The rock monasteries of Cappadocia. In the days of Byzantium, monks turned weird rock cones into a city of cells and churches. It was part of central Turkey and a volcano buried the country-side for forty square miles in a lava hundreds of feet deep. The lava became a soft porous stone which wind and weather carved into towering cones and abstract shapes. The came Christian monks, who burrowed into the cones and created an extraordinary and unusual Byzantine world of their own. There is no real answer, no plausible explanation that lends itself to figuring out where these monks came from. What can be certain is that they followed the wise rule of Saint Basil, the contemporary of Julian the Apostate, the correspondent of Saint Gregory of Nanzianus and of Origen, who had sought refuge centuries before in nearby Caesarea.
We know too that this is something of a backwater in terms of scholars and grammarians, for the iconographic spelling and the scrolls in the hands of the painted saints are said to be arbitrary and somewhat phonetic. Experts have called it monasticism of a simple and rudimentary variety. The Levant, at that time, was sprinkled with ascetic extremists. Anchorites immured themselves in caves. Stylites, seated on the capitals of ruined temples, wore their lives away in prayer and meditation, and the stranger still Dendrites, are said to have chained themselves for decades to the topmost branches of lofty trees.
Stranger still is the date of the valley’s evacuation, at least as problematic as that of the cutting of the first grotto. The cause is unknown and there are few chronicles or records of travelers. Maybe there were lost edicts from Byzantium evoked by some unknown heresy, of a sudden and bezerk raid from advancing Mongols. No one knows. The caves, the crepuscular churches and the numberless painted saints remain as enigmatical as ever.
To the Occidental eye, these relics seem to lack the overpowering sadness of the monastic remains of Western Europe. Byzantium has vanished in any event, swept out of Asia Minor forever and today only Moslems inhabit these peculiar regions. The rock monasteries keep their secret almost as closely guarded as Stonehenge, yet this valley of empty husks is the nearest thing in existence to the vanished colonies of the Thebaid in which all Christian monasticism has its roots and is the type of burning wilderness that scattered hermits like Saint Jerome shared his desert cell with a lion and compiled the Vulgate. Probably, these outlandish places are far closer to the primitive beginnings of monasticism than the dim northern silence and the claustral penumbra which the thought of monasteries most readily conjures up. This is a world inside out, mysteriously embedded in some hard transparent element through which we all magically advance…