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Fresco Facelift in Central Turkey

text and photos by Chris Hellier

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The central Turkish town of Ortahisar clings to a conic rock formation like barnacles to a coastal boulder. Empty churches and monasteries, carved out of the volcanic tuff, now house pigeons, while below ragged children scamper in and out of caves.

The old town of Ortahisar, literally the “middle castle,” is just one of many towns in the Turkish region of Cappadocia.

After Christianity was declared the official religion of the Byzantine empire in the late fourth century, Cappadocia became a flourishing monastic center and an important provincial center of Byzantine art. More than 1,000 churches and a score of monastic cells are hidden in this isolated region of extraordinary volcanic valleys.

Cappadocia contains the greatest concentration of Byzantine frescoes anywhere. But the ravages of people and time, and the softness of the rock that once allowed these Christians to carve out homes and churches, now threaten the very future of the paintings themselves. Plaster is beginning to crumble. The pigments have been dulled by centuries of dust and smoke from innumerable candles. Local villagers have scratched out the eyes and faces of the saints and replaced the Byzantine inscriptions with their own names.

These problems were recognized in the early 1970s when several of the churches were included in a major conservation project sponsored by UNESCO, the International Center for Conservation in Rome (ICCROM) and the Turkish government. Progress has been slow; only two of nine churches have been fully restored thus far. Further impetus was given to the project when the principal churches near the village of Göreme were added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1985.

Cappadocia has been home to a succession of Anatolian peoples. The Hittites and Romans, Byzantines and Turks, all found Cappodocia’s valleys a welcome retreat from the barren Anatolian steppe. But it was the Byzantines who left the greatest mark on the area. During a period of unprecedented stability, from the ninth to 11th centuries, they embarked on a notable period of church-building, carving sanctuaries out of the surface of the earth.

In pagan times Cappadocia had been a refugee for Zoroastrians. Later, Christians, fleeing the corruption of Antioch and Constantinople, or the advancing armies from the East, settled in these narrow valleys. Monks established sizeable communities during the height of extreme medieval asceticism, hiding in dingy caves, when the stylites passed their lives perched atop the pillars of ruined pagan temples, and the dendrites chained themselves for decades in the branches of trees. In this semidesert, the monks sought salvation.

The monks have long since died, but their retreats remain: perfectly hewn refectories; monolithic benches and stone tables; storage containers and wine vats; rows of tombs; all scooped out of the volcanic rock.

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Tags: Christianity Turkey Art Architecture Frescoes