Turkey: The Crossroads of Religion
By Scott Smith and Sandra Wells



For Americans, Turkey is the ideal place to be introduced to Muslim culture and broaden their education in history. The world’s oldest cities were there, followed by 36 other civilizations. There are more historical sites than the rest of Europe combined. More of its places are mentioned in the Bible than anywhere except Israel (including Mt. Ararat, where some believe remains of Noah’s Ark can still be found). For a millennium, what is now call Istanbul had Christianity’s, the most important church. And Turkey is where the Whirling Dervishes originated and remain headquartered.

The founder of the modern Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, reacted to the excesses of the defeated Ottoman Empire by westernizing and secularizing Turkish society in the wake of World War I. In fact, the government goes much further than the U.S. in making sure religion does not have too much influence on the state: it dictates the subjects that imams can preach on.

As a consequence, while the call to prayer is heard everywhere in Turkey five times a day because 98 percent of the population is Muslim, perhaps only 10 percent are strict about observing this and about a third of the population goes to the mosque on Friday. The Turks also like their national liquor, the licorice-flavored and powerful raki, while fundamentalists are strict teetotalers.

Whether all this is a good or bad thing from a religious standpoint, Turkey is a comfortable place for Americans to visit. That experience is enhanced by the modern highways, first-class resorts at an affordable rate, safe food and water, and a low crime rate (there are rare minor terrorist incidents, but Turkey is very safe compared to the U.S.).

This past November, we spent 16 days on the “Best of Turkey” tour, led by Bora Ozkok, whose Cypress-based Cultural Folk Tours is considered the leading U.S. specialist on Turkey. Visit www. boraozkok.com  or call (714) 252-9072 and ask for a video. Serenading us with his flute, this Turkish Pan and scholar was a constant fountain of enthusiasm about what he feels is the greatest overlooked travel destination in the world. And now that we have been there, we agree. What follows are just examples of some of our experiences.

In the Beginning
We began our journey in Ankara, the capital in the center of the country, at the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations (Anatolia is the ancient name for the peninsula that Turkey occupies). It won an award as the best museum in Europe and all exhibits are labeled in English. It holds some of the world’s oldest art, including hunting scenes painted on the walls of the world’s first cities (near Ankara) about 6500 B.C. for magical purposes and the first known statuettes of the Mother Goddess, in clay.

During the Bronze Age (3000-2000 B.C.), the art became much more complex and lavish, such as the elaborate golden sun disk used for ritual. The Hittites, who flourished from 1750 B.C. to 700 B.C., are a major part of the exhibits. They are mentioned a number of times in the Bible and there is a copy is of the world’s first peace treaty between a Hittite king and Pharaoh Ramses II. They worshipped hundreds of gods, popularized the use of iron, had a complex and merciful legal system, and theirs is the oldest Indo-European language.

Other civilizations, even most history buffs would be unfamiliar with, are Phrygia (1200-700 B.C.), represented by statues of Kybele (a goddess widely worshipped in the Middle East and in southeast Europe up through Roman times), and Urartu (900-600 B.C.), from which there is a truly magnificent bronze cauldron on display.

In the afternoon, we took the first of half a dozen long bus rides (albeit in a Mercedes; Bora is entertaining and the people who go on a tour of Turkey are stimulating conversationalists, but you should bring some books or CDs).

Further into the center of the country is Cappadocia, whose soft stone hills have been molded by nature into a weird Bryce Canyonlike landscape, with entire villages carved into them that can be eight stories deep. We stayed at CFT’s Cave Suites, a five-star boutique hotel build into one hill (nearby was a sign directing us to the UFO Museum, but we never got there). Most of the next few days were spent exploring underground churches and monasteries, which have beautiful Byzantine frescoes from the 9th century onwards.

