Communal meals defined the monastic lifestyle in Cappadocia. Twice a day monks gathered in large rooms called refectories to share meals. These sacred gatherings embodied community life in ancient monasteries. This article explores the nature of monastic meals, and explains the many refectory rooms in Cappadocia.
The Agape Meal
Early Christians celebrated a common meal to demonstrate their faith and relational unity. This meal, called a "love feast" (Greek, agape), was a tangible expression of harmony and love. Monastic meals followed the example of Jesus' table fellowship; they were radical demonstrations of life in God's welcoming Kingdom.
Eating together symbolized the monks' mutual commitment to a shared life. In relational terms, the meals were the heart of communal life. One monastic founder explained,
"Let there be only one table, one sort of food, one sort of drink. Let there be one time to partake of them. This equality brings peace and calm to the soul and serves as the bond of love and unity in Christ. This also indicates progress in community life." (BMFD, p. 1508).
The meal carried great theological and spiritual meaning. The event nourished the soul of a monk, as much as his body. The meals were a liturgical event, a continuation of the church liturgy, a sacred act of worship.
Another common feature of Byzantine monasticism was commemorative meals for the dead, also held in the refectories. The funerary meals started around 200 AD in the catacombs of Rome, which are geologically similar to the rock cut architecture of Cappadocia. These meals commemorated the lives of popular saints and relatives. On the third day, fortieth day, and the annual anniversary of the person's death, relatives and monks performed prayers in the church for the deceased person, and then proceeded to the refectory for a commemorative feast in their honor. The most extravagant meals remembered the founder(s) and patron(s) of the monastery, who were often buried in the main church. Rich donors would donate extra funds to buy special food for the anniversary meal. These commemorative meals on feast days were a common part of monastic life.
The Nature of Meals
Monastic charter documents (typika) explain the order and regulations of monastic meals in great detail. Their descriptions portray communal meals as a defining characteristic of monastic life.
All meals in the refectory were ritual and ceremonial. They were not festive dinner parties, but solemn religious events that followed a prescribed order. The following description is a general summary of the monastic meal based on ancient charter documents.
After monks completed the liturgy in the church, they would gather in the narthex. When hearing the bell, they proceeded quietly to the refectory. The superior would take his seat at the head of the table in the apse, and then all the other monks were seated according to a strict seating order based on rank and seniority. Any monk who complained about his location or food was moved to the lowest seat.
The table was preset with plates, cups, and silverware. Interestingly, Byzantines invented tableware and looked down upon Latin Romans from Western Europe for eating with their hands. You can observe the style of tableware in the pictures of The Last Supper.
Monks ate the main meal around midday. Their diet consisted of bread, legumes (beans, lentils, etc.) and boiled green vegetables. On non-fast days, they ate proteins like cheese, eggs, fish, or shellfish. Monks did not eat meat. On special occasions such as a commemoration feast, extra cakes and proteins were enjoyed. Patrons provided extra funds for their commemoration days to thank the monks for extra prayers. Everyone was supposed to get the same food, but in reality there were inequalities. The elder, educated, and important people received better or extra food.
The main drink was wine. This was natural because monasteries owned vineyards and fermented wine was safe to drink. The wine steward would pronounce a blessing, and then monks held out their wine cup for him to serve. Then hot water was passed around for the monk to add to the wine.
For the light meal in the evening, monks had bread, produce, and leftovers from the first meal. During the forty days before Easter (Lent), meals were simpler. Monks ate only once a day, abstained from proteins, and drank flavored water instead of wine.
During the meal, one monk would read a sacred text aloud to provide spiritual nourishment for the soul. As one monk said, "A refectory without the word of God is like a stable for animals." Common texts for the reading included the Bible (especially the book of Psalms), monastic classics like Basil the Great, and the lives of saints. The founding charter of the monastery was also read several times a year as a communal reminder.
Monks ate in silence to concentrate on these readings. Laughter and complaining were particularly prohibited. Monks were to look at their own food while eating. The environment was disciplined and serious. Monks could not keep personal food in their cell, miss a meal, or fast without prior permission. These actions violated the monastic commitment to community.
Monasteries placed a high value on hospitality and fed their guests for free. But to avoid distracting the monks, guests were served in a separate area. Noble benefactors were sometimes permitted into the refectory, especially when they brought extra food for the monks to enjoy.
At the end of the meal, monks placed their plates and silverware into baskets. Extra bread was gathered to give to beggars. Monks would sing hymns and/or psalms; then the priest would offer a prayer of thanksgiving. To mark the end of a meal, monks would take a final piece of bread and sip of wine. The abbot then dismissed the monks to their living cells.
Refectory: The Dining Hall
All monks’ meals happened in the refectory (Greek, trapeza). This was a dining hall featuring a large table with side benches carved from the rock. At the far end of the table was a rounded apse where the monastic leader sat during the meals. The table was often on the left side of the room. Refectories were quite dark because of they had no windows and low, flat ceilings. The rectangular refectories were large and impressive. They were built and decorated to resemble Byzantine royal banquet rooms and basilica churches. The greatest concentration of refectories in Cappadocia is around the Goreme Open Air Museum.
The refectory walls were decorated with paintings from the life of Christ, most often the Last Supper. This picture of Jesus eating with the twelve disciples gave spiritual meaning and historic continuity to the monks' communal meals.
Refectories in Cappadocia had a variety of styles. Some refectories had massive decorative columns (Selime), two tables (Keşlik), burial graves (Eski Gümüş), and elaborate carving fancier than the church (Geyikli).
Every refectory had four basic characteristics:
a long hall
located near the church
with a table and
apse in front
Second only to the main church (katholikon), the refectory was the most important part of a monastery complex. The church and refectory were usually connected and defined the spiritual zone of a monastic complex. The connection between refectory and church was so close that some scholars say the refectory was a functional extension of the church. In most Byzantium monasteries, the refectory faced the church and allowed for a direct procession from the formal liturgy to the meal, but in Cappadocia's rock-cut architecture, refectories were located below the church. Curiously, kitchens were never located near the refectory. The geographical distance reflected a conceptual distinction—the refectory, a sacred space in the monastery, was included in the spiritual area, while the kitchen was separate in the common living area.
In sum, the communal meals and refectories were sacred, vital aspects of monks' regular life in Cappadocia.
Ousterhout, Robert, "Remembering The Dead In Byzantine Cappadocia: The Architectural Settings For Commemoration," in Architecture of Byzantium and Kievan Rus (St. Petersburg, 2010), pp. 87-98.
Popovic, Svetlana, "The Trapeza in Cenobitic Monasteries: Architectural and Spiritual Contexts." Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 52 (1998), pp. 281-303.
Talbot, A.-M. "Mealtime in the Monasteries: The Culture of the Byzantine Refectory," in Eat, Drink, and Be Merry (Luke 12:19)–Food and Wine in Byzantium (Routledge, 2016), pp. 109-23.