The City of Constantine. The aforementioned emperor legalized Christianity sometime in the 4th century. Most of your Christian types probably appreciated the move given the disproportionate suffering they underwent when large jungle animals chewed them to bits and strapping young gladiators with sharp swords turned them into martyrs and Christkabobs. The aforementioned cuisine was the precursor of one of Turkey’s current well-known dishes: the shiskabob.
I didn’t eat a shishkabob in Istanbul, but I did have a helluva time. On approach, and looking out my window seat, I detected a glow from the air, a golden aura if you will. I’m from Las Vegas, but I’m not talking about the neon golden glow my home city emanates well before you crest the hill and peer out over the Sin City night. I’m talking about something more holy, more sacred. Las Vegas is a strange desert anamoly. It’s the high-wattage of a gazillion neon tubes, exploding volcanoes, and fake pyramids with their own headlights. Istanbul’s light was the light of endurance, the light of a city that has real history; a city moistened by the Mediterranean Sea, humbled by imperial conquests, and strong enough to keep it together with integrity and grace. It was my first time in Islamic civilization. It will not be my last.
We arrived at 2am. As our van skirted up the narrow, cobbled streets in a maze of hairpin turns on roads not meant to accommodate automobiles, I watched Islam`s practitioners break their day of Ramadan fasting along small street-side restaurants. A few of us ventured out after quick showers to explore and break our own fast from terrestrial locomotion.
Once we found our way out of the maze we entered in the van, we discovered a large avenue filled with other break-fasters, pushed pass the temptation to spend all our lira at a small shop seemingly dedicated to all things baklavian, and easily found an open-air eatery hosted by a young Turk, eager to satisfy our hunger. He led us next door where our eyes feasted—later our bellies—on a buffet of chicken pastries, rice, sauteed mushrooms, a divine spinach dish, and a meat plate topped with a mound of po-tah-toes. We feasted in Paradise.
I gave thanks to Allah by making the sign of the cross, when I realized our server was joking when he told us the 119 before us for the bill was $s. Relieved it was in the Turkish lira (4.5:1), we gratefully paid, tipped, and left for the Hagai Sophia and The Blue Mosque, both visible to us as we dined.
In the 7th century of our common era, Emperor Justinian built himself a grand basilica in the Byzantine style, fashionable at the time for mega-churches . Domes and the internal arches to support them were big in those days. Islam arrived in the 6th century and once the Muslims got in the groove-it didn’t take long-the Ottomans got their game on and conquered Istanbul turning Justinian`s project into a mosque in the late 1400’s.
I don’t know the above history because I am a well-trained public high-school history teacher in Arizona. I know the above history because I am a frequent patron of Gus’ Pizzarama in Bisbee. Gus made it clear that if I went all the way to Kazakhstan without visiting the Hagai Sophia, I would no longer be welcome in his pizzeria and entitled to my complimentary cigar. Not wanting to lose those priveledges, I communicated to the Universe and suggesfted we miss the narrow connection and be forced to spend the night in Istanbul. The Universe, being a great fan of both pizza and Gus the Greek, accommodated my petition and for that I will be forever grateful.
We made our first pilgrimage to the Blue Mosque and then Sophia at about 4am. Plenty of other pilgrims accompanied us. Some wore head coverings and some wore blue jeans. I marveled that people ventured into the Blue Mosque at such an hour. Visitors were not permitted to do so until later in the morning so I watched Muslims, enter in awe of their observance and faith and impressed that the culture supported their practice. It felt a bit like what I have experienced in Latin America: large, en masse observers of their particular religious tradition, going through the seasonal and rhythmic steps that they have always known.
In my estimation, religious observance is almost counter cultural in my homeland. It certainly is in my little corner of the culture in Bisbee, AZ. Nothing seemed out of place or strained for these people so early in the morning. Muslims have walked in and out of mosques during Ramadan for over 1500 years. Far more of them carry cellphones with them now than they did when their religion united the Arabian Peninsula, but it looks like modernism and it’s technological acoutrement has yet to separate them from their ancient faith.
In the morning, after a few hours of sleep, my new friend Alison, a college history teacher who shares my sense of humor and lack of preparation for this study trip, visited Sophia. It blessed me immensely to accompany her to the ancient site. Far more knowledgeable than me in just about everything, Alison explained Sphia’s architecture, history, and art in a profound and emotional way. She walked about the inner sanctum, with me in tow. I tried to honor her response to Sophia and and also take photos to share with you all upon my return.
