When my husband’s employer asked us to move from Minnesota to Istanbul, Turkey, I resisted. My daughter had just returned home for graduate study. I had a satisfying network of friends and neighbors. And I had just resurrected my career teaching at a local college.
Non-sidebar sidenote: I’m one of those people who’s sure she won’t like something (like, olives) until she’s locked in a dark prison cell and forced to try it. Then she raves about it on Twitter.
Sandy’s employer had moved us before: to Costa Rica back in the 1990s. Our children became soccer stars, and we all picked up Spanish. But Turkey? It was a country I knew little about. A Muslim country in Asia Minor, one with an obscure and most likely difficult language.
But the move was good for Sandy’s career, so I agreed to give it a try.
Our childhoods began there
I began gathering information. A friend gave me a book called Eyewitness Travel Turkey. When I got around to opening it, I was surprised to discover some familiar names. Aladdin. King Midas. St Nicholas. Topkapi.
You remember that story of greedy King Midas, right? The jerk touched everything including his wife and it all become gold.
One page contained photos of eye-catching pottery. The text described a town that “first reached prominence in AD 325, when it was known as Nicea.” It went on to say that a council was held there, producing “a statement of doctrine on the nature of Christ in relation to God.”
Hmm. A council in a place called Nicea?
Could this be related to the Nicene Creed I’d recited on communion Sundays throughout my obnoxiously Lutheran childhood?
I believe in one God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds. Begotten, not made. Being of one substance with the Father . . . And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceeds from the Father and the Son. . .
How do I remember that better than what I did last weekend?
I had never studied Turkish history, but this improbable link between my childhood and an ancient conclave in Asia Minor spurred me to read further. Whenever I had time, I pulled out Eyewitness Travel Turkey. I read about Roman baths and cisterns, a “Tulip” Mosque, and an archaeological museum with “one of the world’s richest collections of classical artifacts.” I picked up the lyrical Turkish Reflections by Mary Lee Settle; Crescent and Star, Stephen Kinzer’s analysis of current events in Turkey; and Birds Without Wings, a novel about an early 20th-century Anatolian village.
All were rewarding to read. I no longer felt a sense of loss when I thought of our upcoming move.
It’s not really a Muslim county
Okay, so it is Muslim. Let me explain.
In mid-2010, Sandy and I moved to Istanbul. The first thing we learned is that Turkey does not fit Western preconceptions of your average Muslim land. Back in 1923, a guy named Ataturk, the Republic’s first Prime Minister, set out to modernize Turkey, and he was good at it. Among other things I’m forgetting, this included transforming it into a secular state. He abolished the Islamic caliphate, banned the fez, and discouraged women from wearing the traditional headscarf that disguised beauty. Ataturk turned Istanbul’s magnificent Hagia Sophia, which had been a church for nearly a millennium but was then functioning as a mosque, into a museum.
He made a mosque into a museum. That’s like inviting people to the White House, or something.
It’s got style oh yes it does
On the streets of Istanbul we saw both men and women wearing the latest in styles. Numerous chic bars and restaurants beckoned. The Turks we met had a decidedly casual attitude toward their Muslim heritage.
Western or not, Istanbul’s size and its bewildering maze of winding, traffic-filled streets were challenging. Think of New York City down below the numbered streets. Sandy and I often got so lost we were vulnerable to the sales pitches of local vendors.
Thank God the local vendors were good people.
Although we encountered friendliness and hospitality everywhere, we struggled with homesickness and the constant tension of having to express ourselves in a new language.
Travel isn’t a big deal
And day trips are dime a dozen.
Eager to expand on the very first connection I had made with Turkey, we began planning a trip to Nicea, now known as Iznik. The town lay about three hours south, and on a Saturday morning in July we found ourselves driving onto a ferry that would take us and our car across the Sea of Marmara, completing the first leg of the trip.
After the ferry docked, we drove east along a large lake also named Iznik, passing miles of olive groves.
Soon we began to see the town ahead of us, its low pastel-colored buildings hugging the eastern shore of the lake.
Between the fourth and eight centuries AD, not one, but seven councils were held in Turkey to help create Christianity. I hadn’t realized my religion needed to be put in order. Hadn’t it enjoyed a golden period in which there was no dissension? Hadn’t God’s words flowed clearly from Christ Himself? It sounded as if public relations—message management—had been needed almost immediately.
So here’s one big finding from this council:
Several hundred dignitaries had attended the first council, held in 325 AD. They included the bishop of Myra, whose life became the inspiration for St. Nicholas; the patriarchs of Egypt, Antioch and Jerusalem; and John, the bishop of Persia and India. The meeting was full of controversy, the dispute being this: If Christ was born of Mary, then He must have come into being at a specific time and place. But doctrine states that Christ has always existed.
