Looking back in modern Turkey

by Lee Staman

Several months ago, my wife and I spent our honeymoon in Turkey. While most people might opt for the beaches of Mexico, we were both drawn to a country that garnered responses like, “Turkey? Really?” or “What’s in Turkey?” For each of us this country held different interests, but we both shared a desire to explore a region that mixed East and West, Asia and Europe. In college I had studied philosophy and theology with particular emphasis on the beginnings of western philosophy and the early centuries of Christianity. It wasn’t until the planning stages of this trip that I realized how much of that history took place in what is now Turkey. I have to admit that I did not know what to expect of modern Turkey. Everything I seemed to know about the country had to do with its past. How had a contemporary Turkey dealt with its multilayered history of empires upon empires, beliefs upon beliefs?

Almost immediately upon arriving in the city of Istanbul, it was apparent that this is a city of layers. From the early Greek settlement of Byzantium to the founding of Constantinople in 330 through the Ottoman conquest of 1453 and the rise of the Turkish republic, there is so much history here – and you can actually see remnants of all of it. Outside the window of our hotel in the old city of Istanbul you could see walls built by the Romans rising up to the Blue Mosque, which sounded its call to prayer five times a day. After traveling underground to take in the Basilica Cistern, the main water supply to the growing metropolis of Constantinople, you emerge into the shadow the massive Hagia Sophia. Built in 537 on the orders of Emperor Justinian, this modular-looking structure was the Eastern Orthodox cathedral until 1453 and still impresses with its hefty outer façade and spacious dark interior.

Probably due in equal parts politics and respect for the “People of the Book,” Mehmet the Conqueror and the Ottomans plastered over all of the ancient frescoes when the church became a mosque instead of destroying them, and we can be eternally grateful for this. Since the mosque was converted to a museum in 1935, during Ataturk’s secular reforms, the vibrant frescoes were revealed again with their “dark” gold highlights. It was this sort of respect for the history and the “melting pot” that is Istanbul which struck me the most. Hundreds of cultures have made their way through this bridge between Asia and Europe and it is wonderfully apparent when you explore Istanbul.

As I mentioned above, I have had an interest in Turkey ever since my undergraduate studies. The majority of pre-Socratic philosophers came from Ionia, on the Aegean coast of Turkey, developing their particular

views of the world in places like the once great harbor city of Miletus, now nothing more than a still impressive amphitheater perched on a hill overlooking the cotton fields of the Meander River valley. On our drive north from Bodrum (the new name for the very old town of Halicarnassus home to the “grandfather of history,” Herodotus), we were able to simply pull off to the side of the road and freely explore the Temple of Zeus at Euromos some 100 yards off the highway partially hidden in the trees. After crossing the Meander (several times, as it certainly lives up to its name), I explored the beautiful ruins of another once great city, Priene. Situated amongst pine trees and in the shadow of Mt. Mycale, the Temple of Athena overlooks a panoramic view of the Meander River valley once deep under the waters of the Aegean. I could only think of the ritual, awe, and ineffable feeling this place would have instilled, and still does to some degree.

Along with the philosophical interests, the early Christian history of this region captured my attention, especially the middle of the country, a region called Cappadocia. This was the home to the three of the early Church Fathers: Basil of Caesarea (now Kayseri), his older brother Gregory of Nyssa (now Nevsehir), and Gregory of Nazianzus (now Nenizi). Cappadocia is unlike any landscape I have ever seen. The closest comparison is perhaps the Badlands of South Dakota with its arid and unearthly topography. The highlights of this region are the cave dwellings carved deep into the bleached volcanic tuff under hardened caps of dark basalt. These have been the homes for the people in this area for thousands of years and, during the early centuries of Christianity, became monastic communities per the instruction of the aforementioned Basil of Caesarea.

We stayed in the town of Goreme and explored the Open Air Museum, a collection of churches, monasteries, and nunneries that were used well into the 12th century. These churches were incredible, dining halls with 40-person stone tables hewn straight from the wall, various living quarters, and stunning frescoEs still preserved after so many centuries. In some cases there were only rudimentary red crosses painted sporadically, dating from the Iconoclastic period in Eastern Christianity (8th and 9th centuries). And then the resurgence of icons and frescoes took off! In some places you could actually see where the multi-colored frescoes had been placed directly over the painted crosses. After wandering through multiple churches and seeing only remnants of frescoes, we didn’t expect the Dark Church to be much different, but paying the extra lira was more than worth it. Literally from floor to ceiling and in every nook and cranny were beautiful frescoes that looked like they had recently been finished.

An interesting thing happened to me before we boarded a plane to Cappadocia that still resonates with me. One of the security guards needed to open up my bag and in the process came across my little red leather Book of Common Prayer with a small gold cross on the cover. I can’t fully describe the respect and veneration he showed this little book. He first paused to slowly lift the book gently out of the bag with two hands and carefully place it aside, touching the cover gently with his right hand after setting it down. He continued looking through my bag with the usual efficiency before taking the same care in replacing the BCP, again gently touching the cover with his right hand after replacing it in the bag. I had assumed he was either a Muslim or a secular Turk; either way, he still took the time to show deliberate care towards a small holy object. This was my lasting impression from Turkey; that it has tried to handle its layered past with reverence and careful attention.