National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  April 11, 2003

Overlooking Instanbul, the mosque complex of Suleman the Magnificent.
-- All photos on page by Len Biallas

Turkey richly rewards search for the sacred


Visitors to Turkey have decreased 90 percent since Sept. 11, 2001. Many fear to go because of terrorist threats, war with its neighbor Iraq, and ongoing border struggles with the Kurds. Still, this land of 65 million people -- about twice the size of California -- is a wonderful country to visit. Dangers from violence, military tension and political unrest are minimal because they are located several hundred miles to the east. Turkey is safe to visit, and the Turkish people are very hospitable. They share their culture willingly. As their saying goes, “A guest is God’s gift.”

In discussing the movie “Signs,” Mel Gibson observed, “People go to the cinema expecting to find entertainment, education, and occasionally something higher -- spirituality.” In the same way, when we leave home as tourists, we go for entertainment; as travelers, we look for education; and as pilgrims, we hope for something higher, that is, spiritual connection.

Turkey, with its mountainous countryside, exotic shopping bazaars and picturesque seacoasts, is a wonderful country for tourists who leave home to escape and find distractions from normal routines. It provides exhilarating encounters for travelers who are ready to learn about its history and extensive cultural horizons, and satisfy their hearts’ longing for beauty in art and architecture. Pilgrims, though, are the most richly rewarded, even with a simple visit to Turkey’s abundant cave churches, mosques, cemeteries and sacred cities. Pilgrims who leave home not simply to visit sacred shrines but who aspire to perceive the entire world saturated with the magnificence and splendor of the sacred find many opportunities to move ever deeper into the mystery of God.

Riding along Turkey’s highways, I see storks perched in their nests on the tops of telephone and electric poles. Fields of sunflowers brighten the countryside. In one small town, a sign hangs above the traffic on the main street advertising tickets to a lottery: the main prize is a series of English lessons. A peasant farmer, coming home from his fields with a load of hay on the back of his donkey, talks on his cell phone as he waits for our bus to pass by. Rusty tangles of steel rods waiting to reinforce future concrete walls are found in nearly every village. Unfinished buildings are family savings accounts: Keeping them under construction is a hedge against the country’s catastrophic inflation.

Assaulted by colors and scents

At the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul my eyes are assaulted by vivid colors and my nose by pungent scents of spices and herbs. Aggressive hagglers in the 4,000 shops hawk pages from illuminated Islamic manuscripts, daggers, musical instruments, and plenty of jewelry and gold.

Here the tourist motto is “Veni, vidi, Visa” -- I came, I saw, I bought. The local money doesn’t go far: One million Turkish liras are worth only 66 cents. A liter of bottled water costs a million liras; the attendant in the public restrooms expects a tip of 200,000. I make the obligatory visit to a carpet salesroom where the sales pitch is masterfully delivered: “Don’t rush your decision. You must find the carpet that has a story for you. Look at the tight knots, the natural dyes, the symbolic

Istanbul's Blue Mosque, famous for its fine blue marble and glass tiles from ancient Nicea.

 patterns, the choice of colors. We have a payment plan just for you, because you are my friend.”

Meals begin with a glass of raki (an anise-flavored drink) and a wide assortment of mezes (appetizers). Then come the goat cheese, yogurt, rice pilaf, well-seasoned kebabs (lamb, chicken or sausage). After dinner I find a vendor who serves me ice cream with 3-foot-long scoops.

Then it’s off to the delightful treat of a Turkish hamam (bath). The masseur creates the proper ambiance. He prostrates me on a heated marble platform, gives an oil massage, and soaps me from top to bottom. Then after another heavy-handed massage, I am doused with buckets of warm water, wrapped in sumptuous towels and given a glass of tea. A very relaxing and soothing experience.

