Saturday, October 11 Istanbul Old Town
(written Sunday morning)
It could not have been more than five minutes, maybe ten minutes at the most, but the highlight of the day was the brief time that I crossed the barrier separating those who were visiting the Blue Mosque from those who wanted to enter the inner sanctum and pray. I was thankful for my host, Burcu, who provided the opening by asking if I wanted to enter and pray. I have been very careful to honor the boundaries of my host country and I didn’t want to trespass in an area that was intended only for practicing Muslims. Burcu picked up on my yearning and eased the transition.
I let go of any expectations that I would do it right and just followed the spirit that the space and energy called forth from me. From an outsider’s perspective it must have looked like a confused and tangled mess of prayers picked up from the smorgasboard of the world’s religions. None of it was planned. In that short space of time I found myself on my knees bowing with my hands stretched forward and my head as close the ground as my tight hamstrings would allow me. I raised myself up and repeated the Lord’s Prayer as I done thousands of times leading worship in Presbyterian congregations. I rocked back and forth as Jews do at the Wailing Wall. I folded my hands in the traditional “Namaste” blessing that I use during yoga. Finally, in the end I made my prayer very personal. “God, please reveal to me the unfolding, unique vocation that you are calling me to.”
I think the experience was so powerful because the space called for my soul to speak in her own language. I didn’t have to recite someone else’s liturgy. I didn’t have to follow the movement of those around me as if there were a right way to pray. I didn’t have to prove that I was worthy or had the right faith. I only had to let the two women at the dividing ropes know that I there was for more than just pictures. I was there to pray and that was enough. I left thinking, “May our Christian churches in America be as open to the prayers of Muslims in our space as the Muslims were to my prayers in their space.” I am thankful for this gift of generosity and trust on their behalf.
The other gift of the day came in the form of my host and personal tour guide, Burcu. Back in Oregon one of the cherished members of my former congregation had very personal ties to Turkey. Her son married a woman from Turkey and Evren has guided me by email and phone as I have made my way on this journey. Evren also has a childhood friend, Burcu, who weeks before I left offered to help me any way she could while I was here.
What a gift it has been! First, I am amazed that halfway around the world I am seeing people who are connected to my home back in Oregon (later today I will be meeting with another couple connected to a woman my girlfriend and I know from Portland). Secondly, after having the responsibility of planning every little bit of each day resting on my shoulders, it was a complete relief to let Burcu do all the planning and for me to follow her around as if I was on a leash. The heaviness that I have been feeling due to constant organizing eased just a bit.
We spent the first part of our time over coffee talking about Turkish culture in general, the nature of this pilgrimage, our work, travel, language, religion, of course, and her connection to those I know in the States. What I discovered is that she was stalling a bit so that I would be able to hear the call to prayer from the Blue Mosque (an American term, not Turkish). I captured that on audio and hope to share that as part of a multi-media presentation later.
We toured through the Hagia Sophia—the magnificent structure that was originally built as a Christian Orthodox Church and was later converted to a mosque when the Ottoman Empire conquered the area. Today, it is a museum where one can see both influences. The Muslims, rather than destroying much of the Christian icons and mosaics, just covered them up. Throughout the museum/church/mosque you can see where work is being done to restore some of the Christian architecture and art as a way to tell the fuller story of this 1600 year old relic.
By the time we finished I was starving as breakfast was light and I had survived the rest of the morning and afternoon on two cups of coffee. Her mother and she agreed that sometime during the day I had to go out for meatballs! It was then that I realized why I had had such a light meal three night’s prior at a hotel. In the nearly deserted hotel the host told me I could have a salad and meatballs. I was imagining meatballs and spaghetti or some form of carbohydrate. That meal was literally just cucumbers, tomatoes and six or seven small sausage-looking things. After cycling fifty miles in a strong head wind this looked like just the appetizer to the real meal which never materialized.
Anyway, back to the meatballs yesterday during my tour of Old Town Istanbul. I could tell that these meatballs were fresh and real (my last ones were frozen, I am quite sure). I learned to couple each meatball with a piece of bread in order to get the carbohydrates my body is craving and spread a thin layer of ground pepper sauce on each one. Delicious! I ordered a water and a Coca-Cola which is offered everywhere to which Burcu told me that Coca-Cola is the number one import in Turkey. Wow!
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the Blue Mosque and then took an underground tour of the Basilica Cistern, an ancient water tank built by the Romans in the Byzantine period. Now, catfish (I think) swim in the two feet deep water while visitors take pictures of the massive columns, soak in the eerie underground lighting, and enjoy being in this man-made cavern that, at one time, served the city with water.
We ended the evening at a section of town called the Grand Bazaar, built in 1455, and is one of the world’s largest indoor markets. I can’t even describe the scope of this place. In fact, I told Burcu that I would need her to re-orient me once we emerged from it as I had completely lost my sense of direction in there. The market covers 61 streets and supports over 3,000 shops. Jewelry, silks, ceramics, sweets, carpets, coffee and teas, it’s all there. Wikipedia says that somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 people visit it daily! It was like walking into Disneyland and immediately knowing that you had entered another reality. The goal, however, was to enjoy some real Turkish coffee! And I have to say, after having been shocked by the chewable Greek and Turkish coffee up to that point, that this really was a tasty treat. Burcu said that it is made fresh each time and it did seem to take the edge off the bitterness of my prior attempts to enjoy Turkey on Turkey’s terms.
I plan to stay in Istanbul through tomorrow night (Monday) and continue on my journey Tuesday morning. I am listening to what my heart and soul really need and am finding myself shifting my attention more toward Cappadocia than Konya. My original plan was to cycle to Konya and then take a bus to Cappadocia, a strange land of rock chimneys and the remains of old underground cities and churches. But, in reflecting on what I am hearing and feeling from the people I meet with it sounds like Rumi’s Tomb is the one isolated site to visit in Konya, but that Cappadocia is a biker’s paradise that would be almost sinful to miss while in Turkey. I have more to research, but it is possible that I may give the greater weight to Cappadocia than Konya. We’ll see. I am using the phrase, “What will make my heart sing,” as a way to make my decision.
With my experience of the invitation to pray in the Blue Mosque, I end with one of Rumi’s most famous quotes, “Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving. It doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. come, even if you have broken your vows a thousand times. Come, yet again, come , come.”