Today we visited Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom, as well as the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome and the Cultural Museum.
I love Hagia Sophia; it’s the most glorious structure. But it has seen so much in its nearly 1,500-year life. Built by the Emperor Justinian and completed in 538, it hosted some of the most important conversations in the history of the church, including the final and most debilitating schism of 1054. When the Ottomans arrived in 1453, it soon became a mosque and served this role until 1935, when Ataturk made it a museum. More recently, the current prime minister has indicated his openness to returning it to a mosque, but only if the Blue Mosque, at the opposite end of the huge, open-air, park-like pavilion, overflows its capacity. Before it ceased to be a Christian church, it was the fourth largest structure in Christendom behind St.Paul’s in London, St.Peter’s in Rome, and El Duomo in Florence. It would be fascinating to think about a theology of space, but that is for another time.
The Blue Mosque is also a beautiful structure reflecting in many respects the architectural influence of Hagia Sophia. Our tour of this site required modest dress and respectful but not silent interaction. What an amazing day.
We ate lunch at a restaurant in the shadow of the mosque, ate dinner near the Bosporus and enjoyed a wonderful lecture by Dr. Heather Keaney on the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam. One of Heather’s main points focused on the difficulty of articulating any monolithic understanding of Islam because it is expressed so differently throughout the world.
Her lecture reminded me of several important ideas and works. Years ago, I read, “Islam Observed,” a wonderful work by Clifford Geertz, a leading cultural anthropologist of the mid and late 20th century. His main focus was identifying and outlining the similarities and differences between the expression of Islam in Morocco and Indonesia. It was fascinating at the time and continues to be provocative today. Of course, many of the parallels could easily apply to Christianity.
More recently, I enjoyed Robert Wuthnow’s work, “Communities of Discourse,” a consideration of how and where the Reformation, the Enlightenment and national socialism succeeded and failed. For example, Wuthnow identifies several key reasons why an urbanizing Germany was ripe for Martin Luther’s message, while a persistent rural culture in France remained less open to his ideas. I appreciate the intersection of Heather’s lecture with these two earlier works and the way all three help us consider the role culture and context play in our own religious understanding and practice.
As we returned from our dinner tonight, our guide mentioned another large gathering in Taksim Square. We have no idea what is transpiring, and there is no evidence of unrest in the Golden Horn section of the original city where we are staying. Of course, nothing appears on the Turkish news (although we had the delightful surprise of seeing Tugce Canitez, our national women’s basketball player of the year, being interviewed on T.V. while looking for updates). Like in Greece, the unrest is rippling into the tourist economy with significant but not devastating impact.
The ongoing tension helps bring home the reality of balancing the legacy of Kemal and the rise of the republic with the real tensions facing the present government. Having recently reflected on the life, words and work of Abraham Lincoln, I have no sense that they are headed toward the same realities that confronted Lincoln when he wrote “Four score and seven years ago.” But as the Republic of Turkey prepares to celebrate its 90th anniversary (Oct. 29, 1923), I can’t help but believe they will need a Lincoln-like figure to solidify the foundation and future of the republic.
Countries, like organizations and companies, face different challenges as they grow and develop. Each new generation faces the responsibility and opportunity of meeting the challenges of the time. Luke reminds us of this when he writes in Acts 13 that “…when David had served God’s purposes in his own generation, he fell asleep.” What a great way to be remembered. My hope for our present time is that we can learn enough from the past to be faithful to the purposes of God in the present.
Tomorrow will include a consideration of the economic and business realities affecting Turkey. Until then, blessings and good night.
Gayle D. Beebe