How to reconcile this? One way, the council determined, was to define Christ as having two natures, human and divine.
Ahh, two natures. I’ll take ice cream and napping.
Not all attendees accepted this theological sleight of hand, but the majority hammered out what we call the Nicene Creed, with its (heretofore mysterious) lines: Begotten not made. Being of one substance with the Father.
100 years since 4th grade, still not understanding that line.
You can freely roam Roman ruins
We drove into Iznik through an opening in an ancient Roman wall. In the town center lay the church where the creed was written, a squat building whose alternate layers of brick and stone, a Byzantine effort to cushion against earthquakes, gave it a striped appearance.
Called the Hagia Sofia, but not to be confused with the vastly bigger and grander Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, the 1700-year-old structure had no steeple, just several small cupolas poking above the roof like overturned, fluted cups.
On its south side stood a minaret. This was installed when it became a mosque after the 1331 Ottoman conquest. The mosque later fell into disuse. After World War I, the building had, just like its eponymous big sister in Istanbul, been made a museum.
The Muslim conquest of the land mass now know as Turkey occurred over four whole centuries, culminating in the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In the various tours I’ve taken within Turkey, my guides have emphasized that, “it was the same people.”
It was the same people?
That is, when one religious group conquered another, new citizens weren’t hauled in to replace the old. Rather, the same inhabitants remained in place. Immediately or over time, most people got with the program and altered their beliefs.
To enter Iznik’s Hagia Sofia museum we walked down a half-flight of steps and paid seven Turkish Lira (about $3). The building, about the size of an elementary school gymnasium, had an earthy odor and its floor was covered with coarse gravel.
Near the entrance, the gravel had been swept away to reveal several faded mosaic panels.
A guide accompanied us, pointing out features of the church. We gazed at faint frescoes high in a cupola near the altar, walked around the spot where the dignitaries had gathered so many centuries ago, and viewed an area along the south wall that had once held a grave.
You can find Jesus
If you’re one of those too-cool-for-the-tour-I’ll-just-wander people like me.
On the north side of the building, we peered down through a protective glass pane over a window well. There in the dim light was a triptych that, according to an adjacent plaque, dated from the 11th century.
This triptych featured three faces: Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist.
In the fresco Jesus appeared wild and elemental, vastly different from the placid blond image I’d grown up with.
Painted in elegant golds, browns and blues still rich after ten centuries, he had thick, dark hair, huge expressive eyes that could grab you across a room, and a surprised-looking smile. In his left hand was a gilded book, and his right hand extended upward, proudly.
Was this Jesus? Yes.
It was one of those moments that unexpectedly gather together disparate emotions. Standing in the damp little church, I thought back to my Midwestern childhood Sundays and their improbable link with this ancient, faraway church.
I thought of our current struggles to adapt to a foreign language and country, and our longing for friends and family. This primitive, animated Jesus, so close to his land of birth and neither airbrushed nor Anglicized, seemed to peer straight at me through all the centuries, saying. “Lo, I am with you always.” It reminded me of the more tender parts of my belief system, half-submerged just like the fresco.
I stood there holding back tears.
The new hobbies just keep on starting up
Knitting, Breaking Bad, and definitely cats. But way more.
Thereafter, historical sightseeing, much of it religious, became the focus of our stay in Turkey. A few months later, Turkish Muslim friends drove us up to St. Peter’s Grotto, set in the desolate cliffs outside Antioch. Gökhan and Burcu stood solemnly while we peered into the dim cave rooms of one of the first Christian churches. A year after that, we attended mass in the southeastern town of Mardin. In a country that discourages the use of languages other than Turkish, the pastor recited the gospel in Aramaic. We also visited the prophet Abraham’s birthplace, commemorated with a spectacular old reflecting pool surrounded by arched colonnades.
I was struck by how tenderly Muslims revered Christian sites, landscaping a large area around the tiny Ephesus house believed to be that of Mother Mary; answering visitor questions at St Peter’s Grotto; and even joining us on a two-hour climb to Sumela, an ancient Black Sea monastery.
Maybe Turkish Muslims were tolerant of Christianity because it was part of their heritage.
Your husband will start reading
“Listen to this!” Sandy exclaimed one February evening as he read the expatriate International Herald Tribune.
“The Church That Politics Turned Into a Mosque,” proclaimed the headline.
Due to actions in Ankara, the article said, Iznik’s Hagia Sofia museum had recently been converted back into a mosque.
No longer a museum? We stared at each other in disbelief.
What about all the Christian visitors who revered it and came to visit it each year? Sandy read parts of the article aloud, but I couldn’t fully absorb what he was saying, and grabbed the paper as soon as he finished. The museum had apparently closed in October, 2011. After modifications, a month later, it had reopened as a mosque.
Did this mean that people interested in Christian history were no longer welcome in Iznik? It seemed like our Turkish hosts were withdrawing the welcome mat.
