Ahtamar Island

During a mathematics conference, I visit the ruins of a monastery on a remote island in an inland sea. This moves me to consider the relation between introversion and, if not mathematics, then monasticism. On the origins of Christian monasticism, I look at several sources, notably Gibbon (see the References); also Maugham, who writes of a hermit on an island of the Torres Strait. Since the monastery on the island was Armenian, in what is now Turkey, one should consider also the treatment of minority populations here. I only acknowledge the issue, suggesting Wikipedia pages (linked to presently) as a starting point for research. Old books on my shelves are not much help; my own experience, not much more, at least not in a way that lends itself to being written of here. I do know that Turkish politicians will treat imputations of their own Armenian ancestry as an insult.

We visited Ahtamar Island for a second time on Wednesday, August 23, 2017. Thus we saw again the remains of the Church of the Holy Cross. This Armenian church was consecrated in 921 and presumably desecrated in 1915, if not earlier; now, since our last visit, though officially a museum, the church would seem to have been reconsecrated, to judge by the new altarpiece, featuring an icon of the Madonna and Child.

Altarpiece, Church of the Holy Cross, Ahtamar Island

The ride to the island in a motorized ferry from the shore of Lake Van took the good part of an hour. Why would one build a church in such a lonely spot? A simple answer is that the church belonged to a monastery, so it had a resident congregation, despite the smallness of the island.

Church of the Holy Cross, across, perhaps, restored walls of the monastery

What then has monasticism to do with Christianity as such? I understand the impulse to solitude that seems to be a part of monasticism; but why would a religion support this impulse?

Arrival on Ahtamar Island

We had first visited Ahtamar Island during the Turkish National Mathematics Symposium of 2003. Now, fourteen years later, we have visited during an international meeting, the second Caucasian Mathematics Conference. This event was organized by the mathematical societies of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey, with the support of the European Mathematical Society. The event had the noble goal of fostering peaceful relations among the people of the region. I think it did that. Participants seemed to enjoy meeting others from different countries.

The view from the Teachers’ Lodge in Van, at the dawn of the day of the visit to Ahtamar

I enjoyed meeting them too; but I also sometimes longed for the peace of a remote island. I became overwhelmed. Susan Cain writes in Quiet (page 10):

Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.

I would seem then to be an introvert. I bought Ms Cain’s book in Ankara on January 28, 2013: I know this from the receipt still tucked inside, as well as from the email that I sent to my mother the next day. Ms Cain had given me reason to appreciate how my mother and her late former husband had raised me. Here is what I wrote to my mother:

Yesterday morning I went to the hospital with Ayşe’s mother and her cousin. They relieved Ayşe from her overnight vigil with her father, and I went with her to the shopping mall on the other side of the highway. In the bookshop there, I saw the recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Have you read about this? We bought it, and I have read about half of it so far.

The book confirms my view that you and Dad were just about the best possible parents for me:

“The parents of high-reactive [i.e. introverted] children are exceedingly lucky,” Belski told me. “The time and effort they invest will actually make a difference. Instead of seeing these kids as vulnerable to adversity, parents should see them as malleable—for worse, but also for better.” He described eloquently a high-reactive child’s ideal parent: someone who “can read your cues and respect your individuality; is warm and firm in placing demands on you without being harsh or hostile; promotes curiosity, academic achievement, delayed gratification, and self-control; and is not harsh, neglectful, or inconsistent.”

You indulged my picky eating for example, though without letting me believe my diet was A-OK. When I was in graduate school, one of my roommates in Washington was still a picky eater, even after college: I wonder if he was indulged too much by his parents. Similarly, when I see mathematicians giving bad talks, I wonder if nobody ever bothered to tell them (as you did me) they should look people in the eye when talking to them.

Supposedly [two family members] talked to one another about how I should take a Dale Carnegie course. I think [one of those members] must have told me some time to “come out of my shell.” This last expression is supposed to be offensive to introverted people: what’s wrong with a shell? Some animals take their shells wherever they go: it is normal for them. But I don’t feel resentful. I do know now how to get up in front of a large group of people and talk to them for an hour, and it doesn’t make me very nervous. Some of this comes from training at St Albans and St John’s; but of course you made it possible for me to go to those places.

