Istanbul – Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Today we left Athens and made it to Istanbul. The travel day went well, with an early departure to the airport and a 90-minute flight across the Aegean Sea. Our flight hardly had the drama of the great sea sagas of the ancient world, but our arrival thrust us into a city teeming with life, energy and vitality. Despite the recent unrest, this city and nation possess a rich and vital past and a bright and promising future. Just the sheer size (10-12 million people; the entire population of Greece is 11 million) and beauty of Istanbul are breathtaking. Sitting as it does on the Sea of Marmara and the mouth of the Bosporus, Istanbul enjoys the huge advantage of location, location, location.

Jim Wright and Heather Keaney, the founding directors of our Westmont in Istanbul program, met us at our hotel tonight. I first visited Istanbul in March 2012 to see our inaugural program in motion. They had done a marvelous job then—and continue to do a fantastic job now—balancing our need for a rigorous academic program with deep engagement with the social challenges and cultural realities facing Turkey. They will join us during our entire time in Turkey. What a delight.

Jim’s comments tonight focused on the current realities in Turkey and the context for the clashes and simmering unrest and dissent. It’s impossible to escape the long and impressive shadow of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey. He lived from 1881 to 1938 and was a brilliant military general and an even more impressive political leader.

The current prime minister seems to be waging an ongoing fight with Ataturk’s lingering presence, even though the country is preparing to celebrate the 75th anniversary of his death. Ataturk made an enormous contribution in pulling Turkey into the modern age. His desire that Turkey be self-governing is striking. His insistence that the state be secular and that society be run by politicians, not religious leaders, wrenched control of the country away from the caliphs and set the “new” republic on a course to modernization that positions Turkey as an impressive economic power regionally and globally.

Many of Ataturk’s innovations are reminiscent of the West’s experience of the Enlightenment. The fact/value dichotomy—the public sphere governed by science and fact and the private sphere influenced by religion and value—has a direct parallel with Kemal and modern Turkey. But the democracy is young, and the social unrest reflects a deeper clash reaching across the ages. Who will prevail? What vision of life and society will persist? Kemal and his secular vision for life in Turkey or the ongoing movement towards a hybrid of the past and present? The answer is unclear, but tensions abound, and the immediate future will continue to pulsate with these tensions and the unending drama.

I love Istanbul from the days it was known as Constantinople. Istanbul is a transliteration of the Greek phrase “to the city” (eis ten polin: Is-tan-pol), meaning to go to the city of Constantinople. The city plays an important role in the history of Christianity and the settled understanding of our faith.

Tomorrow we will go to Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom. All my life, I had dreamed of seeing Hagia Sophia. Completed in 538 A.D., it was the largest structure in Christendom for nearly 1,000 years. A year ago in March, when I entered the church for the first time, I experienced one of the most titanic, internal emotional clashes, simultaneously feeling joy and exhilaration and disappointment and despair. How did they build such a glorious structure? The outside of the building is simply overwhelming and awe-inspiring. But then you go inside.

I will write more tomorrow night after we see the church again and tour the Golden Horn of the original city. For now, it’s good to be back in a city that mesmerizes me with its history, beauty and importance. Our room on the second floor of our hotel is warm, and, as we relax tonight, we have the window open. We are downtown where most westerners and Americans must stay. Under the shadow of the nearby mosque, the sidewalk musician is playing Eric Clapton’s “Will You Know My Name,” the heart-wrenching ballad he composed after the tragic death of his 4-year-old son. All I can think about is the incredible array of cultures that collide when you come to Istanbul.

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