Alahan Monastery is a complex of fifth century buildings located in the mountains of Isauria in southern Asia Minor (Mersin province in modern day Turkey). Located at an altitude of 4,000 ft, it stands 3,000 ft over the Calycadnus valley and is a one-hour walking distance from the village of Geçimli.
Although termed a monastery in many sources, this attribution is
contested and more recent scholarship consider it to be a pilgrimage
shrine. The complex played a significant role in the development of
early Byzantine architecture, and practically everything known about it
can be attributed to the excavations of Michael Gough.
Construction took place during two periods. The first occurred in the mid-fifth century under Emperor Leo I, while the second occurred in the last quarter of the fifth century under Emperor Zeno.
The complex contains two churches, rock-cut chambers, a baptistery,
living quarters, and many other spaces, like a forecourt, necropolis,
bathhouse, and lower terrace. There is debate about the monastery’s
original purpose, but it nonetheless became a communal living space for
monks and those seeking pilgrimage until the seventh century CE, at
which point it became abandoned.
Upon assuming power, Emperor Zeno, an Isaurian, took over construction
and likely funded the project. He often returned to his homeland as a
means of retreat, which could suggest his interest in completing the
The complex is an example of expert Isaurian stonemasonry. Alahan is a key site in the history of early Byzantine architecture, half a century before the great achievements of Anicia Juliana and Justinian in Constantinople.
At the western end of the site there is a large naturally formed cave
about 10 m (32.8 ft) high. It used to contain many large rooms arranged
on three floors, each just over 2 m high, though now it is almost
completely empty. Inside the cave complex there is a church, which is
about 7.5 by 7.7 m (24.5 by 25 ft) in size. The cave church is believed
to be the first of the monastery’s churches to be built.
The West Church, referred to by Gough as the “Church of the Evangelists,”
is the largest of all the churches in the monastery, with an overall
measurement of 36 by 16 m (118 by 52.5 ft). The church has a basilica form with three rows - a central nave
and two side aisles. It was built after the cave church, but before the
East Church. It is the least preserved of all three churches and early
visitors to the site did not identify it as a church, but as a gateway
to the site. According to Gough, the provision of two pastophories
proves that it was a church, and decorations found on its adorned
gateway make reference to Evangelism, supporting Gough’s given name for
Gough’s excavation discovered decorations of sculpted masonry and
rich mosaics, which suggests that the church had wealthy patronage
during its time.
The rugged terrain of the mountains meant that much of the cliff
side had to be cut back during building. Even then, the plan of the
church was adapted to fit the lay of the land. As a result, it doesn’t
resemble the perfect east/west orientation that was typical of churches
at the time.