In honor of the recently desecrated Guardians of Nimrud, we repost this classic piece on the importance, not to mention the fun, of museums. Thanks to them, the Guardians are still with us. Read on, and keep reading, to go with them through the Gates and down the garden path, in unexpected company.


Alexander Rides to Midas

Alexander Rides to Midas (Archeological Museum, Istanbul) ©2012 Trici Venola.

Alexander the Great died in 323 BC. He was 33.  Alexander died of a bone infection from an old arrow wound.  It’s possible that his immune system was compromised by his grief, bordering on dementia, over the death of Hephaestion, his closest friend, greatest general, second in command and, some say, the love of his life.

Hephaestion Straight Up


Like the god he believed himself to be, the Golden Conqueror would never age. He won the respect and admiration of his own time and successive generations. In awe and affection they continue to laud him, creating imagery in all media from marble to film.

His actual body was mummified in Alexandria, Egypt, by Egyptian necromancers, and was still in a good state of preservation three centuries after his death, when Caesar Augustus leaned into its glass sarcophagus to kiss the Conqueror and, slipping, broke off the mummy’s nose. But Alexander’s tomb and body disappeared. The Alexander Sarcophagus in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum is the nearest thing we have.

Alexander Sarcophagus Detail

Alexander is still fighting and hunting lions on this museum centerpiece  from the great Necropolis at Sidon.  The stunning bas-relief was created by unknown talent during Alexander’s lifetime. It’s possible that the artist actually set eyes on him.

Alexander SarcophagusThe art commemorates victory over the Persians at the Battle of Issus in what is now Turkey, and Hephaestion is there fighting as well. Scholars argue over who was buried in the tomb, but he may have commissioned the work before his death with an eye toward Alexandrian help in future battles. The Alexander Sarcophagus was discovered, in what is now Lebanon, in 1887 and brought to Istanbul by Osman Hamdi Bey, the great Ottoman statesman, archeologist and artist who built Istanbul’s Archeological Museum.

Alex In Better Shape

Alexander Is In Better Shape (Archeological Museum. Istanbul) ©1999 Trici Venola.

Alexander in MuseumAnd here is the rock star himself, Alexander. This still has traces of yellow paint in the marble hair, rose on the lips. It’s one of several done in the second century BC, when the artist might have had Alexander’s mummy to work from. I find this plausible because the forehead wrinkles are realistic for Alexander but idealized out of many statues.


 In the drawing up top, Alexander rubs shoulders with an ancient Cypriot statue of Bes, the God of Plenty, a Hittite lion 5500 years old, and King Midas. A skeletal cohort of Midas– nobody knows who it is- rests upstairs among swanky grave goods built of boxwood from 740 BC. Midas was  King of the Phrygians, whose capitol of Gordion is near Turkey’s capitol, Ankara. The Phrygians invented a smelting technique that made bronze shine like gold, so yes, everything Midas touched turned to gold. And we thought it was just a fairy tale. Here’s some Midas Gold in the Archeological Museum in Antalya. It actually looks like titanium. There’s also a Madonna whose breasts weep blood, three jolly bronze creatures and a festive phallic bronze pin. I love drawing in museums. The stuff in those cases is laughing at you.

Midas Gold

Midas Gold (Archeological Museum, Antalya) ©2000 Trici Venola.

Gordion is the Home of the Gordion Knot. More fairy tales: Nobody could untie the Gordion Knot. Alexander famously solved this dilemma. He pulled out his sword and cut it.

Alexander Cuts the Gordion Knot

Alexander Cuts the Gordion Knot by Jean-Simon Barthelemy (1743-1811)

The Gordion Knot

A rendition of the Gordion Knot.

Turkey is a veritable Gordion Knot of history. The threads keep weaving in and out, disappearing and reappearing, and I will never ever live long enough to unravel it. In a beloved tale, King MIdas judged Pan the winner in a music contest with Apollo, and a furiously un-godlike Apollo gave him donkey’s ears. The little figures below are Midas Gold and smaller than a hand. I haven’t yet been to the museum in Ankara, now in restoration, but look forward to its re-opening, when we can see Midas’s magnificent wooden furniture preserved and reassembled over years by dedicated archeologists.

Antalya Museum Intro

Antalya Museum Intro (Archeological Museum, Antalya) ©2000 Trici Venola.

LIONS CAN LIVE THOUSANDS OF YEARS That Hittite lion back in Istanbul has fellows all over what is now Turkey. Aslantepe (Lion Hill) Huge dig near Malatya features a jocular fountain lion and many real pussycats.

Aslantepe Huge Intro

Aslantepe Huge Intro (Aslantepe Huge Excavation, Malatya) ©2004 Trici Venola.

The museum at the University in Elazig was full of artifacts from Paleolithic to Ottoman. It’s the only place I’ve ever been offered a chair, not to mention tea and conversation.

Reyhan in Elazig Muse ©2004 by Trici Venola.

Reyhan in Elazig Muse ©2004 by Trici Venola.

I love the combination of tribal art and ancient artifacts found all over rural Turkey. Here’s a collection from Aslantepe Huge:

Malatya Artifacts

Malatya Artifacts (Aslantepe Huge Excavation, Malatya) ©2004 Trici Venola.

Here’s a Hittite courtroom, drawn in situ in Turkey in 2004. The culprit sat in the hot seat, surrounded by devils– those paintings on the walls– and was judged by a group. Not much has changed in 5500 years, if you consider the paparazzi.

Hittite Hot Seat

Hittite Hot Seat (Aslantepe Huge Excavation, Malatya) ©2004 Trici Venola.

NIMRUD IN HOLLYWOOD The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is one of the more civilized museums in the world, allowing artists to carry in sketchbooks and work at any time. But they go farther still. I drew this winged, lion-bodied Assyrian Guardian and mapped his beard curls to render when I wasn’t standing up– on feet that felt like two hot anvils pounding upward. But I neglected to render one curl to go by. I went back next day, but the exhibit was closed. At the guard station I explained the problem while flipping pages in the sketchbook. “All I need is five minutes,” I said, and those enlightened people called the actual curator who personally came downstairs, escorted me up to the exhibit, unlocked it and stood there while I drew the beard curl. Now THAT’s a museum!!

