Istanbul’s three religious faiths all living side by side. An accomplishment that Ataturk would have been proud

Istanbul Turkey, the city that straddles two continents, Asia and Europe, is unique. From various vistas you can view the Bosporus and the Golden Horn all in one glance as well as the domed tops of the many mosques that are seen at almost every corner.

With a population of 16 million, give a million or two either way, the make up is 99% Muslims. It boggles the imagination that from external appearances it is an amicable city with religious segments that seem to co exist, considering what’s happening in the rest of the so-called civilized world. This unusual chumminess seems entirely due to Ataturk, the national hero who was insistent on Turkey’s becoming secular and allowing Christianity (Greek Orthodox and Armenia Orthodox) and Judaism to retain their beliefs and traditions.

With only 1%, non Muslim, the rest Sunnis, the first conclusion is that there needn’t be any concern about this small segment that live in this busy horn- honking metropolis where the blue Evil Eye wards off any difficulty. Perhaps this situation works since the symbol is seen hanging from taxi mirrors, expensive gold jewelry and of course touristy cups and tiles.

The fragrances of sweet spices permeate the old part of the city where locals shop at the fragrant Spice market and shopkeepers offer me hot apple tea during a sale, expensive high-rise buildings are now competing in height with the likes of the grand mosques. Everywhere I went, children were seen ,usually playing soccer, cats of every description had their territory and the shops in the old area of the city could only be describe as colourful an noisy. On the tonier side of Istanbul, streets resembled 5th Avenue and Madison Avenue with designer label stores, out door cafes, smart restaurants and chic condos. Few women are seen wearing head scarves and I didn’t see any in full length in burkas. Religious observance is relatively low and the identity is based more on culture than religious dogma.

Jews have lived in Istanbul for more than 500 years. Their expulsion from Spain to Turkey was to be a new start for these Sephardic Jews after the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. They were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire by the Sultan Beyazit II who accepted them, allowing marriages, renting house, owning their own businesses and praying as they wished. Jew became part of the texture of Istanbul society. However when the Ottoman empire collapsed, may minorities left the country and today in the entire country there are now only 25,000 Jewish people.

Early one morning, after passing vendor carts heaped with what seemed a small mountain of fresh strawberries and wagons selling simit, a pretzel like bread, which I seemed obliged to eat on my way, I visited the Neve Shalom Synagogue. Even though the front of the building is monumental, one has to walk down a lane where there are security controls, guards, bags are checked and there are two way mirrors. This Ashkenazy synagogue is the largest in Istanbul and the centre for the Jewish community. Security is reasonably tight since the terrorist attack killing 23 worshippers on a Sabbath morning in September 1986. The Turkish government and people were outrages in this secular city. The damaged wall and floor, although repaired is highlighted with brass boarding as a reminder as is a memorial candle that sits in the hallway atop a grandfather clock stopped at the time of the attack. Then again on a Saturday morning in November 2003, a car bomb exploded outside the synagogue, this time during a bar mitzvah service when the prayer hall was filled with worshippers. However, the ill timed explosion killed mostly Turkish Muslims who lived and worked in the area. Over a dozen were killed and many more wounded. The explosion blew away the front of the building and created a two meter deep hole. Reports have said that these Muslim fundamentalists were linked to Al Qaeda. Now any request to see the synagogue must be done a few days in advance of the visit with passport information. “Daily life goes along well,” says a synagogue representative not wanting to be named. She is hesitant to talk about it there is any overt anti Semitism but points out that there are fringe fundamentalist and people who criticize Israel. “It’s a fine line although religious dialogues regularly take place between the Rabbi and those from the Armenian and Greek segments.

