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Athena Review  Vol.3, no.1:   Byzantine Cultures, East and West


View from a Turkish Monastery: An Introduction to the Early Byzantine Period


by James Allan Evans

Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia, Vancouver


Part I: High above the main route to Antalya in Turkey (fig.1), in the Isaurian region where the Göksu river gorge cuts deeply through the Taurus mountain range on the border of Rough Cilicia, stand the ruins of the Alahan monastery. For a hiker, it is a steep ascent, but fortunately we came on a bus. The gravel road forked off from the main highway and climbed two kilometers with many switchbacks to a narrow shelf which supported a minuscule parking lot before the site.

The monastery, clinging to the mountainside, has been deserted for some 1,400 years; yet time and the vicissitudes of this region’s past have 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, and 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.

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.

Fig.1: Map of Turkey showing the location of the monastery at Alahan.

Licinius became increasingly suspicious. He had married Constantine’s sister to seal his alliance, but that did not take the edge off his brother-in-law’s ambition. Ten years after the Edict of Milan, Constantine and Licinius were at war, and when Licinius lost the struggle and his life as well, Constantine made a move which would influence the history of the Mediterranean world for the next millennium. He built a new capital on the Bosporus, a New Rome, modern Istanbul, which until the last century was still known as Constantinople, the “City of Constantine.” The Byzantine emperors were to rule there until 1453.

In this new empire the monastic movement spread like wildfire. It fed on an epidemic urge to abandon the norms of classical civilization. The first monk to seek solitude in the desert was St. Anthony. The son of well-to-do peasants in Egypt, he began his life of asceticism about 269, and he died at the age of 105. He soon had disciples, both men and women, who followed his example and sought out caves on the desert’s edge in Egypt where they might live as hermits. This was a grassroots movement which cut across the class and language barriers of the multicultural empire. The monks could be disorderly and fanatical, and blunt in their prejudices against Jews and Samaritans. But in particular, they were the spearhead of the Christian attack on paganism.

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. It was probably naturally formed, though human hands reshaped its interior. Caves were favorite sites for pagan sanctuaries. The divinities that inhabited them were generally gods of the countryside worshipped by the local peasants, and this low-level paganism which was centered on holy caves and sacred trees was persistent and hard to eradicate. The biographies of the Christian saints are full of tales of how they chopped down sacred trees while the local peasants protested and threatened, or drove devils from the grottos reverenced for centuries. Christians did not deny that these little gods existed, though they called them devils, and they waged war against them: they believed that if a holy man inhabited a cave that had been hallowed by generations of worship, the pagan spirit that lived there would be forced to abandon it, however reluctantly. A community of monks would be even more effective. 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.

The disorganized grassroots movement begun by St. Anthony in Egypt had spread to all corners of the empire. Ascetics sought to win spiritual rewards by mortifying the flesh with a zeal which is excessive to modern eyes, but this was a time when people regarded the body as a prison for the soul, and by denying the needs of the body for food, or sex or even sleep, a devout Christian believed he would attain the spiritual life. A champion ascetic won enormous admiration. In Syria the famous St. Symeon the Stylite (ca.389-459) first tried to live in a dry cistern which he soon exchanged for a small cell and then an enclosure on the mountainside where he chained one leg to a stone. However, the local bishop protested that this was too extreme, and Symeon allowed the chain to be removed. But then he hit upon a satisfactory hermitage where he could have both the seclusion and the renown he wanted: he sat upon a pillar which he raised higher and higher until it reached sixteen meters, and there he remained, preaching whenever the spirit moved him to crowds of pilgrims. He had a host of imitators. Not all monks retired to the desert, however; some preferred the villages and cities where they often made nuisances of themselves. But in Egypt, while St. Anthony still lived, a development took place which would set the monastic movement on a new, more constructive path. Pachomios set up a monastic community where the monks followed a rule which assigned them definite tasks and ordained prayers at specific times. He founded nine monasteries for men and two for women around the deserted Tabennisi village in Egypt, and in 330, he set up a great abbey at Pbow which served as the administrative center for all the monasteries that followed his rule.

Most of the great cenobitic monasteries in the eastern Mediterranean countries are now in ruins, but even in their ravaged state, they are impressive witnesses to the allegiance which Christianity once commanded in countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Turkey where it has now lost the masses to Islam. Historians from Edward Gibbon to A. H. M. Jones have considered them an encumbrance on the Gross Domestic Product, but in fact, the monks and nuns made a considerable contribution to the economy. Monks worked as farmhands. Monasteries grew crops, raised livestock, and offered hospitality to wayfarers and sometimes, too, when law and order broke down, refuge from marauders. The holy man of a village often offered the only source of justice to which a peasant might appeal in his struggles with greedy landlords and rapacious tax collectors. Saints and hermits had clout, and landlords respected them. The power centers of the ancient Graeco-Roman world had been the cities with their theaters, schools, colonnaded streets and public baths which drew off water from the countryside, and once Christians no longer needed to fear persecution, it was in the cities that they built their cathedrals. But most of the people lived in rural villages and the taxes and rents from their farms supported the cities. In the early Byzantine world there was even a language divide: Greek was the language of the cities, and Latin the language of Roman law, but in the rural villages the native dialects were still spoken. In the economic and cultural struggle between the city and the countryside, the monasteries helped tip the balance in favor of the countryside.

