June 08, 2011

Religion in Turkey: Crossroads of Faiths

I was walking through the Arasta Bazaar, near the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. We were on our way to a place for lunch after seeing the Topkapi Palace. The bazaar was quiet. There were a few people looking in store windows, and a few shopkeepers standing at their doorways. I was at a leisurely pace, looking at the wares on either side of me, when suddenly the air erupted with a sound that I knew, but never heard. The Islamic call to prayer.

The Blue Mosque through a window of Hagia Sophia

The most immediate sound came from the Blue Mosque, which was right nearby. However, the call seemed to echo...at least that's what I thought until I realized that the other calls that I thought were echoes sounded slightly different. As I listened, there seemed to be a call and response going on, as one call to prayer engendered a response by another, multiplied many times. It was a simple call, an invocation of God's greatness, but the power of it stopped me in my tracks, and I stood in the middle of the bazaar with people going around me, a smile on my face, and I thought "this is the reason I wanted to come to Turkey."

I tried to capture that moment again, later in the trip, by going through the Arasta Bazaar around the time a call to prayer happened, but I couldn't. By then I'd already heard it a lot of times and it's initial power to awe had gone. I came close one morning, sitting on the rooftop terrace of my hotel, the Hagia Sophia rising on one side and the Blue Mosque on another, watching the ships ply the Bosporus and enter the Sea of Marmara, but you only get your first time once.

The goddess Kubaba on a Hittite frieze

Turkey can be a religious experience in itself, and it has the power of many religious traditions to give it special importance. Gods were conceived in Turkey that crossed religious boundaries. Take the goddess Cybele, for instance. She was the Phrygian Earth Mother. She was analogous to the Hittite Kubaba, often seen on friezes carrying a pomegranate. The worship of the goddess spread to Greece, and eventually to Roman Republic during the second Punic War, when an oracle said that foreign foes invading Italy would not prevail if Cybele was present. Livy reported that her statue was moved from Anatolia to Rome with great ceremony, met at the Roman port in Ostia by a high Roman official and carried in triumph to the Temple of Victory on Palatine Hill.

The current National Geographic has an article which indicates that Turkey may have been the cradle of religion. A temple, built 11,600 years ago, was found in Southern Turkey at a site called Göbekli Tepe that predates all other known temples. It's presence indicates that religion itself may have found its first expression on the Anatolian plains.

The library of Celsus at Ephesus. Did St. Paul stand in this plaza?

Turkey also figures very prominently in Christianity. The Bible lists many places now found in modern day Turkey, and many biblical figures may have been residents. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was reputed to have spent her last days near Ephesus. Mount Ararat, where Noah's Ark came to rest, is located in Turkey, and St. Paul preached to cities and towns in Turkey, most notably the Ephesians.

Church carved into the stone at Göreme. Inside are amazing frescoes.

In the region of Turkey known as Cappadocia, orthodox Christians carved churches into the living stone of the region. This stone, called tuff, was soft to carve but hardened in contact with air. The churches of Göreme were cut out of rock outcroppings and resemble mini-cathedrals with domed roofs and columns supporting arches. Every surface was painted with bright frescoes depicting Christ and his life according to the Bible. These churches first appeared in the 12th century, and were used as late as the 1920s. Unfortunately, some of the frescoes were defaced, but even today their splendor lives on. It's too bad they wouldn't let us take pictures, but their image lies in my mind.

Madonna and Child in mosaic at Hagia Sophia

Turkey was one battleground where Christianity and Islam clashed. Islam eventually supplanted Christianity as the predominant religion there, symbolized most notably by the conversion of one of the largest and most magnificent cathedrals in Christendom, St. Sophia of Istanbul, into a mosque. Yet an interesting story explains why the Madonna with child was the only one of St. Sophia's beautiful mosaics that was not plastered over by the Ottomans as the cathedral was converted. Turkey had a long history, predating the Ottomans, of worshiping mother goddess figures, starting with Cybele and eventually Mary during Christian times. While the Ottomans were very willing to cover up other aspects of Christianity, they acknowledged the tradition of the Turkish populace and left Mary and child alone. Other churches that weren't such prominent symbols of Byzantine rule as St. Sophia were spared, even when they were turned into mosques. A great example is the Chora Church, originally built outside the walls of Constantinople, which now has beautiful and reasonably well-preserved Byzantine mosaics.

Woman touches Jesus' hem in 14th century mosaic in the Chora Church

Rumi's tomb in Konya

Sufism as a sect of Islam originated in Turkey, and was developed in the teachings and writings of the Mevlana Rumi. We visited Rumi's tomb in Konya on a national holiday, which meant it was crowded because it is considered a pilgrimage site. Inside were the coffins of Rumi, his family and followers, and amazing displays of Islamic artifacts such as incredibly gilded Korans, the artistry of which rivals the illuminated texts of Christianity. There was, encased in alarmed glass, a few supposed strands of Mohammed's beard which, if one put one's nose to a small hole at the base of the glass, one could detect a rose-like odor. I was reminded of similar stories about the incorruptibility of saints, whose bodies, when exhumed, often were intact and gave off the smell of roses. Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman Empire, also had such relics. Whether you believe their authenticity or not, particular care was shown in showing off the staff of Moses, the skull of John the Baptist, the cast footprint of Mohammed, the turban of Joseph, and the saucepan of Abraham. If that last one gives you a little doubletake, it made me blink too. The saucepan of Abraham!