The Hagai Sophia has undergone tremendous restoration efforts. No longer a functioning mosque-unlike the Blue Mosque-it is a museum and open to all pilgrims from all places. Inside this Islamic shrine, there remains an extant and palpable imagery of its Christian identity. Faded crosses, and the Islamic art that once covered them both are now visible. The Virgin and Child sit together near the center of the space, just under the exquisite dome that has illuminated both faiths. At the entrance to the basilica-mosque, remains a frescoe of Christ and his patrons, Justinian and his emperress. That thier mages have been restored and share sacred space with Islam’s clear and present tenets of faith awe me and gives me a deep and abiding sense that our two religions are not incompatible but mutually complimentary and that, despite the present level of misunderstanding and suspicion that we in the West have of Islam, we are not destined to the eternal damnation of mutual ignorance and hatred. When Islam had the opportunity to destroy these sacred images for ever, it did not. It simply covered them up until the time when they could return to visibility and point to the possibility of a shared and valued co-existance. Whether bishop or teacher, I feel more motivated than before to understand Islam better. It probably couldn’t hurt if I made some effort to increase the understanding my own faith as well.
Before departing Istanbul for our flight to Kazakhstan, I had the opportunity to speak with and listen to a Muslim apologist. Aydin manages the hotel where we stayed our accidental sojourn. His English was decent and he held forth outside the hotel while we enjoyed the refreshing Mediterrannean air. He’s an observant Muslim and his boss identified home to me as a ‘fanatic`; fanatical not in the sense that us westerners so often describe Muslims who strap explosives to themselves or fly planes into buildings. The owner of the motel meant fanatical, I think, in the way we would describe someone who is fanatical about sports or recycling-knowledgeable, articulate, and wholeheartedly committed to extolling it’s value.
When I told Aydin I was an Episcopal priest, he quickly retrieved his phone, called up YouTube and introduced me to an English speaking imam who, best as I could tell, was a hard edged, Bible-believing pastor and evangelist who had converted to Islam. The man spoke of his epiphany when he came to understand the problem with the reliability of the biblical texts. The Koran, he maintained, posed no such problems, since it has come to us in tact since Mohmmads in-cave revelation.The preacher-convert found no incongruity within the Abramic faiths and maintained that Islam had brought him closer to salvation, to Jesus, and God’s love. I liked what he said and gave more than a fleeting thought to turning in my crucifix for the crescent moon and star. I pulled back thinking I already have enough to explain about my faith and practice should I advance in my candidacy for bishop of Nevada.
As we drove away in the van heading for Istanbul’s airport, I began to video our departure. Everything was fine until the airport police stopped our vehicle and inquired in a rather direct way, why I was taking photos of the Turkish police. I had no good response and worried about both his response to my infraction and the 13 other people in the van that I jeapordized.
My 12 new friends became very quiet during my interrogation. The officer insisted that I show him the footage I had just taken. In all honesty, I couldn’t make my camera retrieve the most recent images. The best I could do was come up with a picture of my doctor buddy, Frank, and his image during fireworks along the Las Vegas Strip three years ago. I scrolled along praying for Allah to save me from the he’ll of a Turkish prison (I saw Midnight Express, people. Whether teacher or preacher, I need my tongue to make a living). Our driver over spoke to the polis, but it didn’t seem to help. Nor did it help when I responded to his inquiry about my nationality.
The way in which he said out loud “United States” made me cringe. I cursed Harry Truman and his Cold War plan to contain communism in Turkey. The young officer probably had a relative who had skin in that game and had not bothered to memorize the words to God Bless America. I continued to scroll along my images looking form the innocent footage I had taken in order to end this ordeal and extricate my fellow Fulbrighters out of our pre-departure predicament. I came to some photos of the Chiricuaha Mountains, looked at my future captor, smiled and said, “desert”. No response. I tried again when I showed him a photo of my beautiful daughter, Catalina. No response.
I would have gladly gotten off the bus, sat with him at his police captain’s desk and offered him a slide-by-slide documentary of my life and prowess as a photographer. He didn’t seem interested. No one seemed interested. Silence. Lots of silence.. My colleagues began to roll their tongue up and hide them in the back of their mouths in the event things went south quickly. Still inept at finding the photojournalism in question, the young official, sworn to protect Turkey from people like me, finally tired of my genuine but incompetent efforts to satisfy him. He waved us onward and nobody has spoken of the incident since. I think some of the Fulbrighters have gotten their tongues pretty much out of the way and undetectable and prefer to leave them that way for now, at least until I’m out of earshot.
For those of you praying for our safety, thank you.