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In the Caves of Cappadocia


For a year, Fordham student Elizabeth Zanghi pored over books and academic scholarship about ancient art sketched across the walls of remote caves in Turkey.

But reading about it wasn’t enough to sate her curiosity.

“I wanted to go there and see these caves firsthand,” said Zanghi, who hoped the journey might spark a question she could explore in her senior honors thesis.

In the Cappadocia region of Turkey, ancient caves were carved out of volcanic rock to make houses, churches, and monasteries. The caves, many of which contain colorful Byzantine art, still stand today. Some are even continue to serve as homes.
Photo by Joseph Zanghi

Zanghi, a rising senior at Fordham College at Rose Hill, was the 2014 recipient of Fordham’s Stark Family Award, a travel grant given through the Department of Art History and Music. She used her scholarship to travel to the Cappadocia region of Turkey, where hundreds of caves are inscribed with clues about early Christian history.

In Göreme, a village in the heart of the Cappadocia region, the eruption of Mount Erciyes about 2,000 years ago left cone-shaped ash and lava formations across the region. The people of Göreme eventually realized that the soft rocky formations could be carved out to form houses, churches, and monasteries.

Elizabeth Zanghi takes notes on ancient Byzantine art in the caves of Göreme.
Photo by Joseph Zanghi

Cave paintings in Cappadocia.
Photo by Joseph Zanghi

During the fourth century, Cappadocia was also home to three prominent theologians—Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus—known as the Cappadocian Fathers. These early scholars made major contributions to important Christian teachings, such as the doctrine of the Trinity.

The caves of Göreme became the locus of Christian sanctuaries and were decorated with colorful Byzantine frescoes.

“We don’t know a lot about the people who painted these cave churches because the artists didn’t want to put the focus on themselves instead of God, and also because it was such a long time ago,” Zanghi said.

However, a singularity in one of these churches, the Tokalı Kilise, caught her attention.

“In [the Tokalı Kilise], we know that there were at least two different artists who worked in the cave. But when I was in the church, I saw that there seemed to be a lot of [artistic]differences even within one of the artist’s paintings,” she said. “I want to look closer to see whether there were more artists [than we initially thought].”

Zanghi traveled with her older brother Joseph, who photographed the expedition while Zanghi took copious notes on her findings. The pair began the trip in Istanbul, where they observed well-known sites of Byzantine art, including the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. From there, they traveled to Cappadocia.

For Zanghi, the trip was eye-opening. One day, a wrong turn on a hiking path through the Taurus Mountains led the siblings to a spate of caves far from where tourists and cave hunters typically explore.

“We were discovering new caves almost every 20 minutes,” she said. “It was incredible to see all of these different caves that I wouldn’t have even seen in books.”

Zanghi, an art history major with minors in French and Orthodox Christian Studies, plans to use her trip to launch a career in academic art history.

“This seems like something that could easily become the focus of my career, especially because there’s a lot of research on Cappadocian cave art going on now,” she said. “A trip like this is huge in helping me start my own research, rather than just commenting on others’ scholarship.”

Zanghi urged other undergraduate students to capitalize on opportunities that can take their studies to another level.

“It’s important for students to realize that there are opportunities like this at Fordham if you just look around,” she said. “It’s cool to find projects that are out-of-the-box, and there are ways to go about answering even questions that you think might be very far away.”


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