Back to basics

As the buses rattle down the hill from Nevsehir to Goreme, those with a keen eye will spot, on the right, a simple rock cone with a horseshoe-shaped arch providing an entrance to its interior. Until recently it stood in splendid isolation, although now it has become more or less an adjunct of the neighboring balloon company office.

Those who walk back uphill to inspect the cone will find that the arched entrance conceals a simple chapel, its mud-packed floor pitted with graves long since emptied of their contents. A huge stone cross painted in simple red adorns the ceiling of the narthex. Beyond that lies the nave. The apse has collapsed, although a rock-cut holy water stoup still survives in situ.

The chapel is believed to have been the last resting place of St. Hieron, the patron saint, if there can be said to be such a thing, of Goreme. Very little is known of Hieron, who seems to have lived during the reign of Diocletian (r. 285-305), the Byzantine emperor who launched a pogrom against the Christians in 303. Committed to paper some three centuries later, the “Life of St. Hieron” describes how the saint was tending his vines with 17 companions when imperial troops arrived to arrest them. Of the group, he alone was able to escape by taking refuge in a cave.

This story came back to me last week when friends showed up in Cappadocia and started asking the sort of questions to which one would love to be able to give better answers. “When,” for example they asked, “did people start living in the caves?”

When indeed? The truth is that we don't really know the answer to that, and the significance of St. Hieron to general rather than religious history is that it is in his life story that we find the first assertion that not all the Cappadocian caves were natural. “The cave … had been hewn out of the rock with great skill,” recorded the author, who is thought to have been writing round about the year 600.

If he was correct, then, we are safe in assuming that some form of troglodytic lifestyle was already in existence in Cappadocia by the early fourth century, although at that time most of the formal religious structures seem to have been proper stone buildings more like the Kizil Kilise (Red Church) near Guzelyurt than the rock-cut models that fill the Goreme Open Air Museum. But then the records go quiet on the subject, and the next known reference to cave homes doesn't occur until the 10th century when Leo the Deacon, writing in Constantinople, recorded that the Cappadocians were known as troglodytes because they lived in structures carved from the rock.

Then again we hear nothing until the mid-14th century when the so-called “Synopsis Chronicle” reported that the troglodytes of Cappadocia had developed their cave homes to provide protection from the chill Anatolian winter.

It's not much to go on, is it, and wholly fails to answer the question that sometimes nags away in my own mind: Namely, how old are the cave parts of my home? Is it possible that Hieron might have known of my dining room when it was a cave stable? Or is that an imaginative leap too far?