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With my own eyes: sighting the history of Christianity in Turkey

TRAVEL DIARY | Sophie Timothy

Thursday 18 June 2015

Sophie Timothy, previously a staff writer for Eternity, is currently in Turkey with Ridley College, on a study tour designed to “enrich your understanding of the Bible as you become more familiar with the geography, topography, climate and historical background of some of the world’s most significant archaeological sites. Read her first diary of her travels, here:

Hunched over and feeling my way down a narrow tunnel in an almost 4000 year old underground city in Cappadocia, I struggle to comprehend how one could live, worship and cook in this cramped, dark, stagnant space.

I’m told this intricate eight-floor underground city was first carved out of volcanic rock in 1700BC by Hittites, a time and people I can barely believe existed, let alone conjure in my imagination.

From @sophietimothy on Instagram: Cappadocia.

From @sophietimothy on Instagram: Cappadocia.

After the Hittites, the underground cities of Cappadocia were used by various groups who needed refuge, which included Christians in the eastern Roman empire. The area was subject to frequent raids by Persians, Arabs and later Turks, which made the cave dugouts perfect hiding spots for persecuted Christians.

The history of Christianity in the region was influenced by this atmosphere of insecurity. Not only did Christians live in underground cities, but hidden cave churches flourished in Cappadocia. Enormous, surreal, mountainous rocks were carved out to create rudimentary annexes and altars, and were decorated with simple frescoes and carvings. The camouflaged churches were home to many monks and theologians including Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, who helped develop an understanding of the trinity as three persons, all divine.

Looking at a Maltese cross carved in the wall of the “church” in the underground city (a small room designated for worship) and the frescoes in the Goreme churches depicting Jesus and various venerated “saints” my mind struggles to comprehend that this is the nursery school of Christianity, where Christians came to some of the most important theological conclusions of all time.

I have the unsettling thought that perhaps this is all one big hoax. Maybe someone carved out these churches and crosses in the 1960s to make a quick buck from tourists, selling the idea that they’re ancient. But it’s a UNESCO world heritage site. And don’t forget the entire discipline of archeology. I try to remind myself: the stories are true, this site is real, and I’m standing where Christians have stood for centuries.

From Sophie's beautiful instagram feed (@sophietimothy), Hagia Sophia: church  | mosque  |  museum.

From Sophie’s beautiful instagram feed (@sophietimothy), Hagia Sophia: church | mosque | museum.

A few days later I am in Istanbul looking over at the Hagia Sophia, originally a church, but converted into a mosque after the Ottoman takeover of Constantinople. The call to prayer rings out from the minarets occupying every corner of the city. I am in what was once the heart of Christianity and the Roman Empire, but which became the heart of Islam.

Prior to the arrival of the Ottoman Empire, the opulent frescoes and mosaics decorating churches in Turkey were plastered over, as the eastern Roman Empire went through a period of “iconoclasm”.

Iconoclasm forbade the making and worshipping of “graven images”. In the 8th and 9th Centuries, the walls were whitewashed. The Ottomans, being Muslim, did not try to recover the intricate frescoes and mosaics. It has been only in the 20th Century, after the founding of the secular Republic of Turkey that many of these images have been uncovered and restored, and some of the churches-cum-mosques turned into museums.

Admiring these stunning frescoes, damaged yet still beautiful, the breadth, pace and changeability of history hits me between the eyes. I am in the crucible of civilisation, where battles have been won and lost, territory gained and ceded, empires risen and fallen.

The power struggles and religious conflicts of our own time come to mind. Here in Turkey we are not far from Aleppo. I ask myself: will extreme Islam spread and become a major power? Will there be mosques where there once were churches? Will other countries and cities go the way of Iraq, of Syria? Will Christianity in the west die out, to be usurped by Christianity in the majority world?
Perhaps one day we will find ourselves in an underground city, surrounded by enemies. What then shall we say?

Nothing lasts forever. And yet, I think, there is one thing that lasts.

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;

the grass withers and the flowers fall,

but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

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