Fig.2: Remains of the East Basilica at Alahan, along a rocky ledge (photo: J.A. Evans).

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. Emperor Leo had recruited Isaurians into a new bodyguard which he formed to counterbalance the predominance of Aspar who was Master of the Soldiers: that is, generalissimo of the army, and a “barbarian” from one of the tribes on the imperial borders. He owed his power to the support of the German allied troops in Constantinople. Zeno married the emperor’s daughter, helped eliminate Aspar and his Germans in a putsch which earned Leo the sobriquet “The Butcher,” and produced an heir, Leo II, who lived only long enough to name his father co-emperor. Zeno’s reign brought Isauria imperial favor that lasted until his death in 491 (see timeline).

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 (fig.3). 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.

Fig.3: Plan of the East Basilica at Alahan, with a cliff located along the north wall.

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.

Part II: 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? In the Western Roman Empire, orthodoxy mattered too, but the heresies which the Latin church encountered lacked the subtleties of those that mushroomed in the Eastern Empire where the Greek language had been honed by philosophy with roots that went back to Plato and Aristotle. The genius of Rome had been law, not philosophy, and the Roman Church inherited the legal traditions of its empire. This inheritance made theological definitions easier for the pope than they were for the patriarchs of the eastern churches.

There were five patriarchal sees, and Rome claimed primacy, which the eastern patriarchs acknowledged somewhat jealously. The see of Alexandria which claimed St. Mark as its founder rivaled Rome in prestige and wealth, and though it grudgingly allowed Rome first place, it coveted second place for itself. But once Constantinople became the imperial capital, it staked a claim to second place, and the first ecumenical council of Constantinople in 381 proclaimed it the second see of Christendom because, as the canon law put it, Constantinople was New Rome. Neither Old Rome nor Alexandria recognized the claim. Then there was the patriarchate of Antioch which embraced Isauria, and until the mid fifth century, it also claimed Jerusalem. But at the Second Council of Ephesus at the end of the reign of Theodosius II, the bishop of Jerusalem, Juvenal, played his cards shrewdly enough to emerge with a patriarchate of his own as a reward for backing Alexandria, and then a couple years later he kept it by switching support to Constantinople. The patriarchs did not see eye to eye and behind their theological altercations lay resentments and rivalries which had little to do with theology.

When Constantine conquered the east and united the empire, he encountered Arianism, a heresy which centered on the nature of the Trinity. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, ran afoul of the patriarch by teaching that Christ was not co-eternal with God the Father. Arius’ Christ was a more human figure than orthodox theology admitted. But Arius’ superiors, the patriarch Alexander and his successor, the great Athanasius, found that Arius was a hard man to suppress. He was a spellbinding preacher who wrote hymns that were sung in the mills and on the streets, and he roused the enthusiasm of the masses. The church leaders appealed to Constantine who convened the first ecumenical church council at Nicaea which drew up a creed to serve as the touchstone of orthodoxy. But the Nicene Creed failed to solve all the problems. Arian missionaries made converts among the barbarians with the result that most of them - the Franks were an exception - became Arians. But after Arius himself died, Arianism lost ground within the empire, though two centuries later Constantinople still had wealthy Arian churches which the Emperor Justinian (527-565) plundered ruthlessly.

The next great heresy, Monophysitism, was more stubborn. Both the Monophysites and their opponents considered themselves orthodox. Monophysitism began as a reaction against one of the heresies which followed in the wake of Arianism: Nestorianism, named after a patriarch of Constantinople who taught that Christ possessed in himself two separate natures, one divine and the other human. An elderly monk in Constantinople, Eutyches (box, this page), who headed a monastery in the area, produced a new solution to the mystery of the Trinity which was a mirror image of Nestorianism. Instead of emphasizing the human element in Christ, Eutyches taught that God the Father and Jesus his son had the same nature and substance. This was monotheism taken to its logical extreme, and it is unsurprising that Monophysite Christianity would eventually lose ground to Islam, for Mohammed was also to teach a monotheist doctrine that is even more uncompromising. The slogan of the Monophysite churches was “God is One,” which is very little different from the Islamic statement of faith: “There is One God.”

