Reading this article yesterday (December 29, 2011) in the op-ed section of the NY Post opened a festering wound from my trip to Istanbul. My contact with that world was limited to the few friends, students and colleagues of that faith. I have tried to understand that religion by reading the Koran in its entirety and by discussing what I read. I have compared fanatics of all religions and I have seen no difference in their intolerance to others. What I had not experienced was what I was not able to appreciate in Istanbul. I enjoy visiting sites of worship, not for their prayer services, but to see the architecture and their believers. I had just visited the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as the “Blue Mosque”) and I was ignorant of its history, but I was awed by its beauty.
In the 17th century, Sultan Ahmet I wished to build an Islamic place of worship that would be even better than the Hagia Sophia, and the mosque named for him is the result. The two great architectural achievements now stand next to each other in Istanbul’s main square, and it is up to visitors to decide which is more impressive.
It was easy seeing which one was more impressive. One had been allowed to decay while the other one was still flourishing. The entrance fee to the mosque was free while the “church” now operating as a museum was charging an exorbitant fee to enter it. I normally do not pay to enter houses of worship but I made an exception since this would probably be my last trip to this country.
While I toured this museum, my anger at how this site had been desecrated was evident in the lack of enthusiasm in type of photographs I was taking. My brother-in-law was surprised at my reaction. I’m not known for being the religious one in the family and my displeasure at the lack of respect for this edifice by the government of Turkey was even surprising to me.
The following day we went in search of a comparatively humble building in Fener, Istanbul, the Patriarchal Cathedral Church of St. George (Aya Yorgi) which houses the worldwide headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Church.
There were no signs leading tourists to its location. This did not surprise me. I had seen a report on 60 Minutes about the home of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who is recognized as the “first among equals” of all Orthodox spiritual leaders. St. George had been part of a monastery before it welcomed the Orthodox Patriarchate. Over the centuries, it has been periodically damaged, the last time during the fire in 1941.
It is no longer a monastery and its head has to be born in Turkey. This church is an endangered site that is protected under the guise of Turkish authorities.
Before those visits I was surprised to see a church surrounded by 10 ft. walls. I didn’t think much of this at that time but I did find it vexing that the doors to this church were not open.
Normally while traveling, I meet a local who I befriend. This is a city where I didn’t find anyone besides the people at the hotel, restaurants and shops, especially the carpet salesmen, who have an interest in the name of customer service to be nice to its guests. I did meet a couple at a Starbucks Cafe who were enjoying their honeymoon in Istanbul. They’re from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina a place where I’ve been invited to visit and look forward one day to see them again. For now we’re friends on Facebook and keep in touch intermittently.
Would I recommend visiting Istanbul? Yes, but don’t waste your time trying to see anything that represent the Christian religions.