Assyrian King at the Met

Assyrian Guardian at the Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) ©2002 Trici Venola.

Nimrud Bird Djinn

Nimrud, Bird Djinn

To the right of the bearded Guardian is a piece from a personal puzzle: that male figure with a bird head, wings and a sideways Egyptian stance, symbol of exotica and ancient mystery. This image strides through my earliest memories, associated with Echo Park, with klieg lights across the sky and the smell of eucalyptus, an enduring symbol of Old Hollywood, of Los Angeles, of home. What a shock to discover this dear and familiar figure to be a djinn– a genie, relic of Nimrud, in Mesopotamia, oceans and continents and millennia away from a childhood in California. I was totally immersed in the Middle East, obsessed with moving to Turkey, drawing to learn more. Echo Park had been the furthest thing from my mind. I stood there in the Met with my mouth open while images strobed through my memory. DW Griffith’s silent epic Intolerance, shot in Hollywood in 1916, stunned viewers with its exotic representation of Babylon. See the figures on the gate?

Griffith Intolerance Set

Set of Babylon, DW Griffith’s Intolerance, Hollywood 1916.

Antiquities in the Middle East were being discovered at the same time as the medium of film. DW Griffith’s Babylon featured this same djinn, still parading in Hollywood shopping malls to this day.

Hollywood Highland Center

Hollywood Highland Center, 2004.

One Ramadan, drawing from memory Eastern Turkish women seen on the tram, I was compelled by a certain strength in their features to intersperse them with Mesopotamian deities. After all, these faces are all from the same region.

Ramadan Women

Ramadan Women ©2011 Trici Venola.

Nimrud is on the Tigris, just southeast of the eastern Turkish border. It was originally excavated in the 1850s. One example of our bird-djinn was surely found between then and Intolerance. DW Griffith employed artists from all over the world. One of them knew the image, which was used precisely because of that sense of ancient mystery it conveys. Many more were found at Nimrud in 1931 by archeologist Max Mallowan. The one above,  used as reference for the djinn drawing, was photographed by his wife, Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie at Nimrud, c1937.

AGATHA CHRISTIE? That Gordion Knot again! The most prolific and well-known mystery writer of all time was no stranger to Hollywood, since so many movies have been made of her novels, including Murder on the Orient Express which begins in Istanbul, where she often stayed on her way to and from her husband’s digs in Mesopotamia. I had always associated Agatha Christie with floral dresses, trains, lorgnettes, a detective with patent-leather hair. But here she is in the dusty winds of the Middle East. She funded many digs, used up her face-cream cleaning ancient sculpture, and was an inveterate shutter-bug. She photographed many of the considerable Mallowan finds and wound up on many a museum plaque, along with all those best-seller lists.

Big Faces Agape

Big Faces Agape (Archeological Museum, Istanbul) ©2012 Trici Venola.

Turkey is a mystery I will never solve, but it sure is fun trying. One way is to travel, and another way is to go into the museums and draw. When I get fascinated by a piece of art and draw it, I learn more and more about this place. Everyone was here, many at the same time. Check out these strange bedfellows from the 2nd century AD, at the Archeological Museum in Antalya.

Unholy Trio

Strange Bedfellows.detail (Archeological Museum, Antalya) ©2000 Trici Venola.

Priapus, God of Sexual Enthusiasm, was as popular with the ancients as he is with us. The one on all those postcards is in Selchuk, along with many other aspects of love.

Eros & Priapus

Aspects of Love (Selchuk Museum) ©2012 Trici Venola.

There’s Priapus actual size– fist-sized–  at right center. He was in a glass case with a light you press for two minutes of illumination. I kept pushing the button so I could see to draw, and looked up to see a large crowd– the entire museum!– standing behind watching and giggling.


Dragon Lamp at the Met

Dragon Lamp at the Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) ©2002 Trici Venola.

It turns out that a dragon was a symbol of Christianity. So was a foot, which represented pilgrimage. Drawing in the Met, I realized that Christianity had spread all over the Middle East long before Islam. It incorporated all the fantastic animals of the Shamanistic religions that preceded it.

Peter Paul and Mary at the Met

Peter, Paul and Mary at the Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) ©2002 Trici Venola.

Thanks to the movies, the co-mingled Egyptian animal-human gods are old friends. But who ever heard of a Senmurv, a rocking-horse-like winged creature with a peacock tail?

Byzantine Trappings

Byzantine Trappings (Archeological Museum, Istanbul) ©1999 Trici Venola.

Bosch Delights.Detail

Hieronymus Bosch, Hell.detail, 16th century.

All the early Christian exhibits are full of these strange co-mingled creatures: bird-headed lions, griffins, dragons,  hippogriffs, pigs with wings. By the Middle Ages, artists were using them to populate Hell, most famously Hieronymus Bosch. The ancients combined lions and eagles and bulls. Bosch used animals he saw in Holland: frogs, birds, cats, mice, rabbits. Gradually these conglomerate fiends disappeared from Christian art, and all that is left of them now are those gargoyles on Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Gargoyles

Gargoyles, Notre Dame, Paris 2000.

Heaven got the winged deities. The visual depictions of angels evolved from those Shamanistic figures, from fiery six-winged Seraphim to Cupid-inspired cherubs. And this powerful winged male figure: our dear and familiar djinn with a human head: the Archangel.

The Archangel Michael, by Guido Reni, 16th Century.

The Archangel Michael, by Guido Reni, 16th Century.


On the Steps of the Met

On the Steps of the Met (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art) ©2002 Trici Venola.

Not every fabulous museum denizen is in a glass case. Derek here posed on the steps of the Met with all the insouciance of one of the stone lions within, while I was able to delight nine-year-old Faisal by drawing his incipient mustache.

Assyrian Lions

Assyrian Lions (The British Museum, London) ©2006 Trici Venola.

Lord Elgin was the British ambassador to Ottoman Istanbul. Distressed at the rural peoples’ indifference to antiquities, he bought as many as he could afford, bullying an old friend into building an entire wing at The British Museum to house them, and bankrupting himself in the process. This is now a cause of discord between Turkey and England, but in the end the glories are preserved. Many village walls sport chunks of carving along with the rock and brick.

The Lion from Xanthos

The Lion from Xanthos (The British Museum, London) ©2006 Trici Venola.

