In our travels a recurring, interesting feature has been the ‘Cave Church’.
From the famous Buddhist, Hindu and Jain caves of Ellora and Ajanta in Northern Maharashtra India (thought to date from 600 to 1000 AD) to a delightful, compact cave church in Castelmola (in the Province of Messina, Sicily) they are places that at once inspire awe and wonder, and offer interesting and varied art forms from a long-distant past.
Take the Sassi di Matera in southern Italy for example: here in this fabulously interesting neighbourhood inhabited since Neolithic, and even Palaeolithic times and where there is bountiful evidence of its Troglodytic inhabitants, we encountered many chiese rupestri (cave, or ‘stone’ churches). Often utilising the Trogladyte caves, they were excavated by Basilian monks fleeing persecution during the Byzantine Empire and thought to be inhabited between 8th and 13th centuries.
Our favourite was the little-visited cave church of Madonna dei Derelitti at the foot of the Gravina (gorge). We had the place to ourselves (primarily because it is at the bottom of this very steep-sided gorge and accessible only by a series of goat tracks) while tourists crawled all over the more easily accessible ones. We suffered though (this should please those religious among you who believe that life on earth should be one of sufferance) as the temperature was up in the high thirties and we were exposed to the sun all the way down – and up.
We found classic examples of cave churches in Caltabellotta in Sicily too, while they also abound throughout Greece and Cappadocia in Turkey, where in the 7th century thousands of Christians were forced to flee either to underground cities or rocky caves for refuge.
Why transform a cave into a place of worship? God knows. But these chapels and churches became intimate and cardinal places of worship for those Christians hiding in the caves and were kept secret for two hundred years.
Architecturally, too, half the work is already done for the builder, while in the hot climes, where most of these cave churches seem to exist, they would also have offered some cooling respite from the heat of the day. For the curious traveller it is always worth poking your nose into them.