The otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia inspires lots of myths and legends. The most outrageous are the internet claims about aliens making the underground cities!
Half-truths circulate widely in Cappadocia, despite historical evidence to the contrary. Below are 10 common myths about the Christian history in Cappadocia. The false part of each statement is underlined, followed by a correct explanation.
1. “St. Paul started churches in Cappadocia.”
The book of Acts (nor Paul himself) does not claim Paul came to Cappadocia. Paul traveled through the nearby regions of Cilicia (modern Adana/Mersin) and Galatia (modern Konya), but never Cappadocia. The closest Paul came to Cappadocia was his second journey, when he traveled from Tarsus to Konya through the Sicilian Gates (modern Pozantı), passing just south of Niğde.
2. “Christianity came to Cappadocia in the fourth century.”
Cappadocian Christianity started in the first century. The first Jesus-followers in the region were actually Jews who visited Jerusalem during Pentecost in 33 AD (Acts 2). They heard the apostle Peter preach, received the Holy Spirit, and returned to Cappadocia as “Messianic Jews.” Then around 62 AD, the letter of 1 Peter was written to Christians in Cappadocia, so indirectly confirms a first-century church presence.
3. “Over 20,000 people lived underground.”
Living underground full-time is physically and psychologically impossible. You would die from lack of sunlight (or become crazy) if you stayed in the pitch black underground. In truth, people used the underground abodes as temporary shelters for their animals and families whenever foreigners invaded.
4. “Christians built underground cities to escape Roman persecution.”
Christians were only persecuted in the 2nd or 3rd centuries, but there is no evidence the underground cities date to that time. The underground cities were built during the 600s and 700s (several centuries after the Roman empire had become Christian) in order to escape Arab raiders, who came from the south during the summer to plunder Anatolian and to attack Constantinople. So the local population in Cappadocia built these temporary shelters to hide. The earliest historical sources about these subterranean shelters are Arabs writings that mention “underground dwellers.”
5. “Christians came to Cappadocia because Jesus said, ‘I will build my church upon this rock’.”
No historical source mentions such a reason. No one links Jesus’ comment to Peter with Cappadocia’s terrain. As mentioned before, Christianity came to Cappadocia via Jews in Caesarea who were at Pentecost.
6. “Jesus’ hand gesture in the Pantokrator icon symbolizes the Trinity.”
Jesus’ right hand has layers of meaning, but the triune nature of God is not one of them. Orators in the ancient Greco-Roman world used hand gestures to communicate with listeners. In Christ Pantocrator, Jesus' oratorical hand gesture declares he has something important to say. For Orthodox Christians, this gesture also indicates a blessing of divine mercy. Orthodox priests use the same gesture to bless others during the liturgy. And most interesting is the exact shape of Jesus’ fingers. They bend and twist to form the letters “IC XC.” This is an abbreviation of Jesus’ name, made from the first and last letters of the Greek IHCOYC (Jesus) XPICTOC (Christ). Read more about Pantocrator here.
7. “There are ### churches in Cappadocia.”
Make up your favorite number to fill in the blank. I often hear claims about “several hundred” churches in Göreme and “thousands” in all of Cappadocia. There is about 500-600 cave churches in Cappadocia. Most churches are concentrated in a few locations: Göreme valley (60 churches), Çanlı Kilise area (30), Soğanlı Valley (40), Güzelyürt (20), Gülşehir/Açık Saray (15), Zelve (15) Red/Rose Valley (25), Ihlara (15), Beliserma/Selime (10), Mustafapaşa (10), Göreme city (10), Ortahısar (10), Karacaören/İltaş (10). These total 250 churches. Besides these churches in concentrated areas, there are other isolated churches scattered throughout the region. I estimate there are 500-600 churches in all of Cappadocia. Most of them are small chapels, and only 100-150 have decent paintings.
8. “Geometric lines on the walls are from the Iconoclastic Era.”
Many churches have red geometric shapes painted directly onto the rock surface. Earlier scholars dated such churches to the Iconoclastic period (726–842 AD) when icon paintings were banned. This conjecture is possible, but hard to prove since these churches lack inscriptions with specific dates. There is a better explanation for this simple geometric style—the church was merely unfinished. The lines and patterns closely follow the architectural carving, especially along arches and corners. The architect painted these lines immediately after carving to mark the space as sacred. They symbolized to human visitors that this was not a typical cave and warded off evil spirits. The design was temporary until the professional artists came to plaster and paint the walls.
9. “St. Basil the Great built the monasteries and churches.”
Basil the Great (330-79 AD) was a prolific theologian and bishop of Caesarea (modern Kayseri). He traveled throughout Cappadocia to form and oversee communal monasteries. Although his legacy in Cappadocia was great, there are no physical remains in Cappadocia from 4th century Christianity. The earliest remains of churches and monasteries in Cappadocia date to the 6th century, about 200 years after Basil the Great.
10. “There are many graves filled with treasures still to be found.”
Many local Turks fervently believe there are graves with treasures, and say Greeks have secret maps showing their location. When I introduce myself as a “church historian,” locals assume I’m a grave-diggin’ treasure hunter. This is on the level of a conspiracy theory, which by nature is hard to disprove. Turks have been in Cappadocia for over 1,000 years, so by now such looters have found all the graves. Moreover, any unfound tomb would not have riches and treasures. Historical sources indicate Christians were buried in poverty to not attract the grave robbers. Sadly, treasure hunters continue to dig deep holes in churches in search of imaginary tombs, even despite Turkey’s strict laws and tremendous efforts.
Hopefully these explanations bring you into the light, and help you better understand the history of Cappadocian Christianity.