In The British Museum, while drawing these lions from Xanthos, I was surrounded by schoolchildren. In uniforms, with sketchbooks, little Harry Potters all, saying in those lovely accents, “Are you actually drawing those lions? Truly?”  Yes, I said, these lions are from Xanthos, a city in Turkey. They were astonished, they were entranced. They had not known that Turkey is the Asia Minor referred to in the museum. My sketchbook at that time had pictures of the British Ambassador to Turkey, our Anglican Canon, the chandeliers in the British Consulate, and Cappadocia.

Big Church in Goreme

Big Church in Goreme (Goreme, Cappadocia) ©2006 Trici Venola.

What these kids loved was the Open Air Museum in Cappadocia. They would not let me turn the pages. They wanted to know the story of every single pigeon cave in the cliffs, every window, every cave church. “These are pigeonholes? Real ones?”

Cave Church Door

Cave Church Door (Ortahisar, Cappadocia) ©2006 Trici Venola.

“Look at this, it’s old Father Theodosias’s church, look here, where he prayed, the stone is worn there, that’s Arab painting up top, you can see-” When I looked up, there were a hundred kids there, parents, teachers, docents… now THAT’s a museum!

Turkish Flashback

Turkish Flashback ©2000 Trici Venola.

There are plenty of Hittite lions in Cappadocia, too. All of Turkey is one breathing, palpating, interwoven fist of historical threads, pulling in the whole world. We live at the center, then and now. And what’s all this history for? Well, for starters history gives me hope. In these perilous times it’s reassuring to realize that the ancients, too, often thought– with good reason!–that the world was ending. It’s relaxing, when distressed by the antics of some fruitcake potentate or terrorist thugs, to read of the same a thousand years ago and know that these lethal fools too shall pass. History is humbling: no matter how unique I feel, I learn of legions of others. Wandering through the museums, looking at familiar expressions in ancient bronze and marble and clay, I feel at one with the great tide of humanity: following that Gordion thread, seeing it disappear into the knot, wondering if I will ever see it re-emerge, or if I must wait for another incarnation. One day I may have all the answers, but by then the questions probably won’t matter anymore.

Syrian Bronze Sphinx

Bronze Sphinx from Syria (New York Metropolitan Museum of Art)©2002 Trici Venola.

All drawings Plein Air. All drawings © Trici Venola, created with drafting pens on rag paper in sketchbook format, standard size 18 X 52 cm / 7 X 20 inches. All drawings part of The Drawing On Istanbul Project. Original drawings are for sale. If you see one here and love it, contact  Trici Venola. We love your comments.


KAPADOKYA / CAPPADOCIA 2: Drawing in the Echoes of Faith

Holy Ghost ©2003 Trici Venola

Holy Ghost ©2003 Trici Venola

THE HEART CHURCH  It was chill near-darkness at the bottom of a natural stone formation shaped like a fat rocket ship about to take off. Perfect peace, and the silence sang. I felt veins of power surging around me from a point directly below, down in the bones of the earth, throbbing up to converge again at the point in the sky. I thought of those ‘Sixties pyramid people, claiming that a pyramid shape brings together mystic geological forces. I  believed them for the first time.

CIMG0155 copy

I was down in the bottom chapel, below ground, in a rock formation that has been a church since early Christianity, and likely a Pagan temple before that.  Someone long ago painted the darkness white with little red hearts on it. It was almost too dark to draw at all but I tried. There were  graves cut in the floor, their occupants long gone to dust. I could lie here in the dark, I thought, in this singing silence, feel my bones become one with the earth, content for all eternity. But  –like that line in Gladiator— NOT YET!!

The Heart Church ©2006 Trici Venola

The Heart Church ©2006 Trici Venola

Can’t die yet, there’s too much to draw. Much of it here in Kapadokya, the central steppes region of Turkey, a spiritual refuge. Everyone else in the world spells it Cappadocia and pronounces it with a soft final “c,” but since the original name– Katpatuka in Old Persian– means Land of Beautiful Horses, and Kapadokya sounds like a galloping horse, and that’s what the people who live there call it, we’re using Kapadokya.

Cold Hill Caves ©2006 Trici Venola

Cold Hill Caves ©2006 Trici Venola

Those hearts, by the way, look like a natural abstraction of apricot leaves. There are a lot of apricot trees here.


First-time readers might enjoy the previous post, which is an overview of Kapadokya’s history and my first trip to the place in 1999. I loved it on first glance and have continued to come back for close-ups, like this one of a kid with a Biblical name become Turkish, in a ruined rock church with a vanishing saint.

Zekeriya and A Saint ©2003 Trici Venola

Zekeriya and A Vanished Saint ©2003 Trici Venola

Spring: High Season is upon us here in Istanbul: hotels filling up, all the monuments jammed, monstrous cruise ships blocking the views, throngs trooping through the bazaars. Some friends, in shops and hotels, don’t sleep again until winter. There are all kinds of projects to finish immediately, and only me to do them. And all I can think about is that just about now, in Kapadokya, beneath the sheer rock walls punctuated with caves, the high grass in the bottoms of the canyons is shooting up green, and the drifts of cottonwood blossoms on the ground can be combed with your eyes. So fooey on all these Istanbul distractions. I’m back to Kapadokya, and I’ve got you with me.

CIMG0048 copy

While Kapadokya is full of former tourists who fall in love with the place and buy up all the caves, the locals mostly want to move into cheesy apartment buildings just out of town. Some families still live in caves.

I climbed up the mountain above Urgup one morning and was struck with an obviously occupied cave complex. A seamed dark woman, shaped like a pillow tied in the middle, came out to hang up her laundry. Awhile later, a young beautiful echo of her stumbled out sleepy into the morning and found me drawing her house and her mother.

Gunik in the Morning ©1999 Trici Venola

Gunik in the Morning ©1999 Trici Venola

Nine AM, and the sun full in my face. The air sharp and glittering, little flies everywhere. Only the drawing kept me from going nuts with them. I squinted into the white under a giant scarf rolled like a turban, and drew and drew.CIMG0126

After the two-hour drawing session they invited me into the house for tea. Inside it was big and clean, with plastered walls, electricity and plumbing, lace curtains at the little square windows cut in the hill. I imagined all the empty caves I’ve seen, filled with lively people. Friends who grew up in caves describe scooting up and down the ladders between, calling between the caves, the cosy enclosed feeling of a cave with a fire pit, the way every little thing has its own alcove. I know I sleep better in a cave than any other place, deep perfect sleep all the night long.

