The Christians of Capadocia: The Ultimate Statement of Religious Conviction
The New Testament tells us that in the aftermath of the crucifixion of Jesus, it soon became apparent to Rome's reining ruler, Claudius Drusus Nero, that this cult who had deemed Jesus "The Messiah" was not losing faith as expected. In light of the Christians' tenacity, Claudius decreed that they must all be eradicated for the good of the Empire by any means necessary. So, converting to this new religion meant conscious resignation to Rome's persecution. Yet, as is evident today, many people nevertheless chose this perilous path to salvation. And no one was more instrumental in convincing them to do so than Paul, a former Jew born "Saul" who'd once dedicated his life to wiping the Christian cult off the face of the earth. Tradition holds that on a journey to Damascus where Saul intended to mount a violent offensive against the subversive followers of Jesus, he experienced an epiphany; a spiritual awakening that would ultimately change not only his worldview, but the face and future of Christianity. Becoming a fervent advocate for the Jesus movement, the newly-baptized "Paul" launched a zealous walking ministry believed to have covered 20,000 miles--from Damascus to Tarsus, Ephesus to Rome. But what is most significant is the place he ended his journey. A place called Capadocia, in central Turkey. This is the focus of this writing.
A visibly indescribable, seemingly man-made terrain of towering spires, cones, obelisks, and countless caves cut deep into solidified volcanic ash, geologists today believe this area was wholly created by massive volcanic eruptions that spewed a thick layer of ash 300 feet deep, covering 15,000 square miles. Historically, Capadocia was known as home to a people whose chief economy was based on raising horses for the Roman army. But once visited by Paul, these people came to be recognized as one of the most pious religious sects in all of the Roman Empire, ultimately playing an extraordinary role in perpetuating the Cult of Christ.
Soon after the population's conversion to Christianity, the breathtaking landscape of this unlikely crossroads of Asia and Europe became the mere facade of a unique fortress that developed in a most unique and phenomenal way over the next three centuries. Although the sheer height of the terrain presented considerable protection from the Roman army (with whom they immediately fell at odds for their religious and trade betrayal), the Capadocians further utilized their cavernous environment by burrowing deeper and deeper into the mountain of limestone, eventually carving out hundreds of miles of maze-like tunnels that are believed to have ultimately housed tens of thousands of Christians,in numerous self-contained underground settlements. Tens of thousands of individuals who would constitute the largest population of "new religion" adherents for over a century.
Using modern ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists have in recent years discovered the true genius of this religious community who for the last decades of their existence were believed to have abandoned their habitat. To sustain their cave-dwelling existence, the Capadocians not only had to be most clever artisans, they had to be extraordinary city planners and logisticians. Found hidden behind huge rolling doors in the back recesses of their terrestrial churches were multiple secret passages leading to the city proper (suburban passageways leading to urban centers where huge marketplaces and tradecenters are thought to have existed). As this city was constructed to be totally self-sustaining and isolated, every conceivable need had to be considered in this world that would not enjoy daylight for indefinite periods of time. With some forty separate communities as deep as eight stories underground, archaeological evidence shows that these people lacked for nothing and did indeed thrive for centuries.
As an anthropologist specializing in religion and ritual behavior, I see religion as humankind's most remarkable institution; perhaps the ultimate human enigma. Spirituality, devoutness, etherity, and piety reach far beyond our conscious minds into the deepest recesses of that which makes us what we are: intimately innate yet utterly unfathomable. And should anyone ever need to question humankind's ultimate resolve or capacity for conviction, we need only consider the unlikely people of Capadocia. I know of no more powerful statement of the human spirit.