Globetrotter - Istanbul: Mecca of three civilizations
Istanbul and the country of Turkey are much in the news today. Turkey could be the key to a growth or lack of growth in relationships between the Christian and Islamic world. This historic city, once called Constantinople, also has ancient remnants of the Greek and Roman times prior to the founding of those two religions.
I visited this center of world cultures in 1997 on a trip sponsored by the Smith College Alumnae Association. As we drove from the Istanbul airport into the city, I was immediately struck by the gold and blue towers and domes of the mosques, palaces and churches clustered around the Bosporus Straights joining the Aegean and Black Seas -- essentially the link between Europe and Asia Minor.
During our three day visit, we explored the past, present and even got a sense of the future direction of Istanbul. Our young guide, Nam, helped us to understand the history, traditions and some of the politics of this fascinating country.
We visited several renowned mosques. Nam explained that all mosques have three parts, the altar, the prayer tower for Friday prayers, and a choir-stall for the chanters. At the Suleymaniye Mosque (built in the 1550s), the largest in Istanbul, we sat on prayer rugs and listened to the chanting.
In an example of the historic evolution of the city, the famous Blue Mosque -- so named because of the blue color of its original tiles -- was built for the Sultan Ahmet in the 17th century on the site of an ancient Roman hippodrome. Here were held Chariot races and traditional Roman games. Another example of the Roman presence was the walls and aqueduct surrounding the city.
Across the park and hippodrome from the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia. This Byzantine Cathedral was built in the 4th century during the reign of Emperor Constantine. After the invasion of the Turks in 1453 it was converted into a mosque with all its colorful Christian mosaics and paintings plastered over. When the present state of Turkey was founded by Ataturk in 1923, the church was restored and declared a National Museum. It is a unique mixture of Islamic and Christian Features with a Madonna and Child in one area and a Friday prayer stair and Islamic altar in another. The Hagia Sophia is the fourth largest Church in the world and a true museum of the architecture, mosaics, and traditions of the Christian and Islamic heritage.
Of course Istanbul, as well as an historic city, is an active, thriving metropolis with a busy, noisy bazaar where beautiful Persian rugs are displayed. Also, the youth of the nation are very much future oriented. For example, our guide, Nam, was due for his required 18 month military service after he completed hotel school. He is Muslim by faith but he pointed out that people in the cities are less strict about following the formal customs of that tradition. They do, however, make the Hadj to Mecca. He said he is a "half pilgrim because he has been there."
Nam pointed out that the Turkish government, caught between the pull of the East and the West strives to be strictly secular in its approach. After the establishment of the Turkish Republic displays of Islamic piety were strongly discouraged as inconsistent with Ataturk's modernization program. Recently, however, such piety has been permitted by the present Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyp Erdogen, who openly admits that he feels far more comfortable with Muslims than with non-Muslims. In addition, Turkey's formerly good relations with Israel, unique among Islamic nations, have sharply deteriorated due to Israel's raid on a ship trying to reach Gaza in which several Turkish citizens were killed.
Thus, while Istanbul is still a gateway where East meets West, and is torn by the pulls of both cultures, it might seem more Islamic oriented to me if I visited today than when I was there some fourteen years ago. More women would be seen wearing head scarves and Muslims in general might be more open in showing their piety. The direction in which Istanbul and the Turkish nation go in the next few years could be most significant in the worldwide political and religious struggle between east and west.