Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Cappadocian Alterity

As we were planning our Turkish trip, we knew that the offerings were so rich that we would have to make a list of priorities; and we quickly agreed on a few destinations that we regarded as musts.  The first of these was Cappadocia, though in retrospect I realize I didn’t know the half of it.  I wanted to see the ancient Christian remains there.  The three great “Cappadocian fathers” of the fourth century (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) are famous figures in late antique intellectual history, and each played an important role in the efflorescence of monasticism.  I wanted to see where they hung out.  With the help of some of Joan’s splendid photographs, and one or two others, you can see too.

            For one of the central subjects of my life’s work as a scholar is the cultural significance of Christian asceticism in pre-Reformation Christendom.  For something like a thousand years monks and nuns had a near monopoly on the means of literary and artistic production.  For example, there is but one writer of Anglo-Saxon whom we can name who was not a monk, and that one, King Alfred, was the lavish patron of monks and monasteries.  The monastic vision naturally left a spiritual imprint on all they did.  Medieval women in particular would have practically no artistic history were it not for the religious houses that, in confining them, gave them a protected arena for the exercise of their talents.

            Monastic life in the ancient Near East was rigorous, dramatic, and to the later European imagination lurid.  The Egyptian anchorite Anthony, whose biography remained a bestseller for several centuries, inspired generations of desert-dwellers (the meaning of the word hermits) who competed with each other in physical austerities, living among the rocks, in caves, in the abandoned lairs of wild animals, atop the pillars of ruined temples.  Hundreds, thousands followed his example.  The old monks had a motto: The desert a city!  That was not a bad description of the Thebaid in Egypt, of parts of the Palestinian desert, or of Cappadocia.  There is in the Uffizi in Florence a charming painting by Gerardo di Jacopo Starnina (ca. 1400) imagining the busy desert of the Thebaid.
The desert a city (Starnina's "Thebaid")

             We like to see our world in terms of sharp distinctions and differences.  So-and-so, we hear said “must be living on a different planet.”  In fact, from a historical-cultural point of view the differences between Rush Limbaugh and Paul Krugman are minute and those between Barak Obama and Mitt Romney nonexistent.  Historians and anthropologists have had to shape a technical term to talk about real cultural difference.  It is alterity (differentness), based in the Latin alter, something really other, so other that it’s hard to imagine: the religious troglodytes of ancient Cappadocia, perhaps.

            The ancient monks thought of their enterprise as a quest for moral perfection, but so other was their way of thinking that the great nineteenth-century historian W. E. H. Lecky (high on my list of Victorian sages) could write thus concerning Antonine eremitism in his History of European Morals:

There is, perhaps, no phase in the moral history of mankind, of a deeper or more painful interest than this ascetic epidemic. A hideous, sordid, and emaciated maniac, without knowledge, without patriotism, without natural affection, passing his life in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of his delirious brain, had become the ideal of the nations which had known the writings of Plato and Cicero and the lives of Socrates or Cato. For about two centuries, the hideous maceration of the body was regarded as the highest proof of excellence. St. Jerome declares, with a thrill of admiration, how he had seen a monk, who for thirty years had lived exclusively on a small portion of barley bread and of muddy water; another, who lived in a hole and never eat more than five figs for his daily repast; a third, who cut his hair only on Easter Sunday, who never washed his clothes, who never changed his tunic till it fell to pieces, who starved himself till his eyes grew dim, and his skin "like a pumice stone," and whose merits, shown by these austerities, Homer himself would be unable to recount.

What Homer cannot recount it would be unwise of Fleming to attempt.  But I can tell you that in my experience internal Turkish air travel is inexpensive and efficient.  The flight from Izmir to Kayseri, where we arrived in the dusk, was brief but pleasurable.  Kayseri (ex-Caesarea, Basil’s hometown) is from what I could see in the gathering dark a large, dingy, modern city.  We were met by a driver, who immediately took off for Göreme, the “cave” city that is the tourist heart of Cappadocia.  It’s called a “cave” city because it is set among about a thousand caves carved out in ancient times from the geologically weird pinnacles and pillars that give the place its lunar appearance.  Everything in this place is cave-like.  There are “cave houses,” “cave restaurants,” and “cave hotels”.   Some of these actually once were, at least partially, caves; others were the products of cave-envy.  This proved problematical, since we were theoretically booked in something called the “Göreme Cave House Hotel”. The driver could not find it, because it did not exist.  There was a “Göreme Cave” Hotel, and there was a “Cave House” Hotel.  After quite a bit of increasingly spooky driving around inthe dark we found the “Göreme House Hotel” where the proprietor, having been rousted by loud bells, cheerfully explained that (a) we were indeed expected, and (b) only a fool would confuse his handsome Ottoman mansion with a cave.
 Bloguiste caving
            The village of Göreme is practically overwhelmed by its touristic vocation.  There is a superfluity of souvenir shops, travel agencies, balloon agents (I’ll explain in a minute), Internet cafés, restauranteurs, and rug salesmen.  The latter two categories are pretty aggressive, though mere pikers by Istanbul standards.  The streets are clogged with backpacking youth and rented motorcycles.  It nonetheless was not without its charm, and the hotel breakfasts were to die for—probably literally, could I have stayed longer.  But the great thing about Göreme is its situation, at the center of the surrounding cave churches and monastic remains.  The place is rightly a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  At the “Open Air Museum”—a short walk from the town, though everybody seems to travel by minivan—one can visualize what the motto “the desert a city” really meant.
 Karanlik Church: Give 'em a fish, or teach 'em to fish?

            Many of the churches have preserved at least some of their wall paintings--the guides invariably call them “frescoes,” which some indeed seem to be--and in a couple they are spectacular.  In general I was surprised by evidence of the comparative moderation of Muslim vandalism in the post-Christian centuries.  Yet more interesting for me than the ecclesiastic art was the evidence of the intimacy of the “domestic” and the “sacred” parts of the desert city, an intimacy so marked as in essence to negate the distinction.  How long this treasure can be preserved is anybody’s guess.  The crowds are huge and oppressive—a kind of “national parks syndrome” in an acute form.  I may be generalizing on the basis of insufficient evidence, but I did get the impression wherever we went that the Turkish government was more interested in the maximization of the tourist revenue stream than in protection and preservation of the monuments.  The “Open Air Museum” is gradually being worn away by its admirers.


      In a brief blog essay I can barely touch upon the cultural richness of the place, or give an account of our truly heroic hike, at risk to septuagenarian life and limb, through some volcanic wilderness; but I must mention one other highlight.  I earlier alluded to “balloon agents”.  In fact ballooning is another great tourist activity in Cappadocia.  On our final full day there, a Saturday, we got up at the crack of dawn to join many dozens of other enthusiasts in a great balloon flotilla that sailed out at rooftop height over the strange “chimneys” of the Göreme plain.  For about an hour we enjoyed a perspective on the old desert city that its original inhabitants never could have had.  The balloons are so large and sturdy that my normal fear of heights was easily contained.  Each gondola held sixteen people, four in each of four separate compartments.  Our travel companions were a couple of young Bulgarians who seemed less into monastic rubbernecking than necking of the more conventional, adolescent sort, but to each his own.  I found myself thinking with renewed admiration of old Saint Basil, and a scriptural verse from the Basilian liturgy: “They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  Poor old Lecky, for all his brilliance and erudition, missed that part.