I could go on about various moral lessons I picked up from you, but it would take a while. It was before my time, but I am proud to recall your participation in the March on Washington, over the objections of your husband. (And by the way, if he was really afraid of violence, why did he not go along to protect you? In the Quiet book, Rosa Parks is given as an example of an introvert, whose work was needed as much as that of the extrovert MLK.)

So I am sorry for all of those people who could not be as fortunate in their parents as I have been!

My mother died towards the end of the year; Ayşe’s parents, in 2016. I recalled my mother’s participation in the March on Washington when writing about a Joan Baez concert in Istanbul in 2015.

The famous Van Breakfast, lakeside, before the trip to the island

Ms Cain’s book gave me an explanation for why an event like the Caucasian Mathematics Conference might be stressful. A book I found later puts it more plainly. Writes Sophia Dembling in The Introvert’s Way (page 6),

A weekend of heavy socializing can put me in a coma for a couple of days after. A week of heavy socializing and I need to live in a cave for at least a week.

One person I socialized with in Van was a woman from Iran whose husband was giving a talk at the conference. We were on a dolmuş out to the university from the city center where we were staying. Communication was difficult. I had no Persian; my limited Turkish was too different from the Azerbaijani that this woman also spoke; she had little English. She did have enough of the last to ask me why I did not live in the United States. After all, she said, that country was “the best.”

A selfie on the ferry

How could I answer? Perhaps many persons in the world, by their own standards, could live a better life in the United States than in their countries of origin. However, from my youth in the early 1980s, I recall that a number of migrants from the Soviet Union to the United States found that they did not care for the new country: they went back to live in the old one. The Washington Post could only editorialize that at least those migrants had a choice. I have a choice, and I have chosen Turkey, for various reasons that are hard to explain in short and simple language. It is not enough to say that Turkey is the country of my wife: some people then want to know why I do not take her to my own country.

Another selfie on the ferry

It was a pleasure to be able to talk with two of my compatriots in Van. We met one of them by chance, with her Kurdish boyfriend, at a vegetarian restaurant in the theater district called Kakilk. Anoush was doing anthropological research for her doctorate, in the villages around Van. She knew from Los Angeles one of our former students from Ankara. She seemed to know everybody. Through the Hrant Dink Foundation, she knew an Armenian alumnus of St John’s College called Nareg, whom I had met in Istanbul the previous winter. Anoush had been put in touch with the former head of the Turkish Mathematical Society, who had created the Caucasian Mathematics Conference in the first place. Finally, Anoush knew an American who lived part-time in Istanbul with his wife Nasrin from Iran, and who, we knew, would be attending the conference.

The interior walls of the Church of the Holy Cross, with sketches, perhaps, of the missing frescos, or of a proposed restoration

Ayşe and I found all of this out in the shop of a friendly carpet dealer called Hamza. Anoush and Akın had sent us a message, inviting us to join them there for a beer, after our meal at Kakilk. A message was sent in turn to Greg, who came along in time. When a couple of Iranian tourists wandered into the shop with their children, our group were able to converse with them in a bit of Persian, but mostly in English. Because of the man’s job, it was a delicate matter for the family to visit Turkey; to avoid notice, they had driven here, rather than flying. Hamza told us that a few years earlier, many European and American tourists visited; now all visitors were from Iran.

A tour guide speaks in the church with impromptu English translation. I went outside

During the first Caucasian Mathematics Conference in 2013 in Tbilisi, we met two young Armenian mathematicians, who thought their compatriots would come to a meeting in Van. They could drive to the city, though they would have to do this via Georgia, the border with Turkey being closed; but the Armenians would think of Van as their city. They did not come. Unfortunately, in 2017, as far as I could tell, the only conference participant from Armenia in Van was an invited speaker.

