Wine flows like a river through human history. Where water was polluted, the alcohol in wine made it a safe beverage to drink. And of course, humans enjoy the side benefits. We are surprised with the quality of the wines we are discovering and our Turkish hosts laugh and remind us that they are skilled. They have been making wine since long before Christ’s followers came into this land.
I was raised in the Methodist Church; one that frowned on wine and one that still serves grape juice at Communion. I discovered the real thing in my early twenties, and since then, my life has been pretty much immersed in it. We lived in Greece way back then and I came to view wine in a whole different light. The Greek Orthodox Church celebrated with it, my neighbors made it and I helped with my first harvest in a Greek vineyard. It was in Greece that I also began exploring Christian history. And it was trips to Turkey that brought Christianity’s connection with wine and Christian history to life.
In Sunday school, I thought all those hard-to-pronounce Biblical names were imaginary places in an imaginary story. I was young, but even as an adult it was a surprise to run smack into Hittites and Galatians and get another lesson on the ancient peoples of Asia Minor.
After Rome conquered Israel, the Emperor Tiberius annexed Cappadocia. The Jews resented Roman occupation. Roman laws and taxes were oppressive. In addition, the polytheistic Romans were often at odds with the Jews. Torture and murder were used to control the people. To add to the disruption, a man named Jesus of Nazareth was attracting followers. In the face of widespread oppression and violence, many were eager to embrace Jesus’ message that God was not punishing as the Jews taught, but loving and merciful.
In cruel times, revolutionary thoughts caught on and spread. After Jesus was crucified his disciples carried on. Holy men fled the turmoil to ponder his teachings as hermits.
On our hikes, we think how life must have been as Christians looked for a safe home for their practices and began building liturgy. We wonder at the size of the cave cathedrals and admire the beauty of their religious paintings.
Early Christians, including St. Paul, travelled through Asia Minor preaching the word. Christianity caught on and it is probable that Paul traveled through Cappadocia on his way to preach to the Galatians. Religious hermits sought isolation in Cappadocia. Christ’s 40 days in the desert inspired many to live in tiny caves and in some zealous cases to be walled up in the conical rooms they dug, to live a life of contemplation. The hermits attracted followers and eventually religious and monastic communities formed.
Christian separatists sought refuge in Cappadocia where they could practice in peace. There was fertile land, an eroded landscape easy to hide in and soft rock where they could carve shelter and fortifications. These small isolated groups brought their own interpretation of Christian teaching and the communities developed their own rites and practices. My guidebook says some Christians believed in scourging, fasting and freezing. “Others had themselves killed after being baptized in order to go straight to heaven.” In rites similar to those of older religions, some had their remains left in open graves high in the rocks so the birds might feed on them and others “sought salvation and God’s blessing in permanent sexual ecstasy.”
By the 4th century Caesarea (the Turkish city of Kayseri) was a flourishing religious center. Led by St. Basil, it centered on an orthodoxy called the “true faith”. Different questions of Christianity were debated and varied interpretations arose. Was Jesus God or a messenger of God? Was the trinity three or one? Was there only one God or many? There were disputes about what constituted the “true faith” and groups broke away to practice their variations in different areas of Cappadocia.
Then in Asia Minor in a grab for power, Constantine declared Christianity the state religion. It was a defining moment in the face of Greek and Roman polytheism. What began as a liberation movement became politicized into a world religion.