Church, Mosque – or what? A taste of Istanbul’s complex history

CollageWorth a visit if you happen to be in Istanbul, the mosque of Molla Zeyrek, formerly the Byzantine monastery church of Christ Pantokrator, has recently undergone a complete restoration. Next door, a tasteful café and restaurant located on a terrace overlooking the Golden Horn offers magnificent panoramic views of Pera district, the entrance to the Bosporus, the imperial mosques of Sultanahmet and Suleiman the Magnificent, with glimpses of the Asian shore behind. The café also features an excellent bookshop selling memorabilia for the tourist who prefers something a little classier than what is to be found in the more frequented attractions.

A little of the building’s history:

Whole monastery

Prior to restoration

Shortly after Constantinople fell to the invading Ottoman armies in 1453, the twelfth-century Church of the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator was converted into the Zeyrek mosque. Named after Molla Zeyrek, a well-known scholar who lived during the reign of Sultan Mehmed II, Zeyrek Camii served not only as a religious center but also as a hub for Islamic enlightenment. The church-turned-mosque is one of the finest examples of religious architecture from the Byzantine era in Istanbul and the second-largest surviving Byzantine religious structure in the city after Hagia Sophia. The church and monastery were built by Emperor John II Komnenos to honor his wife’s wishes to house the “poor, sick, and suffering souls.” The north and south churches, dedicated to Christ Pantokrator and the Archangel St. Michael, are connected by an imperial chapel that was used as a mausoleum for the Komnenos and Palaiologos dynasties. This masterpiece of the middle period of Byzantine architecture consists of extraordinary domes capping the north and south churches and the imperial chapel, with complimentary interiors formed by elegant vaults and arches. Today, the monastery has completely disappeared except for the cistern, some structural elements, and timber houses that served as residences during Ottoman rule, encircling the Zeyrek Camii. Source.

Tiled floor

Interior tiled floor

The Monastery of Christ the Almighty (Pantokrator) was founded by Ioannes II Komnenos (1118-1143) and his wife Eirene, a born princess of Hungary, and built between 1118 and 1137. The south church was built first, then the north church was added, and finally a grave chapel with two oval domes was constructed in the space between both churches after their outer halls in this area had been demolished. This monumental ensemble is the greatest church building in Istanbul after the time of Justinian I, and it is the only one from the later time where we know the name of the architect, Nikephoros. The monastery is known in detail from the surviving foundation document where its buildings, the life of the monks there and the hospital connected to it are described. In the grave chapel, a number of emperors were buried including Ioannes and Eirene themselves, Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) and Manuel II Palaeologos (1391-1425).

The Zeryek Camii complex served as both an important Christian religious and education center and later as a mosque established to educate Muslim students. Zeyrek Camii shares similarities with its not-too-distant neighbor, Hagia Sofia. Both have housed two religions under their majestic domed roofs and have functioned as dominant architectural symbols of the Byzantine and Ottoman eras. Source.

Molla Zeyrek

The monastery church with the mosque of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror behind

The complex of Monastery of the Pantokrator (Ruler of all), was dedicated to Christ and stood on a hill overlooking the ancient aqueduct of Valens near the geographical center of the city. There are three interconnected churches. The first building was constructed by the Empress Irene between 1118 – 1124. This was the largest church and it was richly decorated with mosaics and rare marbles. Shortly thereafter a large church was built alongside the first one to the south and it was dedicated it to the Vigin Eleosa – “Mercy”. Finally, a wide space between the two churches was vaulted over by two domes and transformed into an Imperial mausoleum dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel.

The south church is one of the largest churches built during the Middle Ages in Constantinople with a nave 16 metres square and a dome 7 metres across. The survival of so many huge cathedrals in the capital, like Hagia Sophia and Holy Apostles, made the further construction of big churches unnecessary. The pietism of the time and the preference for smaller, community monastic churches also dictated a more intimate size.

