Decorative style in Spanish architecture and art that evolved from a fusion of Islamic and Christian (Romanesque and Gothic) elements. It was created either by Muslims working for Christians, or of Christians imitating Islamic forms (Lucie-Smith 2003:143). The term Mudejars (mudéjares) also “refers to the group of [Moors] who remained in Iberia in the late medieval period despite the Christian reconquest” (‘Mudéjar’ 2022); they were permitted to stay as much as their style of art. Those were mainly skillful craftsmen who greatly contributed to the creation of the new style ‘(Mudéjar’, 2021).
The Mudejar style appeared in the twelfth century and lasted until the seventeenth century (‘Mudéjar’, 2021). Its greatest heyday took place in the Gothic period of Spain, especially between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (Ibid.). Among its characteristic features are the richness of ornamental decorations made of stucco, wood and brick, with which the surfaces of palaces and churches/cathedrals were covered so that their walls still resemble embroidered or woven draperies (Ibid.). Yet, like in the Islamic art, depictions of human or animal figures were avoided (Ibid.). Arches typical of Moorish architecture were used, like horseshoe, polylobed and lambrequin (muqarnas) arches (Ibid.). The rooms were covered with coffered ceilings and stalactite vaults (Ibid.). Azulejos were also widely applied. For more information see: Shapes of the Architectural Oasis of Al-Andalus.
The matter of pottery and its invention was one of numerous subjects dedicated to Southeast and East Asian Archaeology, which I studied during one of my chosen modules at the university. Although for many scholars the subject of pottery does not seem to tell a compelling story, it turned out to give me a highly interesting insight into general research and the question about the time of pottery’s invention, as according to universal knowledge, its appearance is conventionally associated with the Neolithic, which is, in turn, joined with the high-speed revolution in the development of human kind. Nevertheless, such an idea mostly concerns the area of the Middle East. In Far East Asia countries, such as Japan or China, the subject of pottery should be regarded differently.
Development of pottery has been generally linked to the Neolithic period and primarily associated with the Old Europe and Middle East, with its earliest introduction believed to have occurred in west Asia (Ganj Darreh in western Iran) (circa 7300 BC.) (Rudgley 2000:28; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). In such a context, pottery, together with a craft of weaving, polished stone tools, a sedentary lifestyle (permanent settlements), religion, monuments, and domesticated plants or animals, is still used to describe Neolithic cultures around the world, conventionally appearing around 10000-8000 BC. (Solovyeva 2017:157; The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica 2021). Nevertheless, as it is supported by archaeological finds, an invention of pottery had already taken place much earlier, surely in the Palaeolithic, and further eastwards, more precisely in north-east Asia, including the Amur River basin in Eastern Russia (eastern Siberia), China (Jiangxi, a southeast Chinese province) and Japan (Rudgley 2000:28-29; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2; Norman 2004-2021).
Yet before 1960, it was believed that the earliest Japanese pottery came back from around 2500 BC. (Omoto, Takeishi, Nishida, Fukui 2016:534). But when the so-called Jōmon pottery from the site of Natsushima (Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture) was radiocarbon dated back to around 7000 BC., it turned out to be a real watershed in the archaeology of prehistory (Rudgley 2000:28). Other contemporary excavations at Fukui Cave in Nagasaki Prefecture not only revealed shreds of pottery, which were around 3000 years older than those from Natsushima (Serizawa 1976:2; Kobayashi 2004:9), but also proved “a direct continuity from [the microlithic culture of] the late Japanese Palaeolithic, [showing] a strong communality with the mainland […], to the [times of the] pottery-using [Jōmon]” (Kobayashi 2004:9,12,14). Further archaeological finds of undecorated pottery fragments in a charcoal residue at the Odai-Yamamoto Site (Sotogahama Town, Aomori Prefecture), pushed the beginnings of Japanese pottery even earlier in time to around 13000 BC. (Jomon Japan 2017). Still the oldest examples of undecorated, simple pottery vessels of the Jōmon culture are said to have been first produced around the same time, at the site of Shinonouchi in Nagano (Cartwright 2017) and at the sites in southern Kyūshū (Kakoinohara in Kagoshima Prefecture) (Kobayashi 2004:15-17,19). At the time of the mentioned excavations, the fact of the earliest pottery finds in Japan simultaneously questioned a common idea about a cultural predominance of ancient China over Japan in terms of innovations (Rudgley 2000:28-29). And although continuous excavations proved that pottery fragments also appeared in eastern Siberia around the same time as the Japanese evidence of earthenware vessels, and even earlier (c. 18 000 BC.) in southern China, pottery of the Jōmon culture in Japan is treated as an archaeological phenomenon and often referred to as the earliest pottery in the world (Norman 2004-2021; Rudgley 2000:29; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2,19; cf. Kenrick 1995), though it should be rather called the earliest pottery tradition due to its continuous development over thousands of years (Lewis 23rd September, 2021).