The View from Uchisar ©2007 Trici Venola

The View from Uchisar ©2007 Trici Venola

GREEKS AND TURKS This land is beyond ancient. A thousand armies have trekked through here:. Hittites, Romans, Armenians, Seljuks, Greeks. Arab raiders in the 7th and 8th centuries drove the Christians into underground Hittite cities, converting chapels to pigeon coops and painting designs all round the pigeonholes.


Christians came up from underground and repainted frescoes in the cave chapels before decamping a few centuries later. Some Greek Christians stuck it out until the population exchange in the 20th century, building square houses of embossed brick like this one in Mustafapasa.

Kid in Mustafa Pasa ©1999 Trici Venola

Kid in Mustafa Pasa ©1999 Trici Venola

The Christian monasteries here were Greek, and the Byzantine Christians were the genesis of what we now know as Greek Orthodox. All across Anatolia the Greeks left their buildings, temples and myths; a few of their descendents are still here as Turks.

CIMG0019The 20th century brought about a great dissolution of the centuries-old relationship of Greeks and Turks in both countries, scars which are still healing. Reading Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings broke my heart but fed my understanding. Two governments, two faiths, but one people. It’s everywhere: in the music, the food, the way the people look and the way they dance. I hope that this century brings about greater harmony than the last.

Old Couple in Ayvali ©1999 Trici Venola

Old Couple in Ayvali ©1999 Trici Venola

THE BIG CHURCH Are you ready for this place? It was March 2006 and cold enough to numb your hands in gloves, but there wasn’t any question of missing these drawings. Now called  Durmus Kadir after its owner, this great stone basilica is a premier example of Goreme’s legendary 1001 cave churches.

Big Church in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

Big Church in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

Like all cave chapels Durmush Kadir’s interior is carved out of the rock all of a piece: a sculpture of a church to emulate the diverse columns, alcoves, domes, altars and pulpits in a conventionally constructed church elsewhere.

The Podium ©2006 Trici Venola

The Podium ©2006 Trici Venola

This one gets a lot of action. Months later in Istanbul, a woman looking through my sketchbook suddenly let out a yelp and pulled out a photo of herself getting married on this very podium. Today the area in front of Durmush Kadir is much spiffed-up, presumably to make it attractive for events. Across the valley is this apartment, replete with carvings.

The Guest Room ©2006 Trici Venola

The Guest Room ©2006 Trici Venola

Spacious inside, It looks like a VIP suite to me. During the Middle Ages, Goreme was the seat of enormous ecclesiastical power. Ecumenical councils were held here. Pilgrims journeyed from all over to convene here.

CIMG0051 copy

Thousands of monks tilled these fields, tending the huge flocks of pigeons. Valued for their dung, which still fertilizes all the food grown here, and for their messenger abilities, pigeons are treasured here still. Below Durmush Kadir’s church is a refectory, where hundreds of cowled monks sat for their supper. The drawing below was done through a chain-link fence. That modern wall marks the present property line.

Refectory ©2006 Venola

Refectory ©2006 Trici Venola

IN TOWN Pat Yale, justly famed for her wonderful travel books about Turkey, lives in Goreme with about nine cats, and in 2006 I was lucky enough to house sit. Not only did I get all these swell drawings, but two of the cats kittened while I was there, giving us a grand total of fourteen. The cats midwifed for each other, too.

CIMG0142Something about the details in the monochromatic landscape makes Kapadokya perfect for the kind of work in this series, and I can’t stop drawing. So I sat in the street and drew this:

Two Hats in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

Two Hats in Goreme ©2006 Trici Venola

I had company in the street. For two hours she watched me draw those two hats, and then she posed unblinking, glinting up at me, until I had her, including that fabulous shadow of the oya scarf trim on her face. “Gotcha,” I said, and showed her. She nodded violently and vanished. On one of Pat’s walls is an antique pink cotton quilted jacket, very worn. It’s a classic Kapadokya jacket worn by a woman who lived and died here long since. I picture it on someone like this.

Mischief ©2006 Trici Venola

Mischief ©2006 Trici Venola

PAINTING IN THE DARK: THE GENESIS OF MONASTIC LIFE Kapadokya has been protected since the advent of Tourism in the 1980s. Preserved from destruction-by-development, the land here can be observed shedding itself, sloughing off and renewing. Caves last a long time, and then one day they collapse, or erosion finally eats them away. It’s the nature of this rock to shed. Dust is a part of life here. If you move into a cave, stabilizing the walls (with the help of a local expert) is a good idea. Some of these chimney chapels are so old they’re almost gone, with only the keyhole-shaped alcove or window as a clue that here is a witness to so many prayers.

Eroded Monument ©2011 Trici Venola

Eroded Monument ©2011 Trici Venola

The monolith above was once a chapel at the intersection of the main road with the path leading down to the river. Below, Laura Prusoff and her partner Nurettin look across Pigeon Valley from their Palace in Ortahisar. Over the years I’ve drawn their view quite a few times. My reward is that I can close my eyes and see it in all its grandeur. The shadows paint a new shape every few minutes, making a drawing of several hours a very different thing from a photograph.

Lions in the Valley ©2003 Trici Venola

Lions in the Valley ©2003 Trici Venola

I didn’t realize that the whole of Pigeon Valley was a monastery. It took a long time of looking, and then I could see it.


The Christians were here from the beginning of Christianity. St Paul came through Kayseri– once Caesarea– on his way to Ankyra, now Ankara, carrying Christianity with him. It found fertile ground in Kapadokya, now full of ecclesiastical ruins, abandoned by the Christians around the 15th century in the teeth of Islam. This bas-relief figure is the only one in Kapadokya. “It’s a devil,” said my friend. “But it looks like an angel,” I said. “No, it’s always my whole life been called a devil,” he said.

Now It's Called A Devil ©2011 Trici Venola

Now It’s Called A Devil ©2011 Trici Venola

Goreme sits between two valleys full of natural stone formations, many with Early Christian cave churches, part of a vast monastery complex with influences reaching across oceans and continents. By the 4th century, the Cappadocian Fathers were an ecclesiastical force to be reckoned with, forming much early Christian philosophy.

