rock monasteries. Back in the days of yore, in the days of Byzantium, monks turned weird rock cones into a city of cells and churches.
In the seclusion of a monastery cell, where quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods, the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away. After a time one is said to reach a state of peace that in unthought of in the ordinary world; so different from normal experience that strangers claim they are the chosen beneficiaries of a supernatural windfall, or a share in a spiritual activity always at work in these environments which glean with healing and mysterious enchantment.
The old monastic community of Urgup in the hinterland of Turkey is one of those ancient desert monastic establishments from which the whole of monasticism is said to arise. It is a journey back into a remote and dateless world that looks biblical and gaunt. The heart of Cappadocia. The town of Urgup seems hacked out of the mountainside and appears about to subside again into its native rock. The landscape is so wildly strange that it resembles the surface of a planet, except instead of craters and shell holes there are cones, and pyramids and monoliths from fifty to several hundred feet high, each one a rigid isosceles of white volcanic rock like the headgear of a procession of Spanish penitents during Passion Week.
Some contain Byzantine churches which materialize, complex and tenebrous from within dark portals. Inside, the walls and arches are stuccoed and intricately decorated in oxblood, yellow, pale blue, and dark green tempera. Some of the cones contain intricate shrines with richly painted murals of Betrayals and Last Suppers. They are convincing imitations of conventionally constructed churches that the oddity if it all is like a delayed reaction until the freakish nature becomes apparent. This is a blind matrix of rock pressed in on all sides into which tenth and twelfth century monks, outlining the doorways with adze and chisel on the blank rock face, had so astonishingly dug their warrens. What clearer proof could be found of Byzantine rigidity than the excavation, in defiance of every difficulty and architectural need, of such punctilious replicas? Not a detail is apparently disregarded. Narthex and dome and pillar and apse and basilica were hacked out of the darkness as unfalteringly as brick was placed on sunlit brick by the ecclesiastical masons of Salonika and Byzantium.