After much frenzied anticipation, Yolanda and I are on our way to Turkey. It is so exotic a destination. The imagination conjures images of Sultans on golden thrones surrounded by dozens of beautiful harem girls along with images of turbaned Pashas reclining upon luxurious pillows smoking water pipes.
The history of Turkey extends back thousands of years to the dawn of civilization. It has been the seat of empires, a crossroads of cultures, the interface between western and oriental values and for millennia, the focus of two of the world’s great religions.
Turkey is this and so much more as it spans and connects the continents of Europe and Asia. Here, the Roman emperor Constantine moved his capitol in 630 C.E. splitting the empire and eventually Christianity. For over a thousand years, Eastern Europe and Russia looked to Constantinople for guidance in their faith.
Ultimately, the forces of Islam breached the ancient walls in 1454, establishing the powerful and opulent Ottoman Empire whose eventual decadence and corruption ended in the death throes of World War I less than one hundred years ago.
Now, a modern, democratic state, Turkey is struggling between looking westward toward acceptance into an integrated Europe and eastward to its seemingly natural position of leadership in the Middle East.
Stepping into this incredible wealth of historical and geographical abundance is challenging for the preconceptions that arise. Yolanda and I are fortunate to be participating in a cultural exchange sponsored by Santa Barbara’s Pacifica Institute. Consequently, we are driven to learn as much of the history and current political and economic situation as possible.
As I sought to gain an understanding of this ancient land and its peoples, I have developed a mental image that will undoubtedly be proven to be contrived and wholly inadequate to the richness of Turkey’s reality. And that’s the beauty of travel: the smashing of prejudice, preconceptions and downright ignorance.
I’ve never traveled in a Muslim culture and remember being somewhat shocked in Bangkok. While waiting in immigration, a large group of Muslims passed by on their way to customs. The women were covered head to toe in black, only slits for eyes, following obediently behind their husbands and trailing the luggage they had retrieved. It was so foreign to my experience.
And yet, that same trip, on a boat amidst the emerald waters and jungle-shrouded islands of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, Yolanda and I shared dinner with a lovely, devout, Indonesian couple, accompanied by their beautiful, obviously intelligent daughter and son. No hint of headscarves let alone birkas in their lives.
As America should have learned over these past nine years since 9/11, Islam is an extremely diverse religion, possibly more diverse in its practices and observances than our own Christianity.
Turkey is 98% Muslim: by policy, a secular state. We are to meet and dine with host families and local leaders. Our group will be visiting some of Islam’s most magnificent mosques and holiest shrines. We will be exposed to many facets of this religion to which one quarter of all humanity adheres. And too, we will be exploring some of the earliest roots of Christianity.
On the itinerary is the ancient Roman town of Ephesus, where St. Paul lived, preached and wrote his Letter to the Ephesians. As well, Cappadocia, where early Christians lived out years of persecution amidst a fairy landscape of sculpted stone and subterranean dwellings.
Though I doubt we’ll get so far east, there, near Turkey’s eastern border with Iran, sits 10,000-foot Mt. Ararat, Noah’s storied mountain from the book of Genesis.
And then there is the long, deep Jewish history within Turkey. Seven hundred years of open invitation as a refuge from pogroms and persecution by Christians.
Turkey will clearly be an experience that confounds my preconceptions. I can’t wait to arrive.