The Muslim Ottoman Empire was remarkably tolerant in its relations with other religious communities, allowing Jews and Christians to live, work and worship in peace at most times throughout its history. When Jews were expelled from Spain in the 15th century, Ottoman ships evacuated many from Spanish ports and gave them new lives in Turkey. The Sultan Beyazid II wrote, and I paraphrase, that he was amazed that Ferdinand II of Spain was considered a wise king, since by expelling the Jews he impoverished his country and enriched Beyazid's.

Modern Turkey, however, originated as a secular state but is waging a public and so far democratic debate on the practice of Islam. While Kemalist governments never completely banned religious practice, and even were known to use Islam as a political tool, Atatürk abolished the Muslim Caliphate in Istanbul. According to Stephen Kinzer in Crescent and Star, the Muslim Caliphate was the highest religious officialdom in Islam at the time, so its abolishing was akin to abolishing the Vatican. Atatürk also banned the fez, the traditional trapezoidal headwear of the Ottomans, due to its religious connotations. He also insisted that the call to prayer be chanted in Turkish rather than Arabic (though he ultimately stepped back from this demand) and banned women from wearing headscarves.

Head of Medusa guarding a Roman sarcophagus

However, today Turkish women wearing headscarves and raincoats to preserve modesty walk side by side and arm in arm with female friends who wear T-shirts and blue jeans and let their hair flow free. The party currently in power, the Justice and Development Party, is a moderate Islamist party that is committed to governance through democracy and not imposing its religious preferences on the populace. The populace maintains some of the quasi-religious/superstitious elements influenced by the many civilizations that lived there. For example, on Greek and Roman buildings and sarcophagi, the head of Medusa was often carved to ward off evil. As you'll remember, Medusa's head had snakes growing out of it, and her gaze could turn whatever she looked at into stone. The Romans and Greeks thought her gaze could protect if turned outward. Today, walking past shops and through the bazaars, one can find countless iterations and sizes of blue glass disks with an eye pattern on bracelets, necklaces, rings, earrings, and fashioned into wall decorations, among other uses. Stepping over the lintel into a shop, or looking up at a restaurant wall, or placed in a corner in someone's house, one might see these disks set unobtrusively into the concrete or the plaster. This is the modern day Turkish eye of Medusa, equivalent to the ojo malo - the evil eye - protecting that business or home from harm.

If you are here at this blog with evil intent, the eye of Medusa will reflect it back at you

On one of our last days in Istanbul, my wife and I visited a small mosque, incredibly tiled mosque in the Spice Bazaar, then revisited Hagia Sophia, still showing remnants of her glorious past as a Christian cathedral, and finally, that night, took in a Sufi religious ceremony. It was an amazing cross section of religion in Turkey all in one day. Hagia Sophia is an amazing building, an architectural wonder that has stood for 1500 years, and for 1000 of those years was the largest church in Christianity, and for almost 500 years was a mosque, a symbol of Islam's triumph.

One example of the gorgeous tilework in mosques around Turkey

The small mosque at the Spice Bazaar, the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, is described by Rick Steves as Istanbul's Sainte-Chapelle. It is not a huge place on the Istanbul skyline that draws one to it...instead you have to find the entrance in the maze of shops outside the spice market...but when you go in you find amazing tilework decorating the inside of the mosque. We stayed a while in this mosque, going in well after the call to prayer in order to not disturb worshippers.

Finally, the Sufi ceremony is one that I will long remember. We drove a long way into an unfamiliar part of the city after paying $120 Turkish lira to join a group. The ceremony took place in a Sufi community center. After prayers, the Sufi master and the rest of the dervishes came out onto the main floor, and after silent permission from the Sufi master, the dervishes whirled away. Through whirling, the dervish emulates all creation, which spins naturally, and by doing so comes closer to God. I listened to the music and watched the Sufis spin oblivious to everything but their own movement and their own relationship to God, and for a while I too was taken away.

I have come away from Turkey, with that original call to prayer lodged firmly in my memory, thinking that if I were to take five times out of my day, like a Muslim, to meditate or pray, even if it's for 30 seconds, I might be more centered in my life. At my age, I'm starting to realize that one needs centeredness in his or her life. I think I found inspiration to find my own centeredness in my trip to Turkey. One cannot visit Turkey without confronting the long, dynamic and sometimes painful history of major religions and their interactions. Frankly, one wouldn't want to. All of the religions in Turkey and their collective wisdom can teach us valuable things about ourselves. If I were allowed to keep only one memory of my trip to Turkey, it would have been that moment in the bazaar where the call to prayer called to me, and allowed me to touch for a moment that universal and mystical yearning beyond my understanding, but so illuminating.

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