The dark interior of the church at the southern entrance

In introducing that speaker’s talk on Thursday, Ayşe expressed the special honor he did us in coming to Turkey. She had seen how moved he was to visit Ahtamar Island the previous day. When we were there, I myself spoke with a Russian mathematician who shared my name, though he spelled it, in Latin transliteration, as Daud. I raised with him my question of what a church on a small remote island had to do with a proselytizing religion like Christianity.

The church from the outside

To read in Van in spare moments, I had brought along a book that I happened to notice on my shelves: Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face. I could not recall why I had this hardback book. A friend may have given it to me, or I ordered it from a discount catalogue, as I did a number of books in the 1990s in Washington. The book was supposedly an expanded form of the author’s essay in Harper’s (February 1993) about growing up with a face rendered hideous by a cancer of the jaw. I had read the essay with interest, but was not sure the topic would support expansion to book length. Maybe this is why I had not finished the book, though apparently I had started it. I found inside a bookmark that I could date to the 1990s. This was a card on which I had written Reagan. On similar cards, I had written Hindenberg and so forth, in order to pin them on my jacket and attend a Hallowe’en party as a walking disaster. When somebody told me I should include Clinton, I said I might as well include Capitalism.

The western side of the island, where we landed in 2003

I brought Grealy’s book to Turkey. I was not able to do this with all books worth keeping before my mother died. It is just possible that a friend mailed the book to me here; but then I cannot explain the bookmark. Memory is patchy and fallible. Grealy observes this near the end of her book:

I used to think truth was eternal, that once I knew, once I saw, it would be with me forever, a constant by which everything else could be measured. I know now that this isn’t so, that most truths are inherently unretainable, that we have to work hard all our lives to remember the most basic things.

In Van for a second time, there was much that I could not remember from the first time. I could not remember most meals from the first time, though I knew that finding meatless dishes had been difficult. On Ahtamar Island, in raising my question about the relation of monasticism to Christianity, I could not remember the answer of a textbook used for a junior-year high-school course at St Albans called Christian Ideas.

Jonah and the whale

The teacher admitted that the book was bad, but said it was the only one available. He did not discuss his requirement that the book be from an Anglican perspective. He also did not say how the book was bad. In my view, it was bad for (among other things) purporting to be a book of history while attributing select human actions to a deity.

David and Goliath

The author was a monk himself, of the Order of the Holy Cross. His account of the advent of monasticism makes sense, as far as it goes, if one filters out the attribution of divine agency: the institution was a response to the perceived sinfulness of the world.

The east side of the island, where we landed this time

I think Greg proposed something like this, though he also referred to the sinfulness of the individual monk. This personal sinfulness must have been a theme of Thomas Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain. I may not have picked up on this aspect too strongly, the first time I read the book, since Merton’s first draft had been expurgated of the details of the sins he had committed before adopting a consecrated life.

Stones graven with crosses

The world is at one extreme, and so the monk takes the other. Can I understand this? Because other people smoke too much, I will not smoke at all. I might have been able to enjoy an occasional cigarette, if other persons were able to limit their consumption. Since they are so impure in their habits, smoking frequently and mindlessly, ignoring the disgusting aroma that they create about themselves, ignoring the unpleasantness to others, if not to themselves, of frequent coughing, not to mention death by lung cancer:—because of this, I will be pure.

Eastern face of the church, apparently just after solar noon

Here is the account of Bonnell Spencer himself, in Ye Are the Body (pages 61–2):

Except for the Decian-Valerian and the Diocletian persecutions, which were separated by nearly fifty years, the Church was unmolested in the third century. It became popular. Many who entered the Church were willing to try to live an ordinary Christian life, but they were unprepared to attain to heroic virtue. Gradually the standards of Church life declined, and the policy of mercy towards sinners gave those who lapsed another chance.

Up to a point this was unquestionably God’s will. Christ died to redeem the world. He came “not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” But the process once started was hard to stop. When the world made peace with the Church after the Diocletian persecution, the Church was tempted to make peace with the world, by giving its sanction to customs which it had hitherto called sinful. As the Church became the offician religion of the Empire, more and more people entered for unworthy motives. It was a means of being fashionable, of winning public office or the Emperor’s favor. On the other hand, the Church sometimes hesitated to rebuke notorious sinners in important state positions lest it lose their goodwill.