“We live discreet lives and the Turkish people consider us as one of them,” she says. There is a Jewish hospital, Jewish schools, and geriatric care, probably the best in all Turkey and the synagogue is self supporting and proudly, I’m told, that on the High Holidays there are many visitors. The stained glass window over the ‘torahs” (scrolls) is intricate, the hall large but there is no resident rabbi. This synagogue is conservative while Ahrida Synagogue, in another seemingly poorer part of the city, is an orthodox synagogue built in the 1400s and founded originally by Jews who migrated from Macedonia. It is the oldest active synagogue in Turkey. The security was even more pronounced with a large wire fence in the front and disallowing any photography. The wood seats are narrow and face the unusual bimah. Several crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling, one over the bimah which is of the most unusual shape I’ve ever seen. It’s in the form of Noah’s Ark. Here women are separated and sit in the upper gallery. If one intends to visit, again, consider phoning a few days in advance and take your passport.

Coming away from the synagogues, I felt a sameness as I have when I visited synagogues in other parts of the world. Caution seems to be of utmost importance even in a country that cheers their secular identity.

Jet lag has it good points. At 5.30AM, not able to sleep, I went to the hotel’s 24 hour business centre, thinking I would be the lucky one to get to use the one working computer. Instead there was someone equally sleepless. David Schutz, an Australian with a cause, is part of the Ecumenical and Interfaith commission visiting the country for the first time. Obviously, he was the perfect person to ask about the complexity of religion in this secular country. “Just try understanding an Islamic county that’s so secular and how very special that is,” said the 41 year old, slightly bearded man. He too, emphasized that Ataturk had to be credited with the existing religious freedom and belief and separation of government from religion. Meanwhile, later that day, over 1 million demonstrators took to the streets also echoing the importance of a secular country and government. “Religion here is like going down a rabbit hole. It doesn’t fit any other paradigm,” said Shutz. “Ethnic problems have some difficulty in the homogenous society. Turks like to speak highly of their tolerance,” he says before finishing his daily blog.

With over 1000 mosques just in Istanbul, the skyscape with the thousands of minarets and domes looks like pins in a pincushion.

Although I had been here before, one of the greatest symbols of religion is Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy wisdom of God Sophia means wisdom), never ceases to create a sense of awe. Recently nominated as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The New7Wonders Foundation, an international panel of experts chose to have Hagia Sophia stand among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world. Hagia Sophia started out as a Roman Catholic Church (1204-1261) only to be taken over by the invading Turks (1453) and transformed into a mosque. Certainly the main focus is the central dome which is 31 m in diameter and 56 meters high with an arcade of 40 arched windows around the base of the dome which allow a flood of light. From my own experience, I can only suspect that other tourists had neck pains from the prolonged arching as we looked up to this incredible sight. The marble interior and gold mosaics with the simple stuccoed exterior walls show the clarity of the domes and vaults. However, it was considered a great tragedy for the Christians when it fell to the Ottomans.

Various forms of destruction are part of Hagia Sophia’s history starting with an earthquake in 789AD which ruined the dome. The building is now considered the greatest surviving example of Byzantine architecture. Finally in 1935 it became a museum and is considered the most beautiful building in Turkey. And during restoration, Christian iconographic mosaics were uncovered. However some Islamic art could have been destroyed but the artisans attempted to maintain the balance of the two cultures. In modern times, there was little if any objection when it was featured in the James Bond film, From Russia with Love.

“Solomon, I have surpassed thee” Emperor Justinian proclaimed and until today Hagia Sophia remains the largest cathedral in Turkey.

One of the most noted and a memorable mosque is the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque). This, the largest mosque in Turkey, gets its name from the 20,000 hand made ceramic tiles adorning the walls. Who could resist touching lightly, this part of ancient history? Two hundred intricately designed stained glass windows allow unusual light to flood in capturing the intricate carpeted flooring. And never to be mistaken for any other mosque, the Blue Mosque has 6 minarets.

St. Saviour Church of Chora (Sariye) was converted into a mosque in the 1500s. After Hagia Sophia it is the most important Byzantine monument in Istanbul and dates back to the late 11century. Most unfortunately, it’s often missed by tourists since it is out of the city but offers the finest example of Byzantine mosaic work as well as 14th c frescoes depicting the Genealogy of Christ, the life of the Virgin. Walls are decorated with superb mosaics on gold backgrounds and the gardens have a great view of the environs. There’s also an outside café which serves some swell Turkish coffee.