I’ve been standing on the edge for the past few days…the edge of space between cultures, the edge of spirit between faiths, the edge of history at a time when the whole world changed (a couple of times). I just returned from 5 days in Istanbul.
Oh, yes, I’ve heard (and made) the jokes about spending Turkey Day in Turkey. And frankly, I wasn’t really certain about why I wanted to go to Istanbul until I returned home (so typical). But truth be told, no description, no guide book or digital slide show can tell you the power of the place. You just have to be there.
How could I know the emotions and the sense of mystery that I would feel, hearing the call to prayer sung as the sun set, standing on a roof deck of an old Ottoman house, with the lights of the Bosporus in view?
I had to personally walk through the massive doors of the Hagia Sophia to know that I would be so moved by all that had passed in that place that I would burst into great heaving sobs and be immobilized. No one could have told me the effect that its size and beauty, combined with the layering of two of the world’s great faiths, would have on me. St. Peter’s had no such effect.
No book could possibly communicate the feelings that came as I stood, head-covered, in my stocking feet, on the biggest and most beautiful rug I had ever seen, behind the visitor’s railing at the Sulemaniye Mosque (the Blue Mosque) and looked through the great windows across the Sea of Marmara on a sparkling blue day and felt the peace of centuries of prayers that I don’t understand but can relate to as an act of faith.
And even though I had read about it, there was nothing in me to imagine the sparkling brilliance of the Byzantine mosaics at the Chora Monastery (for a while the Kariye Mosque), the life of Mary and the life of Jesus displayed in magnificent scenes created with tiny sparkling stones, nor to take in the amazing power of the frescoes in the paraclesus depicting what the travel writer Rick Steves calls “Rambo Jesus” as he descends into Hell to save the souls of the saints of the Hebrew Bible and return them to heaven as believers in Him.
Or how it felt to stand outside the doors of the church where the Council of Constantinople was held in 381 and where the words to the Nicene Creed were adopted. Or what it would be like to cruise the Bosphorus and feel the force of three great bodies of water, currents flowing in different directions, all at the center of so much strife and change through the ages. Or how exciting it would be to explore the city by public transportation and on foot, or how wonderful it would be to experience the kindness and hospitality of the people we met, particularly those at our wonderful little hotel, the Ibrahim Pasa.
I could give you practical travel advice now, tell you to stay in the Sultanahmet district, not to be cheap about your hotel because having a nice place to stay is important there, or tell you the glories of our favorite restaurant, the Rumeli Cafe. But I won’t.
But I will tell you, that, if the idea of standing at the edge of time and seeing the future and the past all mixed into one, if standing in a place where faiths and history have battled and diverged and mixed together all at the same time, if it is important to you to stand at the beginning of all that you believe, go to Istanbul.
Next stop, the Holy Land itself. I’ll be a little more prepared now, but I’m taking a lot of hankies.