Studying Byzantine Cappadocia

by Elizabeth Zanghi

This past June, I visited Cappadocia in central Turkey. It was my second trip to the region, and it certainly won’t be my last, as I have decided to focus on Cappadocian art history in graduate school.

“Why Cappadocia?” I am frequently asked. The best way to answer that question is to start at the beginning (well, at least from the beginning of Christianity).

I first heard the word “Cappadocia” years ago, during the Pentecost readings, where we’re told that men from every nation under heaven, including Cappadocia, were able to understand the words of the Apostles (Acts 2:9). Then, after Pentecost, Cappadocia is mentioned again when Paul visits Philip in Cappadocia during his final evangelizing mission (Acts 21:8-14). We also know that Saint Peter preached in Cappadocia (1 Peter 1:1). So it is clear that Cappadocia was one of the earliest centers of Christianity.

But Cappadocia’s real fame, at least for the majority of Orthodox Christians, comes in the 4th century with the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil of Caeserea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen. The  theological writings of the Cappadocian Fathers greatly contributed in forming Christian culture and dogma throughout the empire. For example, they define the trinitarian vocabulary that we still used today (think ousia or hypostasis).

Learning about the Cappadocian Fathers impressed me and piqued my interest in Cappadocian studies, but the further I looked, the more I realized that the entire region of Cappadocia is filled with important history, art, architecture, theology, and anthropology that spans the entire late-Antique and Byzantine periods (of course, the regions importance spans beyond these eras, but one can only study so much!).

Rock-Cut Exterior of Ala Church

Outside of the work concentrating on theological writings of the late-antique period, scholarly interest in the region started during the 19th century, and since that time it has mostly focused on the painted decoration of the numerous rock-cut churches. This on-going work is an important part of Byzantine art historical study, because it is the largest remaining corpus of Byzantine painting. It is also important because the decoration can tell us a lot—what saints and feasts were important in the region, how the region may or may not have been influenced by the capital, and how space in the church may have been used during the liturgy.

However, there are many aspects of Cappadocia that are missed when we look only at its painted churches. Until very recently, it was assumed that Cappadocia was a far-off land, inhabited by  the empire’s most hardy, ascetic monks, and that the hundreds of churches that had been studied were therefore monastic. But the textual, archaeological, architectural and even iconographical evidence shows that the story is much more complex.

Ala Church Interior

Let’s use the Ala Church in the Pelistremma Valley as a quick case study. The church itself is relatively large for the region, and it is accompanied by three parallel halls, two to the south, and one to the north. It has been assumed that the church served a monastic purpose, based mostly on the iconography inside the church, featuring the depictions of few monks in two of the western bays, and similarities between the plan and size of the church and that of a ninth century monastic church near Thessaloniki (the Church of Saint Andrew in Peristerai).

These reasonings are somewhat faulty. First of all, while there are depictions of monks, there are far more depictions of bishops, and the bishops are depicted in the more privileged eastern part of the church. Additionally, along with other inconsistencies that  will not be discussed here, the comparison to the ninth century Thessalonikian church is misleading, because monasteries in Cappadocia tended to house three to five monks, contrary to the larger monasteries in Greece, so the size of the Ala Church would seem to be much larger than it would need to be to serve a monastic purpose.

Domestic Complex Around Ala Church

The biggest problem, though, in giving the Ala Church a monastic purpose comes from the the context in which it is found. Outside of the church and the halls that surround it there is also a large domestic complex. The multiple kitchens, the ceremonial halls, and the sleeping quarters all show signs of a stratified community living right outside of the church. Would the church, then, not have a more parochial function for a larger, lay community?

This church, along with many others in the region, needs to be studied more closely, and certainly from a wider angle, in order to garner all that Cappadocia can teach us. For instance, what can the physical setting of a parochial church within a socially stratified domestic complex tell us about the religious life of laypeople? In a place like Cappadocia, where there seems to be a mixture of monastic and non-monastic communities within relatively close proximity, how did these two kinds of communities interact with one another? In general, are the domestic complexes and parochial churches not just as important for understanding Byzantine life as the assumed monastic churches?

If Cappadocia has been so important in studying Byzantine art history, thanks mainly to the large amount of decorated monuments that have been naturally protected from the elements, then it should play a larger role in the study of Byzantine social structures and communities, as well. It is becoming more and more obvious that Cappadocia was much more than a haven for ascetics; it was a vibrant and dynamic part of the empire even apart from its connections to the Church Fathers and their early role in monasticism, and the rare immensity of surviving monuments makes it a gold mine for researchers.

Further study will not only add to the corpus of Byzantine art and architecture. More importantly, it will add to the understanding of Byzantine life in general.


Elizabeth Zanghi is a masters student at the Sorbonne Université in Paris, France, studying Art History with a focus on the Byzantine period. She is a 2015 graduate from Fordham University, where she majored in Art History and minored in French and Orthodox Christian Studies.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.