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.

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Toughest City You’ll Ever Love

I left Istanbul with a suitcase full of evil-eye charms, a bag of undeveloped film, and a little streak of homesickness. I landed in New York just in time for the heat index to waver around 112 degrees. While lurking around air-conditioned coffee shops this week, I put together a little photo essay with the hope of comprehending my trip. Like any pilgrim who returns from a long journey, I have souvenirs to distribute and stories to recount. So now as the rain falls on the scorched asphalt and thirsty plants of Brooklyn, I offer images from another city that is as humid and bustling and full of history and humanity and delicious food.

Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque

Hagia Sophia, including its ideal napping spot under the apse and the view from a gallery window.

Topkapi Palace and its amazing Ottoman tiles.

Secret Beer. Yep, that's right--there's a restaurant on the Asian side that technically doesn't sell alcohol, but if you ask nicely, a large cold beer in a metal tea cup will appear.

Fishing the Bosphoros.

The Blue Mosque, one of my favorites for its lovely tiles and peaceful natural light.

Hagia Eirene, another piece of Justinian's legacy, now within the confines of the Topkapi Palace grounds.

Graffiti; taxi; all the protection you could ever need from the evil eye; and Sirkeci train station (bottom left), Istanbul's stop on the Orient Express.

Galatsaray, far from the touristy chaos of Sultanahmet.

Nobody’s Business but…

My relationship with Istanbul has been a bit dysfunctional. Most notable was my awkward first encounter with Hagia Sophia, known as Justinian’s Great Church and our grandest inheritance from Byzantium. Surely this was to be expected; I’d seen its online profile one too many times and felt intimately acquainted with it before our meeting in real life, always a recipe for disappointment.

The date went well at first. I spent a few minutes staring at it from afar, glimpsing the dome as it rose over the park and fountain and carefully pruned trees. A closer glance, however, revealed piles of concrete bricks outside and a bright yellow bulldozier. Oh, dear. I waited two days to actually cross the threshold.

Prior to making the acquaintance of Istanbul, I spent two weeks at a graduate student workshop in Cappadocia, the mountainous region of central Turkey. The program description had hinted that we would do “a lot of walking,” but that translated into days of hiking up mountains and down valleys, crossing creeks on homemade bridges, creeping inside Byzantine tombs and crawling on hands and knees through dark corridors. The reward for taking the Physical Challenge was a series of Byzantine structures cut from the volcanic landscape, mounds of dirt and rock on the outside and carefully constructed architecture on the inside. Many of the churches have paintings on the walls, glimpses into the lives and beliefs of long-forgotten individuals and their communities. There’s transcendence in the thousand-year-old narrative scenes that still convey the melancholy of Crucifixion, the joy of miraculous healing, or even the unwavering piety of an anonymous bishop.  Many of them damaged and weather-beaten, the paintings fight to hold on to their color and figures, their plaster clinging to the cave walls through snow and dust and visitors. The voice of reason, “holy crap, you’re too old for this,” gave way to the voice of wonderment: “Why am I here? What on earth have I done to deserve experiences like this?” I know that on the coldest days of a New York winter, these will be the images that haunt me, that drive me to keep studying for my next qualifying exam and to get some research funding and tackle that dissertation.

After the exhaustion set in and we couldn’t hike any more mountains, it was time to reenter urban civilization. I spent two days in Istanbul getting harrassed by a variety of pesky street vendors in Sultanahmet. I didn’t realize that staying in this part of town is essentially staying in Times Square. It’s noisy and busy and there’s nothing authentically Turkish about it. Tourism abounds. Everybody knows that the street vendors are just trying to earn a living and even sales clerks who follow you around stores are just practicing a trade. But the really creepy guys are the ones who see you pull out a map and insist on asking where you are going and if you’re traveling alone, even after a polite “no, thank you.” I’ve gotten in two shouting matches with men who were insulting and rude after I declined their help. It’s like seeing the effects of chivalry on steroids, so angry and insecure.

This is not to say that people here are generally creepy, by the way. I’ve made some good friends on this trip. One of them sent my friend and me home in a dolmuş shuttle van after dinner one evening and told the driver that we were his American cousins and needed a taxi to the hotel after the shuttle ride. The driver was generous enough to hail the cab and give directions, and our new cousin waited up for our email to make sure we got back all right. Cousins, kindred spirits, same difference, right?

The vibe of the city got better. I unclenched my fists while walking and learned a few choice phrases in Turkish. Another friend took me to the Ottoman sultans’ Topkapı Palace to see the blue-tiled harem rooms and the jeweled weapons in the treasury. She pointed out that elections had been held recently, hence all the construction work. Newly elected politicians want people to see them accomplishing something. I quipped, “so basically we lose a few inches of Byzantium every time there’s an election?” Essentially, yes. The Hippodrome, a race track since the days of Constantine, got paved in the last year. It’s a common phenomenon amongst Byzantinists, actually, to find the city unnerving at first glance. We know Constantinople and its monuments so well that it’s disconcerting to mentally peel off the layer of modern Istanbul to uncover the remnants of the Byzantine capital underneath. The site of the Chalke Gate, once the entrance to the emperor’s palace, lies somewhere underneath the Four Seasons. I rode under the Roman aqueduct in a taxi.