The Jōmon period, which covers a vast expanse of time of approximately thirteenth thousands years (Palmer 2007:49), can roughly fall within the Neolithic time range in Europe or in the Middle East, and so it is usually described as “Japan’s Neolithic period” (MET 2022; see: Solovyeva 2017:157; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2; Bleed 1976:107). Still, it is important to mention that at its earliest stages, it overlaps with European and Middle Eastern Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods (Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). Bleed (1976:107) simultaneously claims that describing the entire Jōmon period as Neolithic is actually “unfortunate” and incorrect. Accordingly, if the agricultural revolution constitutes one of the significant aspects recognising the period of Neolithic, the Japanese Neolithic should only refer to the period with the end of the Jōmon culture, between 900 BC. and 300 AD., when the Yayoi culture introduced the agriculture and started to cultivate white rice (Lewis 23rd September, 2021; Kobayashi 2004:133; cf. Barton 2012).
The Jōmon culture is the earliest one that we can identify in Japan. Yet it is little known about it because it was unfamiliar with the writing (Burns 2017). For this reason, the main source of knowledge about it are archaeological finds, such as pottery (Ibid.). Conventional time frames given for the Jōmon culture usually differ, depending on a given source (Cf: Solovyeva 2017:157; Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2). The chronology shown below is provided by scholars, such as Tatsuo Kobayashi (2004:5, Fig.1.2) and ChungHae Amana Oh (2011:35), and has been established basing on estimated radiocarbon dates from the last decade of the twentieth century (Amana Oh 2011:35). Accordingly, the Jōmon culture spans between 13600 BC. to 900 BC. and is traditionally divided into the subsequent periods: Incipient (13600-9200 BC.), Initial (9200-5300 BC.), Early (5300-3500), Middle (3500-2500), Late (2500-1200 BC.), and Final (1200-900BC.), when the Jōmon style wares and statues were gradually replaced by Yayoi pottery (ChungHae 2011:35, Kobayashi 2004:5, Fig.1.2).
The Jōmon culture came into existence with the end of the Last Glacial Period, and when it was in a gradual process of development, the Global Warming with significant climate change had already begun (Kobayashi 2004:1; Jomon Japan 2017). Consequently, sea levels rose in the contemporary world, causing in the region the inflow of the warm Tsushima Current into the Sea of Japan, and furthermore the growth of abundant forests of beech, chestnut, walnut and acorn in the Japanese archipelago (Kobayashi 2004:19). With time, “the ocean moved further inland, bringing with it [additional wealth] of fish and shellfish” (Jomon Japan 2017). Such favourable climate changes allowed contemporary groups of humans to use and “[manipulate] the resources available to them in the natural environment” (Kobayashi 2004:3). Jōmon groups initially led a nomadic and then a semi-sedentary life (MET 2022; Jomon Japan 2017); at that time, they built their villages composed of “pit dwellings arranged around central open spaces” (MET 2022), mostly along the ocean coast or along rivers and lakes, and obtained their food by gathering and fishing, collecting shellfish and hunting (Jomon Japan 2017). There was no need to move further, as they could dispose a large quantity of natural resources in one place, being usually stored in deep house pits (Kobayashi 2004:21). Kobayashi (2004:21) speculates that Jōmon peoples could have lined their storage pits with clay, as in the case of the West Asian Natufian culture, and so the Jōmon pottery could have originated from Japanese peoples’ observations that protruding fragments of the clay-lining hardened by the heat from nearby ovens (Ibid.:21). Or, there was a case when a piece of clay from the house wall (e.g. Ganji Darehor) or one dropped from the clay lining of a basket (e.g. North American southwest), was accidentally burnt and fire-hardened (Ibid.:21). Consequently, the Jōmon culture could have started processing clay wider to finally use it as a substance for containers (Ibid.:21). Although these are only some of speculations about actual foundations of pottery in Japan (Ibid.:21), they may constitute “a clue to the origins of pottery making in this region” (Ibid.:21).
Gradual increase in temperatures in Japan resulted in further remarkable inventions (Kobayashi 2004:7), such as “adoption of revolutionary new technologies and tools” (Ibid.:7). Typical of the Jōmon culture was an innovative way of cooking by means of pottery, which allowed them with time to initiate a typically sedentary lifestyle (Jomon Japan 2017). Accordingly, greater settlements were established, together with constant residential centres, sometimes featuring graveyards (e.g. Kakinoshima Site, Hakodate City, Hokkaido), and later also impressive monuments in the form of stone circles (e.g. Oyu Stone Circle, Kazuno City, Akita Prefecture or Kiusu Earthwork Burial Circles, Chitose City, Hokkaido) (Ibid.).
