Reflections from Turkey; Day 2

Our day today started off in a very ordinary manner.  We began with breakfast and I took the opportunity to spend some time with Tracy Seligman, one of our Jewish pilgrims, when we emerged after a satisfying breakfast to enjoy a cup of coffee in a cafe near the hotel.  It was quite enjoyable checking in with Tracy, who learned about the trip just over a week ago.  She signed up, knowing that she would be leaving in a mere 3 days- truly amazing.  And Tracy has proven to be incredibly insightful, bonding with the other pilgrims and making me very proud to be one of her rabbis.

We then journeyed to the first of our stops and arguably the most controversial of the day: Hagia Sofia.  The current building was built in 530 and it spent the next 900 years as the Cathedral of Constantinople.  Emperors and Kings were anointed in this cathedral and it was known by many as a major center of Christianity.  In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and the cathedral was converted into a mosque.  The bells, altar and sacrificial vessels were removed and many of the mosaics were plastered over almost immediately.   A mosque it remained until  1935, when Turkey turned it into a Museum.  Just to offer insight into the size of this complex, it is only 6 meters shorter than the International bridge.  Remember: the bridge was built in 1973; Hagia Sophia was built around 530.

The building is truly amazing- keep in mind that, for about 1000 years, this building was the tallest cathedral in the world.  It literally took my breath away when we walked on those hallowed marble steps to put our feet down in the sanctuary.  There were really two things I was feeling, simultaneously: I was inspired by the beauty of the space, in awe of the architecture, the decor, the colors.  But I was also incredibly saddened by what was removed, by what was covered up, to turn the building into a Masjid.  It stood to me as a clear and telling example of supersessionalism: that Islam came later and could “cover up” Christianity.

I spoke about this with our Christian leader, James Lamkin, and my partner for the day, Saadiq.  James affirmed my feelings by expressing his; a room so important to early Christianity and the Christianity was all but erased from the space.  Saadiq also felt uncomfortable, but felt that the complexity of the story of Islam had to be told.  It is not his story, per say, but it is the story of his faith.

And then I found great beauty in this story.  When the Muslims conquered the Cathedral, they did not burn it down, they did not destroy it.  They rededicated it as a Masjid to God.  And then it hit me: Muslims understood this building as a building built to honor God and they acknowledged that.  They redefined the space, redirected the worship, and adjusted the focus.  But they sensed something divine in the architecture: the intent of the builders.  Yes, I still see the story as one filled with sadness.  But to dedicate the entire story to sadness would be a disservice to the history of this immaculate building.

We then traveled across the courtyard to the Blue Mosque, perhaps the 4th most well-known Masjid in Islam.  It was huge and grand and an amazing worship space.  The builders wanted to emphasize the worship of God and not the worship of the building, so much of the architecture escapes a cursory glance.  One can take stock of where he or she is, assume the position for prayer, and not be lost in the detail of the room.  Or one can focus on the detail and be inspired as one enters prayer.  We spent a few moments in quiet contemplation before moving onward.

After a short drive we found our way to Topkapi palace, subject of  a wonderful movie and a James Bond story.  The palace has been converted into a museum that has, among other things, Mohammed’s beard, a fragment of his tooth, and his clothing.  It also houses the swords carried by him and his followers.  Additionally, the arm and scalp of John the Baptist rest behind thin glass an on view of spectators.

And then I saw it.  The rod of Moses was also there.  The rod that turned into a snake.  The rod that split the sea.  The rod that inspired prophesy.  While I could not take pictures, I did buy a book with a photo inside.  The meager branch behind the glass forces one to reconsider Moses’ height and power as he spoke some of the most powerful words in Jewish (and global) history.  Or it isn’t real.  But I want so hard to believe… 🙂

After the Topkapi palace we went back to the hotel for dinner,then out on the town (for a few of us).  Ralph, Joel and Sue are a joy to be around and we had a lot of fun tonight.

I am still, hours later, struggling with the story of the Hagia Sophia.  I am hopeful that it does not become a metaphor for International Relations.

To see my photos, cut and paste this link:

Another pilgrim is posting photos and keeping a blog (and his pics are amazing):

Published in: on April 21, 2010 at 9:33 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Enjoying the blog! Safe travels

    • I love reading about your journey . It is inspirational . It is in fact as you touched on , acknowledgement that is the key in so many situations . It can make all the difference even if it does not erase all the pain in the story as well .

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