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September 2, 2017

The Tomb and Church of Saint Mamas in Cappadocia Today

By Yavuz İşçen

The tomb of Saint Mamas and the church in honor of his name is located in the village of Aksaray, Gökçe Köy whose ancient name was Mamasun. If you turn right at the 15th km of Aksaray-Nevşehir road, after 5 kms you can reach Gökçe Village. The tomb and the church constructed on the grave area later on belong to the saint who is known as Saint Mamas in the Christian world, but today the church is named by the Muslims as Şemmas Baba Tomb. The tomb got today’s shape by enlarging the Christian church and turning into the Islamic style.

Saint Mamas, who finds acceptance in the Christian world today, appears as a local saint who lived in Cappadocia during the 3rd century. According to the stories, during the Roman period when he was a 12 or 13 year old boy, he was tortured for the reason of disseminating Christianity, and that’s why he ran away to the mountains. It is believed that the hungry boy on the mountain was being visited everyday by a deer to feed him up with its milk. It is known that due to the command of Aurelian, the Roman Emperor, the soldiers caught the boy and confined him in Kayseri (Caesarea). His death by a lance took place by the soldiers who tortured him.

The fame of this boy spread throughout the Christian world by going beyond the boundaries of Cappadocia and Anatolia in the course of time with the Roman’s acceptance of Christianity and the era of Byzantine Empire. Consequently, the young Cappadocian shepherd was canonized and was collectively called Saint Mamas. Reported to be buried in Kayseri after he was murdered, Mamas’ grave (his bones) are said to have been carried to Mamasun Village (Gökçe Village), where is believed to be his place of birth after being called a saint in the 5th or 6th century in era of Byzantine Empire. His lately found tomb and bones clinches this argument. Undoubtedly, the reason why the village has been called Mamasun is related to him.

Some of the bones of Mamas were moved to the church in the palace complex built by Emperor Leo in the same period in Istanbul. The Saint Mamas palace complex had been occupied and plundered by Bulgarians between 700-900 AD, and at the beginning of the 1200's it was looted again during the Crusades. Today some churches such as in Morphou of Cyprus, Greece, Crete and France have been built in the name of Saint Mamas and some of the bones in these places were looted from the Saint Mamas Church in Istanbul during the Byzantine period.

In the following years a church was built over the tomb of Saint Mamas which was carried to Mamasun Village. The building is a typical palisade Cappadocian church planned as a Greek cross. The dome that covers the mid-space was built on the 6 columns that line up in 2, including 3. The church is dated to the 8th or 9th century. It was deserted and forgotten in time after Turkish-Muslims settled down in the area. It was discovered at the beginning of 19th century.

While enlarging the building which was used as a straw house and shed in Mamasun Village, the church and the tomb of Saint Mamas which was located in it was discovered. His bones were reported to be covered with silver discs some of which had Armenian prayers. The church is known to have been used as a tekke by Muslims since the 1850’s. It is remembered as ‘Saints Lodge’ by the public (a tekke is a Dervish or Sufi lodge or place of worship). The frescoes that belonged to the church were covered with plaster and stained at the time it was used as a lodge by Muslims. The belief that the visitors are cured of diseases made it accepted as a holy place by both Christians and Muslims. In fact this belief is the beginning of the process of transformation of the Church of Saint Mamas to Saints Lodge and Saint Mamas to Pir Şemmas.

There occurred radical changes in Turkey after establishment of the Republic in 1923. In 1924 an interchange of populations was made with the Greeks and Christians left the area. The tekkes and small dervish lodges were closed down and interdicted in 1925. The Saints Lodge was closed in this period, too. Thus Saint Mamas Church and tomb were to be neglected once again. The bones were moved to Ankara in a walnut sarcophagus after it was closed down. They were sent back after years but without the silver discs and the sarcophagus! Today there exist only 2 bones of legs in the tomb, one of which has silver plated writing on it.

As part of the Turkish-Greek friendship festivals held in the region in recent years, the Church of Saint Mamas and its tomb have been remembered and began to attract attention. On 2 September, the day of the commemoration of Saint Mamas, the flow of visitors to the mosque is known. Even if we exaggerate a bit, we can evaluate this development as the church's second discovery. If it is handled correctly and a good introduction is made, it is certain that the church will be an important place of visit.