015 GV Cave copyThe very template for monastic life was cut in these rocks by St Basil, a highly educated 4th century cleric who renounced a promising career in Constantinople and Athens to become a monk. As such he became a hermit in Kapadokya, where he was joined by Future Saint Gregory of Nazianzas. I like to think of these two wearing down the stones under their knees, sallying forth in cold and snow and scorching sun, tending the fields, the flocks and the Word. They were joined by many others.

A FIeld of Sunflowers ©2011 Trici Venola

A FIeld of Sunflowers ©2011 Trici Venola

In 370 Basil became Bishop. A charismatic leader and great organizer, he reformed the Liturgy, established hospitals, and fostered monasticism as a way of life: chastity, dedication, seclusion, submersion of the single in the whole. These ecclesiastical troglodytes made the land their church. Cells, offices, stables, kitchens, cafeterias, dormitories, chapels, churches, wineries, hospitals: all were caves.

The Hospital Monastery 2011 Trici Venola

The Hospital Monastery 2011 Trici Venola

THREE MORE CHURCHES Yusuf Koc is in a cluster of chimneys out in Goreme Valley, just outside the town. A local family lives in them and tends the churches  as they always have.

Goreme Valley Longshot ©2006 Trici Venola

Goreme Valley Longshot ©2006 Trici Venola

Before the advent of Tourism, folks just sumped out their own caves. Now they police them as well, with assistance from the State.

Another Freezing Jesus ©2006 Trici Venola

Another Freezing Jesus ©2006 Trici Venola

Boy, was it cold in there. I wonder if the monks had braziers or if they depended on crowds for warmth. This chapel had columns, but was pressed into service as a pigeon-house in pre-tourism. The columns were broken off, but the frescoes preserved with only a little graffiti. See the pigeonholes built into the window?

079YusufKoc Int copy

This was painted after the 9th century. The monochromatic and geometric painting in many caves is Iconoclastic art. The Iconoclasts, like the Muslims, proscribed pictorial art. They were around for about 100 years, in the latter 8th and early 9th centuries. But this is pictorial and multicolored. and the state of preservation tells us it’s post-Iconoclast. Here are two archangels on horseback. See the wings?

Painting in the Dark ©2006 Trici Venola

Painting in the Dark ©2006 Trici Venola

I love this Naive Byzantine painting. Anatomically it’s more symbolic than realistic. Artistic anatomy peaked with the late Roman period, when the body was a still a temple. Medieval Christians were suspicious of the body, seeing it as a fount of temptation. The monastic life was about eschewing physical pleasures in favor of devotion to the divine. This is reflected in the art of the time: bodies lost under cloth or armor, an insouciant attitude towards proportion and gravity. Then again, considering that these caves are pretty darn dim inside, I wonder they could see to paint at all.

079YKInt copy

Up top in Pigeon Valley is a Black Church: fire has blackened the inside. Notice the bas-relief cross on the sooted ceiling to the right, revealed by the erosion at the window.

The Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

The Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

I crawled up through this opening and crouched on a big old earth spill up under the domes to get this next drawing. We know that this chapel was carved after the 6th century because of these domes. Hagia Sophia’s great dome, so big it was considered proof of the existence of God, was completed in 537 and influenced the entire Christian world. Henceforth we see domes everywhere in Christianity, including here.

Inside the Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

Inside the Black Church ©2006 Trici Venola

This next one isn’t the last church in the valley, it’s just the last one I could get to before dark.

The Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

The Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

There are hundreds of hidden chapels in the rocks. Locals know and don’t tell, and this makes me happy. I like to think there’s some mystery left in the world. Here’s the inside. I had twenty minutes until dusk, did what I could, took a photo and finished from that.

Inside the Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

Inside the Last Church ©2006 Trici Venola

This geometric Iconoclastic painting was done in cochineal –insect– blood. It’s still red, And is that an Egyptian-type Eye of God there above the doorway?

Sweeper in Goreme © 1999 Trici Venola

Sweeper in Goreme © 1999 Trici Venola

FAITH IN HUMANITY It was Nurettin who got me to put my sketchbooks in Koran covers, clear back on my first visit in 1999. “You should do something,” he said through Laura, “to let people know how important, how precious, this work is.” This was after the wife of a local politico grabbed my sketchbook and left it open and forgotten in her lap while she drank tea and chattered and I sat angry and anxious and afraid of offending her until mercifully they left and I took back the sketchbook. “Why didn’t you say something? People are ignorant,” said Nurettin, “They don’t understand original art.” 

15Sketchbook 8 On returning to Istanbul I took his advice. In the Grand Bazaar I found a pile of Koran covers in all sizes and colors, each pieced together by some shepherd or caravan housewife to keep a Koran covered, as all precious things are in Islam. I still buy as many of the right size as I can find, and they hold the original sketchbooks to this day.

07My Bookcase wSketchbooks

Faith is a powerful force. If enough people believe in a certain way, it can change things. St Basil saw this, encouraging young men to subvert their individuality and become monks: cells in a great working mechanism of faith. The land he chose was already hallowed. It’s been holy land since the beginning of time, and I swear you can feel it. It likes us. The air is good. The water keeps you healthy. The caves offer comfortable shelter, staying around 72 degrees Fahrenheit winter and summer. The rock is easy to carve. The land yields, providing soil, fertilizer, minerals, and an absence of earthquakes. Something about the place focuses faith, whatever that faith may be.

CIMG0077 copy

There’s a sense of humor. The ancient gods are still here, laughing at us.  In this region that was filled for centuries with young men trying mightily to ignore the blandishments of the physical, the land looks like nothing so much as the bared and hairy hillocks, planes, rolling curves and startling appendages of a great body, a constant reminder that we are humans on earth, our home. Kapadokya seems to conspire to strengthen this sense of belonging and inclusion, for this is the one thing we all have in common regardless of belief: our humanity.

