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Alahan Monastery [Koca Kalesi]locked

  • Mary Gough

Early Christian monastery on the southern slopes of the Taurus Mountains in Isauria, part of the Roman province of Cilicia in south-western Turkey. It is some 300 m above the main road between Silifke (anc. Seleucia) and Konya (anc. Iconium), 21 km north of Mut (anc. Claudiopolis). From two funerary inscriptions, pottery and coins, the monastery may be securely dated to the reigns of two Isaurian emperors, Leo (reg ad 457–74) and Zeno (reg 474–91).

The monastery was originally founded in a series of caves in a limestone outcrop at the west end of a narrow mountain ledge. The largest of these caves contained two rock-cut churches. The ledge was later enlarged by quarrying to the north and by the construction of a retaining wall to the south. The earliest building, immediately to the east of the caves, was the three-aisled Basilica. It was originally lavishly decorated, both inside and out, with architectural sculpture in a flowing naturalistic style, including plant forms, birds and fishes; figures occur only on the jambs and lintel of the main doorway between the narthex and the central aisle. On the west side of the lintel is a head of Christ set in a circle supported by angels, and at each end of the lintel and on the doorposts are four busts in high relief, possibly of the Evangelists. On the inner faces of the jambs are full-length figures of the archangels Michael and Gabriel in flat relief, while on the underside of the lintel is a remarkable relief of the four Beasts of the Apocalypse carved in the form of a tetramorph, a rare and early representation of high artistic quality. There is evidence that part of the main aisle of the Basilica was plastered and painted, as was the south pastophoria, which is painted to resemble marble. The apse and bema walls were embellished with mosaic, and the floor of the bema, and almost certainly that of the apse, consisted of opus sectile. The next building along the ledge formerly had two storeys and was probably a hospice for pilgrims. Then follows a twin-aisled baptistery with a cruciform font sunk into the west floor of the north aisle; both aisles terminate in an apse, the northern one plastered and again painted to resemble marble. Beyond comes the necropolis area.

At the extreme eastern end of the ledge is the three-aisled East Church, which is built directly against the cliff that forms its north wall. Both the main structure and its centralized tower survive to roof height. Although the technique of setting a round dome on a square bay was known, the tower roof was probably pyramidal and built of timber and tile. The exterior is undecorated except for the west façade, where the three doorways reflect the luxuriant sculptural style of the Basilica. The sculpture of the interior, however, is more formal and localized, and shows use of the drill. While the Basilica recalls the Acheiropoietos church at Thessaloniki, the East Church may be compared with the domed basilica at Meryemlık and the domed church at Daḡpazarı, both Turkey. The difference in architectural style between the Basilica and the East Church is particularly noteworthy, since the archaeological evidence points to the monastery’s rapid construction and to the work on the East Church beginning soon after or even before the Basilica’s completion.

The East Church and the Basilica were linked by a covered colonnade set on the retaining wall; it was never completed but a highly decorated shrine is incorporated in it, exactly opposite the earlier of the two funerary inscriptions. This would seem to indicate that the grave had become a place of pilgrimage. Alahan had a sophisticated water supply, drainage system and ample domestic quarters, which included a small bath building. Workshops were identified below the retaining wall. It is possible that the funding of ecclesiastical foundations in Isauria ceased with the death of Zeno, thus accounting for the unfinished state of some of Alahan’s monuments. It is thought that the monastery was abandoned in the face of the Arab invasions of the 7th century, although there is no evidence of sacking. There was a secondary occupation, however, probably as late as the 13th century, when a small church was built inside the Basilica and the baptistery was rehabilitated.


  • P. Verzone: Alahan Manastır mimarisi üzurinde bir inceleme [A study on the architecture of the Alahan Monastery] (Istanbul, 1955)
  • C. Mango: ‘Isaurian Builders’, Polychronion: Festschrift Franz Dolger zum 75. Geburtstag (Heidelberg, 1966), pp. 358–65
  • M. Gough: ‘The Emperor Zeno and some Cilician Churches’, Anatolian Studies: Journal of the British Institute at Ankara, 22 (1972), pp. 199–212
  • M. Gough, ed.: Alahan: An Early Christian Monastery in Southern Turkey (Toronto, 1985)

See also

Early Christian and Byzantine art, §I, 1: History