was just basic decoration until better frescoes could be painted. Some of the churches, though, have beautiful, elaborate frescoes painted in bright colors. These are attributed to the 12th and 13th centuries.

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larger view
It is so oddly fascinating to walk out of the snow, into a cave, and find perfectly carved domes, arches, and altars, with masterful frescoes painted on the walls and ceilings! Somewhere on each fresco is the name of the painter and the name of the person who commissioned the work to be done. Master fresco painters used to roam the remaining Christian enclaves of the former Byzantine empire, painting churches and then moving on. Sadly, many of the frescoes have been defaced. Someone has come through and scraped the faces off of the people in the pictures. This could be because Islam does not permit the use of "idols" or icons. (Ever notice how "arabesque" artwork is all flowers and geometric designs, with no people or animals?)

Finally I make it to the Dark Church. Its darkness is due to a distinct lack of windows. But that absence of light is what has allowed the frescoes in this old church to remain the best preserved of all. Also, they just underwent a major restoration. I'm not sure what that entails, but it seems to have worked.


iconoclastic - the destroying of religious images or opposing their veneration; attacking settled beliefs
deface - to spoil the external appearance of something by erasing the details
fresco - the art of painting on fresh plaster with water based pigments

The frescoes are lit from below by very dim lights. Photography is not allowed, so I can only buy postcards. Before I go, let me tell you that these frescoes are amazingly beautiful and elaborate - and I've seen a lot of beautiful and amazing stuff in my days. They are bright and colorful, as if they were painted yesterday. Since I'm not allowed to use my digital camera inside, I guess you'll have to come here and see for yourself!

Want to Learn More About Goreme?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


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