According to the archaeological evidence, It is said that groups of people who produced the earliest pottery mainly inhabited the main Japanese island of Honshu, though the centre of the mature Jōmon culture was more likely established in southern Hokkaido and northern Tohoku (northern end of Honshu) (e.g. Irie Takasago Shell Midden, Toyako, Town, Hokkaido or Futasumori Shell Midden, Shichinohe Town, Aomori Prefecture) (Jomon Japan 2017). Such a hypothesis is also supported by the fact that, despite that Honshu and Hokkaido areas had been divided by the Tsugaru Strait, different Jōmon peoples from these areas produced pottery of comparable shapes and by using analogous designs (Ibid.).
The Jōmon pottery was produced by hand, by employing turntables but without the use of a proper wheel, which had been unknown in Japan till the Yayoi phase of development (Kobayashi 2004:77; MET 2022). “The clay was mixed with a variety of adhesive materials, including mica, lead, fibres, and crushed shells, [and when] completely dry, [the pottery] was fired in an outdoor bonfire at a temperature of no more than about 900°C” (MET 2022). Kobayashi (2004:21) compares the earliest Japanese pottery manufacture to a contemporary process of baking a cake of crushed nuts and water. The Jōmon pottery is characterised by a cord pattern and hence the name of the culture – ‘Jōmon’, which stands for a ‘cord design’ (MET 2022). Apart from pottery vessels, also typical of the Jōmon culture were intriguing “[clay] figurines […] and other ritual [objects], demonstrating a rich spirituality” (Jomon Japan 2017). Most recognisable of all are definitely the so-called Dogu. Some researchers believe such pottery clay figures actually represent divine ancestors of the ancient Japanese (Burns 2017).
Shintō, the traditional native religion of Japan based on Japanese mythology, can be translated as the way of gods, literally kami-no-michi, where kami means gods (Shintō 2022). Hence, Japanese people believe in kami celestial beings who are still to reside in modern Japan (Burns 2017). According to an ancient Japanese tradition, there are millions of Kami; each has its own personal characteristics and can inhabit different entities, such as people and animals, or even objects (Ibid.). They come down to earth from Takama-ga-hara (High Plain of Heaven), and inhabit Jinja, which are in the Japanese Shintō religion places of worship devoted to various kami (Ibid.). Kami, in turn, are usually thought to be represented as the Dogu figurines (Ibid.). Around 15,000 Dogu representations in the form of various human-like creatures have been found throughout Japan (Ibid.). Also, according to alternative researchers, Dogu are surely to represent the mythological Kami that visited the earth in ancient times; they have goggle-like eyes and their bodies are covered with rivets, which may indicate an outfit or a type of an armour.
“While the many excavations of Jōmon sites have added to our knowledge of specific artifacts, they have not helped to resolve certain fundamental questions concerning the people of the protoliterate era, such as their ethnic classification and the [actual origins] of their language [and of phenomenal pottery vessels and clay figurines they unceasingly produced]” (MET 2022).
Edwina Palmer (2007:49) suggests that while discussing Jōmon Japanese culture, one should use plural Jōmon peoples as the term should be understood as various groups of “the population spanning at least thirteen millennia across the whole of the present Japanese archipelago”(Ibid.:49). The author also believes “that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that some [Jōmon groups] spoke an Austronesian language or languages” (Ibid.:49). Such assumptions have resulted from a long-term debate on the origins of the Jōmon culture in Japan (Cf. Palmer 2007). Scholars, like Charles Loring Brace et al. (1990) and Peter Bellwood (1997) supported an ‘Out of Taiwan’ hypothesis, postulating that Jōmon culture might have been established by migrations from Taiwan (Palmer 2007:47-49). Simultaneously, it is claimed that in the Jōmon period, some groups travelled by sea from Sundaland (modern-day Southeast Asia) due to a postglacial flooding and eventually settled down on the islands of present-day Japan (Ibid.:47). Even though these two theories seem contradictory, Palmer (2007:47) assumes that “an ‘Out of Sunda’ scenario of migration to Japan in the [Jōmon] period is not necessarily entirely incompatible with an ‘Out of Taiwan’ theory” (Ibid.:47). And so she concludes that there must have been numerous migrations in Japan during a long-time Jōmon period, according to “[a] common-sense approach […] that humans were never traveling in only one direction at any time […]” (Ibid.:48). Such an approach “may, [at the same time], accommodate many aspects of the various theories proposed” (Ibid.:48). Similarly, it is underlined by Ryan W. Schmidt and Noriko Seguchi (2014:43), who claim that the Jōmon culture was rather like an ethnic mosaic composed of various Palaeolithic peoples migrating to the islands of Japan, and so “in this respect, the biological identity of the Jōmon is heterogeneous, and it may be indicative of diverse peoples who belonged to a common culture, known as the [Jōmon]” (Ibid.:43). That, in turn, agrees with the claim that “the [Jōmon] revolution, [creating pottery], did not arise from [an isolated] microlithic culture in the archipelago, nor was it the result of just a single wave of influence from the continent, but rather a [consequence] of several phases of intervention and interaction” (Kobayashi 2004:14). Consequently, there were hypotheses the pottery could have originated in the continental East Asia, invented independently by different groups of people, and then brought with numerous waves of migrations to contemporary Japan and consequently adopted by its inhabitants (Ibid.:19).
