Saturday, February 11, 2012


If there exists a land of make-believe to house even the most implausible of myths, then that land is Cappadocia. Home of dragons, of forgotten superheroes and saints but also of great learning, culture and stalwart of Orthodoxy, this forgotten region, slumbering peacefully in the centre of Asia Minor is a paradox and an oxymoron. Its paradox lies in its hyperbolic qualities. A foundation of Greek culture in its extreme, it marks the apogee of civilization and also, of utter emptiness. Every Cappadocian stone cries out its history into the wilderness, and is hear by no man any more.
The very geography of Cappadocia betrays its nature. A harsh land of hot summers and icy cold winters, the terrain of Cappadocia is a petrified sea. Volcanic convolutions have made the landscape unique. Strange conic formations rise out of nowhere, forming a vast meringue of stone on the Cappadocian plain. The tortured appearance of stones transformed by lava flows and eroded by time led the ancient Greeks to weave the region into mythology as the battleground between the Gods and the Titans, when the primeval world was broken and re-created. In fact, it was held the land of Cappadocia was the prison of the defeated Titans, whose anguished groans could be heard as the earth moved.
Cappadocia was incorporated into Hellenism at a relatively late stage. Its historic inhabitants, of mixed Hittite and Assyrian stock saw the ebb and flow of countless empires before finally being hellenised during the penetration of Greek colonists from the coast of Asia Minor that was facilitated by the conquests of Alexander. Hellenisation of the area continued under Roman rule. While the Cappadocians stubbornly resisted all attempts to submit to the Romans and were in constant revolt, during Roman rule, the Greek language permeated throughout the region, while the various theatres, gymnasiums and philosophical schools served to further bring Greek culture to the masses.
Owing also to the hardiness and resilience of the native Cappadocians, they formed a bulwark against the constant incursions of the Parthian armies. In time, under the name of Akrites, literally, those who live on the edge, they would create a legend of heroism that would last to the present day.
However hellenised, during early Roman times, the region was considered a cultural backwater. It was only with the advent of Christianity that Cappadocia began slowly to emerge as a region with a distinct and special spirituality. Hitherto, the harsh climate and terrain of the region produced an intensely orgiastic religion, centered around the Anatolian mother-deity, Ma. The pragmatic mind of the Cappadocians was able to develop a syncretic religion of Greek and Semitic ideas, given voice by the neo-Pythagorean, Appollonius of Tyana, whose profuse philosophical writings will greatly influence later Cappadocian theologians.
If Christianity has its origins in desert wildernesses, the Idumaean desert where Christ was tempted, the Egyptian desert where monks first formed their communities, the wilderness of Cappadocia, acting as a catalyst of clear thought became the home of doctrinal theology and also of Orthodox mysticism The Hellenistic desire to free man from the shackles of his earthly limitations would profoundly influence the Cappadocians and the spread of Christianity throughout the Greek world.
Already by the first century AD, there was enough of a Christian presence in the region to warrant Peter the apostle to address one of his epistles to the Cappadocians and a visit by Paul. By the second century, Cappadocia had its own bishopric, centered on Cappadocia. The early Cappadocian church was famed mostly for the excessive amount of its martyrs. Thousands died for their faith during the successive persecutions of Aurelianus, Diocletian and Maximilian. St Basil the Great mentions Orestes and Julite, while by far the most famous was St Mamas, who ironically enough bore the name of the autocthonous goddess, Ma. A child of the martyrs Theodotus and Rufina, St Mamas developed a form of early asceticism in the countless conical caves of the regions where he lived as a hermit. A precursor of St Francis of Assisi, he developed a close relationship with animals, and shared his cave with them.
Always the stuff of legend, the caves of Cappadocia were reputed to be the home of the great dragon which St George, one of the more famous Cappadocians, who embodied the military tradition of the region and was a typical larger than life Cappadocian superhero and martyr. Tradition places the legendary battle between man and beast at Argeus. Always innovators in the sphere of welfare and society, the Cappadocians appointed him protector of the poor and by inference, patron of Cappadocia.
Of greatest renown during the early Byzantine period, where the theological thinkers of Cappadocia, who established an important and lasting scholastic tradition. Indeed, the third and fourth centuries would come to be known as the golden age of Cappadocia, in which the theology of the Orthodox Church was established. The Great Hierarchs, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzus derived their origins from Cappadocia. Inspiring the masses with their enlightened insights into their faith, they codified and developed the form of the Orthodox liturgy that is still in use today. St John Chrysostom in particular was noted for his continuance of the ancient Greek art of oratory. His fiery sermons became the social conscience of the whole Byzantine Empire. St Basil, bishop of Caesaria, developed the first welfare state in the world. During his tenure in the city, he ensured its inhabitants had access to hospitals, orphanages, schools and even set up a system of welfare payments and compensation for those injured at work.
Thousands of artisans, tradespeople and clergy flocked to Cappadocia, which at that stage, rivaled Rome as the centre of Christendom. Cappadocian missionaries spread Christianity throughout Asia Minor and the East, while schools were set up for the study of the ancient classics. The monasteries that were founded employed monks to copy the ancient texts. It was because of the efforts of these Cappadocians that much of the corpus of ancient Greek thought that is available to us today, survives.
Monasticism too received a form that would be adopted throughout Europe, profoundly altering the political and cultural life of the continent. St Basil’s “heavenly army” established itself in the most remote caves of the region around Mt Varatynon, which today is an impressive labyrinth of ruins known as Bin Bir Kilise or One Thousand and One Churches. At Goreme, the visitor is struck by an almost lunar landscape. The artwork of the conical churches exudes intense spirituality and form the few relics of Byzantine art that survive relatively intact. Also of note are the monasteries carved into the mountainsides, eerie reminders today, of an illustrious past.
