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The Depiction of Byzantine Military Equipment in Kappadokian Murals

One of the greatest difficulties in understanding or reconstructing Byzantine military equipment - arms and armour - is the scarcity of reliable information. The archaeological record contains very few examples, and contemporary illustrations are often untrustworthy due to the "classicising" tendency of Byzantine art - representing equipment which has long since ceased to be in use. This tendency was most pronounced in the major metropolitan centres, and particularly in Constantinople, where a multitude of classical models was available to the copyist. It is fortunate that the rock-carved churches of Kappadokia, isolated from mainstream Byzantine art, form such a major exception to this tendency.

Kappadokia, in what is now Central Turkey, was far from the capital and its classicising influences, and it is likely that artists painted what they saw in use when showing military equipment, rather than rely on illustrations centuries out of date. The soft rock available in the Goreme valley made it possible to carve extensive habitations, and the landscape is dotted with countless rock-carved churches, monasteries and villages. The murals of the Goreme valley show possibly the finest examples of regional Byzantine art.

In 1992 I visited Turkey, and having read and seen descriptions of the warriors in the Goreme Valley murals in Nicolle's book Arms & Armour of the Crusading Era, 1050-1350: Islam, Eastern Europe and Asia (Vol 2), I went to Kappadokia specifically to see them. I took many photos of them; I've only just had the opportunity to put them on the Net.

The Goreme Valley
The Goreme Valley was formed by a huge volcanic eruption which covered a vast area with soft volcanic rock, known as tufa. Subsequently, a layer of harder rock was laid down, and differential erosion formed a strange, unearthly landscape with steep gullies, and peaks described in the tourist guides as "fairy chimneys", though for the casual observer a more phallic name may occur to mind.

A typical landscape in the Goreme Valley
(photograph taken from the window of a rock-carved monastery)

"Fairy Chimneys"

See, I told you they looked phallic! The top layer of hard rock protects the softer tufa underneath until a crack or other fault allows water to seep through, beginning erosion of the lower layers. Move on several million years, and the only intact sections of tufa are those where the harder rock is still in place.

Such formations were ideally suited to hollowing out for dwellings, churches etc.

The foliage at the bottom may be grape vines, which are grown as a prostrate plant in this region, not supported on espaliers.

Over the centuries, the inhabitants have carved into the soft tufa to create dwellings for themselves, in the sides of cliffs, in "fairy chimneys" and large rock outcrops, and even, such as in Kaymakli, underground cities, up to seven levels deep and stretching for miles under the ground.

The isolation and solitude of central Kappadokia was an ideal environment for those who wished to get closer to God, and under the Byzantine Empire many monasteries and nunneries were carved out of the rock. As well as these a large number of churches were created, and their interior walls covered with murals.

The "Dovecote" Church
A very small rectangular church with a barrel vaulted roof, it contains seventeen representations of military saints dating to the reign of Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969 AD) whose image appears in one of the sub-apses.
The Dovecote Church - Exterior View

The Dovecote Church at Cavusin. If you look carefully, you can see the two angels described by Jerphanion in 1911-1912 on the stone panel just to the right of the doorway. His photographs show these clear and in sharp detail, suggesting that the rock-fall which exposed them must have been recent. Sadly, sun and weather have taken their toll - in this photograph, taken in 1992, the angels are faded and indistinct. The side walls and the remnants of the vaulted roof of the narthex can also be seen, as described in Jephanion's report. (1)

The Dovecote Church, Cavusin. The remains of the two angels mentioned by Jerphanion can be seen to the right of the entrance.

Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas and his court

Nikephoros Phokas was a member of an old Anatolian aristocratic family. He was the second husband of Empress Theophano, and his right to the Imperium came through her. He was Byzantine Emperor from 963-969 AD. It is thought that the pictures were done about the year 965 (Jerphanon p524). The picture above shows Nikephoros in the centre, in crown and loros, in front of a throne decorated with pearls and perhaps gems. To the right is a figure assumed to be his Empress, Theophano. The two figures to the left are (far left) his father, Caesar Bardas Phokas, and his brother, the Kouropalates Leo Phokas.

The Phokas family's power base was in the region in which this church is situated, and Jephanion believed that they may have donated toward the church, and that the picture records the donation (ibid).

Nikephoros was a successful general, and should perhaps have been a more successful Emperor. But he was excessively pious and considerably older than his pleasure-loving Empress. His reign started well, but as years passed his rule became more and more arrogant and arbitrary. He finally came to a bad end - he was assassinated and mutilated by a coterie of officers under Theophano's lover John Tzimiskes, who took his place as Emperor but then consigned Theophano to a nunnery. He went on to become one of Byzantium's most successful and glorious emperors.

The definitive study of these figures was published by Guillaume de Jerphanion early in the twentieth century (1). When he visited the church over three days in 1911 and 1912 it was being used as a dovecote. Jerphanion produced a two-volume book containing detailed descriptions of this and other churches in the region, with one volume of text, the other devoted to a full description of the churches and all their murals.
An English translation of Jerphanion's report.

The Military Saints
One of the major themes shown in the murals is the forty martyrs of Sebaste. Among these are at least seventeen military figures, not counting those shown in the Crucifixion and the Massacre of the Innocents. It is thought that the military figures may represent donors to the Church.

Some of the most interesting depictions of Byzantine military equipment dated to the mid 10th century AD, are in the "Dovecote" church in Cavusin, carved into the side of a cliff, with the entrance high off the ground.

1. de Jephanion, G. Les Eglises Rupestres de Cappadoce Librarie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner. Paris, 1932

The "Hidden" Church

Concealed in a cave on the reverse side of a cliff, this church contains murals of military saints, and one rather rare one of a soldier in a mail-shirt.

I would like to acknowledge the help of Raffaele d'Amato in Italy who, having expressed interest in the photographs I'd taken of the Goreme valley murals, not only scanned them for me but sent me a copy at his own expense of Jerphanion's definitive two-volume text on the subject. His assistance and enthusiasm are greatly appreciated.

by Steven Lowe

See also Warrior Saints, Serpent Church, Göreme, Byzantine, 11th-12th centuries
Other Byzantine Illustrations of Costume & Soldiers

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