top of page
  • hbanziger

H - 129 : Where did the Monasteries Go?


The Ruins of Saint Nicholas' Church on Gemiler Island in South-Western Turkey


Over the years, our sailing trips took us to shores with ruins we did not expect and which are not mentioned in any guide. Neglected for centuries, one wonders what they once were. Finding out is not easy and not speaking the local languages makes any search challenging. The internet, my primary source, is still an English language tool. I hope, one day, AI  will translate all the Turkish, Greek or Arab sites which are now beyond my reach.


Not much of his Orthodox Church survived but the Apse - the strongest part - still stands


A good example are the ruins of Saint Nicholas’ monastery on Gemiler Island, close to Fethyie. We found them by accident  in 2018 on our way to Jaffa. On our first evening, we anchored next to the island and went over to watch the sunset. Had it not been for a panel in Turkish and English, we would never had known that Saint Nicholas was buried here for 400 years. In the late 7th century, his relicts were moved to Myra. The monks felt that they were too exposed to Arab raids. Bringing them to a fortified town was safer.


The Saint Honorat Abbey on the Lerins Island just south of mundane Cannes


The mostly decayed monastery aroused my interest. How many monasteries were in Anatolia during Byzantine time? Where they the same as the monasteries founded in Western Europe in the 5th and 6th century? I did not have time to pursue the subject until I wrote about Saint  Honorat, the monastery south of Cannes, which we wanted to visit last year. Sadly, the Mistral prevented us from landing. We could only see the bell tower.


Map of Armenian Architecture, mostly Churches and Monasteries, in today's Turkey


Saint Honorat is Europe’s oldest monastery. It was founded in 406 AD. The monastery on Gemiler Island must be older. Saint Nicholas died in 343 AD. But I could not find more detailed information. Christian monasteries start to appear towards the end of the 3rd century. Hermits in Egypt and Syria moved to deserts or remote mountains to devote their lives to worshiping and praying. Withdrawal from society to an ascetic life was not a Christian invention. It has a long tradition in Judaism. The same tradition also emerged in Buddhism – half a millennium earlier. Of course, no hermit could cut ties with civilization fully. They had to eat and drink and needed clothes. Forming monastic communities though allowed them to pool resources and become self-sufficient. Now they interacted with the outside world only when and how they wanted.


The Coptic Monastery of Saint Paul the Anchorite lies between Nile and Red Sea


What strikes me with Christian monasteries is their timing of appearance. The end of the 3rd century was also the time when the Roman Emperors increased the prosecution of Christians – they need a scape goat for the endless series of disasters that struck the Empire: high inflation that made everybody poor, climate change which ruined the harvests, frequent pandemics and prolonged intrusions of German tribes and the Parthians. At the same time, vicious conflicts within the young Christian communities arose. Which books and texts should go into the bible? Was Jesus like God or did he have a lower status (Aryan question)? Maybe devoted Christians moved into the desert to escape Imperial prosecution and to preserve their own views. Could be quite possible.


Saint Catherine Monastery was built from 548 - 565 and has a Library rivalling the Vatican


For Emperor Constantine the Great, overcoming the intra-Christian divide and standardising Christian doctrine was of utmost important. In 326 AD he invited all Roman bishops to Nicaea. During their meeting (Council of Nicaea) important doctrinal issues were addressed and resolved. Constantine also commissioned 50 bibles for his new “Christian” capital city, Constantinople. Before you can compile a bible though, you need to decide which books and texts will go into. Thanks to the Emperor's intervention strive like the European Wars of Religion between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th - 17th century were avoided. And it made him, a non baptised person, the head of church – Emperors always have an agenda.


Scroll of parts of the Old Testament - the technique of

bound books reached the West only in the 5th Century

In this context, monasteries became quickly useful. They absorbed many of the poor struck by disasters. They also contributed to the systematic distribution of the bible and allowed the church to work out the details of Christian doctrine. Many monks could read and write. They were very active participants in the shaping of the Christian Faith. They also had time. The Bible has about 800’000 words. Ordinary people can copy around 20 words per minute. Makes 40’000 minutes for a bible or 670 hours. Making a hand written copy thus takes 1/3 of a year – given the many Christian holidays and Sundays monks and nuns had to observe. But they had the time! They also were enthusiastic copiers of any ancient text they could get hold of. Monasteries became the keepers of culture and knowledge when the big city libraries were destroyed by wars.


By the 6th Century, there were many Churches in Knidos, five alone in the old Town Center


Sadly, there is very little left of this monastic tradition. There are a few Coptic monasteries in Egypt and some Armenian on the border between modern Turkey and Iraq. But almost none survived on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. The Arab – Byzantine wars, the collapse of long-distance trading, the sharply deteriorating climate and the regular pandemics emptied towns and hollowed out the Christian communities. One look at Knidos with its many churches says it all. It simply disappeared. As population dwindled, the monasteries could not replace the ageing monks and nuns and disappeared too. The nomadic Seljuk Turks who settled. in Anatolia from the 11th century on had no use for these structures. The fate of the monasteries was sealed.


Sunset over Gemiler Island in 2018 when we discovered Saint Nicholas Tomb by Chance


The only monastery we are going to see this summer is Saint Nicholas’ on the Gemiler island – other ruins are too far inland. One day I may go to the Vatican library to make a list of all these lost monasteries. Many are still registered as titular sea in the Vatican's records. Since I had to learn medieval handwriting as history student, I may be able to find the names of some of these forgotten places.


The Vatican doesn't keep ancient Scrolls in this Section of the Library - it is beautiful though

21 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page