If there exists a land of make-believe to house even the most implausible of myths, then that land is Cappadocia. Home of dragons, of forgotten superheroes and saints, but also of great learning, culture and a stalwart of Orthodoxy, this forgotten region, slumbering peacefully in the centre of Asia Minor, is a paradox and an oxymoron. Its paradox lies in its hyperbolic qualities. A foundation of Greek culture in its extreme, it marks the apogee of civilization and also, of utter emptiness. Every Cappadocian stone cries out its history into the wilderness, and hear by no man any more.

The very geography of Cappadocia betrays its nature. A harsh land of hot summers and icy cold winters, the terrain of Cappadocia is a petrified sea. Volcanic convolutions have made the landscape unique. Strange conic formations rise out of nowhere, forming a vast meringue of stone on the Cappadocian plain. The tortured appearance of stones transformed by lava flows and eroded by time led the ancient Greeks to weave the region into mythology as the battleground between the Gods and the Titans, when the primeval world was broken and re-created. In fact, it was held the land of Cappadocia was the prison of the defeated Titans, whose anguished groans could be heard as the earth moved. Cappadocia was incorporated into Hellenism at a relatively late stage.

Its historic inhabitants, of mixed Hittite and Assyrian stock saw the ebb and flow of countless empires before finally being Hellenised during the penetration of Greek colonists from the coast of Asia Minor that was facilitated by the conquests of Alexander. Hellenisation of the area continued under Roman rule. While the Cappadocians stubbornly resisted all attempts to submit to the Romans and were in constant revolt, during Roman rule, the Greek language permeated throughout the region, while the various theatres, gymnasiums and philosophical schools served to further bring Greek culture to the masses.

 Owing also to the hardiness and resilience of the native Cappadocians, they formed a bulwark against the constant incursions of the Parthian armies. In time, under the name of Akrites, literally, those who live on the edge, they would create a legend of heroism that would last to the present day. However Hellenised, during early Roman times, the region was considered a cultural backwater.

It was only with the advent of Christianity that Cappadocia began slowly to emerge as a region with a distinct and special spirituality. Hitherto, the harsh climate and terrain of the region produced an intensely orgiastic religion, centred around the Anatolian mother-deity, Ma. The pragmatic mind of the Cappadocians was able to develop a syncretic religion of Greek and Semitic ideas, given voice by the neo-Pythagorean, Appollonius of Tyana, whose profuse philosophical writings will greatly influence later Cappadocian theologians. If Christianity has its origins in desert wildernesses, the Idumaean desert where Christ was tempted, the Egyptian desert where monks first formed their communities, the wilderness of Cappadocia, acting as a catalyst of clear thought became the home of doctrinal theology and also of Orthodox mysticism.

The Hellenistic desire to free man from the shackles of his earthly limitations would profoundly influence the Cappadocians and the spread of Christianity throughout the Greek world. Already by the first century AD, there was enough of a Christian presence in the region to warrant Peter the apostle to address one of his epistles to the Cappadocians and a visit by Paul. By the second century, Cappadocia had its own bishopric, centred on Cappadocia.

The early Cappadocian church was famed mostly for the excessive amount of its martyrs. Thousands died for their faith during the successive persecutions of Aurelianus, Diocletian and Maximilian. St Basil the Great mentions Orestes and Julite, while by far the most famous was St Mamas, who ironically enough bore the name of the autocthonous goddess, Ma. A child of the martyrs Theodotus and Rufina, St Mamas developed a form of early asceticism in the countless conical caves of the regions where he lived as a hermit. A precursor of St Francis of Assisi, he developed a close relationship with animals, and shared his cave with them.

Always the stuff of legend, the caves of Cappadocia were reputed to be the home of the great dragon which St George, one of the more famous Cappadocians, who embodied the military tradition of the region and was a typical larger than life Cappadocian superhero and martyr. Tradition places the legendary battle between man and beast at Argeus. Always innovators in the sphere of welfare and society, the Cappadocians appointed him protector of the poor and by inference, patron of Cappadocia. Of greatest renown during the early Byzantine period, where the theological thinkers of Cappadocia, who established an important and lasting scholastic tradition. Indeed, the third and fourth centuries would come to be known as the golden age of Cappadocia, in which the theology of the Orthodox Church was established.

The Great Hierarchs, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzus derived their origins from Cappadocia. Inspiring the masses with their enlightened insights into their faith, they codified and developed the form of the Orthodox liturgy that is still in use today. St John Chrysostom in particular was noted for his continuance of the ancient Greek art of oratory. His fiery sermons became the social conscience of the whole Byzantine Empire.

St Basil, bishop of Caesaria, developed the first welfare state in the world. During his tenure in the city, he ensured its inhabitants had access to hospitals, orphanages, schools and even set up a system of welfare payments and compensation for those injured at work. Thousands of artisans, tradespeople and clergy flocked to Cappadocia, which at that stage, rivalled Rome as the centre of Christendom. Cappadocian missionaries spread Christianity throughout Asia Minor and the East, while schools were set up for the study of the ancient classics.

The monasteries that were founded employed monks to copy the ancient texts. It was because of the efforts of these Cappadocians that much of the corpus of ancient Greek thought that is available to us today, survives. Monasticism too received a form that would be adopted throughout Europe, profoundly altering the political and cultural life of the continent. St Basil’s “heavenly army” established itself in the most remote caves of the region around Mt Varatynon, which today is an impressive labyrinth of ruins known as Bin Bir Kilise or One Thousand and One Churches. At Goreme, the visitor is struck by an almost lunar landscape. The artwork of the conical churches exudes intense spirituality and form the few relics of Byzantine art that survive relatively intact. Also of note are the monasteries carved into the mountainsides, eerie reminders today, of an illustrious past.

To be continued next week…

* Dean Kalimniou is a Melbourne solicitor and freelance writer