Balloon Over the Valley ©2007 Trici Venola

Balloon Over the Valley ©2007 Trici Venola


All drawings Plein air. All art from the Drawing On Istanbul™  Project by Trici Venola. All photos © Trici Venola. All art sketchbook format, mostly 7″ X 20″ / 18 cm X 52 cm, done with drafting pens on rag paper. The Drawing On Istanbul Project is independent of any institution.  Regular readers of this blog will feel vindicated on learning that InterNations is including us in their recommended expat blog section in Istanbul. What an honor! Thanks for reading. We love your comments.

KAPADOKYA / CAPPADOCIA: Drawing Over the Rainbow

Everybody's Grandma

Everybody’s Grandma ©1999 Trici Venola.

OVER THE RAINBOW Goreme Valley Longshot

The plane landed at night. The airport shuttle hurtled through a black unknown, glimpses of dusty roads in the headlights. When I got into my room I fell asleep the minute I lay down. 

Asia Minor Hotel

Asia Minor Hotel ©1999 Trici Venola.

I woke up in a rock palace. Breakfast was being served out on the lawn. The air glittered. Far up on the smooth rock face of the hill behind the hotel was a small square black hole, my first glimpse of the famous caves of Kapadokya. I drew the hill, the hotel balcony, an apricot tree. The air was full of tiny flies. I wrapped a scarf around my head and shoulders against them. A slivery woman with bright blue eyes showed up and started unloading jams and jellies, chattering in German with the tourists at the next table. “I am Sabine,” she said– she pronounced that final e–“You must come to our new hotel and draw it. It’s an energy center.” I did feel energized. The place was full of natural vitality. “Yes,” she said seriously, “All Kapadokya is a center of energy.”


Urgup Rocks ©1999 Trici Venola.

I’ll say. A TV crew came and filmed me drawing the picture above, friends in Istanbul saw it! I even met the mayor. We were in Urgup, a wonderful little rock town punctuated with the dots of caves. Kapadokya is Turkey’s central steppes region. High and rocky, populated with small towns, famous for its pure air and water, history, surreal natural stone formations, and the ancient caves in them which dot every landscape. The Greek spelling, Cappadocia, means Land of Beautiful Horses. I love that  Kapadokya sounds like horses galloping.

Odd Couple in Urgup

The Odd Couple in Urgup ©1999 Trici Venola.

COMING FROM DISASTER It was my second trip to Turkey in 1999, and back in Istanbul I had lost a nearly-full sketchbook. Not only did it feel like a miscarriage, but my whole trip was contingent on producing drawings for my website to boost tourism, as a big earthquake near Istanbul earlier that year had scared people off. The travel company I was working with was sending me to some place called Kapadokya. Numb with shock, I’d pulled out a blank sketchbook and gotten on the plane. I’d had no idea what to expect. The resulting experience changed my life and took my work to a new level. I have always loved this first look at Kapadokya, a place immediately familiar despite the fact I’d never suspected its existence. ROAMING THE ROCK PALACES  Sabine invited me over for later and arranged for me to ride around with Mevlut, the manager of the hotel, to see the land. Still mourning the lost sketchbook, I closed the new one over the new drawings and got in the car.

Pancarlik Valley

Pancarlik Valley ©1999 Trici Venola.

I had never seen such country. All around us rose giant rocks in amazing shapes. Some looked like enormous erotica, others like trolls. Mevlut stopped the car. “Look! Men in hats!” 

Men in Hats

Men in Hats, Women in Shalvar ©1999 Trici Venola.

We drove further. “Camel Rock,” he said. There were many donkeys. All the women I saw were wearing shalvar: long loose trousers gathered at the waist, and loose vests, clothes that seemed to celebrate billowing hips and breasts. The commonest headscarf was a gauzy pale green number, scalloped on the edges and sparkled with green glass beads. When we got to Red Valley, Ali Baba the groundskeeper told me the local scarf code. It’s all pretty much optional, more fashion than fear.

Ali Baba & the Grape Church

Ali Baba and the Grape Church ©1999 Trici Venola.

“When the Christians went into the caves, the caves were here,” said Ali Baba, “See? Matthew, Mark, Luke an’ John…” pointing out frescoes of the Apostles in the Grape Church, a Medieval chapel in Red Valley. The path to the church was through gold and peach rock laced with the bright green of apricot trees. On it I had a happy epiphany: I had been here before. Over the years since, this feeling of personal familiarity has only intensified. A Happy Place These cave churches are small cheerful places full of light. This one was gated against vandals, but Ali Baba unlocked it and left me for two hours. It was my first sense of what Christianity had been, a refuge and a comfort from Old Testament and Roman atrocities. The Apostles looked homey, like favorite uncles. Only their eyes were damaged. I learned later that, before tourism and subsequent governmental protections, children playing in the abandoned caves had been frightened by those staring Byzantine eyes and had scratched them out. Me, I felt closer to the original teachings of Christ here in this golden cave than ever I had before. 


Bus Driver Teddybear

Bus Driver Teddybear ©1999 Trici Venola.

First Look Goreme

First Look Goreme ©1999 Trici Venola.

In The Name of the Rose, when those monks were on their way to a 13th-century confrontation between the worldly Dominican and more aescetic Franciscan ideologies, Goreme– pronounced Gore-eh-may– was where they were going. Its monastery, arguably the most powerful in the Middle Ages, is still there, preserved as the Open Air Museum, part of the legendary 1001 cave churches of Goreme Valley.

St George-Open Air Intro

St George and the Open Air Museum ©1999 by Trici Venola.

Every single structure here is hollowed out of a cave: dormitories, offices, refectories and chapels. All the architectural elements were carved out of a single piece of rock: pillars, benches, altars, arches, crosses and, after Hagia Sophia in the 6th-century, domes. So we have a sculpture of a church, which was then painted, and nothing is harder to render in pen and ink.

Apple Church

The Apple Church ©1999 Trici Venola.