The Jōmon pottery is generally distinguished by its characteristics (Cartwright 2017) “that [clearly identify its makers] and [set] them apart from all other [later] Japanese [or contemporary Asian] cultures” (Bleed 1976:107), including the first cases of pottery in Western Asia (Kobayashi 2004:20). A suggested similarity of the Jōmon pottery to examples found in eastern Siberia, China, the Korean peninsula or Taiwan has been challenged, adding to that the pottery in Japan is generally dated earlier than in most parts of contemporary East Asia (except for China and Siberia), where its invention was possibly a result of analogous technologies (Palmer 2007:48; Kobayashi 2004:19; Rudgley 2000:28-29; Norman 2004-2021). Only later, like in the Early Jōmon period, “[similarities] between pottery produced in Kyūshū and contemporary Korea suggest that regular commerce existed between the Japanese islands and the Korean peninsula, [together with the Mainland Southeast Asia]” (MET 2022). It is also theorised that the earliest pottery may have been invented independently in various locations in East Asia, with eastern Siberia, China and the Japanese archipelago in the lead (Kobayashi 2004:20). Moreover, by studying the origins of pottery in Neolithic Middle East, it can be analogically assumed that the Jōmon pottery could also have had a few different foundations (Chosuke in Kobayashi 2004:20).
On the other side, the question of the earliest pottery finds ascribed to the Jōmon culture between the Incipient and Initial periods appears much more complex in terms of its different but subsequential decorative styles (Bleed 1976:108), such as “linear relief, fingernail impression, and simple cord marking” (Ibid.:108). Such pottery remains were usually unearthed further from the said mature Jōmon centre (Jomon Japan 2017), namely, in the area from southern Tohoku to Kyūshū (Bleed 1976:108), which is the region considered “the forefront of the [Jōmon] revolution” (Kobayashi 2004:17). Additionally, it is evident that such early examples of pottery were made by peoples with divergent tools, technologies and skills (Bleed 1976:109). “In sum, […] all the evidence available indicates that during [the Incipient period in Japan, the Jōmon culture] continued to be [highly] complex […], characterized by regionally diverse and distinctive technologies. This kind of complexity and regional diversity is also apparent during the succeeding cultural horizon, [when throughout] central Honshu, fingernail-impressed pottery was [subsequently] replaced by ceramics finished with simple exterior cord marking” (Ibid.:109). Generally, foremost features of the Jōmon pottery and its technological homogeneity are more widely observed only with its later stages (Cf. Bleed 1976), yet, “the population of Jōmon Japan [remained] by no means [anthropologically] homogeneous” (Palmer 2007:49).
In conclusion, the invention and continuity of the Jōmon pottery mostly resulted from the plentiful environment of the Japanese archipelago, together with its effective adaptation and development by independent groups of contemporary humans (Shinpei in: Kobayashi 2004:19; Bleed 1976:113). Kobayashi (2004:20) compares the invention of Jōmon pottery to the so-called ‘springboard principle’, where a technological knowledge of manufacturing earthenware vessels met the actual human needs for such a product (Cf. Kohler in: Kobayashi 2004:20). Yet, apart from being regarded as a product of a technological development, playing mostly a functional role as a container and a cooking vessel, the early Japanese pottery should be equally seen as the beginning of the Jōmon cultural revolution, and so could be interpreted wider, by means of social, economic, religious and artistic ways of expression (Kobayashi 2004:12,22).
Featured image: Reconstruction of the Sannai-Maruyama Site in the Aomori Prefecture. The site shares cultural similarities with settlements of Northeast Asia and the Korean Peninsula, as well as with later Japanese culture, pointing to continuity between ancient and modern Japanese culture. Photo by 663highland (2014). CC BY 2.5. In: ‘Jōmon period’, in Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2022).
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
Barton L. (2012). “First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies by P. S. Bellwood, and: The Peopling of East Asia: Putting Together Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics ed. by L. Sagart, R. Blench, and A. Sanchez-Mazas, and: The Origins of Pottery and Agriculture ed. by Y. Yasuda (review)”. In: Asian Perspectives, Volume 51, Number 2, Fall 2012, pp. 321-333. The University of Hawaiʻi Press.
