Sorry for the long break in transmission. I arrived home on Thursday night after more than twenty four hours of travel (including check in, change of flights at KLIA, getting through quarantine on the Australian side). I was absolutely exhausted and not very well at the end of it, and am only recuperating now. But for the sake of completeness, I should bring my travel blog on Turkey to a conclusion with a report of the 12th day.
I rose early on Wednesday morning at 6:30am and went straight around to the “No Name Internet Café” (which was open! although I was the first customer) to write up the blog for the 11th day. I worked there for about an hour (declining the offer of a glass of tea—much to mine host’s annoyance, I think—he wanted the extra lira)and then went back for a small breakfast and packing. I was very anxious that my luggage would be overweight—a concern that was confirmed by Kevin’s comment when he went to pick it up to put it in the back of the bus.
We headed out to Topkapi Palace—the original home of the Sultans after the capture of Istanbul. There used to be a monastery on the site but all that remains of this today is the Church of Holy Peace (Aya Eirene). On the way there, Tom saw an ornately decorated building and at first thought that it might be an Orthodox Church. “No it isn’t”, he said, realising it was a mosque after all, “It’s hard to tell a church from a mosque in Istanbul.” Not really, I thought, thinking back to my experience in Izmir. If you can see it, it’s a mosque. If you have to go looking for it, it’s a church.
Before visiting the palace, we called in at the Journalists and Writers Association, where we caught up with the President, Cemal Usak, with whom I had sat during our first dinner with PASIAD on the night of our arrival. Of all the organisations that we visited that are associated in some way with the Gülen movement, the JWA is perhaps the most clearly connected, with Gülen himself as their honorary president. The association is heavily involved in promoting “Love, tolerance, and living in harmony” in Turkey and around the world. Once again, “love” was the key value. They have been able to brink key leaders from the various political groups together from the whole spectrum of Turkish life, and have organised many local and international gatherings for dialogue and peace activism. Their aim is to overcome the traditional pattern of teaching young Turks to fear and reject those of other nationalities by which they come to view them as enemies rather than as potential friends. But Cemal was quite clear that the JWA is not the “public relations” arm of the Gülen movement. They are an independent body and all decisions are made by the board of directors. He said that they are open to many different ideas and always ready to be criticised.
When we arrived at the Topkapi palace, rain was threatening. Upon entry through the palace gates the first building we saw was the Church/Mosque/museum? of Aya Eirene. I don’t know if it was due to the shortness of time or perhaps because the Church was not open but we didn’t get to see inside. The Palace is a magnificent structure—complete with a circumcision room!—which houses many great treasures—gold, rubies, emeralds, and precious ancient china. One could easily spend a whole day there to appreciate all these wonders. But the greatest—perhaps the strangest—treasure of all was the arm and skull of St John the Baptist. These gold-encased jewel-encrusted relics were on display with the other palace treasures, having come into the possessio of the Ottomans upon the conquest of Constantinople. Not that I put great credence in the historical veracity of these artefacts, but I found myself wondering—as I did at the tomb of St John—about the way in which revered Christian relics that remain in Turkey are treated.
The threat became a promise as the heavens opened and the rain bucketed down in a way that only the very elderly in Melbourne could remember. We were sopping wet by the time we arrived back at the entrance where Can was waiting to pick us up. Unfortunately, so were about ten tourist coaches and forty taxis. The narrow two way street had now become a three way traffic jam—perhaps Can was in some way to blame as he attempted an eight point u-turn in concert with a taxi and a coach. The man once again proved himself the most able minibus driver in all Istanbul as he extracted us from that mess without a scratch. Truly he could drive a camel through the eye of a needle!
Now we headed out of Istanbul on the south side (passing the other end of the great wall where it met the sea) for a lunch appointment with the foreign editor of the Zaman Newspaper. Turks are quite proud of this paper which, founded in 1986, is the most widely printed newspaper in the world appearing in many languages and editions. Yes, there is an English Australian weekly edition. Lunch was rushed, as we were due at the airport in an hour. Given the political situation in Turkey (the government had just accepted to go to early elections following their failure to win approval for their presidential candidate), it was very interesting to reflect with the editor on possible future outcomes for Turkey, including the ever present question of the EU membership. I would have loved to have chatted for longer, but I was getting as nervous as everyone else about catching our plane. We were beginning to joke that Ersin, our local guide and host, might have to put us all up at his place!
It was still raining when we got to the airport. I left my straw hat behind—it was wet and soggy and had developed a hole—and donned the Fez that I had bought yesterday at the Bazaar. My bags were very heavy. In a last minute act of desperation I grabbed a handful of books we had been given at the publishers and stuffed them in my carry bag. A quick prayer to St Christopher, and then I hoisted the bag onto the check-in scales. My luggage allowance was 20kg. My luggage weighed 29.4kg. But the nice Turkish girl behind the counter let it through without a comment. Either it was because she felt sorry for the funny looking man in the Fez, or because (as we later found out) the plane was less than half full. Once again St Christopher’s intercession pulled me through (yes, I know he is a legendary figment of Christian imagination, but that discussion can carry over for another blog).
We farewelled Ersin and Emre (who was staying on for a few days). Tom had already gone on to Hungary to meet his relatives there, and so it was just Ken and Chris, Kevin and Gavin and myself. Gavin got a seat on his own up the front, and Kevin and I were assigned seats together at the very back of the plane, but since there were so many empty seats, we spread out and each had a double seat to ourselves. It didn’t make the trip much more comfortable. I watched the movie “The Queen” with Helen Mirran in it, and then prepared to try to attempt to get some sleep. I read Evening Prayer (always an interesting experience while sailing into the darkness 11000m above the planet) and was struck by Psalm 139 set down for this evening:
7 O where can I go from your spirit,
or where can I flee from your face?
8 If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there.
9 If I take the wings of the dawn
and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
10 even there your hand would lead me,
your right hand would hold me fast.
11 If I say: “Let the darkness hide me
and the light around me be night,”
12 even darkness is not dark for you
and the night is as clear as the day.
Quite fitting I thought. Although I don’t suspect that King David ever knew how fitting it would be on an international airflight.
We left Istanbul at 4pm local time Wednesday, arrived in Kuala Lumpur Airport at 8am local time Thursday and got home to Melbourne at 7:30pm local time that night. I had to go through quarantine, and so it was
an hour and half later that I was finally in the arms of my wife and children. Exhaustion, desperation, tiredness, relief and just plain old homesickness had the tears pouring from my eyes.
I would like to have said that it all ended happily ever after at that point, but the car blew its head gasket on the way home and we had to call the RACV etc. etc. so it really was very very late when I finally got to put my head down on my own pillow and snuggle up in my own little bed.
It was a great trip—and I want to thank the Archdiocese for its foresight in choosing to send me, the Australian Intercultural Society (and in particular their Executive Director, Emre Celik) for organising the tour, PASIAD and the other business networks who hosted us while in Turkey, and all the many individuals and families who showed such generous hospitality to the strangers from Australia on our journey. God bless you, one and all!