ST BARBARA’S CHAPEL  This drawing took about five hours, spread out over two days, freezing sessions with grit blowing in the open door and roughening the page. The geometric paintings were done in the 8t-century during the time of the pictorial art-destroying Iconoclasts who took the Second Commandment quite literally: Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image of anything…   See the dome at the top? Look just below it to the left and see a little stick figure on the top of something like an oil-derrick. This has got to be an Ascension. Up in the dome, some of the figures fade into dots, presumably because they have already Ascended. In St Barbara's Chapel All of this geometric work was painted in cochineal blood, still red twelve centuries later. A cochineal is like a big cockroach, and this little figure at the bottom is either a cochineal with blood coming out its behind or the devil on a broomstick, depending on which guide you hear. Two centuries after the Iconoclasts, the area behind the carved stone altar was overlaid with paintings of Jesus and a few saints, in a Naive Byzantine style I love. Think of those artists: natural light or torches, local paints, the occasional master coming through from the great cities. And over the centuries the glory growing in the caves. 070YusufKoc Int TEA IN A CAVE The first day I drew St. Barbara’s was cold but the second day it rained. The guards took pity on me and invited me into their cave for chai. They had a wood stove in there, a fine view of the caves opposite which look like black windows in sorcerers’ hats, and a samovar.

Tea in a Cave

Tea in a Cave ©1999 Trici Venola.

 The chai was hot and substantial. Osman, at far left, had peculiar writing all over his hands. He told me that they itched horribly, and that a healer had written all over them in purple ink, and that it cured the itching. Another guard told me he was crazy, but two days later, when I came back to draw more, the hands that had been purple were clean and the itching was gone. 


Ancient Apartments

Ancient Apartments in Urgup ©1999 Trici Venola.

At the tip of a tower of rock was an ancient cave door, two hundred feet above the floor of a canyon. “The land is sunken,” said Sabine, “Was once much higher.” We climbed up into a cave apartment house, where the rock had sheared off, leaving the long-abandoned cave houses exposed. Above several of the doors were many little declivities in rows. “Pigeonholes,” said Sabine. Actual pigeonholes!” I said, delighted. “Yes,” she said, “everything here is still fertilized with pigeon dung.”

Peacock Pigeon Roost

Peacock Pigeon Roost ©2011 Trici Venola.

So it turns out that most of these caves either are or were eventual pigeon caves. The people go in the bottom and rake out the precious pigeon poop, spreading it over the fields as they have done since ancient days. Arabs in the caves, monks in the monasteries, pagans in the rocks, all scraped and spread and planted and prayed, and flocks of pigeons still fill the skies.  Monolith

Walking With Sabine

Walking With Sabine ©1999 Trici Venola.

Away along the rocky trail, through a valley of breast-shaped stone formations, we came upon a tablecloth-sized patch of dark red earth combed to the consistency of velvet. In the middle stood an apricot tree, and near it a grapevine. This was part of someone’s farm. It was here that we left money– under the bark!– for grapes we had eaten off the vine. In those palmy days this was customary. I was amazed. “Do not worry,” said Sabine, “we have left far more than the whole grapevine would bring.

Old Lady Urgup

Old Lady in Urgup ©1999 Trici Venola.

That afternoon I was hunched over my sketchbook on a scrap of carpet  for two hours in the cold October light drawing old Greek buildings. My hand was stiff and even my bones were cold. A plump lady in traditional Kapadokyan dress appeared carrying a laden tea-tray. She smiled and jerked her head in invitation. She had sapphire eyes. I followed her into a house I had just drawn. Although the walls were stained and the floor uneven, she had lace curtains and nice china. I forgot I had been cold. I tried to draw the food before I ate it but lost out, it smelled so good. She called out the window, and up came a little girl I had just drawn, Fatma, who told me that my hostess’s name was Zeliha. Such elegance. The things that matter– like children, food, and curtains– were all immaculate, and the things that don’t matter– like the walls– just didn’t matter.

Zeliha Blue Eyes

Zeliha Blue Eyes ©1999 Trici Venola.

THE CITY IN THE HILL Honeycombed below a hill behind a dusty little town is the huge underground Hittite city of Kaymakli. 

Dusty Little Town

Dusty Little Town ©1999 Trici Venola.

It’s like a giant dark honeycomb, dry and dessicated, bleak with piped-in halogen lights.  Many Kapadokyans say that the whole land is connected with tunnels between the many underground cities. There are no earthquakes here. When persecuted Christians went underground, this is where they went. Attributed to Hittite construction in 1640 BCE, Kaymakli has been co-opted by everyone since who has needed a place to hide. This has got to be the genesis of the term underground to mean covert.

Don't Drop In

Don’t Drop In ©1999 Trici Venola.

I sat in a four-thousand-year-old winery, a stone chamber twenty meters down, drawing in the cold stillness and the faint buzzing of the lights, and thought about burning rags soaked in oil. I wondered how their vision was, what they looked like and what they wore. The air must have been thick with odors.  I thought about looms in the dimness, cooking fires, smoke, talk, laughter in the hive of kitchens, prisons, infirmaries, chapels, wells, toilets, forges, baths, food storage, wine presses, birthing and embalming chambers, all in the constant dark.

In the Underground City

In the Underground City ©1999 Trici Venola.

I was allowed two hours to draw, and very grateful I was for the light. They slept ten to a room and hung the sling for the baby in the center:  you can see the hook there in the ceiling. The rock is so soft that any little household item had its own little declivity. Hammocks were popular, and alcoves held clothes. Food was stored in this vast common chamber on the third level. There were jars of water and oil and wine, animals, small people hurrying through the stepped corridors between levels. My guide Mustafa capered through the cramped labyrinthine passages, laughing over his flashlight, he said, to encourage me, “in case you are claustrophobe.”

Hittite Mustafa

Hittite Mustafa ©1999 Trici Venola.

 Once it was so crowded here, and the passageways so tiny, that the stocky little people went one-way only. Small as they were they still had to bend double to get around, so that to prevent miscarriage pregnant women stayed near the surface, where you could stand up.

Like Birth, Eh

Like Birth Eh? ©1999 Trici Venola

 These guys below told me there is still a tiny band of Hittites in Kapadokya, worshiping their ancient gods and small enough to navigate comfortably through the tunnels of their Iron Age cities. I’d love to believe them.

Group Shot

Group Shot in Kaymakli ©1999 Trici Venola.

THE PALACE AT ORTAHISAR I’d heard of an American woman who bought part of a village to renovate into a home here. Sabine took me to meet her. We walked through the fields and came out onto a plateau on the edge of a steep gorge. Across from us was a mountain, all by itself on the steppe. It was honeycombed with arches, caves, walls, square Greek buildings, stone ruins and tunnels all the way to the top, where a flag waved above a brick wall. This was the Castle of Ortahisar.