Tea is at the very center of Turkish culture. Tea stops the hands of the clock; it renews the bonds of friends and family. Tea is served with great courtesy and politeness in tiny tulip-shaped glasses. There’s more in the glass than just a beverage, and there is no better way to spend moments reflecting on the real magic of this country of 1,001 nights than to share a glass with others.

Turkey is brimming with historical ruins and museums, especially at Hattushash, the center of the Hittite empire, and Troy, the ancient city besieged by the Greeks in the Iliad. At Ankara, the center of the biblical area known as Galatia and capital of Turkey since 1923, the Museum of Anatolian Civilization showcases artifacts that go back 10,000 years. The Archaeological Museum at Antalya has a children’s exhibit with multiplication tables that are more than 8,000 years old. In Istanbul, Topkapi palace, the historic home of sultans, stands as a monument to Ottoman power, glory and breathtaking wealth.

The short list of giants of Turkish history surely include Constantine, Justinian, Osman I, Mehmet II and Suleiman. Still, the one held in highest esteem by the Turks is Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk (“Father of the Turks”). He modernized Turkey in the 1920s, giving women the right to vote and making primary school education and adoption of surnames mandatory. He phonetically adapted the Turkish language to the Latin alphabet and adopted the Gregorian calendar. He declared official separation of mosque and state (though 99 percent of Turks are Muslims), outlawing the wearing of the fez and veil, and replacing the ulema (the religious courts) with civil courts.

To my inquiries about Turkish customs, I learn that while all children go to school, their chances of entering university are slim (less than one in 10). Divorce is not widespread, and abortion and birth control are both legal. As the national soccer team played to third place in the 2002 World Cup, large screen TVs were set up in the cafes and parks, if only to give the men respite from their incessant cigarette breaks and unending games of backgammon. Watching women wash rugs in the streets on their hands and knees, I easily get the impression that they are the only ones who work. Still, few women have a role in government or political organizations; the major exception are the universities, where women professors outnumber the men.

Many ruins that date back to the Greco-Roman period are well-preserved, such as the theater at Aspendos (where concerts are still performed each summer), the stadiums at Aphrodisias (a city dedicated to the goddess of love) and at Perge (where St. Paul preached his first sermon). A spectacular temple is dedicated to Artemis at Sardis, a city associated with the legends of the golden touch of Midas. At one end of the temple ruins is a small church, about 30 feet long, one of the seven churches addressed in the Book of Revelation. At the health spa at Pergamon dedicated to Asclepius, the god of healing and medicine, a fountain still flows. According to local custom, the fountain cures nervous ailments but causes panic and mental illness if you drink from it without believing in its powers. To be safe, I merely washed my feet in it.

Places of astounding beauty

Looking at the world of nature, pilgrims find it a tableau painted by the divine artist. In Turkey this is especially manifest in the astounding beauty of Pamukkale and Cappadocia. At Pamukkale (“Cotton Castle”) warm mineral water cascades 400 feet down the hillside, forming the world’s largest terraces of white calcium deposits. The spectacular tumble of waters creates a harmonious beauty where we can detect the flow of divine grace.

Cappadocia (the Hittite word for “land of pretty horses”) is a thousand square mile area of silent unearthly splendor. It is a fantasy land of rock formations formed by deep layers of volcanic ash. The power of the rain, snow and wind that have shaped the surrealistic cones, needles and pillars over millions of years fills us with wonder at God who created and sustains them. Throughout the region multilevel caves open into an intricate warren of passageways and living quarters, capable of hiding as many as 20,000 people in times of danger and religious persecution. Seeing them, it is understandable how Osama bin Laden could remain hidden for months in caves in Afghanistan.

Hundreds of small chapels were the home base of Christian saints of the fourth century -- in particular, the Cappadocian Fathers Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. Defenders of Christian doctrine, they also established many homes and chapels for monks in the rock caves, where they led austere lives of prayer and fasting while farming and caring for the poor and sick.

