Today was another full and exciting day. My body has finally caught up to my brain, and I feel like I’ve recovered from the effects of jet lag. Of course, coffee is a wonderful companion, especially when enduring the effects of “time travel.”
We started the morning with another great lecture by Dr. Heather Keaney. Yesterday she spoke about the similarities between Christianity and Islam; today she considered the differences. I’ll say more about this once we get to Rome. When you combine religious beliefs with titanic clashes between different powers and civilizations, it’s remarkable that any progress can occur.
Our tour leader, Dr. David Sparks, continues to do a wonderful job as we travel to spectacular sites and reflect on the different dimensions that make up every culture. Our activities today included a boat ride to the mouth of the Black Sea, a visit to the Spice Market, and a tour of the stunning mosaics and frescos at the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora.
As we meandered up the Bosporus, we passed huge container ships carrying goods to and from inland Europe and Asia. These ships symbolize the economic vitality and energy that marks the entire region. But passage is tough. The Bosporus narrows considerably just beyond the Golden Horn, so commercial traffic is restricted to one direction. Boat pilots require deft skill as they make 70-degree turns in channels better suited for ancient ships. Even a brief loss of power or a slight break in concentration could send these ships careening into the homes and business that line each side of the Bosporus.
Time permitted us to see the summer homes and palaces of various rulers through the ages. The air temperature on the Bosporus was at least 10 degrees cooler, and we enjoyed the respite from the heat that has stalked us the entire trip.
During our trip to the Spice Market, we experienced the everyday economy. The Turkish lira remains the currency of trade, although conversation continues on Turkey’s hopes for entry into the European Union (EU). Clearly, zoning for consistency of purpose was not a consideration here!
News of Turkey’s interest in entering the EU also stokes the fires of religious pluralism. The EU is reluctant to admit Turkey for any number of reasons. A key one is the predominately Muslim population and the significant discouragement by the Turkish government of the practice of any other religion. There is speculation tinged with cynicism that recent efforts to tidy up the appearance of Christian churches are just window dressing for the EU “accreditors.” This almost sounds like the conversations we have about a site visit by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, our accrediting agency!
In reality, the issue for the EU is not making Turkey more Christian; it’s trying to force Turkey to be less religious. Many of the disputes over religion reflect the EU’s desire to detach any political behavior from religious belief. But this attitude doesn’t fit most of the countries in Eastern Europe, where religion and politics have always co-mingled.
We devoted the afternoon to visiting Chora. It was simply spellbinding. Here, in beautiful mosaics and frescos, we witnessed the entire story of Scripture told through art. The intricate details combined with the vivid colors bring Scripture to life in a way that pleases the eye and tantalizes the mind. It was awe-inspiring to see this art and deeply meaningful to think of the faithful witness of Christians through the ages.
Our evening concluded quietly. Today we crossed the half-way mark for our trip. The group has gelled beautifully. Everyone on the trip has a direct connection to Westmont, either as an alum or family member of an alum. Tomorrow we head to Topkapi Palace and think together about political life and government, past and present. News reached us today of the four deaths at the site of the unrest. As we drove to the church at Chora, we were delayed by a public rally marking the launch of a new political party. The translation of its name means “Party of God.” Here, yet again, as we toured ancient sites, we were reminded that so much of world history has been marked by religion and politics either at war with each other or walking hand-in-hand. Finding constructive and meaningful engagement in the future will be a key.
Until tomorrow, blessings and good night,
Gayle D. Beebe