Castle Ortahisar

The Castle of Ortahisar ©1999 Trici Venola.

 “There she is,” said Sabine, pointing to a tiny waving figure halfway up the Castle. Laura, the woman we had come to meet, was sitting out on the terrace of her Palace, a sprawl of terraces, buildings and fifty-two caves she was renovating with her partner Nurettin. We walked a narrow path along the face of the gorge, all the way down to the river below and back up again.  Cave ColonyOn the terrace I looked across to see where we had been. A hundred abandoned caves looked back at me, some with painting outside their doors, some with elaborate staircases carved in front, some with walls and trees and pigeonholes. Laura was sitting next to a giant Hittite stone lion.

Laura Prusoff & The Palace

Laura Prusoff and the Palace at Ortahisar ©1999 Trici Venola.

Still in renovation, the Palace terrace looked like this. I got drunk on both views and had to draw them. Laura and Nurettin invited me to stay awhile. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The Palace in Renovation

The Palace in Renovation ©1999 Trici Venola.

The top of a Roman arch stuck up through the asphalt of a courtyard nearby. Years before, I’d spent many hours drawing things out of my art history books.  I’d put myself to sleep at night picturing ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece– cultures I could only imagine in countries I had never seen. Now after a half a year around Turkey I still almost wept at the proximity of so much old stone and I had to sit right down and draw it. 

Roman Arch Courtyard

Roman Arch Courtyard ©1999 Trici Venola.

One day I wandered around in the ruins down from the Palace, sat down on a pile of rock and started drawing the tumbled piles of masonry and weeds. I had taken to wearing a brown leather jacket over a thick silk sweater, and a huge scarf. I had discovered why local women wore them. I wrapped it around my head and shoulders against the cold and other times against sun and flies. The wind fluttered the fringe as I hunched over the sketchbook, holding it flat to keep the pages from blowing. 

Lonely Mountain Ruins

Lonely Mountain Ruins ©1999 Trici Venola.

As I drew it grew colder and the wind howled lonely around the mountain. It felt like the end of the world. Under that bleak feeling was joy that at last I could render stone. I continued to draw under the gray sky until I had finished. I stood up and shook out my drawing hand. Stiff and chilled, I walked around the mountain and stopped in shock. There was a street, cars and minarets and telephone booths, people selling potato chips. A voice behind me said in brisk British, “Excuse me, but would you like a cup of coffee?”

Una & Crazy Ali

Una and Crazy Ali ©1999 Trici Venola.

That was how I met Una and Crazy Ali. While he made coffee I admired his store full of curiosities, stamping my feet to get the circulation going, before the three of us sat down at the stove for Turkish coffee. I love it now, but drinking it used to be like gargling sand. This was thick hot elixir. Ali gave me a poem which he composed on the spot, and Una told me that she had come out from Ireland years before, put on a scarf, and could not take it off.

Cave House Store

A cave store, not Crazy Ali’s,. Out of focus, but look at those colors!

While I was there came the Call to Prayer. Una and Ali started telling muezzin stories. The muezzin is the singer of the Call, and in Turkey he is electronically amplified. One muezzin’s rendition, they said, was so awful that every animal for miles would join in: honking donkeys, howling dogs and screeching roosters, the people walking around with their faces scrunched up and fingers in their ears, and by the time the prayer call was finished the entire village was a raucous cacophonic hymn. Sabine & Kitty Helper

A BALANCE OF ENERGY Sabine invited me to stay at Gamirasu, which was the name she had given to her hotel, renovated from Hittite and Byzantine ruins in the little town of Ayvali. Still dispirited from losing the sketchbook I gratefully accepted her offer of energy-balancing therapy. Not only that, but I was able to work on the drawings for three straight days, sitting out on the terrace in the good light, facing the caves and looking down on the rose garden and the lawn, letting go of the lost sketchbook with the development of this new one. The energy session came last. Sabine worked with a cat, who she said helped direct the forces. There was certainly some kind of force at work. I was to rip up my nice life in LA and move to Turkey, and to become increasingly close to my new friends and to Kapadokya. I will always be grateful to Sabine for her introduction to this magical, weirdly familiar spiritual home. We lost her in 2011. I expect she is now one with the energy she so understood. Blossom


LOVE VALLEY  On the last day Laura dropped me off in Goreme to draw this house right out of Tolkein. I drew for two hours from the site of the Roman tomb opposite, the property of a German expat who enthusiastically told me all about renovating the tomb, which had been occupied by goats, shepherds and wayfarers long after its original occupant had turned to dust.

The Tolkein House

The Tolkein House ©1999 Trici Venola.

That night we all rode out happy under the huge October moon. We racketed through the bright night, the shapes of the rocks in dramatic relief, silver on one side and black on the other. We pulled up under a tree. I got out of the car and stared in amazement, for above the tree, all around and as far as I could see loomed the fabled clusters of stone phalli massive under the full moon. All across the hilly landscape they rose, in groups and pairs and awesome sentinels, as tall as buildings, every variation but all big and all graphically phallic.

Love Valley

Love Valley ©1999 Trici Venola.

“Makes you humble, eh Nurettin?” said the German. We hiked along a narrow gorge full of bushes and rocks. The ground began to change as we walked, until we were walking among great rounded humps of rock as wide as houses. “I think we’re past the really big ones,” said the German. “Hey, maybe these are the really big ones,” said Laura. “Maybe just the tops of the big ones.”  The moon burned silver and the stars pounded overhead, millions in the huge dark sky glimpsed between the moonlit towers of stone. I thought of the Romans marching through here, the Persian armies, Alexander the Great, Mithridates, Hittites, Christians and Muslims and Genghis Khan; pictured the great slumbering masses of history billeted among the knobby shadows and gullies, all through the silent grasses, under the sentinel stones.

Wagon in Mustafapasa

Wagon in Mustafapasa ©1999 Trici Venola

—– All drawings Plein Air. All art © Trici Venola, from The Drawing On Istanbul Project. All the drawings here are from one sketchbook, Kapadokya 1999, save for Peacock Pigeon Roost which was done in 2011. All art done with drafting pens on rag paper in the sketchbook which measures 18 cm X 52 cm when open. We love your comments! We love your Likes! Follow us and find a blog post in your inbox just when you most need it. Thanks for your participation in this project.