Caves are unorthodox places. They provoke our imagination and they are the subject of storytelling of the most eerie kind. My father used to tell me about a certain “seven-chambered” cave from his childhood, which was said to keep treasures in its deep darkness and guarded by a ferociously rotating sword. I have never visited this cave but grew up hearing stories about it. Caves are portals into other worlds: once we have the courage to step into their darkness, touch their wet and sooty walls, crawl into their crevices, the ambiguous spaces of the cave offer us alternative temporalities. Hence the famous story of the seven sleepers, well known in Christianity and Islam. According to the story, seven young Christians of 3rd c. AD took refuge in a cave to escape persecution in the Roman provinces, and went into an oblivious sleep of 150-200 years. Caves are sites of miracles. Similarly, Prophet Muhammed during his escape from Mecca to Madina with Abu Bakr, hid in the Cave of Thawr. What saved them from the members of the Quraysh tribe who wanted to persecute them, was a spider who quickly spun its web across the cave’s entrance, making the Quraysh people be convinced that noone was hiding there. Several Seven Sleepers caves across the eastern Mediterranean have been sites of pilgrimage since the medieval period (Pancaroglu 2005) while Cave of Thawr on Jabal Thawr outside Mecca is also a site of pilgrimage today for the Hajj visitors, a holy place. What makes these places special is not simply the memory of the important events that are associated with them. Most certainly these miracles and their long term long-term persistence owe a great deal to the idea of a cave as a liminal space, as a heterotopia in Foucault’s terms (1967).
In the ancient Mediterranean world, caves were considered as portals to the underworld, the world of ancestors and the gods and creatures of the netherworld. In the specific case of Hittite Anatolia, this belief can be even further extended to springs, sinkholes and ponors, as orifices of karstic geologies. Hittites developed a specific mimetic relationship between such geologically peculiar sites and the built environment, and took interest in constructing massive vaulted chambers and sacred ponds, the so-called DINGIR.KASKAL.KUR (“Divine Road of the Earth”) monuments, such as those in the Hittite capital Hattusha.
Foucault, Michel; 1967. “Of Other Spaces” . Translated by Jay Miskowiec
Pancaroglu, Oya; 2005. “Caves, borderlands and configurations of sacred topography in medieval Anatolia” Mésogeios 25-26: 249-281.