Armed with an ipod and multiple cameras, I decided at last to enter Justinian’s Great Church. I cranked up The XX’s “Intro” and stepped through the threshold, ready to be brought to tears by its magnificence. Some of the windows in the “floating” dome were blacked out. There was a guy carrying a plastic bag of Krispy Kreme doughnuts and empty water bottles. Much of the ceiling was covered in mustard yellow plaster with a post-Ottoman folk-art-looking floral design. (I felt so stupid for assuming from photographs that it was all going to be gold). It was crowded. Two cats were napping on the sisal carpet that now covers the alter area near which Mehmet the Conquerer rode his horse when he conquered the city in 1453. From the north gallery, there’s a perfect view of an archangel in the apse. His eyes looked forlorn, an expression of how many bizarre events have taken their toll on the structure. The guard looked at me funny when I saw covered mosaics peeking out from a chipped section of plaster and burst into tears.

Avoiding a second rendezvous with Hagia Sophia, I spent hours in the Chora Monastery absorbing the frescoes and mosaics there, and I trekked out to the Pammakristos church with some friends, moseying a long way through neighborhoods whose residents seemed baffled and amused to see tourists at all. Not wanting to neglect Ottoman sites, I went to the Blue Mosque, proud of myself for remembering to quickly remove my shoes and tie my hair back in a scarf and for wearing an outfit that passed the modesty inspection. But as soon as I got inside, my shoes broke through the flimsy plastic bag, falling onto the carpet, and I accidentally stepped on the hem of someone’s burka. Good one, A.L. Way to be culturally sensitive.

A thousand souvenirs later, I had seen the Archaeological Museum, taken a ferry to the Asian side, checked out some mosaics and cisterns beneath hotels and carpet shops, and conquered public transportation. I felt guilty, though, for neglecting a perfectly nice monument just because its accessories looked a little shabby. When my friend teased, “I am walking around with someone who does not like Hagia Sophia,” a do-over was suddenly and desperately in order. Oh, no, no. I can’t get a reputation for that. Disappointment is not dislike. It was time for a second date. This morning there was no demure greeting. I forked over 20 lira and channeled my inner Byzantine.

There’s a long, winding slope of slippery, timeworn stone leading up to the gallery level of the church where empresses and other women attended services. I wondered how much effort it took Theodora to get up there in the sixth century, particularly when she was dying. Did someone help her? Was she carried? Did she—the one who refuled to flee during the Nika Riots, declaring that imperial purple is a good color to be buried in-—insist on trudging up the dreary hall unassisted? Perhaps she just stayed home. It’s interesting that her portrait lives on in Ravenna’s San Vitale rather than here. From her box in the gallery, the various Byzantine, Ottoman, and modern elements have the effect of a summer house that has been in a family for so many generations that the decoration gets ecclectic but sentiment keeps them from being rearranged. I appreciated the lifelike emotion in the mosaic of John the Baptist, the initials in the capitals on the lower level, the sheer height of the dome, a true feat of engineering. The archangel looked bemused today, a weathervane of sorts.

As I write this from my hotel terrace facing the Blue Mosque, there’s a cool breeze and an imminent sunset. Sea gulls are soaring over the Bosphoros and boats in the hazy distance have anchored for the night. Calls to prayer from a variety of mosques are drifting over the horizon, fading in and out as if they’re singing in a round. I’ve made my peace with Istanbul. We’ll remain friends, but Hagia Sophia is not my academic true love after all. It seems I’ve left my heart in Cappadocia.

A Manifesto of Sorts

Art is to be experienced.

Quick, think of a piece of art: is it a painting? A sculpture? How do you treat that object? Do you envision yourself standing in front of it in a museum? How about hanging it over your sofa? Maybe you secretly want to touch the smooth marble while the guide averts his gaze in the gallery. Maybe it’s something your kid glued together for a class project. Perhaps it was the pinnacle of a journey of some sort—Stonehenge at sunset or Macchu Piccu through the haze. Close your eyes and envision the last time you came in contact with a piece of ‘visual’ art. Were your eyes enough to fully help you appreciate it or did you long to do more in order to understand that object?

To think of art as something merely visual or as something to be seen, even observed carefully, is to ignore its multi-sensory presence.  To create a piece of art in any medium, an artist must feel the materials; he must combine them in a variety of methods that require him to mix the paint with his hands and a paintbrush, or to chisel away marble, or to shape clay, adding and subtracting a wet substance, letting it dry into a cohesive message. The artist cannot merely look at materials; she must engage with them using techniques that include sight, certainly, but also touch and hearing and instinct.