Turning to God
One afternoon we went to Kayseri, known as Caesarea in the Bible, an important Roman city and later residence of St. Basil, the bishop who formulated the rules for monastic life in the Eastern Orthodox churches and was one of the great contenders against heresies. We watched gorgeous Turkish rugs being handwoven and at great discounts compared to the U.S., visitors should anticipate feeling compelled to have one shipped back home. That night, we were privileged to witness a ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes (which are surprisingly hard to find other than at the annual celebration in December in Konya).

Mevlana Rumi, a Sufi mystic (A.D. 1207-1273) who wrote over 25,000 poems, believed that music and dance could induce an ecstatic state of love for God and other people that would be life transforming. Turkish secular music uses rhythms, chord changes, and lute-like instruments, zithers, flutes, and drums, which make it hypnotic, but nothing is more spellbinding than that of the Dervishes.

The sema symbolizes different cycles to attain perfection and reflects that all things revolve, from subatomic particles to the galaxy. The Dervishes wear a tall hat that symbolizes the ego’s tombstone and a black cloak which shrouds the ego and is taken off before the turning begins, to reveal a white skirt. One hand is lifted palm open towards the sky to receive God’s grace and the other is held palm down to convey his gifts to all creation.

We sat in the front row, close enough we could have touched the dancers, whose eyes rolled to the back of their heads as they went into a trance, making us wonder how they could keep track of their movements. After an hour of this, they returned to their rooms to meditate and we were left feeling we had been in the presence of divine power. It is an experience not to be missed.

We were shortly joined by another guide, Fazli, who has an advanced degree in economics and our bus rides were filled with in-depth discussions about Turkish and American politics, religion, technology, and modern history. The entire trip involved interacting with Muslims in various settings and with varying viewpoints, so one had a good idea of how Islam has adapted to the changing world.

Greeks and Romans
When we arrived at the coast along the Mediterranean Sea, we were startled at how dynamic the resort cities were, attracting millions of visitors escaping Northern Europe’s winter for the year-round warm climate. They also come to see some of the world’s best-preserved Greek and Roman cities. Our first stop was Tarsus, where Anthony and Cleopatra first met and where we saw St. Paul’s home. Nearby are the massive ruins of a Temple of Zeus.

In Antalya, we visited a church built underground (at a time when Christianity was illegal) by St. Thecla, one of Paul’s disciples and the first female to be canonized. The Antalya Museum has an excellent collection of well-preserved sculptures of gods and humans from the time when Greek civilization was spread throughout Anatolia by Alexander the Great after 330 B.C., followed by the Romans.

One partial statue lists the Americans who have the rest of it, obtained from looters, and the museum where it is being displayed in Boston. This is part of a campaign to try to embarrass people into returning artifacts.

We visited the nearby ancient city of Perge and at first it did not look like much. As elsewhere, one can only imagine what the ancient sites looked like in their prime — the limestone and granite that remains were originally covered with marble. But as you walk through them with a good guide, history comes alive and you appreciate the intricate bas relief sculptures up close. At Aspendos, we also saw the most perfectly-preserved ancient amphitheater anywhere, built by the enlightened Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the 2nd century and still used, seating up to 20,000.

Traveling along the coast, we drove by castles built by medieval crusaders on their way to the Holy Land, some on shore, some on islands (this phase of history was well-captured by the movie “Kingdom of Heaven”).

Moving northwest near the Aegean Sea, we came to Aphrodisias, which tradition says was started by Aeneas, who fathered Remus and Romulus, legendary founders of Rome. It was a center for worship of the Mother Goddess from 5800 B.C. and there are remains of a 1st century A.D. Temple of Aphrodite. Believing he was descended from the goddess, Julius Caesar had a golden statue of Eros dedicated to her there. There is also an enormous athletic stadium.

In Sardis (capital of Lydia and one of the seven churches mentioned in Revelation, all of which are in Turkey), we saw a partially restored synagogue, built in the 3rd century A.D., one of the world’s oldest (incidentally, the Ottoman government took in hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and today Turkey has the best relations with Israel of any Muslim nation).

