The Iconoclast wars

When you travel through Cappadocia you come face to face with the early history of Christianity, and its interactions with the Romans (very endearingly called Pagans) and, later, with Islam. Tourist brochures tell us that the Roman emperor Constantine founded Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and declared Christianity to be the state religion of the empire in the 4th century CE. After becoming the religion of the empire, churches slowly gave up the strictures of Moses against painting and sculpture. By the 7th century CE churches were full of paintings, like the one that you see in the featured photo. This is from the central dome of a cave church, Ağaç Altı Kilise, in Ihlara valley. The figure in the middle is the Christ, shown as Pantocrator, and his throne is surrounded by a bunch of dancers in robes.

George the dragon-slayer apparently came from Cappadocia. I found it interesting to look at how people are dressed. The Pantocrator and his host are dressed in flowing robes. If you look closely, it seems that the clothing is entirely draped: like the Indian dhoti and shawl. The rider has some kind of sewn armour over his upper body, covering his draped clothes. Notice that the legging seem draped, much like a dhoti.

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century CE, the Arabs expanded rapidly. The Mediterranean world of antiquity saw a balance of power between Persians and the Greco-Roman empire. With the Arab annihilation of Persia in the 7th century CE, this world came to an end, and the golden period of Byzantium began. In the war between the Arab empire and Byzantium, ideological imputations were important. From the time of the second Caliph, Islam doubled down on the application of the Mosaic law against “graven images”. Byzantine politics reacted to this by the rise of the Iconoclast party, who wanted to rid churches of images of Christ, Mary, and the saints. This became the dominant view between the 7th and the 10th centuries CE, when Cappadocia was a border region with wars moving across it. Many of the churches in the Göreme open air museum date from this period.

This is probably one of the most ancient doorways I’ve taken a photo of. The door is certainly almost a couple of millennia younger than the doorway it is fitted to. The cross above the door was acceptable to the Iconoclasts. The bird was almost certainly not. For this reason, and from its asymmetric position, the chances are good that it was added later. This door was the site of a passive-aggressive war of instagrammers. I managed to get an unobstructed shot a priority dispute was in progress. Since I did not want a person standing in front of the door, I realize that I came down in favour of the Iconoclasts, at least this once.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.


  1. Thank you for presenting these centuries old images and doors! Interesting perspective you give here about Moses and “graven images” – in my opinion I think Moses meant more the worship of graven images (like the golden calf).


  2. It’s one of the places I’ve visited that I think back of many, many times. The frescoes are amazing – and the way they’ve been ruined to. It’s one of the places on earth where it seems you can feel history. I found it hard to leave at the end of the day, wanting to soak in more of it.


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