Eutyches was condemned by a local synod but Eutychianism took on a life of its own. Eutyches was the godfather of the Emperor Theodosius II’s current favorite, a eunuch named Chrysogonos whose influence at court was immense. In Egypt, too, it encountered sympathetic listeners, for the doctrine of Eutyches developed the teachings of the great patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril. Cyril is best remembered now as the evil prelate who engineered the horrible death of the Alexandrian philosopher and teacher, Hypatia, but in the fifth century Cyril was known as a doughty opponent of Nestorianism and an equally fervent defender of the primacy of Alexandria against the pretensions of the Constantinople patriarchate. Cyril would have considered Eutyches’ doctrine too extreme, but he was dead by now, and his successor Dioscoros embraced it. Monophysitism, as Eutyches’ teachings were later called, became virtually the national religion of Egypt, supported by swarms of fanatical monks.

Christianity had unintentionally released long-submerged passions among the masses. The Roman Empire had been ruled by an elite which survived into the Byzantine world. It replenished itself with fresh graduates from the schools where the traditions of classical education were still carried on. An ambitious young man would study Greek literature and learn to appreciate classical style and write prose and verse in the manner of an educated Athenian living a thousand years earlier. Historians wrote like Herodotus and Thucydides, using elegant circumlocutions when they had to mention Byzantine officials or Christian clergy for whom classical Greek had no words. Ambitious students would study Latin too, for it was still the language of law, a profession that led to the imperial civil service where fortunes might be made.

But the church provided an alternative road to power. The ascetic who perched on a pillar and attracted crowds of pilgrims did not need a classical education. Among the hymns written by Romanus the Melode, the greatest hymnist of the reign of Justinian in the mid-sixth century, there is one that ridicules the wisdom of the Greeks and contrasts it with the true understanding that came from the Christian faith. In the western Roman Empire where the last Roman emperor was sent packing in 476 by a barbarian condottiere named Odoacer, the great families moved easily from positions of power in the state to positions of power in the church, but society was different in the east. Byzantium had a mosaic of ancient ethnicities lurking beneath its dominant Greek culture and the passions of the Monophysite mobs in Egypt expressed the irredentist, anti-imperial feelings of the native population.

Fig.4: View of apse at the eastern end of the East Basilica at Alahan Monastery (photo: J.A. Evans).

In 449, the Emperor Theodosius II summoned a church council to Ephesus to pass judgement on Monophysite doctrine. It was a brutal council, dominated by the patriarch of Alexandria, Disocoros, who was supported by a pack of fanatical monks. Pope Leo the Great called it the “Robber Council.” Pope Leo did not attend himself, but he sent the patriarch of Constantinople, Flavian, a letter in which he outlined his definition of orthodoxy. This was the famous Tome of Leo, and it set forth Rome’s position from which later popes would refuse to budge. At the “Robber Council,” however, Flavian considered it unwise to introduce the Tome, for Leo’s style was blunt and undiplomatic and Leo’s own legates spoke Latin which most of the eastern churchmen did not understand. The emperor, influenced by Chrysogonos, favored Eutyches whom Flavian had condemned, and though Flavian resisted, he was deposed, exiled, and died suspiciously soon after. The Monophysites carried the day. The “Robber Council” was a triumph for the see of Alexandria.

Then everything changed. Theodosius II died suddenly from a hunting accident. He had been a weak emperor, dominated first by his pious sister Pulcheria who chose a wife for him; then Pulcheria and his wife vied for power, and the wife, Eudocia, lost, and finally in his latter years it had been the eunuch Chrysogonos who dominated him. Pulcheria offered a soldier named Marcian the throne and herself as his wife with the understanding that she would retain her virginity. Marcian belonged to the staff of Aspar, the army generalissimo, and thus Pulcheria could count on his support. Chrysogonos was executed. Another church council was called at Chalcedon in 451, and with some imperial arm-twisting, the delegates rejected the verdict of the “Robber Council” and adopted the Chalcedonian Creed which made the Tome of Leo the definition of orthodoxy. It stated baldly that Christ had two natures, one divine and the other human, and it was so close to the Nestorian definition of Christ that only a subtle analyst could tell the difference. In fact, Nestorius himself, in exile and living out his final years at the oasis of El Khargeh in Egypt, could find nothing in the Chalcedonian Creed that he could not accept.

Christendom was now divided between Monophysites and Diphysites and the history of the Byzantine church until the rise of Islam is a tale of failed efforts to bridge the gap. Isauria was Monophysite, and the Emperor Zeno the Isaurian promulgated a carefully-worded creed called the Henotikon which was moderately Monophysite. Yet it failed to condemn the Creed of Chalcedon, and the doctrinaire Monophysites would accept no less, though the middle-roaders were satisfied. In Rome, the pope retorted by excommunicating Zeno and his patriarch who had devised the Henotikon. A schism opened between Rome and Constantinople, lasting until the Emperor Justin I came to the throne in 518.

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.

[part 2: Constantinople and the Basilica of Hagia Sophia]


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