The monastic moonscape of Cappadocia demands interpretation. What is this?!?!
The human settlements carved into the volcanic terrain defy simple understanding. The average visitor can hardly comprehend the unique fairy chimneys, cave churches, and underground cities. The strange wonders elicit many questions—“Who did this?,” “How did they do it?,” and “Why did they do it?”
Many aspects of Cappadocia remain mysterious because there are no historical documents from Cappadocia from the 4th-13th centuries. Although hundreds of medieval spaces remain in Cappadocia, there are no written documents from that era (which itself is another mystery of Cappadocia’s history). To fill this gap in our historical understanding, various people have developed “stories” to explain Cappadocia’s exotic landscape. Over the last several centuries, such people have interpreted Cappadocia in various ways, as described in this article.
European travelers from around the 1700s and 1800s provide the earliest written descriptions of Cappadocia’s landscape and history. European governments, especially the French and British, commissioned these travelers to explore Ottoman territories. They used overly romantic and legendary language to capture the mystique of Cappadocia’s ‘pyramid-houses.’ Their travel accounts speak of supernatural forces like ghosts and spirits. With hand drawings and fantastical descriptions, adventurous travelers like Sir Paul Lucas and William Hamilton introduced Cappadocia to Europeans as mythical and otherworldly.
Around this time, people began to explore the monastic origins of Cappadocia. According to this story, Basil the Great of Caesarea introduced monasticism in the late 300s. As a result, many gathered into communities, while ascetics withdrew to remote caves. Monks filled the sacred landscape and carved out underground cities to avoid persecution. Cappadocia was a monastic center, the Mt. Athos of Anatolia. This initial interpretation remains popular.
In the late 1800s, European scholars explored the geography and architectural history of Cappadocia. Sir William M. Ramsey, an Oxford professor of classical archaeology, documented the historical geography of Anatolia, including Cappadocia. His archaeological explorations identified the location of Greco-Roman and Byzantine cities. Charles Texier analyzed the monumental architecture around Ürgüp. He emphasized the great skill and effort that the Byzantines put forth to produce such “Christian architecture.” These explorers re-discovered the churches of long-lost Christian communities in Muslim lands. For them, the architectural remains of Cappadocia were proof of an impressive Christian civilization from pre-Renaissance times.
Systematic research of Cappadocia’s cave churches began just before World War I. The French Jesuit priest Guillaume de Jerphanion, aided by local Greeks, systematically explored, cataloged, and photographed most of Cappadocia’s painted cave churches. His five-volume work Les eglises rupestres de Cappadoce (1925–42) shaped all subsequent study. Jerphanion presented Cappadocia as a magnificent trove of Byzantine paintings.
After World War II, European scholars such as Nicole Thierry, Catherine Jolivet-Levy, and Marcell Restle continued to research the painted churches in Cappadocia. These art historians translated the wall writings, analyzed the paintings, and assigned potential dates based on the artistic style. They expanded and refined the cataloging work of Jerphanion. Their focus on the visual art of painted churches presumed the monastic nature of Byzantine Cappadocia.
Since the 1990s, some architectural historians have proposed a secular (non-monastic) interpretation of Cappadocia. Scholars such as Robert Ousterhout and Veronica Kalas emphasize the non-religious nature of Cappadocian spaces. Such a perspective focuses on the physical and social context of the churches and not on the church art. The courtyard dwellings in Cappadocia were not monasteries but, rather, the large residences of Byzantine elites and warlords. Ancient Cappadocia was a typical, albeit well-preserved, Byzantine settlement.
As tourism increased in the 1980s, the local Turkish population began constructing certain stories about Cappadocia. The general population continues to believe that Cappadocia was a monastic center initiated by St. Basil the Great in the fourth century. The most popular churches have become official museums under the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. Their interpretation, narrated through signage and brochures, highlights three points. One, Cappadocia began as monks settled underground to flee persecution. Two, Cappadocia became an important center for Christian education. Three, after the Turkic invasion, Christians and Muslims had harmonious relationships. In the interest of business development, local tour agents promote many tales. Their most popular myth remains “Star Wars was filmed in Cappadocia!”
So, what is Cappadocia? And, who did this? These questions continue to spark competing interpretations of the natural and human landscape. In 1882, the French academic Charles Texier summarized the enduring problem: “No description can convey a sufficient idea of the variety and novel appearance of this extraordinary tract of country. The most difficult questions connected with these places are to ascertain the uses for which they were intended, and the people by who they were made.”