Bleed P. (1976). “Origins of the Jōmon Technical Tradition”. In: Asian Perspectives , Vol. 19, No. 1, Japanese Prehistory. University of Hawai’i Press, pp. 107- 115.
Burns, K. (2017). “A Spaceship Made of Stone”, in Ancient Aliens, Season 12, Episode 14. Los Angeles: Prometheus Entertainment.
Cartwright M. (2017). “Jomon Pottery”. In: World History Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3lzAhOU>. [Accessed 18th September, 2021].
ChungHae Oh A. (2011). Cosmogonical Worldview in Jomon Pottery: Comparative Structural Analysis of the Pottery Decorations from the Katsusaka Culture in the Chubu Highlands, Japan (ca. 3,300-2,900 BCE). Nagoya: Sankeisha Co. p. 35.
‘Dogū’ (2022), in: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3DhmSVS>. [Accessed 11th September, 2022].
‘Jinja’ (2021), in: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3d2yCB0>. [Accessed 11th September, 2022].
‘Jōmon period’, in Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia (2022). Available at <https://bit.ly/3d3wOrE>. [Accessed 11th September, 2022].
Jomon Japan (2017). “Jomon Archaeological Sites in Hokkaido and Northern Tohoku”. In: Jomon Japan (Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan) Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/39lCGXM>. [Accessed 18th September, 2021].
Kenrick D. M. (1995). Jomon of Japan: The World’s Oldest Pottery. London, UK: Kegan Paul International.
Kobayashi T. (2004). Jomon Reflections. Forager life and culture in the prehistoric Japanese archipelago. Kaner S., Nakamura O. eds. Oxford, UK: Oxbow Books.
Lewis H. (23rd September, 2021). “Week 3: Defining the Neolithic: Early pottery, Jomon; East Asian centres of domestication”. In: ARCH30810-Southeast & Asian Archaeology. School of Archaeology. University College Dublin.
MET: Department of Asian Art (2022). “Jōmon Culture (ca. 10,500–ca. 300 B.C.).” In: Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. Available at <https://bit.ly/3hN0tEB>. [Accessed 18th September, 2021].
Munsterberg H. (1970). “Jomon Pottery”. In: The Arts of Japan. An Illustrated History. Clarendon: Charles Tuttle Publishing.
Norman J. M. (2004-2021). “The Oldest Known Pottery”. In: HistoryofInformation.com. Exploring the History of Information and Media through Timelines. Available at <https://bit.ly/3EMh84Y>. [Accessed 24th September, 2021].
Omoto K., Takeishi K., Nishida S., Fukui J. (published online in 2016). “Calibrated 14C Ages of Jomon Sites, NE Japan, and their Significance”. In: Volume 52 , Issue 2: 20th Int. Radiocarbon Conference Proceedings, 2010, pp. 534 – 548. The Arizona Board of Regents on behalf of the University of Arizona Proceedings of the 20th International Radiocarbon Conference, edited by Jull A. J. T. ed. Cambridge University Press. Available at <https://bit.ly/3hIZpkP>. [Accessed 19th September, 2021].
Palmer E. (2007). “Out of Sunda? Provenance of the Jōmon Japanese”. In: Japan Review, No. 19. International Research Centre for Japanese Studies, National Institute for the Humanities, pp. 47-75.
Rudgley R. (2000). The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age. New York: A Touchstone Book Published by Simon & Schuster pp. 28-29.
Schmidt R. W., Seguchi N. (2014). Jomon Culture and the peopling of the Japanese archipelago: advancements in the fields of morphometrics and ancient DNA. Japanese Journal of Archaeology 2, (JJA). pp. 34–59.
Serizawa C. (1976). “The Stone Age of Japan”. In: Asian Perspectives, XIX (I), pp. 1-14.
Shintō (2022) in: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at <https://bit.ly/3BrvlUf>. [Accessed 11th September, 2022].
Solovyeva E. (2017). “Clay Anthropomorphous images of the Jomon Period, Japan”. In: Schwarzberg H. and Becker V. Bodies of Clay : On Prehistoric Humanised Pottery. Oxbow Books, Limited, pp. 157-164.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2021). “Neolithic: anthropology”. In: Encyclopaedia Britannica. Available at <https://www.britannica.com/event/Neolithic>. [Accessed 27th September, 2021].
This field-trip to Turkey turned out to be extremely difficult. Last January, parts of the country, including Istanbul, were covered with thick layers of snow and ice. This prevented me from organizing the first two flights with a change in Istanbul, although for Turkey itself this amount of water turned out to be a blessing with the onset of hot summer weather. In any case, according to the famous saying “third time lucky”, the third flight finally took place and I eventually landed in Turkey. The winter time of visiting this country turned out to be extraordinary, as I could see Turkey in a greener and more luscious landscape than in summer. Although the snow slowly disappeared from the coastal area, and the orange of fresh fruit dominated the colours of sunny streets, the monuments located in the higher parts of the mountains were still covered in thick white folds, the amount of which increased in proportion to the car’s climbing up a winding road. Fortunately, the place where I was going had already escaped winter and turned out to be easily accessible, especially since our little group was the only one who decided to visit this place.