Frescoes with icons are abundant in the caves. While some icons were defaced by iconoclasts and Muslims, many are still decorated with stunning, colorful, biblical frescoes celebrating the beliefs of early Christians. The icons invite moments of serenity and spiritual well-being as we admire the creative genius of the artists.

The finest example of Byzantine art and architecture is the sixth-century basilica Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia in Greek, or “Holy Wisdom”) in Istanbul. Muslim Turks turned it into a mosque in 1453, covering the icons with plaster in geometric designs and with huge green disks bearing sacred Islamic names. Ataturk in turn converted it into a museum in the early 20th century. Still, the basilica’s proportions and its enormous dome with no visible supports infuse us with their sense of permanence, aesthetic majesty and magnitude. I gasp in amazement in the presence of tremendous and fascinating mystery.

The Chora Monastery, also in Istanbul, radiates artistic brilliance. Many of its colorful fourth-century mosaics are icons of Jesus as Son, Savior, Christ, and Pantocrator (the ruler of all the world). He stands astride the graves of Adam and Eve, grasping them by their wrists and snatching them out of hell and up into life. Other icons recount the birth and life of the Virgin Mary, mostly based on the apocryphal Gospel of St. James. As with all Orthodox icons, the created world is illuminated by the light of divine energy that transforms humans and nature. Reality is intensified and transformed: We share the intimate presence and glory of God.

Mosques are filled on Fridays, the special Muslim day of worship. Indeed, we saw crowds (mainly men, but also women) spill outside both Eyup mosque in Istanbul and Mevlana mosque in Konya. Those outside alternately rose and prostrated themselves in unison with those inside. At both mosques we removed our shoes and entered after the service was finished. I quickly located the elaborately decorated mihrab, the niche in the wall that points to Mecca where prayers, like so many iron filings attracted by a magnet, are directed to Allah. The First Pillar of Islam (“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet”) is conspicuously written on the arches.

Called to prayer

Outside almost every mosque is a minaret, shaped strangely like a rocket ship ready for blast off, from where the local people are called to prayer five times daily. While each of the 450 mosques in Istanbul has from one to four minarets, the Blue Mosque is unique with six. So called because of its fine blue marble and glass tiles from ancient Nicea, it has nearly 300 stained glass windows that sparkle like jewels and make the tiles change color throughout the day. Also in Istanbul is Suleimaniye mosque where ostrich eggs hang from the chandeliers, purportedly to keep bugs and spiders away. Most impressive in this mosque complex, though, are the royal tombs of Suleiman I and his wife. The tomb portals are images of the gates of paradise, and wall inscriptions from the Quran allude to the heavenly garden: “God-fearing believers will find the gates flung open to them. Peace unto you; come into the garden on the strength of what you have done.”

Muslim cemeteries make me reflect on the journey of faith of the people buried there. Their human lives, like ours, have limits in space and time, and their joys and sorrows are played out within some greater sacred design. In the Cemetery of Eyup (standard-bearer and close friend of Muhammad), thousands of tombs flow up the hillside in a park-like setting of cypress trees. The tops of tombstones are surmounted by cylindrically shaped turbans for the men and by flowers or shawls for the women. Some gravestones have a tap with running water to quench the thirst of visitors who come to pray for the deceased. In death, time is an eternal present and all humans are equal before Allah: As the Turks say in their proverb, “A shroud has no pockets.”

The grandest of the ancient Christian cities in Turkey is Ephesus. A sacred city from its origins, Ephesus contained one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Diana, that is, Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and chastity. It was at Ephesus that silversmiths started a riot against St. Paul, driving him out because they were afraid that his preaching would lessen the sale of their statues.

St. Paul spent two years in Ephesus, ministering to a small Christian community and later wrote them an epistle from captivity. An ecumenical council met here in 431. In a parallel to Ephesus’ earlier devotion to the mother goddess Artemis, 300 bishops here proclaimed that the Virgin Mary was Theotokos (“the Mother of God”). It seems only fitting that, by tradition, Mary spent her last years at Ephesus. Today, there is a small shrine nearby where pilgrims still come to light candles, offer prayers and fill water bottles at her spring.

