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Rock Churches and Frescoes

Destinations in Cappadocia

The region of Göreme, is of considerable historical and archaeological importance, famous for its caves, monasteries and churches. The curious landscape of the valley, made up of volcanic tuff, owes its existence to the activity of Mt Erciyes, and extinct volcano whose lava formations dominate the area. Wind and rain have worn the tuff formations into free-standing outcrops and rock-towers—“fairy chimneys”. There are many such outcrops in the region between Nevşehir, Ürgüp and Avanos, where rock-cut dwellings, churches and monasteries have long attracted the attention of travelers and scholars. The first accounts date from 19th century western travellers to the area.

Rock-cut monasteries were first founded in the region by Basilius, archbishop of Caesareia, in the 4th century. Soon after the foundation of the first monasteries in the valley of Göreme, they became the centre of pilgrimage for Christians in search of physical and devotional succour.

The region was first named Korama according to the 6th century account of the life of St. Hieron. It is said that this saint lived in a shelter carved out of the rock which was extremely difficult of access. Since this account refers to a much earlier saint, Hieron is not the earliest martyr to suffer death in these troglodyte shelters.

According to the English historian Skene, St. George was also of Cappadocian origin. It appears that the legend of St. George and the dragon is related to older legends of Mount Erciyes and the snake.

Indeed, the dragon guarding a magic plant is a common feature of Anatolian legends. St. George may be one of the various heroes who slay the mythical creature. This perhaps accounts for the frequency with which one encounters the image of St. George and the dragon in the rock-cut churches of Göreme.

Göreme was an important centre of Christianity during the 7th to 13th centuries. According to the chronicles of a 10th century monk who lived in the area, there were about 360 churches and monasteries of various sizes.

Most of the churches discovered to date contain frescos dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries, a time when the monasteries of the region enjoyed prosperity and tranquility. I followed a period of continual disturbance during which the Christians in the area suffered from sectarian disputes, the effects of iconoclasm and Arab invasions.

Although Cappadocia cannot be considered an artistic centre as important as Byzantium, the monastic school created here possessed its own vitality and style. Here one may encounter the frescos of monastic artists intent on giving devotional expression to the church where he himself prayed and the monastery where he lived. The visual images resulting from this simple devotion are not the works of any particular school of art. It can be said that the effects of the style of the capital have combined with folk art to produce an art in which stylised forms of some sophistication are blended with naive drawings.

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