June 21, 2013
Ellen Herr Awe and her mother Mary Herr don shawls in preparation for entering the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul. The mosque is also referred to as the “Blue Mosque”.
I wakened early, before our ship arrived in Istanbul, before the sun rose. From our veranda I could look east, seeing the skyline of Istanbul with a low-lying bank of clouds just above it. The rising sun was behind this bank of clouds, illuminating the very edge of the cloud bank as if it were an illuminated manuscript. I stood gazing intently over 20 minutes, waiting for the sun to be visible. Then the sun burst through, a brilliant golden ball, just as it has each morning on this trip.
In Istanbul, we headed toward our first stop, the Hagia Sophia. We learned that this building is actually the third constructed on this spot, the previous two having been destroyed by fire in riots, first in the fourth century and the second in the sixth. The current building was constructed with amazing speed (five years from start to finish [532–537] by 10,000 workers, including architects, working day and night). The domes and the mosaics are the most striking features, but what is really interesting now is the way Christian and Muslim features co-exist in the building.
In 1453 the city fell to the Turks, and under the Ottomans changes were introduced to the Hagia Sophia. Many, though not all of the mosaics, were covered over with plaster. Yet the plaster was also beautiful – intricate designs with blue, red, gold, and green. Some mosaics were adapted.
Our guide said, “For Christians, a church is a house for God, but for Muslims a mosque is a house for prayer in the name of God.” Hmm … and for Anabaptists a church building is the place where the people of God meet. In this way, Anabaptists historically have been closer to Muslims than some other parts of the Christian church. Yet, even we Anabaptists have learned that we need some times and places that are holy so that we know that all times and places are holy. And a building—or even a cave or a bridge—is changed when prayer is made there over decades, centuries, millennia. All this stretches my imagination, my intellect, my heart and soul.
Next we walked to the Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman Empire with building begun in 1455. Each of the sultans continued to modify and add to the buildings until 1857. There were armed guards present as we entered, but I was drawn more to the many red flower beds—with roses, begonias, salvia, always red lining the paths—and huge trees, sycamore and cypress of some kind?
Our third stop required time on the bus, dropping us off in the shopping district. Here we visited a rug dealer who welcomed us and seated us around the periphery of a large room. We were served apple tea and black tea in glass “cups” without handles and a sesame soft pretzel while we received a lecture on the various kinds of Turkish rugs and how they are made.
From the rug dealer our guide pointed us to the Grand Bazaar. What a place! Hundreds of small shops all along a maze of 53 streets (actually small walking lanes): lots of jewelry, pashminas, ceramics, leather goods, Turkish Delight, and nuts, especially pistachios in various forms.
By this time Friday prayers in the Sultanahmet Mosque (aka, the Blue Mosque) had ended, and visitors were again allowed entrance. As we waited in line we saw many places for the ritual footwashing generally performed before entering. The women in the group began getting out scarves (some newly purchased) as we approached the entrance. We all received plastics bags in which to carry our shoes, which we needed to remove.
The mosque itself was a picture of beauty and proportion, both balanced and expansive. The simple blue lines and gold lettering were stunning. Yet at this time of day it was for me no more a place of prayer than the Sistine Chapel. People of all faiths moved through fairly quickly, with little chance for reflection and certainly not contemplation. In the center was the carpeted area for prayers.
Our final stop was the Spice Bazaar, close to the Galata Bridge. This market was also chaotic, but much smaller than the Grand Bazaar, and our guide pointed us to a specific shop where he said his mother still buys her spices. A lot of us made purchases there, all nicely vacuum sealed for the return trip home.
One other observation and question: This was the first I have seen so many women in various forms of dress. Scarf only, scarf and shoulders covered, scarf and shoulders with flowing dress, with plain-colored flowing dress, with numerous variants on black burka. Is this like the Amish and old-order Mennonites? Who decides who wears what? And do the more-covered judge the less-covered? And what about the designer scarves, leather bags and shoes showing beneath the clothing? I read the pamphlet I was given about the hijab. At some level I understand the sense of freedom it describes; you don’t have to dress in order for men to notice how good you look. You can be true self without worrying about the impressions you convey in public. And how does this same high motivation not apply to men?
We returned to the ship just in time for yet another delicious evening meal around the tables. Good food and good conversation after a marvelous day in an amazing city where we have only barely scratched the surface.
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Welcome to this window on the 2013 Mediterranean Cruisetour. As Sara Wenger Shenk, AMBS president, and Loren Johns, AMBS professor of New Testament, and 43 other travelers explore the places where the Apostle Paul traveled, they will share photos and reports here. Come back to this space for what we hope will be daily snapshots in words and photos of what the group is experiencing.
Visit Menno Travel to learn more about the Cruisetour.