03 December 2012

Alahan Monastery

Alahan monastery, clinging to the mountainside, has been deserted for some 1,400 years yet time has left it remarkably untouched. The site was explored in the 1950s and 1960s by the late Michael Gough of St. Michael’s College, Toronto, but his work was cut short by his death.  So, the mystery of Alahan remains unsolved: Who were the monks who built this monastery and why did they desert it? There is no clear answer, but the attempt to find a solution takes us back to Byzantine Christianity in the centuries before the eastern provinces were lost to Islamic invasions.

Entrance Fee - 3 TL
Getting There - About 4.5 hours from Incirlik. ODR rents GPS and has trips to this location.
GPS: N 36°47.441’   E033°121.092’
Physical Difficulty - MEDIUM. Loose rocky footing.

The following text is an excerpt from “View from a Turkish Monastery: An Introduction to the Early Byzantine Period” Athena Review Vol.3, no.1: Byzantine Cultures, East and West by James Allan Evans, Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Photo by Fatos Yoksuloglu
The monastic movement burst suddenly upon the later Roman Empire just as Christianity was grasping victory over paganism, which began a long death struggle that took up all of the 4th century AD and still had secret adherents for two centuries longer. In AD 312, Emperor Constantine I won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The night before combat, according to a Christian tradition which ripened with time, he saw a vision in the sky telling him that the Christian insignia, the chi-rho symbol made from the first two Greek letters of the name “Christ,” would bring him success. His victory brought him control of the western Roman Empire. In the east, the persecution of the Christians had ended only in 311 with the death of the eastern emperor, Galerius, who was a committed pagan, although on his deathbed he had called off the persecution and asked the Christians to pray for him. His successor, Licinius, did not want war with Constantine; he had his own problem in the eastern provinces where Maximinus Daia was staking a claim to be Galerius’ heir, and he met Constantine at Milan where the two emperors framed an agreement. This “Edict of Milan” granted Christianity toleration. There would be no more persecutions. But Constantine was more than merely tolerant. He built and endowed churches, and helped himself to the wealth which the pagan temples had guarded. He regarded himself as a Christian champion.

Possibly it was the offensive against paganism which first brought monks to Alahan. At the western end of the monastery site is a limestone outcrop and within it, a large cave. The cave at Alahan might have been a little pagan shrine once upon a time. There are no traces of pagan worship to be discovered there, for the monks would have erased them long ago, and without them, we can only guess that determination to expel some pagan deity brought the monks here. Yet whether the surmise is right or not, it does seem that the first monastic colony at Alahan settled here in the cave and adapted it to Christian uses. At Alahan, however, there was another factor at work. This corner of the world belonged to the Isaurians, tough mountain-dwellers who were known for their skill in stone-masonry. In 474, an Isaurian named Tarasis became emperor. He changed his name to Zeno, which was a respectable Greek name, and one which had belonged to an earlier Isaurian who had served under the emperor Theodosius II. 

Monk's tombs.  Photo by Joseph So.
The monks at Alahan first built a free-standing basilica outside the mouth of the cave. Like the 5th century basilica of St. Demetrius at Saloniki and the ruined church of St. John Studion in Istanbul, there were arcaded internal colonnades and galleries over the side aisles. The quality of the Isaurian stonework is remarkable. Then, in a burst of activity, which more or less coincided with Zeno’s reign, a church was built at the east end of the rocky ledge which held the monastery, and a colonnaded walk connected the two churches. The East Basilica hugs the cliff face which forms one of the side walls, but this is no ordinary basilica. Over its eastern section where later Byzantine architects would place a dome, there rises a tower, and the interior of the structure has been adapted to support it so that when we enter the west door, we see the apse at the east end through a progression of horseshoe-shaped arches (fig.2). Above the colonnade, midway between the two basilicas, was a spring which no longer flows, but when the colonnade was built it supplied water for a baptistery and living quarters built in the area. The number of monks had clearly increased.

Then the monastery was deserted. Why? There is no sign of destruction by enemy raiders. It appears that one day in the early sixth century, the monks packed up their few belongings and left. We cannot know why for certain, but for a probable cause we must turn to the story of the religious schisms in the early Byzantine world.

Byzantine Christianity was beset by a series of theological controversies. Correct belief, that is, orthodoxy, was vitally important, everyone agreed, but how should orthodoxy be defined? In particular, how should Christians understand the mystery of the Trinity? 

At the Alahan monastery, the reign of Zeno was a period of swift expansion. The monks were almost certainly Monophysite, and no doubt embraced the Henotikon. Then suddenly this period of expansion came to an end. There is no sign of destruction, and yet the monks deserted the monastery. The date was about the time that Justin I became emperor. The Isaurian monks who had built the monastery were probably driven from it shortly after 518, when the persecution of the Monophysites by Justin I began. But at a later date, monks returned. We cannot be sure when. Did the Monophysite refugees come back, now under Theodora’s protection? Perhaps so, though the excavators noted that the returnees lacked the stonemasonry skills of the original monks, which may indicate that they were a different group. At least their repairs to the monastery seems comparatively slipshod, though the reason could be haste rather than lack of skill. Isauria, however, would abandon Monophysitism as the years went on, and it was to become the Christianity of the Syriac and the Coptic churches. Perhaps the monks returning to Alahan were orthodox.

Eventually these monks, too, deserted the monastery. The reason is obscure and the date uncertain. In the early decades of the seventh century an attack by the Persians and the Avars nearly overwhelmed Constantinople. The countryside around Alahan may have become unsafe and pilgrims stayed away. Or perhaps the water supply failed, and the number of monks which the monastery could support dwindled away to nothing.

Whatever the reason, the monastery returned to solitude. It is now a site where the visitor can still feel the awe early travellers felt a couple of centuries ago, when they visited ruins of the eastern Mediterranean before tourists drove away the ghosts of the past. We can still imagine a bearded monk pacing the colonnade at Alahan, pausing to drink from the spring, and pondering the mystery of the Trinity.

The complete text of this excerpt can be found at: http://www.athenapub.com/9evans1.htm

Alahan Monastery: A Masterpiece of Early Christian Architecture by MICHAEL GOUGH, Director of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara 

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