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.

St. George in Kerala

Statue of St. George killing the dragon in Muthuvaankudi in Idukki district of Kerala

As we drove from Kochi to Munnar we passed many churches. About a fifth of Kerala’s population is Christian. Several had a niche with a little statue of St. George killing the dragon. When I paused to look carefully, I realized that you could take this horse and the rider in shiny armour out of these niches, and substitute them into any Indian story without changing the details even a little bit. This particular dragon has a short neck, and looks like a winged crocodile, so it too could be put into any Indian collection of beasts. This particular example comes from the church in Muthuvaankudi in Idukki district.

St. George is believed to have been a historical figure in Lebanon. His arrival to India probably is contemporary to his arrival in Europe. A statue of his in Kochi was recorded more than 1400 years ago. The evolution of the iconography of St. George in India probably had no direct influence from Europe until the 17th century.

One knows that trade brought coffee and religion to Kerala. Curious stories from the incredible history of the spice coast continue to emerge, and leave you hoping for more.