On Top of the World in a Stylite Monk’s Cave

Zelve, Cappadocia. Those dark spots you see in the cones are entrances into rock-cut rooms.

I used to feel sorry for the Cappadocian monks. Tucked away in dark caves, some of them isolated from communities, these men (and possibly some women) lived a life of ritual monotony, reenacting the same liturgies throughout the seasons until they were laid to rest in a hole in one of the mountains so that their spirits could participate in those rituals in perpetuity. What a sad, monotonous way to spend a life, right? Well actually, my travel writing hero, Patrick Leigh Fermor, famously took up residence in a monastery so that he would have a quiet, inexpensive place to finish a book. Entering the arrangement with “curiosity and misgiving,” he fought off nervous energy and insomnia, eventually immersing himself in the peaceful solitude and work as a “new dispensation left nineteen hours a day of absolute and god-like freedom.”[1] He made a good case for the productivity that comes from inner peace, but I wasn’t entirely convinced that a rugged existence, exposed to the elements, could be a thing of beauty.

Some of the cave monks modeled their existence after stylites, ascetic saints who spent much of their lives atop tall columns, exposing themselves to the elements in the name of bodily sacrifice for spiritual edification. The stylite cave monks would carve a small cell near the top of a volcanic cone. In a 1935 journey, photographers John D. Whiting and G. Eric Matson captured one of those cones with the caption, “Tripple top cone in Pasha Baja, comprising a complete anchorite home.”[2]

I climbed to the top of that cone. The only entry past the ground floor was through a vertical shaft with shallow hand and foot niches, kind of like a narrow, circular rock climbing wall in a gym but without the safety gear. At first glance, the cone seemed too insignificant to make the climb worthwhile. There was no church in there, just rock-cut rooms going up three stories. Our guide assured us that it was fine to skip this one; he’d seen it several times already. Oh, boy. Not to be outdone by a tenured professor, another student and I put down our backpacks, shook our heads, and looked up through the vertical entryway. Piece of cake, really.

My friend went first because he’s a better climber. The walls felt rough like chunks of fragile concrete that would crumble if you didn’t handle them gingerly. There were no hard edges; all the steps and footholds and niches were defined by the soft curves of ancient carving. The first level had a room and a window cut to allow for the view of several other sandy pink and brown volcanic cones in the valley and a glimpse of blue sky. The hot sun was no match for the shady rock, and breezes rustled through the window openings. Our distance from the ground muffled the noise of voices. On another level (only a few scary steps up), there were sleeping spaces carved in the rock for the monk and his companion, along with a little altar with traces of red painting for when he needed to look inward rather than out onto the landscape.

A voice shouted up, “What do you see? Are there any paintings?” To which we only mumbled a reply because we were busy taking a picture of ourselves with the camera timer. After all, we were on top of the world.

The adrenaline rush of a split-second freefall going back down the entryway was a reminder that the danger and beauty of a landscape like this is a far cry from the mundane stress of urban living. I imagined watching a sunset over the valley a thousand years ago, perched on a stone bench after the toil of a day’s work, a solitary creature surrounded by some of the pinnacles of creation. It is certain that the monks’ daily lives were physically demanding. The scorching heat in summer and snow in winter probably penetrated their bones and their psyches. We don’t have any written records of their interactions, but we do know that they raised animals, made honey and wine, and celebrated their faith, even after the Seljuk Turks came to power around 1071. In contrast to the obvious downsides of provincial isolation, the residents probably also created a certain sense of place by making their homes in the mountains. There would be a comfort in the ritual of a day’s meditation or its liturgical practices. Even when the body was weary and hungry, there would be a nourished soul. I think it’s the book of Phillipians that uses the phrase “the peace that passeth understanding.” As a kid, I thought that was a fantastic tongue-twister. As a Byzantinist, I’m certain that it explains why monks populated the rock-cut landscape of rural Cappadocia. What a glorious, peaceful way to spend a life.

View from a stylite monk’s cell.

Almost to the top. (Thanks to Megan Garedakis for the photo).

[1] Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time to Keep Silence, (1957; New York: New York Review of Books, 1982), 7 and 22-23.

[2] John D. Whiting and G. Eric Matson, Trip to Cappadocia, 1935, vol. II. Whiting and Matson traveled at the request of the National Geographic Society, and the album has been digitized by the Library of Congress. http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007675296/. The Pasha Baja is also called the Pashabag Valley or Monks Valley and lies between Göreme and Zelve. See http://www.goreme.com/pasabag.php, the Turkish Heritage Travel website, for travel information.