The sanctuary and pilgrimage site of Saint Thekla at Meriamlık is situated in south-central Turkey, in a picturesque province of Mersin, within an ancient and geo-cultural region of Cilicia, and very near the Mediterranean coast (Kristensen 2016:229; Edwards 2016:151). More precisely, the site is located one and half kilometres south of Seleukeia (modern-day Silifke), on the river Kalykadnus (the modern river Göksu) (Kristensen 2016:229-330; Edwards 2016:151), in which waters the Emperor Barbarossa drowned during the Third Crusade, in 1190, yet before his army reached the Holy Land (Portal Editor 2021).
The district of Silifke itself is very ancient, being dated back to the times before the Bronze Age (Portal Editor 2021); its name has originated from the name of one of Alexander the Great’s diadochs, namely, Seleucus I Nicator, whose Empire also included the ancient Cilicia before 63 BC. (Ibid.) Saint Thekla is believed to have lived in her cave, in the proximity of Silifke, over a century later.
Aya Tekla and her history
Saint Thecla was born as a member of a pagan and wealthy family in the Greek city of Iconium (modern Konya), in the first century AD., yet before the death and resurrection of the Saviour (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49). When Saint Paul of nearby Tarsus came to her city (45–48 AD.) to preach, the young virgin not only converted to Christianity but also became a zealous disciple and follower of Saint Paul (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). In order to escape from her first persecutors, including her own parents and a Roman fiancé, Thecla disguised as a man and wandered through Anatolia together with Saint Paul (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49-50; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). During her lifetime, the girl was often exposed to persecutions and close to martyrdom; yet she was often miraculously saved; already in Iconium, she had been condemned to be burned at the stake, and elsewhere, she was thrown to the lions (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49-53; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021).
At that time, many Christians were looking for a protection against Romans in underground cavities (Portal Editor 2021). One of them, near Silifke, became the last refuge of Thekla (Tańska-Hoffmanowa 1845:49-50; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). Yet before she died and was buried there, she continuously preached, healed, and performed miracles (Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). As a legend goes, she escaped from her last oppressors by disappearing underground, leaving behind only her coat that eventually turned into stone (Iza 2017).
The cave first became a secret meeting point of local Christians and served as their place of worship, and finally became an important Christian pilgrimage site and Saint Thecla’s martyrium (Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021). Thecla had been recognised as a saint by the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church but has been particularly venerated by the Coptic Church (Iza 2017). Her hagiography is told in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, from the late second century, written in Asia Minor (Ibid.). According to a Greek appendix to the apocrypha, Thekla was possibly murdered on site by her persecutors (Edwards 2016:151), and so she is titled “the first martyr among women” (Ibid.:151).
The Cave of Silifke and its pilgrims
The site of Saint Thecla Church and its growing monastic enclosure was one of the most significant early Christian pilgrimage destinations of the Byzantine period in Asia Minor, especially over the period of the fourth century (Kristensen 2016:229-230). Apart from the site in Silifke, there are also alternative memorial shrines, aspiring to the title of the last resting place of the Saint, such as Saint Thecla’s grave in Maalula, in Syria (Iza 2017).
Till today, the site of Saint Thekla at Meriamlık has usually been referred to as Sancta Tecla or Aya Tekla Church (in Turkish: Aya Tekla Kilisesi,; in Greek: Hagia Thékla) (‘Aya Tekla Church’ 2021). The hill containing now the shrine of Saint Thecla is also called in Turkish Merymelik, which invokes the place of the Virgin Mary (Ibid.). Yet, “the site was intimately tied to the life of Thekla and her post mortem miracles” (Kristensen 2016:330).
In the second century, the first small Christian church was built just above the cave, which was itself enlarged and turned into an underground church (Iza 2017). Further monastic buildings were erected with time, gradually changing the area into a monastic enclosure (Ibid.). Works at a much larger scale started on site only in the fifth century, by the Eastern Roman Emperor, Zeno the Isaurian, who owed his military triumph over his rival to Saint Thekla, as she had appeared in front of the Emperor and assured him of his future victory (Kristensen 2016:230; Iza 2017). As a result, a huge basilica was founded on top of the hill, above the cave (Kristensen 2016:230; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021), and a “new temenos” (Edwards 2016:151) was erected around the site in 476 (Ibid.:151). Till the early sixth century, the site had been furthermore architecturally enriched due to a growing number of pilgrims; there were possibly built two additional basilicas and many supplementary buildings (Kristensen 2016:230; Iza 2017; Portal Editor 2021).
