On the trail of St. Hieron

Last week I reported how the "Life of St. Hieron," written in about the year 600 and detailing the trials of the saint, offers the first written evidence that people were already hollowing out the caves around Goreme to make homes by the end of the third century. In pursuit of that story, I wandered down to the rock-cut chapel in a fairy-chimney rock formation I had believed to be his last resting place. Given that St. Hieron is claimed as the patron saint of Goreme, what I found there was depressing, the empty graves in the floor of the narthex having become an unholy repository for rubbish.

“It's not good enough, is it?” I was whingeing to a travel agent friend when he cut me off in mid-flow to ask if I knew that Hieron's mother was believed to have been the very Matiana who had given Goreme its second name (the first was Corama, from which Goreme eventually evolved). And, no, of course I hadn't known that interesting fact, nor yet many of the details of the story of St. Hieron that he later told me.

According to the magisterial Acta Sanctorum (Acts of the Saints), he was born not in Goreme after all but in Tyana, the ancient town that once stood very close to the site of modern Nigde in southern Cappadocia. Hieron grew up to be not just a good Christian but also just the sort of fit young man whose strength made him a desirable candidate for the Romano-Byzantine army. So it was that during the reign of Diocletian a recruiting force led by a man named Lyzias descended on Cappadocia and attempted to seize Hieron while he was tending his vines. The saint-to-be fought back, insisting that he would not serve an emperor who persecuted Christians. Eventually he took refuge inside a cave, only emerging again when persuaded that it was safe to do so by a friend.

Given the savage history of the early years of Christianity what happened next can hardly come as much of a surprise. Hieron and his friends were taken to Melitena, the old Malatya that stood on the site of modern Battalgazi. There Lyzias tried to persuade him to join in a sacrifice to the pagan gods and, when he refused to do so, had his hand chopped off. The next day, Nov. 7, 298, Hieron and 31 others were all beheaded. Later, the records suggest that his head was recovered by a wealthy supporter who paid for a shrine to be built on the site of his martyrdom.

At this point the Emperor Justinian (he of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul fame) pops up in the story. Supposedly it was in his sixth century reign that the bodies of the martyrs were rediscovered uncorrupted during the building of a new church in Melitena. After that, the trail goes cold. There's an image of Hieron dressed as a soldier amid the frescoes of the Tokali Kilise (church) in the Goreme Open Air Museum, but there's nothing to suggest that his body was ever returned to Goreme, in which case the chapel can only be named after him in the same way that other churches are named after seemingly random saints.