Istanbul Revisited

Saturday, 8th of December (Feast of the Immaculate Conception)
Kusadasi to Izmir to Istanbul

For all photos for 8th December, click here to view them on my dropbox site. If you don’t have Dropbox, use this link to sign up and you and I will both get a bonus amount of free storage space.

I am a bit behind in writing up today’s travelogue so I will be brief. Please excuse this.

We were up early to leave at 6:30am to catch the 9am flight to Istanbul from the Izmir airport. Unfortunately we were not able to spend any time in Izmir, that is, ancient Smyrna. As one of the seven churches of the Apocalypse, it would have merited some time spent here at least (also as the burial place of St Polycarp – one of our earliest and historically most definite links to the apostle John).

We arrived in Istanbul at a bit after 10am and went directly to the Spice Markets for a bit of shopping. I hadn’t been here before – I had visited the Grand Bazaar but not this place. I enjoyed it – but probably spent a little more money than I needed to. I have found that haggling is less difficult on this trip than other times I have visited – the sellers seem keen to get a sale at almost any price. Maybe a symptom of the off-peak season. I bought some saffron – which is one thing I tried buying last time I was at the Bazaar but I brought the wrong kind (which is normally sold as “Turkish saffron” and includes parts of the plant) and it wasn’t allowed back through customs in Australia. They informed me that had I purchased just strands of saffron, it would have been allowed. So that is what I bought this time. I also bought some Jasmine tea balls, which have been vacuum sealed, so I will see if that is successful in getting it through customs Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

We then had lunch at a nearby buffet (which included the excellent “Asura” or “Noah’s” pudding), before heading around to the Topkapi Palace – not to see the Palace (that in itself isn’t on the agenda, and I have seen it twice before) but to visit the excellent antiquities museum that is in the grounds of the palace (not to be confused with the museum exhibits in the Palace itself). We passed the Church of Holy Peace or Sancta Irene, where the Second Ecumenical Council was held in 381. I have been inside this church on my last trip (although it is not the original church Justinian built) but it is not usually open to tourists, and wasn’t for us on this trip either. However, from here we were able to look across the Bosphorus to the location of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, Chalcedon (the modern suburb of Istanbul called Kadikoy), easily identifiable by two “twin towers” office buildings.

The Museum was indeed excellent, with many features, such as a bronze statue of the emperor Hadrian, the stone from the Jerusalem temple forbidding entry of gentiles into the inner court of the temple (Paul’s so-called “dividing wall”, cf Eph 2:14), a tablet with the earliest example of Hebrew writing, and a commemorative tablet with the story of the successful construction of Hezekiah’s tunnel at the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem. It also has a great display of material from the excavations at Troy (which I visited on my first trip to Turkey), although not Schleeman’s famous “Treasure A”, which has gone AWOL. Most of the rest of the tour group focused on the ancient Hittite and other Bronze Age exhibits which have relevance to the study of the Old Testament, but I found myself attracted to the Roman and Byzantine sections (there is a statue of a rather more updated Artemis than that at Ephesus), and especially a good exhibition on the history of Istanbul. If you look at the photos, you will see that I have taken a good many snaps of the various explanatory panels with the exhibits – because there was some very good information on these which I would like to use in teaching history in the future. These will probably not be of interest to most readers of this ‘ere blog. One exhibit will, though – a section of the length of chain that famously crossed the entrance to the Golden Horn river to protect the city from attack by sea.

One thing I found interesting about the Istanbul exhibit was its concentration on the many churches that were within the city. One panel listed all the churches and other Byzantine structures that were converted into mosques (24 in all), all the churches not converted into mosques (7, two of which are still used as churches), and Byzantine churches and structures formerly used as mosques but no longer existing today (18 in all). So. 49 structures converted into mosques, two of which are churches still today. It would be very interesting to do a tour of Istanbul identifying all these structures and locations. I have also been struck – again as I was on my previous visits – by the different narratives of history that are told by the Turks as opposed to western narratives. For instance, one panel described the sack of the city by the Fourth Crusade thus: “the greatest destruction visited upon the city occurred with the invasion of the Latins in 1204”. In contrast, the Turkish conquest in 1453 is described as “both extremely civilised and rational”. Sultan Mehmet II is praised for issuing decrees “for the repair of fortifications” (who blew them to smithereens in the first place?).

It is useless today to try to point out that the invasion was not carried out by the Latin Church (Pope Innocent III condemned the action of the Crusaders) but directed by the veniality of the Venetians. After 800 years, this remains a blight on the good name of the Catholic Church in this area both among the Greeks and the Turks. it is a reminder to us that the horrific scandals of the Church (including the present scandal) will never, in a sense, be “over”. History cannot be obliterated. It can only be faced honestly and without censorship. That does mean, however, that we can excuse ourselves from the necessity of trying to understand the events of history in their context. The eighth commandment tells us, as Martin Luther so wonderfully put it, to always put the best construction on everything our neighbour says and does – even if our gut reaction is one of suspicion and condemnation.

We are staying at a hotel on the other side of the Golden Horn River today. We passed a new bridge being built across the Golden Horn, and an underground subway has been constructed too – but not opened. We are near the Galata (original “Christ”) Tower on the central peninsula of the city (still on the European side), and had dinner in a room overlooking the Golden Horn Bridge with its marvellous light display. We celebrated Mass for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. Fr Chris was the celebrant as it is the 30th anniversary of his entry into the novitiate as a Franciscan friar.

It has been a good day. I have seen parts of Istanbul that I haven’t visited before. Tomorrow will be different as we head into the Old City to visit the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and so on. Still, I could happily visit these places a thousand times!

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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