The written sources on the site mostly comes from before the fifth century (Kristensen 2016:232). The earliest accounts of the site, attesting its importance in Christian topography, are dated back to the year 374 (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). They say that the sanctuary attracted many famous pilgrims, such as Gregory of Nazianzus – a Cappadocian Father, who later became the Patriarch of Constantinople (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). He was on site in the 370s and described the monastic sanctuary in his writing as parthenona (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). Egeria, possibly a Western nun and the author of accounts of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, visited the shrine in May 384 (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:230). She testifies the existence of a monastic community “beyond measure” on site, and describes a massive wall, sheltering the area from invaders (Edwards 2016:151).
Initial archaeological excavations on the site started in 1907, yet they left behind many unsolved issues and questions (Kristensen 2016:230-232; Iza 2017). In the 1940s, the site suffered much damage due to treasure hunting activities and poor quality digs, without proper recording a stratigraphic sequence or leaving the movable finds discarded, some of which keep crumbling around the site or are freely deposed without a context (Edwards 2016:151).
Consequently, it is now problematic to determine a correct chronology for the development of the monastic complex, including the building phases of the three basilicas and the underground church (Kristensen 2016:232; Edwards 2016:151). Nowadays, excavations take place on site but with longer intervals, when the site is left for tourists, while a huge area of the site has never been excavated (Kristensen 2016:230-232; Iza 2017). “Therefore, our knowledge about the [complex], its architecture, and the cave itself is incomplete [to this day]” (Iza 2017). On the other side, there are up-to-date substantial works on the site, which are provided by numerous Turkish and international scholars, who offer a more analytical approach to the research.
Elements of the complex
The architectural complex of Silifke, approximately measuring 700×350 metres, lies on northwest-southwest axis and is located on a rising rock shelf of limestone (Edwards 2016:151). Apart from the underground church, central to the site, the complex is composed of multiple buildings of a different purpose (Edwards 2016:151; Iza 2017).; there are “at least nine huge cisterns, a western-oriented aqueduct with attached conduits [from the fifth century], a bathhouse, a small church, graves, house tombs, […] numerous natural caves” (Edwards 2016:151), and the three basilicas from the fifth and early sixth centuries, the North, Central and the South, all considerably damaged but still featuring a set of key architectural elements (Ibid.:151).
The South Basilica
The South Basilica was built above the cave in the fifth century (Edwards 2016:151). It was one of the largest three-nave basilicas ever built in Anatolia (79×38 meters) (Ibid.:151). The church used to have two rows of fifteen columns, and a narrow narthex and a stepped platform (crepidoma) at the west (Ibid.:151). At the east, there was a rounded apse, opened once by two windows; its remains with three buttresses on the exterior are still proudly protruding high above the ground, as a single architectural element still well visible on the slope (Ibid.:151).
“[The] enormous cavern of the basilica above […] stood in stark contrast to [the underground church], [which must have] offered to visitors an evocative experience that alternated between the darkness of the enclosed space and the [brighter spaces of the basilica]” (Kristensen 2016:258).
The Underground Church
An entrance to the underground shrine of Saint Thecla was located under the south aisle of the South Basilica (Edwards 2016:151). The exact date of its construction is not known but it can be estimated for around the fourth century and it had surely been continuously elaborated at least since that time (Iza 2017; Kristensen 2016:258; Kristensen 2016:258,260). As mentioned before, there was initially a smaller church at the entrance to the grotto before the fifth century (Edwards 2016:151). In preparation for constructing a larger edifice above it, the cave must have been reduced in size but its walls were instead beautifully decorated in gilded mosaics, which gave an additional brightness to the darkened space (Kristensen 2016:258).
After the South Basilica was built by Zeno, the cave was possibly accessed “via two descending shafts from a narrow hall flanking the south aisle; light entered by a third shaft” (Edwards 2016:151). Now the opening to the cave, located slightly south-east, is accessible from the outside; having descended a few steps, we entered an underground space through a rounded arch. Then another flight of stairs led us deeper, under a barrelled vault, inside the church of a rectangular plan, typical of a basilica layout (18×12 meters) (Iza 2017; Edwards 2016:151), with a central nave (10 metres long), defined by two rows of three Doric columns, which were reused from earlier architectural structures (Iza 2017; Edwards 2016:151). Hence, the columns can be described as spolia (Edwards 2016:151), “repurposed building stone for new construction or decorative sculpture reused in new monuments” (‘Spolia’ 2022).