Wonders of the World
During the next couple of days we saw even more impressive archaeological sites. Ephesus, whose Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a major pagan pilgrimage site, was the largest city outside of Rome, with 250,000 residents. Not much remains of the temple (which had 127 columns), but what has been uncovered of the city shows it was largely made of marble, with main streets that had 24-hour lightning (pick up Ephesus Yesterday and Today by Helga Olnen to see what it looked like in its prime).

The Library of Celsus, whose grand facade has been restored, held 15,000 books. St. John, who wrote Revelation on the nearby island of Patmos, was said to have brought Mary, the mother of Jesus, to spend her last days in Ephesus and a house that tradition says was hers can be seen. St. Paul preached in the city daily for two years, before being thrown out by the silversmiths, whose sales of idols were being affected.

Pergamum was one of the Greek world’s leading centers of learning and had a library of 200,000 items, compared with Alexandria’s 700,000. The latter felt threatened by former’s rapid growth and refused to provide it with papyrus scrolls. Pergamum responded by inventing parchment from animal skins, leading to the creation of books.

Galen was born there in 129 A.D., shortly before Roman rule, and became the greatest ancient physician second only to Hippocrates (who was born near Ephesus). We visited the remains of his famous medical resort, the Asklepion, whose healing arsenal included herbs, diet, mineral water, mud paths, psychology, hypnosis, colonics, the anti-bacterial properties of olive oil, and opium cream for surgery.

Troy, which fought the Greeks in the 13th century B.C., was one of nine cities on the same site. Today the walls are 20 feet high, but were said by Homer to have been 60 feet, with the city able to hold up to 400,000. Alexander made a pilgrimage to Troy to sacrifice at the Temple of Athena before meeting the Persians in battle, leaving his armor as an offering and taking weapons that were believed to have been used in the Trojan War.

Called Byzantium when it was founded in the 7th century B.C., the city which straddles Europe and Asia was changed to Constantinople by the Emperor Constantine in 330 B.C., becoming the capital of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire. Its enormous walls held off all invaders, but the city was looted in 1200 by fellow Christians who were let inside on their way to the crusade.

Central Asian Turks (speaking a language related to Hungarian and Finnish) had been coming to Anatolia since the 7th century A.D. as mercenaries for Arabs and in 1453 one of these armies, the Ottomans, conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul, making it the capital of an empire that would eventually cover 36 countries in the Middle East, southern Europe, and northern Africa.

Istanbul is one of the great world cities, as beautiful as Paris, but much cleaner and more dynamic. The number of mosques worth visiting are as many as churches in Rome. Foremost among them is the Blue Mosque, named for exquisite inside tiling, with beautiful geometric and flower designs. Across from it is Hagia Sophia, the most important church in Christendom for a millennium (until St. Peter’s Basilica was built), and it has numerous mosaics depicting biblical figures.

Topkapi Palace, covering 175 acres, was the residence of 25 sultans over four centuries. After going through some of its opulent rooms and a Treasury of gifts (we didn’t arrive at the right time for a harem tour), we came to the Pavilion of the Holy Relics, which includes what are allegedly hairs from the beard of Mohammed and items from Mecca. Even more dazzling is Dolmabache Palace, which became the home of the sultans in 1856.

The Istanbul Museum is not on the official tour itinerary, but recommended during free time. It has some great examples of Greek and Roman statuary. It has the Alexander Sarcophagus, a marble tomb for a 4th century B.C. king of Sidon, which depicts Alexander defeating the Persians.

And, of course, we spent time among the 4,000 stalls of the Grand Bazaar and dining at the city’s internationally-known restaurants — but that is part of another tale. Truly, one could spend weeks in Istanbul and never tire of it.

Scott Smith is the author of “The Soul of Your Pet: Evidence for the Survival of Animals After Death.” Sandra Wells writes on travel and is a painter of magical art.

Return to the March/April Index page