BMCR 2023.11.15

Cilicia as sacred landscape in late antiquity: a journey on the trail of apostles, martyrs and local saints

, Cilicia as sacred landscape in late antiquity: a journey on the trail of apostles, martyrs and local saints. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2022. Pp. 480. ISBN 9783752006377

“Now…I will abandon writing to indulge in discovery” concludes one of the fictitious vignettes written in the style of first-hand accounts of an ancient pilgrim that intersperse Arabella Cortese’s book on the late antique sacred landscapes of Cilicia in modern southcentral Türkiye. The archaeology of late antique Cilicia is indeed extraordinarily rich, and with Cortese’s volume, the topic is finally given full Technicolour treatment in an English-language monograph.[1] The large-format volume is based on the author’s PhD dissertation defended in December 2020 and written under the supervision of Franz Alto Bauer and Dirk Steuernagel. It comes with an impressive 159 colour plates, many of which represent the author’s personal photographs and maps. Cortese also builds on insights from her contributions to the Italian excavations at Elaiussa Sebaste. A future follow-up volume, also part of the author’s PhD project, will include German translations of all hagiographies related to the region, another monumental undertaking.

The study of late antique Cilicia and its wider region is still fundamentally shaped by the interpretive foundations laid by early modern exploration as well as the traditional disciplinary benchmarks of epigraphic corpora and archaeological field reports. Individual sites, such as Korykos and Meryemlik, have additionally overshadowed the richness of many other smaller and much less-explored archaeological places in the region that provide important local context to the religious, social and economic significance of the more widely-known major pilgrimage sites and larger urban settlements. The landscape itself is often overlooked and neglected, in spite of its obvious importance. The region’s natural places are indeed important elements in the constitution of sacrality, as evident from the numerous caves, sinkholes, and rivers that were the foci of ritual activities before, during, and after late antiquity. Setting out to provide a new approach to this vast material, Cortese lays out an ambitious agenda of reconstructing the region’s sacred landscape by bringing together hagiography, epigraphy, and material culture, each of which come with its own set of distinctive contributions and challenges. Cortese navigates these challenges in order to investigate “how local centres of worship were transformed into places of pilgrimage, which brought prestige, economic advantages, and growth to a nearby city” (p. 31). The different cities and sanctuaries of the region were furthermore tied together within a “network of places of memory” (p. 53) focused on the cults of local saints, martyrs, and apostles.

The book opens with Part I that provides succinct overviews of the historical, historiographical, and methodological frameworks of the book, noting that the author is particularly interested in the staging and experience of individual saints by late antique visitors. Part II, constituting the core of the book, then undertakes “a late antique pilgrimage through the sanctity of Cilicia”. It is a detailed and thorough investigation of twenty sites associated with one or several Christian saints, even if it is typically difficult to tie their cults to specific monuments. Each site report is prefaced by a short narrative vignette presented from the perspective of a late fifth-century pilgrim, as in the case cited above. Discussing the sites one after another has the advantage of letting them tell their own stories rather than subsuming them within a particular model of interpretation, but also runs the danger of readers getting lost in the details. Cortese does occasionally set out to survey large bodies of source material that are not always immediately relevant to the overall project, for example, when listing all evidence for the spread of Thekla’s cult beyond the confines of Cilicia or digressing on Konon’s hometown of Bidana in the chapter on Korykos.[2]

There are two main methodological questions that run throughout the chapters of Part II and permeate every aspect of the interpretations provided. The first is our inability to provide a high degree of precision in determining the chronology of most of the individual buildings and structures. The second concerns how we connect the names of saints with individual monuments: can we identify martyria without access to inscriptions or other texts? Cortese here provides us with a useful work of synthesis, making a vast range of often obscure, multi-lingual publications usually not available to others than specialists in Cilician archaeology more widely known. In multiple cases, she updates readers on the current state of preservation of individual sites since the time of earlier research and publication. For example, at Alahan, she highlights deterioration from the time of Gough’s work to today (Figs. 61-2 and 73). She notes other damage in the case of Korykion Antron (Fig. 124), which has important bearing on how pilgrims in the past would have experienced the site.[3]

Part III ties all of these threads together and lays out the book’s general conclusions, focusing on overarching themes, such as sacred infrastructure, the presence and absence of relics, the significance of the natural landscape, and the importance of saints to the identity of individual cities. These discussions highlight the value of studying both the built and natural environment together as a whole and furthermore not simply focusing on the most monumental and exceptional features in isolation. While Cortese in these discussions asks many important, pointed questions, the evidence is often too fragmentary or poorly recorded to provide firm answers. A lot of work in terms of interpreting individual features and the overall experience of Cilician sacred landscapes clearly still lies ahead. Yet it is strikingly clear that Cilicia was not a cultural or architectural backwater in late antiquity. In the fifth and sixth centuries in particular, it was a lively region with its own distinctive sensibilities of landscape and ritual that require further careful study.

Cortese ably summarizes the expansive hagiographies and engages in close archaeological readings of the architecture. Her book usefully compiles the often difficult-to-find scholarly literature on the region, published in multiple modern languages and specialized venues, with first-hand personal observation of sites and monuments, even if it does contain occasional repetitions, inconsistencies, and typos, perhaps arising from the swift turnaround from dissertation to book.[4] Particularly valuable is the author’s documentation and discussion of a system of underground caves below a late fifth-/early sixth-century church at Hasanaliler—whose design mirrors that of Thekla’s famous sanctuary at Meryemlik—as are the important re-assessments of the many significant churches at Korykos. These detailed overviews enable her to provide innovative and important spatial context to the world of saints and martyrs that are otherwise exclusively known from Christian texts, providing an important alternative methodology to the positivistic outlook of most previous work on the region. The impact of her book will perhaps be most immediately felt when contrasted with the experience of flipping through the standard epigraphic or topographic surveys of the region that typically proceed alphabetically and often in an entirely two-dimensional manner.

In sum, Cortese’s book offers a useful starting point for future research on Cilicia and its place in the broader late antique landscape. Many questions will undoubtedly follow. We may need to think further about many of the sensorial aspects of the sacred landscapes of Cilicia that Cortese frequently notes in quite impressionistic terms. For example, if the chapel inside the Korykion Antron did not have a roof (as Cortese convincingly argues), what acoustic effects would have emerged in this vast space (at least partially) open to the sky? Generally, it is also clear that new archaeological excavations are badly needed, both to place interpretations and chronologies on a firmer footing and because of the threats of looting and neglect that are also evident throughout the region. This makes Cortese’ work all the more praiseworthy. Throughout the volume, she indeed demonstrates her personal devotion to Cilicia, being sensitive to its rich and complex post-antique history and culture, including that of its minorities, such as the nomadic Yörüks.



[1] Full disclosure: I receive a word of thanks in the book’s acknowledgements and have previously contributed to a 2022 volume edited by Cortese.

[2] This is all the more regrettable since Cortese makes a strong and convincing argument that goes against other recent identifications; see P. Pilhofer, ‘The Martyrdom of Konon (BHG 2077): The Construction of a Realm of Memory.’ Anatolian Studies 71 (2021) 75-86, with earlier references.

[3] In this case, Cortese’s work has been supplemented by even more recent research: see A. Sitz, Pagan Inscriptions, Christian Viewers. The Afterlives of Temples and Their Texts in the Late Antique Eastern Mediterranean (Oxford 2023) 155-165.

[4] For example, “Evlyia Celebi” (sic) is referred to as “she” several times on p. 94.