By the 600’s, the unique social fabric of Cappadocia had begun to fray. Emperors deplored the activism of the Cappadocian hierarchs, who were not afraid to speak out against their temporal masters if they exceeded their authority or ruled in an unjust manner. It became the policy of the Emperors to erode the authority of the Cappadocian clergy as much as possible. Utilising the services of the unscrupulous nobleman John the Cappadocian, the Emperor Justinian imposed heavy taxation upon the monasteries and also sowed the seeds of destruction among the Cappadocian aristocracy. Through the imposition of economic blockades, John was able to break the economic back of the local landowners and appropriate vast farmland for the Emperor. The great social upheaval that result, as well as famine, was to disrupt the hitherto peaceful social structure of the area.
Of greater importance however was the impending storm that was gathering in the southeast. In 636, Syria fell to the fanatical Muslims, who with the fervour of the newly converted, swept across Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine. All of a sudden, Cappadocia becomes a borderland. It received its first Arab attack in 647 and for the next two hundred years, Cappadocia would become a vast battleground, a desolate and uncertain place.
The continuous Arab raids altered the Cappadocian way of life forever. Hitherto a wealthy, relaxed and peaceful agricultural community, small towns and villages were completely destroyed by successive Arab attacks. Refugees fled to the large cities such as Caesaria, which were fortified and became insular looking. Those that remained behind in the countryside became troglodytes, carving homes for themselves in the harshest of mountains and eking out an impoverished existence, away from the ravages of the Arabs. Predictably enough, the constant attacks caused a resurgence of monasticism in the mountains, which in Cappadocia are as perforated as Swiss cheese from the endeavours of the cave dwelling monks. At any rate, the large traditional monasteries fell into disuse around 800, as monks opposed to iconoclasm fled to Sicily.
It was during this period that the military legend of Cappadocia came into full fruition. The hardy Cappadocians, recruited into the Byzantine army, were assigned as defenders of the borders. The exploits of these superhuman Akrites, who were able to leap tall mountains in a single bound were immortalized in demotic song and are still commemorated today. In fact, it is argued that the Byzantine epics extolling the Akrites, form the basis of Greek demotic music. Of greatest renown is Digenis Akritas, the son of the Arab Emir Musur and the princess Irene Douka.
In 865, Michael the Third led a massive attack, which swept the Arab marauders out of Cappadocia. His advance was followed up by Basil the Bulgar Slayer who in 871 swept the surrounding regions of Arabs and liberated parts of Syria. The Arabs would never return and the Byzantines would begin their counter-attack. This martial region, would become the training ground of Byzantium’s greatest generals and emperors, including Ioannis Kourkouas, Nicephoros Phocas and Ioannis Tsimisces. Phocas himself was proclaimed emperor of Byzantium in Caesaria, capital of Cappadocia in 963.
In the meantime, under the enlightened rule of the Macedonian-Armenian dynasty, Cappadocia was set up as a ‘theme; or state, with its own army and rule. The privileges of the landowners were restored and once more, the land began to flourish, attracting the great noble families of Phocas, Maleinos, Balantis and Alyatis to its soil. They proved the catalyst for equitable redistribution of imperial lands to the Cappadocians.
While being the land of liberation, Cappadocia also became the land that stages the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire. It was the scene of the great rout of Manzikert, when in 1071, the Byzantine army was completely annihilated by the Seljuk Turks. That date marked the beginning of a steady migration of Turcoman tribes into Asia Minor. Their pillaging of the Christians of Cappadocia reduced them to a state of penury. Even more catastrophic was the formation of petty Seljuk sultanates which fought each other and caused Christians to be drawn into bloody civil wars. These sultanates will eventually be unified by Kiliç Arslan into the Sultanate of Rum, with its capital at Iconion. The birthplace of the whirling dervishes, their founder, Jelaleddin Al Rumi drew much from the Cappadocian Orthodox mysticism, as did Hadji Bektash, the founder of a popular sect of Islam.
During the successive Seljuk and Ottoman occupations, the Greeks of Cappadocia were subjected to the same twists and tortures of fate as all others. However, they tenaciously held on to heir identity. When after centuries of rule, they began to lose the Greek tongue, they still stubbornly wrote their Turkish with Greek characters, known as ‘Karamanlidika.’ Various ecclesiastical commentaries were published in Karamanlidika by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and for the benefit of the Sultans.
As traders, craftsmen and expert farmers, the Cappadocians, indistinguishable culturally from their Turkish neighbours, stubbornly kept their identity and religion. In the nineteenth century, the neo-classical vogue reached the area, with Greeks like Usta Uşak Kalfoglou naming his son, Homer. The Hatti Sherif (1839) and Hatti Humayun (1856) reforms allowed limited self-expression to the Cappadocians who vigorously founded schools to spread the Greek language as well as cultural leagues. Cappadocian literature flourished. Cappadocian musicians were known for their innovative ways, their progressive character and vivid artistry. The rembetika songs stem from nineteenth century innovations of Cappadocian music.
Sadly, as always in Cappadocian history, the years of peace were dispersed by an oncoming storm. When it cleared, after 1924 the aboriginal inhabitants of Cappadocia had been uprooted and transplanted in Greece. The harsh countryside and the ruined churches, the bones of Hellenism in this forgotten region remain to bear witness to its passing. The land has still not recovered from the loss of its people. And all about the hollows of the mountains, in this great biblical catastrophe, primeval whispers groan in pain: «Εθρηνούν τα δένδρα ηχούντα: που ει ο Αδάμ;» (The trees mourn, crying out: Where is Adam?) For the Cappadocian paradise is no more.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 February and Saturday 11 February 2012