Although the church had been designed in the form of a basilica, it is still visible it was adjusted to a natural shape of the limestone grotto, tangibly evoking the presence of Saint Thecla (Kristensen 2016:258). Whereas the south-east side aisle is asymmetrical (Edwards 2016:151), “the colonnade at the [north-west] almost abuts a later [ashlar] masonry wall that separates the church from a maze of ancient rock tombs” (Ibid.:151). The central nave is limited with a round arch leading further to a somewhat scarped, semi-circular apse, facing north-east (Ibid.:151). Possibly, there were no pastophories, flanking it in the past (Ibid.:151). Today there is an altar featuring an icon of Saint Thecla, protected by a glass and surrounded by flowers and candles. I lit a few of them, which filled the space with a flickering light against the artificial one that allows visitors to explore the shrine.
At the north-west side of the church, there is a narthex with a barrel-vault, leading to the funerary part of the church, possibly with Saint Thecla’s tomb (Edwards 2016:151). Along the mentioned masonry wall, separating the funerary part from the north aisle, there are a few architectural elements deposited, which are mostly remains of capitals with Christian symbols, like the Chi-Rho with the Alpha and Omega and the Latin Cross.
The north-east section of this part of the church must deliberately have been blocked by the construction of an apse with two windows, allowing limited views into the innermost part of the cave (Kristensen 2016:258). It is said that there are some mosaic fragments in the corners of its ceiling but possibly they are so poorly preserved that it is now difficult to discern them in an artificial light (Iza 2017; Edwards 2016:151).
That deepest section of the cave behind the apse is believed to have been the holy of holies, where Thekla had lived, performed miracles and finally disappeared underground or was killed (Kristensen 2016:258). “While giving visitors peeks into [the memorial] part of the cave, the windows simultaneously restricted physical access to it; this is evidence of a careful staging of access to Thekla’s divine presence where pilgrims were kept at a distance to the most sacred part of the sanctuary” (Kristensen 2016:258).
Such a layout of the underground church is typical of an early Christian cemetery or memorial basilicas, erected around or above a martyr’s tomb and dedicated to their memory, as much as Saint Peter’s Basilica, founded by Constantine the Great in 324. The access to Saint Peter’s tomb had been both restricted and allowed for pilgrims, without disturbing sacred ceremonies in the church. Likewise, the narthex in Saint Thecla’s Church allowed to move directly to its memorial part, with no need for entering the central nave of the church.
The province of Mersin, in Turkey, offers a richness of ancient and early Christian sites, among which the complex of Saint Thekla at Meriamlık, together with a contemporary to it Alahan Monastery (Koja Kalessi), lead its prime in teaching Christian spirituality and early architecture to scholars and tourists alike.
By Joanna Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology. University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland; Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland; University College Dublin, Ireland.
‘Aya Tekla Church’ (2021) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at https://bit.ly/3t4GZQI. (Accessed 25th February, 2022).
Bocachete (2006) ‘Martyrium of Saint Thecla, at Silifke, Ayatekla (Turkey)’ (Photo in Public domain), in Wikipedia. Available at https://bit.ly/354FD0m. (Accessed 25th February, 2022).
Edwards, R. W. (2016). ‘Ayatekla’, in Finney, P. C. (ed.) The Eerdmans Encyclopedia of Early Christian Art and Archaeology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 151–152.
Iza (2017). ‘Saint Thecla Church and Cave in Silifke’, in Turkish Archaeological News. Available at https://bit.ly/3Ie83TQ. (Accessed 22nd February, 2022).
Kristensen, T. M. (Summer 2016). ‘Landscape, Space, and Presence in the Cult of Thekla at Meriamlik’, in Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 24, Number 2, Project Muse. Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 229-263.
Portal Editor (2021). ‘Silifke’s Ayatekla – student of the Apostle Paul’, in ALATURKA. Culture and Travel Portal. Turkey. Available at https://bit.ly/3p4JEZu. (Accessed 22nd February, 2022).
‘Spolia’ (2022) Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia. Available at https://bit.ly/3Id3f0W. (Accessed 24th February, 2022).
Tańska-Hoffmanowa, K. (1845). ‘Święta Tekla. Uczennica Świętego Pawła’, Święte niewiasty: obrazki pobożne, Volume 1. Lipsk: Nakładem Księgarni Zagranicznej (Librerie étranger), pp. 49-53.
Wessel, K. (1965). Coptic Art. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company. Thames&Hudson Ltd. 59.
Zalewska, E. (2020). ‘Saint Thecla – the Iconographic Pattern of this Female Saint and Her Role in the History of Christianity’ [‘Święta Tekla – ikonografia i miejsce świętej w historii Kościoła’], in Nowak A. Z., Kuczyńska, M. (eds.), Latopisy Akademii Supraskiej 11. Dzieci w kulturze duchowej Prawosławia. Białystok, Kraków: Oikonomos. Akademia Supraska; Muzeum Ikon w Supraślu, pp. 223-239.