Karaman prt II: Caves and Monasteries
/ By Josh
While the region of Mount Karadağ and it’s 1001 Churches had been an incredible place to explore, there were plenty of other amazing sights to see in the rest of Karaman Province. At the top on my list was the cave city of Manazan and the nearby village of Taşkale.
As it turned out, a friend of ours in Karaman had actually grown up in Taşkale and was excited to show us the sights. Travelling with locals is quite different. First of all, you can only start after a proper Turkish breakfast, and if you’re travelling, then you’re probably on vacation, so getting up at sunrise is not preferred (in other words, none of our usual get-up-at-five-and-go-to-dinner-without-a-bite). What you do get is a lot of local insight to the stories surrounding a place, how it’s changed over the years, and frequent stops at remote springs to fill up on drinking water to bring back to the house.
The first stop (apart from a quick water break at a spring near a historic bridge) was at the Manazan Cave City. The site has changed dramatically over the centuries. While it isn’t clear when the first people began to carve into the soft stone here, it was a major settlement around the 7th century and home to a Greek Byzantine population. The outer face of the cliffs has collapsed so that many of the rooms, which would have only had small windows peaking out, are now fully exposed. In some spots the floor has collapsed leaving the ceilings of rooms in the rock overhangs, the floor having collapsed down below.
Our friend guided us up to the foot of the cliff and into a narrow passageway. The passage curved and the ceiling got lower and lower, making getting through with a camera bag and tripod an rather undignified and dusty affair. After a short crouch-scramble through the dust, we came to a shaft going straight up. While a metal ladder had been added for the aid of modern visitors, you could see the original footholds carved as small niches into the rock face. From here another scramble, then another ladder.
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Above we came into a strange space. It was a long room with a high ceiling, light pouring in through the far end where much of the outer wall had broken away. This grand hall type space was lined with upper and lower rooms from end to end. It’s strange to think that this dark dusty place would have once been full of life and crowded with people and noise.
In the back of one of these small rooms was a small passage that opened into another narrow, curving stairway. This one was short and I managed to get through with bag, tripod, and dignity in tact. On the other end was yet another massive room. The ceiling wasn’t quite as high as the last room but there was lots of headroom and we could see a couple small chambers opening off on one side. The main space stepped up into a long, curving continuation of the space and you could see faint light coming from around the curve. Apparently, this space was actually some sort of burial ground, a number of bodies were found here not that long ago; a miracle considering the thoroughness of Turkish grave robbers (we even got to meet one of the mummies at the local museum). The porous stone kept the ground so dry that the bodies buried here were almost mummified, preserving the bodies as well as the clothing of early medieval Byzantines.
Beyond this main cluster of caves we explored further along the base of the cliff, finding chapels, and other large halls with faint traces of spidery designs painted in red, similar to the type seen in many of the cave churches of Cappadocia.
While many historic sights are ruinous, it’s usually hard to tell when it was ruined just by looking at it. Often the there’s a sense of ancient ruin followed by a long quiet period where the ruins are reclaimed by nature. Its often an almost peaceful feeling, far removed from historic upheaval and violence. While the Manazan Caves are obviously long abandoned, the fact that the destruction here is not just recent but current, is obvious. Even without our friend pointing out massive cracks in the walls, explaining how they’ve widened over the years, boulders smashed through the wooden walkway make it clear that this amazing sight is actively disappearing.
After a short drive from the Manazan Caves, through a canyon that looked like it was straight out of a cowboy film, we found ourselves in the village of Taşkale. Taşkale is built 5 kilometres east along the same canyon wall that Manazan was built in, though, unlike Manazan, Taşkale is still very much a living village. While the builders of Taşkale have also made use of the cliffs with its easily carved stone, it is nothing like a normal cave settlement. The people of Taşkale live in simple homes built of stone below the cliff face, the slope of the hill making the flat rooftops into a series of terraces descending into the green river valley.
What the people of Taşkale did do is carve over 250 small chambers into the overhanging cliff face to make granaries. Each granary has its own little door with a pulley sticking out above it so that the sacks of grain could be hauled upwards and loaded into the small cavities, kept cool and dry by the great mass of porous stone. The looming cliff, spattered with dark doorways makes for a bizarre backdrop to the small village.
Rather than return to the city by the route we came in on, we made a loop of the Karaman highlands, a landscape of broken hills, with great patches of pale limestone thrusting up between coarse brush and the occasional juniper tree. Even though the landscape appeared to be made up of low hills, we were actually quite high in the mountains, with the dramatic slopes and peaks falling away to the sea further south, hidden behind the undulating hilltops.
