Saint Thecla from Iconium is undoubtedly one of the most interesting female characters of early Christianity period. An underground church in the cave where Saint Thecla spent the later years of her life remains as a reminder of her activity. This place, now known as Ayatekla or Azize Thecla Yeraltı Kilisesi, is located on the outskirts of the town of Silifke, on the eastern section of the Mediterranean coast.
The biography of Saint Thecla is known thanks to the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, which were written in the late second century in Asia Minor. St. Paul came to Iconium (currently Konya in central Turkey) after the expulsion from Pisidian Antioch. His sermon on the virtues of virginity was heard by a young girl from a wealthy home, Thecla. It made such a huge impact on her that she decided to break off the engagement with an influential Roman citizen and convert to the Christian faith.
Thecla family and her former fiance did not receive the news calmly. They went to the governor of the Roman province and complained about the bad influence of St. Paul's on Thecla. The apostle was locked in a dungeon, but that did not prevent Thecla from bribing the guards and paying him a visit.
Another complaint to the Roman governor caused the expulsion of St. Paul from Iconium. Thecla was sentenced to death by burning at the stake. However, on the day of the planned execution, such a heavy downpour fell on the city that it extinguished the fire, saving Tekla. The girl fled the city disguised as a man and sought St. Paul, to join him in his journeys through Asia Minor and to preach the Christian teachings.
During these wanderings, they met a young man named Alexandros, who fell in love with Thecla. She revealed to him that she was a Christian. Her secret was betrayed, and the girl was thrown to the lions. This time she was also miraculously saved, because wild animals, instead attacking her, became her defenders. In Pisidian Antioch, Tekla met Queen Tryphena, a granddaughter of Marc Antony and a sister of the King of Pontus. During her stay in Tryphena's home, Thecla was able to convert all household members to Christianity.
After these experiences, Thecla, again disguised as a man, found St. Paul in Myra. He was very surprised that she was still alive but urged her to continue the work of evangelization. Thecla temporarily returned to their homeland, to Iconium, and then settled permanently in Seleucia ad Calycadnum (now Silifke). For many years she lived there in a cave, teaching, performing miracles and healing the sick.
Eventually, she angered the physicians from Seleucia who saw her as competition. They hired bandits to attack her but when they arrived at the cave something very strange happened. They saw how the rocks parted for a moment for Thecla, who disappeared in the depths of the earth. Only her coat remained, lying on the ground, but it was also turned into a rock. An alternative version of this history claims that St. Thecla's grave is in Maalula, in Syria. Both of these alleged places of burial became pilgrimage destinations for the faithful. With time, Tekla was recognised as a saint of the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.
The cave where Thecla disappeared, became a place of worship, initially as a secret meeting place of the local Christian community. The earliest mention of the cave and monastic buildings in the vicinity of Silifke, which are currently regarded as the martyrium and the church of St. Thecla, are from the year 374. The place was then visited by Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, who later became the Patriarch of Constantinople.
In 384, the place was visited by Egeria, a wealthy woman on a pilgrimage from Europe to the Holy Land. She left a travel diary, which was found only in 1884. She mentioned in it about Thecla cave as a place with numerous monastic cells for women and men. She also described the centrally located church surrounded by a wall.
A much larger church of St. Thecla was erected on top of a nearby hill in the fifth century. The local community owed its construction to the Eastern Roman Emperor, Zeno the Isaurian. Apparently, St. Thecla appeared to him after he lost the imperial throne, and assured him that he would soon recover his position. When her words were confirmed, the grateful emperor founded the temple in Seleucia.
The first archaeological works on the site began in 1907, and they have been continued to this day, unfortunately, with long periods of inactivity. Therefore, our knowledge about the site, its architecture, and the cave itself is incomplete.
The site accessible for visitors who come to see the cave of St. Thecla, occupies an area measuring 800 by 700 meters. There are the ruins of four churches, a few cisterns, baths, and fragments of an aqueduct.
The cave of St. Thecla is accessed by descending several steps. Inside, there is an underground church on a rectangular plan, with the sides 18 and 12 meters long. The date of its construction is not known. The basilica consists of a nave and two aisles separated by rows of Doric columns. The presence of these columns indicates the use of fragments of architectural structures from the earlier period of history during the erection of the church. Some fragments of colourful mosaics are visible in the corners of the ceiling.
The largest structure visible on the surface is a fragment of the apse of the basilica erected probably by Zeno the Isaurian. The researchers found out that this church in its heydey was 55 meters long and 37 meters wide. The basilica had three aisles lined with 15 columns each. The shape of the apse and the use of the ashlar masonry distinguish this church among other monuments of religious architecture in the region. Apparently, it was the largest basilica in Cilicia and Isauria.
Just south of the basilica and the cave, there is the best-preserved cistern (out of six identified so far) in this location. Water was supplied to it by the system of aqueducts. The cistern has a rectangular plan with sides 12.6 and 14.1 meters long. It is surrounded by the 1.7-meter-thick wall. The outer side of the wall is ashlar masonry, and the inside was built from bricks covered with two layers of plaster to provide impermeability. The cistern is covered with three barrel vaults, supported on the walls and the columns.
Admission to the archaeological site surrounding the cave and the cave of St. Thecla is free of charge. However, the site is surrounded by a fence and guarded, so it is necessary to observe the official opening hours: from 9:00 am to noon and from 1:30 pm to 6:00 (during the winter season from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm).
Christian services are held in the cave every year, on the 13th and the 14th of September.
Saint Thecla Church and cave are situated on the southern side of Silifke, on St. Thecla Street (Ayatekla Sokak). The distance from the town centre is 2.5 km.