This led to a disastrous lowering of standards. Devout souls needed some means by which they could witness against this state of affairs. They also wanted an opportunity to give their lives for Christ now that martyrdom was no longer possible. To meet their needs and to put a brake on the decline of Church life, God established monasticism.

After the Diocletian persecution was officially ended by the Edict of Milan in 313, you couldn’t get killed for your religion any more—and this was a problem! Some folks don’t know when they have it good. I proposed something like this when considering the Benedict Option of Rod Dreher. He sees contemporary American life as corrupting the possibility for a holy life, and he seems not to recognize that only such freedom as is found in America makes it possible for him to choose the life he wants in the first place.

The ride back to the shore

Another source, ostensibly a history, nonetheless explains monasticism almost as uselessly as with a reference to divine will. A vague appeal is made to the “strong influence of oriental ideas on the Empire.” Why were these ideas influential? I am asking specifically about monasticism on Ahtamar Island, which is already in the East; where did its ideas come from? Perhaps one is expected to have one’s own ideas on these matters, when one reads in the Shorter Cambridge Medieval History:

Along with these developments resulting from the rapid extension of Christianity, there were others due to the depth of religious convictions of the age, the growth of asceticism and monasticism. Ascetic tendencies were of old date and authorized by Scripture. The insistence on celibacy for the higher clergy shows their influence. Celibacy was upheld as one of the highest virtues. So an ascetic life appeared among the devout laity, especially among women: widows and virgins devoted themselves to a religious life and good works. Two factors played a great part in transforming these ascetic tendencies into the monastic movement which so powerfully affected the life and ideas of Europe during the Middle Ages. One, the more external, was the evils of the times. It was in the close of the third century that the great impulse to monasticism began, the flight from the evil world, sinful, disordered, unjust, oppressed, extortionately taxed, where a more ordinary life of Christian austerity and renunciation seemed barely practicable. Men fled from the natural ties and duties of life in search of liberty to pray and contemplate. The other factor was the strong influence of oriental ideas on the Empire. The solitary ascetic who undertook a life of religious exercises and self-mortification was an Eastern growth, which naturally appealed to the Eastern provinces and spread from them with Christian theology to the West. There was a general conviction that the ascetic life was the only fully Christian life, the ideal and surest way to salvation. It is significant of the creative power which returned to the Roman world with Christianity that these ascetic impulses formed new and lasting institutions outside the rigid framework of secular society.

This is from Section 4, Early Monasticism (page 72), of Chapter 4, The Triumph and Divisions of Christianity, which is part of Book I, The Later Roman Empire. I talked about C. W. Previté-Orton’s book when praising the example of Alparslan, as perceived in the West. I think Previté-Orton is writing for readers who have already studied Medieval history, but want a reminder or another person’s point of view.

The shore near where we shall dock

Gibbon at least names the Eastern influence: the “Essenians,” or Essenes, of Palestine and Egypt. They are not in Previté-Orton’s index. I understand them to be Jewish ascetics, among whom may have been numbered the Nazarene himself. Gibbon brings out the contradictions of Christian monasticism that are behind my original question. Here he is in Chapter XXXVII (in the third volume) of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:

Prosperity and peace introduced the distinction of the vulgar and the Ascetic Christians. The loose and imperfect practice of religion satisfied the conscience of the multitude. The prince or magistrate, the soldier or merchant, reconciled their fervent zeal and implicit faith with the exercise of their profession, the pursuit of their interest, and the indulgence of their passions: but the Ascetics, who obeyed and abused the rigid precepts of the Gospel, were inspired by the savage enthusiasm which represents man as a criminal, and God as a tyrant. They seriously renounced the business and the pleasures of the age; abjured the use of wine, of flesh, and of marriage; chastised their body, mortified their affections, and embraced a life of misery, as the price of eternal happiness. In the reign of Constantine, the Ascetics fled from a profane and degenerate world, to perpetual solitude, or religious society. Like the first Christians of Jerusalem, they resigned the use, or the property, of their temporal possessions; established regular communities of the same sex, and a similar disposition; and assumed the names of Hermits, Monks, and Anachorets, expressive of their lonely retreat in a natural or artificial desert. They soon acquired the respect of the world, which they despised; and the loudest applause was bestowed on this Divine Philosophy, which surpassed, without the aid of science or reason, the laborious virtues of the Grecian schools. The monks might indeed contend with the Stoics in the contempt of fortune, of pain, and of death: the Pythagorean silence and submission were revived in their servile discipline; and they disdained as firmly as the Cynics themselves, all the forms and decencies of civil society. But the votaries of this Divine Philosophy aspired to imitate a purer and more perfect model. They trod in the footsteps of the prophets, who had retired to the desert; and they restored the devout and contemplative life, which had been instituted by the Essenians in Palestine and Egypt. The philosophic eye of Pliny had surveyed with astonishment a solitary people, who dwelt among the palm-trees near the Dead Sea; who subsisted without money; who were propagated without women; and who derived from the disgust and repentance of mankind a perpetual supply of voluntary associates.

I have cut and pasted Gibbon’s words from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, but have supplied a colon that must have been missing by mistake, as well as some commas that may have been missing by editorial choice. Since they make good reading, I could cut and paste the rest of Gibbon’s general remarks on monasticism; but I shall limit myself to a few samples. Gibbon delights in the contradictions and hypocrisies of life in the monasteries, as by observing that they were

filled by a crowd of obscure and abject plebeians, who gained in the cloister much more than they had sacrificed in the world. Peasants, slaves, and mechanics might escape from poverty and contempt to a safe and honourable profession, whose apparent hardships were mitigated by custom, by popular applause, and by the secret relaxation of discipline.

Elsewhere is a wry footnote, the 57th of the chapter:

I have somewhere heard or read the frank confession of a Benedictine abbot: “My vow of poverty has given me an hundred thousand crowns a year; my vow of obedience has raised me to the rank of a sovereign prince.” I forget the consequences of his vow of chastity.

Lies can be told, and they are intentional falsehoods; but I do not suppose that anybody is intentionally a hypocrite as such. To point out that somebody is in contradiction might be mathematics, but it is not history; one needs to make an attempt to explain why the contradiction arose. Gibbon does at least recognize the benefits to us of Medieval monasticism:

The monastic studies have tended, for the most part, to darken, rather than to dispel, the cloud of superstition. Yet the curiosity or zeal of some learned solitaries has cultivated the ecclesiastical and even the profane sciences: and posterity must gratefully acknowledge, that the monuments of Greek and Roman literature have been preserved and multiplied by their indefatigable pens.

Not all monks enjoyed such benefits from their calling as would normally be recognized by the laity:

They sunk under the painful weight of crosses and chains; and their emaciated limbs were confined by collars, bracelets, gauntlets, and greaves, of massy, and rigid, iron. All superfluous incumbrance of dress they contemptuously cast away; and some savage saints of both sexes have been admired, whose naked bodies were only covered by their long hair. They aspired to reduce themselves to the rude and miserable state in which the human brute is scarcely distinguished above his kindred animals; and the numerous sect of Anachorets derived their name from their humble practice of grazing in the fields of Mesopotamia with the common herd. They often usurped the den of some wild beast whom they affected to resemble; they buried themselves in some gloomy cavern, which art or nature had scooped out of the rock; and the marble quarries of Thebais are still inscribed with the monuments of their penance. The most perfect Hermits are supposed to have passed many days without food, many nights without sleep, and many years, without speaking; and glorious was the man (I abuse that name) who contrived any cell, or seat, of a peculiar construction, which might expose him, in the most inconvenient posture, to the inclemency of the seasons.

Gibbon goes on from here to describe the example of Simeon Stylites, who would inspire Buñuel’s film Simon of the Desert. We visited the ruins of the monastery of a later pillar-saint of the same name, near Antioch, in 2008.