Driving along rough gravel roads we stopped to fill a trunkful of water jugs (about 100 litres of drinking water for the home) and to pick some fresh chickpeas off the bush for a roadside snack. As we went along our guide pointed out the numerous marble quarries, producing the fine Turkish marble that is shipped all over the world.
Sadly, marble comes at a heavy cost to these highland ecosystems where entire mountaintops are cut away. While there are rules in place to mitigate the impact of these quarries, they are rarely enforced. While the quarries will by nature remove massive sections of a mountain, the lack of cleanup and the incredible clouds of dust that smother the slow-growing highland junipers still causes incredible damage.
To add a little bit of adrenalin to our otherwise slow, peaceful day of quiet driving, we got the closest any of us have been to getting into a head-on collision. The one and only car we had seen in over an hour of driving just happened to be on wrong side of the road speeding around a blind corner. Miraculously we avoided a collision and a trip into the stony ditch
As I’ve read about the history of this land that is now called Turkey, I’ve often been struck by the connection between history’s great events and the places where they happened. Sometimes the stage for these great turning points in history are obvious, even as grand as the events that they serve to remind us of. Others, much less so.
The massive walls of Istanbul are still imposing and point back to the incredible struggle between the Ottomans and the Byzantines. The battlefield where Alexander the Great defeated the Persian King Darius, opening vast swathes of the ancient world to Hellenization, however, is lost. (We only know its general whereabouts, somewhere north of Payas near Dörtyol.)
When St. Paul travelled through the eastern Roman world, preaching Christianity, he was at the forefront of a movement that would transform the Roman Empire and, and in turn, much of the world. The places he visited are recorded in the Bible and so the fame of these cities is huge, with believers all around the world knowing their names. In some cases though, that fame seems at odds with the sites themselves.
On this trip we visited two such places: Lystra and Derbe, the scant ruins of which can be found in the plains of Karaman and Konya. The site of Derbe is now nothing more than a gentle rise surrounded by cornfields. Lystra is only slightly more impressive rising high enough to be called a hill. (Read the account of Paul’s visits here in Acts 14, 16, 20)
Derbe and Lystra were some of the first cities that Paul visited, from here the movent spread, leaving incredible impact on the world, and yet, even the site itself is barely visible.
To wrap up our trip we returned to the high limestone peaks of the Taurus mountains of southern Karaman and crossed over into the province of Mersin where the range marches steeply downwards towards the medeterranean. Our goal was to visit one of Turkey’s jewels of Byzantine architecture set on these high slopes.
Descending onto the coastal side of the mountains junipers gave way to Red Pines and the humidity began to spike rapidly. Turning off the highway we rounded a switchback and caught our first glimpse of Alahan Monastery on the ridge above us.
While the beautiful craftsmanship and magnificent views of Alahan Monastery have made it famous, there is actually remarkably little known about this important site. Even its name is unknown: Alahan coming from a nearby Turkish town, and Koja Kilise, its other name, simply being Turkish for “Big Church”.
The monastic complex consisted of two primary churches, chapels, a baptistry, and numerous other lesser buildings, some of which include some of the finest examples of early Byzantine stonemasonry. Set above the western church are the remains of a cave complex, possible dating back to the earliest stages of this religious complex. With such grand buildings and set along the ancient roadway from the coast to the interior, it’s believed that Alahan was more than just a monastery, and a site of pilgrimage.
Walking from west to east along a roadway, raised like a terrace, we passed by the cave complex, churches, and a baptistry with the remains of frescoes still clear. It was amazing to think that a place that was obviously so important could be forgotten. In many ways this was the opposite of ancient Derbe and Lystra; though the remains here are grand and striking, the story behind them has been utterly lost to us.
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Coming to the unpoetically named “Big Church”, it took little to imagine the former beauty of the building. Perfectly smooth walls full of arched windows stood looking out over the valley far below. Visiting in the 17th century the renowned Ottoman Traveller, Evliya Çelebi, said Alahan appears to have “just come from the hands of the master builders”. 300 years later many of the details still appear sharp and clear. Perhaps the greatest blight on the beauty of the complex now comes from the ugly metal platform erected in the center of the nave, and the unceremoniously posted “no entry” signs.
Karaman is one of those little-known provinces. In fact, every time I told my Turkish friends where I was going they would clarify saying “Konya Karaman?” as if it was just some out of the way part of the larger province with little to offer of its own. Yet here again we saw how every corner of Turkey has its own unique sights and experiences to offer. From Hittite monuments to wild horses, mountaintop monasteries to cave cities, Karaman and its warm locals gave us the opportunity to really explore something and connect with the place in a way that few other visitors get to.