A poster of Monet’s water lilies will never give you the depth and heft of the paint he left on that canvas. You have to see it from across the room as well as from a few inches away in order to fully appreciate the way your eyes interact with the materials. The Statue of Liberty is far more compelling from a rocking boat, hazy and dirty in the distance while you silently recall her poem, “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

We think of architecture as art, too, but it doesn’t translate well into two dimensions. I spent much of last summer enamored with the peace and tranquility of Assisi. A large part of that came from the juxtaposition of music and frescoes with architecture in a setting that permeates the psyche with goodwill and thanksgiving. The setting provides a cohesive sensory experience that stirs the soul’s senses in order to usher a little of the peace of Saint Francis’s legacy into the days of present-day pilgrims. Giotto’s art in that basilica would be enough to make me jump for joy if a saw it only in a museum, but its intended use is to enhance the experience of the faithful, inviting the pious and the weary into medieval chapels, calling us to prayer or thought or meditation.

My career as a student was capped off by a course this spring in Medieval Visuality. Its purpose was to examine ways that viewers in the middle ages perceived of vision in a cohesive, socially-constructed way. In other words, how did people comprehend art in the middle ages? From this, I’ve begun an exploration of the way people used art in the late Roman period and how this changed as they headed into the so-called “middle” ages. (The term medieval was, of course, applied much later). What makes something “medieval” as opposed to “ancient”? I’m interested in ways that early Christians and viewers in the third and fourth centuries used art. My next few years of research will be devoted to the ways that artists and patrons communicated with saints and managed to depict a deity that was invisible yet present in daily life. Objects played a variety of roles to these people: images on sarcophagi or in catacombs invoked the presence of unseen holy beings; they offered blessings and miracles; they told stories and offered hope of redemption. Images were seen, and they were used and experienced in myriad ways.

It’s time for all of us—art historians, students, naysayers, bankers, artists, travelers, people—to stop relegating art to the walls of society. The aspects of life that matter are the small encounters that stay in our memory—a cold beer and good conversation on the patio on a June evening, church bells ringing over a valley on a lazy weekend morning, bright colors that jump off a canvas to invoke the warmth of summer islands during a New York City blizzard.  Art can give us these vicarious experiences; it enables us to navigate the wider world through perception and contemplation.

Tomorrow I set off for Cappadocia, the mountains of eastern Turkey, where Byzantine monks carved architecture out of the soft terrain in the tenth and eleventh centuries. My premise for this trip is a workshop on Byzantine art and architecture. My ulterior motive is to understand these structures from standing in and around them rather than from books. I simply cannot envision the rugged ‘lunar’ landscape and its abandoned monasteries without feeling the walls of tufa over my head. I will cap off the trip with a pilgrimage to Hagia Sophia. I know its images well—the mosaics, the capitals, the dome rising over the ring of light—but printed images are not the experience, and I long to stand in the hallowed shadows where Justinian rebuilt an empire after the Nika Riots and Empress Zoe recorded her gifts for posterity.

To this end, I have renamed my blog 34 Encounters. My journey in the upcoming entries will entail my experiences with art and architecture, my perceptions of objects that affect life and understanding beyond the visual.  Please join me as I look at and breathe in and listen to and grasp at every crumb the middle ages have left for devouring. Bright and early tomorrow morning, I’ll be sailing to Byzantium on a big, silver bird.

34 Encounters Introduction

This post was originally the About page for the 34 Encounters entries on this blog, which were posted in 2011.

In September of 2009, I made a birthday vow to myself that I would escape from reality, if only for a few weeks, to find the real art and medieval history that I’ve been scrounging for in my ever-expanding pile of library books and graduate school assignments. The result was a partially-solo trek around the Mediterranean last summer, documented in my 32 Adventures blog, which is still archived here.

That September I settled back into the familiar, albeit with tiny souvenirs punctuating the drudgery of coursework and part-time jobs—a pen from the Aqua store in Dubrovnik one day, earrings from Florence’s San Lorenzo market on another. I’ve been making an effort to view my chosen field from the outside, from the perspective of people who don’t live among the masterpieces or study them for a living.

Sure, academics love to believe that our chosen fields are important, that a humanistic love of learning makes the world a better place. But is that all? Is it fair to expect anyone outside the field to find the middle ages and Byzantium relevant or are we just beating a dead empire, so to speak? Armed with a fading tan, good stories, a shoebox full of lomographic photos, and pebbles from the Adriatic, the Mediterranean, and Mount Etna, I’m feeling more grounded and wondering how to comprehend ‘real’ medieval art and history in a way that is relevant to everyday life.

Over the summer, and on many occasions since, I have found myself discussing the middle ages or Byzantium to people outside the field. From sci-fi novels to Roman aqueducts, evidence of a medieval legacy is in the ether. Clearly, the allure of this time period is more than a bleep on our cultural radar, but it is often far outside the comfort zone of the general public. How and when are the middle ages relevant to us now? How should they be approached, taught, pondered? Is there anything for the general public to gain from this knowledge as we trudge through the rat race? The next year’s incarnation of musings and meanderings was christened 33 Conversations, a collection of dialogues and diatribes about the middle ages and its art. This year, I’ve once again tweaked the blog’s moniker in order to embrace my belief that art and the middle ages must be encountered with all the senses. (See my post entitled “A Manifesto of Sorts” for my philosophy on that). Welcome to 34 Encounters.