Myself on the stub of the pillar of Simeon Stylites the Younger, Antakya, February, 2008

Bonnell Spencer, O.H.C., is sympathetic to wasted efforts of Ascetics, or at least of such as still lived on the ground:

The hermits knew the necessity of work as a balance to prayer. The raising of the few figs and dates on which they lived did not give sufficient opportunity for manual labor. Those who lived near civilization made baskets and other articles to be sold and gave the proceeds to the poor. Those farther away found other means to keep them occupied. One hermit industriously gathered dead palm leaves and laid them in neat piles. Once a year he burned them and started over again.

Such gathering and burning does not sound to me like the result of a consciously laid plan to live a healthy life.

Ayşe and I, as taken by Greg

Maugham has a story of 12 paragraphs called “German Harry,” apparently first published in Cosmopolitan, January 1924, about a hermit on an island of the Torres Strait with the fictional name of Trebucket. German Harry had landed there with fifteen others after a shipwreck, thirty years earlier; three years later, when help came, only five men were left. Four accepted rescue; Harry did not. Maugham has the opportunity to visit him.

If what they tell us in books were true his long communion with nature and the sea should have taught him many subtle secrets. It hadn’t. He was a savage. He was nothing but a narrow, ignorant and cantankerous seafaring man. As I looked at the wrinkled, mean old face I wondered what was the story of those three dreadful years that had made him welcome this long imprisonment. I sought to see behind those pale blue eyes of his what secrets they were that he would carry to his grave. And then I foresaw the end. One day a pearl fisher would land on the island and German Harry would not be waiting for him, silent and suspicious, at the water’s edge. He would go up to the hut and there, lying on the bed, unrecognisable, he would see all that remained of what had once been a man. Perhaps then he would hunt high and low for the great mass of pearls that has haunted the fancy of so many adventurers. But I do not believe he would find it: German Harry would have seen to it that none should discover the treasure, and the pearls would rot in their hiding place. Then the pearl fisher would go back into his dinghy and the island once more be deserted of man.

Supposedly Maugham’s Trebucket was really Deliverance Island, and German Harry was Johannes Henrik Enevoldsen, who died in 1928 at the age of 77.

Approach to Ahtamar Island
The approach to Ahtamar Island

In the first form at St Albans, what others called the seventh grade, I had a teacher who gave a presentation to the whole Lower School about a visit to a Greek monastery. This must have been in Meteora, since the teacher described reaching the monastery by being pulled up in a basket. I am not sure if he personally was pulled up, since it seems some stairs had been cut in the rock, early in the twentieth century. I do recall the teacher’s desription of eating yogurt, finding it bland, then noticing a monk who was spooning brown sugar into his own bowl. It was not sugar, it was sand. The monk wanted to kill even what pleasure could be had from plain yogurt.

Agia Triada, Meteora
Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Meteora.
By Napoleon Vier from nl, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

My teacher contrasted the monastic life with the one described in The Lord of the Flies. The former could last; the latter, not. The explanation, as I recall, was that only the monks had a rule to live by. I would only add that one has to accept the rule. I continue to wonder why one might do this with such strictness as in the accounts that I have reviewed.

Rules next to the stalls on a men’s room wall, off domestic baggage claim, Atatürk Airport, Istanbul, on our return to Istanbul


  1. Cain, Susan. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. London: Penguin, 2012.
  2. Dembling, Sophia. The Introvert’s Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World. New York: Penguin, Perigee, 2012.
  3. Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ed. David Womersley. London: Penguin, 1994. Volume 3 first published 1781.
  4. Grealy, Lucy. Autobiography of a Face. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994.
  5. Maugham, W. Somerset. Nouvelles complètes. Paris: Omnibus, 1992.
  6. —. The World Over. Volume II of The Complete Short Stories of W. Somerset Maugham. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, copyrights 1923–1952.
  7. Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1948. Copyright renewed 1976.
  8. Spencer, Bonnell. Ye Are the Body: A People’s History of the Church. Revised edition. West Park, New York: Holy Cross Publications, 1965. Fifth impression 1979.
  9. Previté-Orton, C. W. The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History. Cambridge: University Press, 1952.

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