And what had led up to this?
As I struggled to comprehend, it was the historical loss I mourned, not the loss of a church, which had, after all, occurred almost eight hundred years ago. I understood that the structure had been a mosque only decades ago, and I wanted to be fair, but I couldn’t help thinking that the building was more important to Christian history than to Islam. And then there were also our proprietary, not-so-rational feelings.
We had visited Iznik—our Iznik—three times now, even bringing our struggling-to-be-adult children.
It turns out that the story of Turkish secularization is complicated and fraught. For decades, the country’s more religious population has felt marginalized, not just philosophically, but also economically. According to Mustafa Akyol, columnist for Turkey’s Daily Hurriyet, for decades the Turkish Republic excluded devout Muslims from jobs, government contracts, and educational opportunities.
Mary Lee Settle wrote simply that, “Ataturk went too far with religion.”
Starting in the 1980s, however, the Turkish electorate began to choose Prime Ministers of a “mildly Islamic” bent. To everyone’s surprise, these periods of rule, including the current one, beleaguered as I write this, have been associated with economic growth. But as with any group newly flexing its political muscles, there has been overreach and payback. This was probably what we were seeing in the Iznik decision.
Cultural struggles become close, relevant to you
In the past few years, Iznik had attracted as many as forty thousand tourists annually, the vast majority coming to see the museum.
After the decision, Eurasianet reported that Iznik’s Hagia Sofia mosque was half-empty even after Turkey’s biggest Muslim holiday. The Herald Tribune polled Iznik residents, all Muslims, and quoted those who weren’t happy about the decision.
“We had just begun to make a few pennies from tourism,” a taxi driver lamented.
“We had nothing to do with the decision. We weren’t even asked,” a deputy mayor complained.
Another person said simply, “Historical sites should be kept as museums.”
I wondered what had happened to the fresco of Jesus.
We were expecting visitors from home and had touted Iznik as a highlight. Now we wondered if we should even go there. Mosques are carpeted wall to wall, CARPETED WALL TO WALL, people, and thus the Jesus fresco, located beneath floor level, would probably no longer be visible. And even if it were, how would I—or any tourist—walk in and begin searching for a representation of Christianity?
With over two thousand mosques in Istanbul, many of them distinguished and exceptionally beautiful, there would be no reason to drive three hours to visit a slapped-together mosque with modern fixtures, however ancient its outer shell.
When we wrote to our friends, however, they seemed open to a visit, remarking that Iznik seemed to have everything: “Christianity, Islam, capitalism, and politics.” I had to agree.
A romantic ending? (please read my conclusion)
So, we decided to return to the mosque. My husband secretly wanted the local lamb burritos and I wanted my Jesus.
Our visitors arrived in March and the four of us set out for Iznik on a splendid early spring day.
Snowmelt filled the creeks and tiny buds dotted the trees. At the entrance to the museum-turned-mosque, I was pleased to see the same guide as before. As mosque entry is always free, he no longer sold tickets, but welcomed us and again joined us in walking around the building.
An eighteen-inch-high brightly carpeted platform now extended from the south wall of the building. Carved into that wall was a mihrab, a niche indicating the direction of Mecca; and alongside it was a mimbar or pulpit, for the Friday speaker. A father and his young son were taking off their shoes in preparation for prayer.
But unlike other mosques, the carpeted area did not stretch to the other walls. Astonishingly, around the north, east and west edges of the building, a fifteen-foot perimeter of coarse gravel remained. And that was where all the items of Christian interest lay. The entryway mosaic. The east side with its cupola frescos, altar and little grave room.
And the window well, with the Jesus fresco.
We were standing in a functioning mosque that was also a museum of Christian history.
How had this come to pass?
Had hospitality toward those of us Muslims call People of the Book prevailed? Or had the decision been driven by business practicalities, a determination to follow the letter, but not the spirit of the Ankara ruling?
I would never know.
And so, for the second time, I was moved to tears in the Iznik’s Hagia Sofia.
This time it wasn’t an artist’s brushstrokes, but an abstract idea: that of religious tolerance. Spread out before us in gravel and carpeting.
Wiping a tear, I glanced over at Jesus, now facing the newly constructed worship area. His astonished expression now matched ours. But it was a good kind of surprise.
The kind that occurs only in the presence of a miracle.
p.s. I actually don’t have a Twitter, yet.
p.p.s. I started a WordPress blog to enter the Long Reads discussion. So thanks for reading, and let’s discuss! And thanks to my son for helping with the editing.
- Biblical Turkey: A Guide to the Jewish and Christian Sites of Asia Minor, Mark Wilson, Ege Yayinlari,2010.
- The Church That Politics Turned into a Mosque, Susanne Gusten, New York Times, February 8, 2012.