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Fresco Facelift in Central Turkey

Crumbling frescoes in ancient churches in Turkey receive a long-overdue facelift.

The central Turkish town of Ortahisar clings to a conic rock formation like barnacles to a coastal boulder. Empty churches and monasteries, carved out of the volcanic tuff, now house pigeons, while below ragged children scamper in and out of caves.

The old town of Ortahisar, literally the “middle castle,” is just one of many towns in the Turkish region of Cappadocia.

After Christianity was declared the official religion of the Byzantine empire in the late fourth century, Cappadocia became a flourishing monastic center and an important provincial center of Byzantine art. More than 1,000 churches and a score of monastic cells are hidden in this isolated region of extraordinary volcanic valleys.

Cappadocia contains the greatest concentration of Byzantine frescoes anywhere. But the ravages of people and time, and the softness of the rock that once allowed these Christians to carve out homes and churches, now threaten the very future of the paintings themselves. Plaster is beginning to crumble. The pigments have been dulled by centuries of dust and smoke from innumerable candles. Local villagers have scratched out the eyes and faces of the saints and replaced the Byzantine inscriptions with their own names.

These problems were recognized in the early 1970s when several of the churches were included in a major conservation project sponsored by UNESCO, the International Center for Conservation in Rome (ICCROM) and the Turkish government. Progress has been slow; only two of nine churches have been fully restored thus far. Further impetus was given to the project when the principal churches near the village of Göreme were added to the list of World Heritage Sites in 1985.

Cappadocia has been home to a succession of Anatolian peoples. The Hittites and Romans, Byzantines and Turks, all found Cappodocia’s valleys a welcome retreat from the barren Anatolian steppe. But it was the Byzantines who left the greatest mark on the area. During a period of unprecedented stability, from the ninth to 11th centuries, they embarked on a notable period of church-building, carving sanctuaries out of the surface of the earth.

In pagan times Cappadocia had been a refugee for Zoroastrians. Later, Christians, fleeing the corruption of Antioch and Constantinople, or the advancing armies from the East, settled in these narrow valleys. Monks established sizeable communities during the height of extreme medieval asceticism, hiding in dingy caves, when the stylites passed their lives perched atop the pillars of ruined pagan temples, and the dendrites chained themselves for decades in the branches of trees. In this semidesert, the monks sought salvation.

The monks have long since died, but their retreats remain: perfectly hewn refectories; monolithic benches and stone tables; storage containers and wine vats; rows of tombs; all scooped out of the volcanic rock.

Of the 1,000 Cappadocian churches, around 150 have paintings of variable quality and condition. Some are decorated in simple geometric designs, which date from the Iconoclastic period (726-843), when figurative representations were forbidden by the emperors. The more important frescoes, however, were painted alter the mid-ninth century, when the right to venerate icons was restored. The frescoes that date to the 10th and 11th centuries are excellent examples of the classical period of Byzantine art, usually referred to as the “Macedonian Renaissance.”

Faced with the enormous number of churches and the wealth of art, restorers have chosen to concentrate on the most important cluster of churches in and around Göreme. The latest to benefit under the program is the 11th-century church of El Nazar. Using little more than picks and shovels, medieval monks dug out a cruciform sanctuary complete with apse, nave and transepts. Later fresco artists painted the ceilings and walls with saints and scenes from the life of Jesus.

Before restoration begins the structure itself must be stabilized. Hairline cracks in the outer cone urgently need to be sealed to prevent water seepage.

Fresco restoration is a time-consuming procedure. Working on small areas at a time, restorers first consolidate flaking plaster and peeling pigment. The painting pieces are then refixed to the wall by injecting a special adhesive. Once dry and firm, restorers slowly begin to clean the paint surface with solvents, thus revealing their true colors. Finally, the missing parts of the frescoes, or lacunae, are retouched with watercolors. As Turkish restorer Revza Ozil points out, it is important that the retouched and original areas are easily distinguishable when inspected.

Conservation efforts have already proved successful. The first church to be restored was the remarkable “church with a buckle,” or Tokali Kilise, the principal sanctuary of a large monastic center. The most impressive of all Cappadocian churches, it was successively enlarged as the community grew in importance. It contains the finest ensemble of frescoes from the late ninth and 10th centuries.

Nature has worn the exterior cone, thus the entrance is now a hole in the face of the cliff. However, beyond the threshold rises an astonishing vaulted ceiling with earth-colored paintings that illustrate the life of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

Further on, the larger “new church,” reveals itself as the Cappadocian fathers’ greatest achievement. When the carving of the church was complete, it was decorated in red and green patterns. Painted directly on the rock surface, they served to emphasize the architectural forms. Only later, after the restoration of icons, were the walls covered with figurative frescoes.

The initial impression of the “new church” decoration is of an intense blue. Restored frescoes of the crucifixion, the blessing of the apostles, the dream of Joseph, and the journey to Bethlehem are set against a brilliant ultramarine background, made from lapis lazuli mined in present-day Afghanistan. The blue pigment was as expensive as gold in the Middle Ages and, while common in manuscript illustration, it was rarely used in wall painting until the 13th century. Yet at Tokali the color is used profusely, an indication of the wealth of the church’s patron.

A stone’s throw from Tokali Kilise another towering mass shelters an ensemble of ecclesiastical buildings. Near a monastery complete with refectory stands the “apple church,” where restoration is currently underway; the somber “Karanlik Kilise” or “dark church,” where work has recently finished; and the ominous sounding “church with a snake.” Inside the latter is a fresco of St. George slaying a dragon.

A number of freestanding churches from the early Byzantine period have also survived. But most of the churches, such as those on the flanks of the volcanic Mount Hasan, are little more than ruins. Four miles from Guzelyurt, birthplace of the Byzantine theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, however, stands the “red church,” an intact seventh-century basilica. Too distant from the nearest village to be plundered for its stone, and well off the tourist route, the church is approached on foot along an ancient and overgrown track – its isolation has been its savior.

Cappadocia’s Christians controlled these remote valleys for more than 500 years until the region was conquered by the Seljuk Turks in 1071. Many churches were subsequently abandoned, while others continued to be used until the early 20th century by the local Greeks, descendants of the original Byzantine settlers. These Greeks disappeared after the Greco-Turkish war in 1922, which resulted in the mass exchange of Greeks from Turkey, and Turks from Greece.

Cappadocia’s churches have now fallen silent. Restoring every fresco is an impossible task. But thanks to the continuing efforts of a few dedicated scholars and restorers, the beauty, elegance and power of these Byzantine images will be preserved.

Chris Hellier is a freelance photojournalist living and working in Turkey.

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