People and Places

Final Report from Turkey

Posted on June 24, 2012

We have arrived home from Istanbul.  The Summit was all we might have hoped and more.  It is one thing to attend a crowded lecture hall and hear someone like Jane Goodall, Bill McKibben, or Gary Hirshberg with the hundreds of others they usually draw, but to spend almost three days with them in an intimate setting – indeed, a remarkably beautiful setting like the bucolic island of Heybeliada – hearing inspired talks, but also chatting over meals and listening to them converse with other experts from places like Greenpeace, the World Bank, or the New York Times was special.

The Summit ended with a remarkable pronouncement from one of the Orthodox Church’s leading theologians, Metropolitan John of Pergamon (Metropolitan is a title for a senior member of the church hierarchy with regional responsibilities).  He said that violence to the environment is a sin.  This was quite a statement delivered by a venerable thinker within the church and was met with an almost audible murmur of surprise and approval by not only the religious leaders in the room, but also by the scientists and journalists and academics. 

On that final evening the group gathered for a performance of traditional Greek and Turkish music by a well-respected group from the islands.  I am leery about mixing in music at social gatherings, whether a reception or a dinner out.  It’s not that I don’t love music – I do – but it is an awkward combination that gets in the way of the socializing or of the music and often both.  For example, I just hate it when roving musicians in restaurants arrive at our table.  Do you stop talking?  Do you stop eating?  Isn’t it disrespectful to the musician to continue either while they play?  What if we’re in the middle of an important conversation?  What if my pasta is getting cold?  But I could not escape this island performance as they would not start until I was seated and in the front row no less.  If I could rule the world, my guidelines would be these:

Full blown performances which are the main event: 90 minutes;

Evening entertainment at an event: 30 minutes;

An impromptu “let me do something for you” performance: 1 to 2 song maximum (10 minute max).

This group started slow, but things improved when the female lead singer joined in and they were good. 

However, this being our last night on the island, we finally slipped out after a half dozen numbers (they had some 16 on the program). We were eager to debrief the prior days, pack for our early departure the next morning, and put our feet up after a busy and intense stretch.  We made our way to our now familiar haunt on the waterfront, Mavi, and sat with the warm breeze and the lights of Istanbul twinkling across the water in the distance.  I was reminded of how much fun it is to travel with college students.  They are funny, resilient, very observant, and our group had worked really hard throughout the Summit.  Scott stood for hours on a chair, taping the event (look for videos next week on the Halki Summit web site), Kaitlin blogged, Bri brought her hyper-organized ways to anything that needed to be done, Grace snapped photos throughout (hundreds of them), and Kyle had the unhappy task of being time keeper for people who like to talk.

Not having been abroad, we nevertheless threw them into the work.  Kyle and Scott were making airport and ferry runs in a foreign country where they do not speak the language and with limited communications (phone connections were spotty).  Delayed flights and missing participants had to be worked out.  They handled it with aplomb and as Kyle mentioned to me during one of our layovers on the way home, it was in some ways the highlight of the trip because it was a challenge and they met it headlong.  The students were unfailingly gracious even when dealing with the occasional ungracious (there were some pretty good egos in the mix, though interestingly the biggest names were the most approachable and easy).  Everybody loved them and Father John only half joked that if he could have them for six months at the Patriarchate he could set all things straight. 

So they earned a day and half of being tourists as we left the island on Thursday and spent the rest of that day and Friday seeing the great sights of Istanbul, one of our very favorite cities anywhere in the world.  The Patriarch arranged Thursday’s bus tour of Hagia Sophia, Chora, and the Patriarchate itself.  These are truly wonders of the world.  We saw 12th century mosaics and frescoes, astounding architecture (Hagia Sophia’s dome was largest in the world until St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London), and stood in Chora’s 4th C. core.  Imagine.  In the 4th C. the worshippers at Chora (The church’s full name is The Church of the St. Saviour at Chora) were not so distant from the figures they worshipped.  The dots were still closely connected, even if the shape and doctrines of the new faith were still works in progress.  Hagia Sophia was built in the 6th C. and when you think that most western Europeans were doing not much else than picking fleas off each other at the time, it is astounding to think what an engineering feat it was to build this enormous and beautiful structure.  Then to layer the interior with stunning gold mosaics…..just superb.

On Friday we visited the Blue Mosque, one of the world’s most beautiful religious buildings.  With both Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, I was reminded of a tour we did many years ago at Chartres Cathedral.  Malcolm Miller, the eccentric Brit who went there to study the cathedral as a young man and never really left, still gives tours I think and they are terrific.  He reminded us that the pilgrims and peasants of the medieval period lived in small, low ceilinged homes – hovels mostly – dark and crowded and that arriving at Chartres would have been mind-blowing from just the sheer enormity of the building and then the interior space.  Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque must have had the same impact in their day.  They still do to some great extent.

For some of our gang the most engaging place we visited was the 6th C. Basilica Cistern, the underground Byzantine engineering marvel: 336 columns holding up the roof of an enormous water cistern which held 22 million gallons of water.  When the Ottomans conquered the city they had no idea it existed for about a hundred years until they found people lowering buckets from holes in the floors of their houses, pulling up water and also fish.  Today walkways weave through the cistern and up lights create a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere.  It also offers cool respite from Istanbul’s hot summer weather.  While down there, we couldn’t resist getting one of those goofy group shots all dressed as Ottomans in turbans and robes for something like $3.00.

We also hit the Grand Bazaar, a crowded labyrinth of covered streets and riot of colors, noises, and smells.  It’s been the place to buy almost anything since the 15th C and in the centuries since the adjacent blocks have come to include endless shops where real, every day people still shop for anything from underwear to fine carpets to spices to stationary.  The Spice Market was a highlight and we bought various teas and sweets and also gifts for family back home.  Our big find?  Turkish towels, the Ferrari of towels, for only $12 each.  I’ll be taking extra showers just to use them.

We ate early and lightly in preparation for our final evening: dinner with the Alagoz family.  The Alagoz’s have sent four of their kids to SNHU and we visit with them on every trip to Istanbul.  They are a large, loving family that has welcomed us into their home and do their dead level best to kill us with food.  Dish after dish of the best Turkish home cooking you can imagine.  They grill all God’s creatures.  They cover the table with desserts.  If they see a square inch of empty space on your plate they fill it.  Even the college kids hit their limit.  Better still is the warmth and good humor and delight of their company.  It was a special experience for our students, a window in Turkish life that the average tourist does not experience.  It was a lovely way to end our trip. 

We caravanned back across to the European side, traffic still stop and go at 1 AM.  If Istanbul has problems and it surely does (an abject lack of green space, for example), epic traffic ranks right at the top.  This is Bangkok level traffic.  For example, it took Fatih Alagoz’s fiancé, Ekin, three hours to drive from the European side to the Alagoz home some few miles away on the Asian side of the city for our dinner.  I could easily imagine living in Istanbul, but one would have to live near where one works to stay sane.  Or at least near the city’s steadily improving mass transit system, especially the magic of its ferries (have I mentioned how much I love ferryboat rides?).  It is a magical place.

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