Cappadocia, site of hundreds of small chapels built for monks in caves.

A visit to Rumi’s tomb

In Muslim belief, if cities are what they should be, then they are holy places, where humans live and fulfill their destinies in harmony with one another. The most sacred city in Turkey is Konya, where Muslims often stop to visit the tomb of Rumi before embarking on the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Following in their footsteps, I pass under a fluted turquoise-colored dome to enter Rumi’s tomb. The inscription over the entrance door reads: “Those who enter here incomplete will leave complete.”

Rumi, a 13th-century ecstatic poet and mystic known as Mevlana (“the Master”), has been called the “Shakespeare of Islam.” In his teaching, love is the greatest guide on the path to God, while religious dogmas and institutions hinder intellectual independence and separate humans from God. His passion-filled poetry of flaming hearts, moonlit gardens and grievous longing is an account of our human meeting, loss and fervent desire for reunion with God. We all yearn to return to God, and this we do by maintaining wisdom, feeling and conscience in perfect balance.

Rumi inspired the Sufis (“wool-wearers”), a humanistic and ecumenical branch of Islam famous for its whirling dervishes and religious stories. Whirling dervishes strive to be united with Allah through their dancing. In a Seljuk caravansary (an inn built to accommodate caravans) outside Konya, I observed them in a two-hour ritual. They dance in circular fashion to the rhythm of the music to attain the ecstasy that leads to a full realization of the divine presence. Their costumes evoke symbolic death to self: The conical hat symbolizes a tombstone, the jacket a tomb, and the skirt a funerary shroud. As they remove their jackets, they free themselves from earthly attachments and abandon themselves to God’s love. They extend their right hands upward and their left hands down toward the floor, as they pray, “What we receive from God we give to other people; we ourselves possess nothing.”

Stories in the Sufi tradition also remind us to be continually aware of God’s presence. In one tale of the 13th-century storyteller Nasreddin Hoca, a man caught in a flood calls on God to save him. Three boats come by, and he turns them all away because he is waiting for God’s divine intervention. When he drowns and comes

In Sardis, one of the seven churches addressed in the Book of Revelation, a Christian structure is dwarfed by the ruins of a spectacular temple dedicated to Artemis.

 face to face with God, he asks, “Why didn’t you save me?” God tells him, “I sent three boats and you rejected them all.”

Coming home, I look back and realize that the Turkish people actively distance themselves from the less stable Arab world. While their nation may be officially secularized, they maintain their Muslim traditions and devotion to Allah in generosity of spirit, gentleness of heart and wholesome selfless living. The call to prayer is still chanted by the muezzin five times each day; some more traditional women wear a veil; new mosques are being constructed (often financed by Saudi Arabia); and mosques (outside of Istanbul, at least) are crowded for the Friday noon service.

The spirit of Christianity is alive, too. In Cappadocia, nature is a mirror reflecting the glory of God. The icons in the cave churches induce moments of serenity and spiritual wholeness. In ancient Ephesus, popular folk religion and enthusiasm for the saints, especially Mary, are very much in evidence.

A journey to Turkey can be a voyage to a secret paradise. Here we find the compassionate and all-merciful God/Allah hidden, yet manifest. The Lord of all creation is slow to anger and quick to forgive, guiding Christians and Muslims alike on the straight path, both outward and inward. Stretching my imagination and changing the prism through which I gain perspectives on my life and my world, I come back from Turkey changed by the experience. The entire world of our everyday experiences is saturated with the magnificence and splendor of the sacred.

Len Biallas is professor of religious studies at Quincy University, Quincy, Ill., and author of Pilgrim: A Spirituality of Travel.

National Catholic Reporter, April 11, 2003

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