In the Underground Cave Church of Aya Tekla in Silifke

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.

History

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).

Martrydom of Saint Thecla; the Saint thrown to the lions. Limestone relief, possibly Coptic in origin, Brooklyn Museum. Wessel (1965), Pl. 52, p. 59.

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).

Historiography

Textual context

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).

Fieldwork

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.

Description:

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).

Conclusions:

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.

Featured image: “Just south of the [South Basilica] and the cave, there is the best-preserved cistern (out of six identified so far) in this location. Water was supplied to it by the system of aqueducts. The cistern has a rectangular plan with sides 12.6 and 14.1 meters long. It is surrounded by the 1.7-meter-thick wall. The outer side of the wall is ashlar masonry, and the inside was built from bricks covered with two layers of plaster to provide [permeability]. The cistern is covered with three barrel vaults, supported on the walls and the columns” (Iza 2017). Own photo, taken in February, 2022. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

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.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

‘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.

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