View from caf

View from the terrace

The splendid interiors of all three churches were remarked upon in the Middle Ages. The Comnenian Emperors and their wives lavished money and gifts on the monastery, which was covered in golden mosaic tiles, rich marble veneer, precious metals and semi-precious stones. Even the floor was inlaid with a fantastic opus sectile rinceau carpet of carved, colored marbles depicting mythological scenes, hunters and animals. Fragments of stained glass set in lead found in the church indicate the windows of the apse were set with figures of Christ, the Virgin and possibly other saints.

The mausoleum church contained many relics, including the stone upon which, it was claimed, Christ had been anointed after his crucifixion. This mausoleum was filled with the marble tombs of Emperors and Empresses and its iconostasis was said to have been encrusted with gold enamel and gems.

The church was founded as a hospital with many beds and there were nurses and doctors attached to the monastery. It was also a center of learning and art. The founding document for the monastery – its Typicon – survives and outlines all its social functions in detail.

The+Fourth+Crusade+1202-1204.+Original+goal+was+to+conquer+the+Muslim-controlled+parts+of+Jerusalem+by+invading+through+Egypt.In 1204 the city of Constantinople fell to the soldiers of the Fourth Crusade after a series of vast and horrible fires set by the Crusaders. These conflagrations levelled large swaths of the city and consumed art treasures and books created and gathered over 900 years by the Byzantines. These included some of the greatest works of antiquity and a vast trove of Western civilization went up in flames. Catholic looters spread throughout the city to snatch what was left and the booty was thought to be the greatest ever seen.

The soldiers from France, Italy, and all across Europe did not spare the churches of their brother Christians; they stripped them bare of their valuables. The Pantokrator was attacked and looted. The tombs of the Emperors and Empresses were opened and their bodies were stripped. Monks and nuns were murdered and raped. Tens of thousands perished.

1204_sack

“Christian” crusaders loot and sack the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia, 1204

The Venetians claimed the Pantokrator as part of their booty and occupied the complex until the Latins were ousted from the city by the Byzantines in 1261. Towards the end – when it became apparent they could not hold on to Constantinople it is said the Venetians removed the enameled panels from the iconostasis of the Pantokrator and shipped them to Venice, where they became the centerpiece of the famous Pala d’Oro. Source.

[That’s Christians for you!]

 

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What’s going on out there?

spanish+armada

Another Queen Elizabeth; another woman Prime Minister; another war coming up?

Will another civil war break out in the (Dis)United States?

http://www.latimes.com/projects/la-ed-our-dishonest-president/

Will (Great) Britain declare war on Spain?

http://www.nzherald.co.nz/world/news/article.cfm?c_id=2&objectid=11831007

The upcoming referendum in Turkey pales into insignificance.

More Papal Palaver

The best form of defence is a good attack. It’s an adage applicable to a range of human activities, from chess to warfare – and even religious leaders, it seems, sometimes employ the tactic. The Catholic Church has a bunch of problems these days, from empty pews in its monumental temples, to those pesky accusations of paedophilia and other kinds of institutional child abuse that just won’t go away. So I guess if I were the Pope of Rome I’d probably take time off occasionally from excommunication and beatification duties to go after a soft target or two with the aim of distracting opponents and critics.

pope and noah

Two  old guys in fancy dress pouring water on Noah’s Ark. Are they for real?

And indeed, there he is, dear old Pope Francis, God bless him, visiting his tiny RC flock in Armenia, and taking time, while there, to reaffirm his recent support for Armenian genocidists. One thing he loves about Armenia, apparently, is that its people were the first to make Christianity their official state religion, way back in 301 CE. I guess in his position, he’d have to be a fan of rulers enforcing religious uniformity – though personally, I’m inclined to the view that that’s where most of the intolerance, persecution and violence starts.

Anyway, Francis is firmly of the opinion that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide on poor inoffensive Armenians a hundred years or so ago, that it was the first genocide of the 20th century, and one of its big three holocaustic events. By voicing these statements in his official capacity as leader of an estimated 1.27 billion Roman Catholics, he undoubtedly knows that he is giving powerful tacit support to those who want to hold the modern Republic of Turkey responsible.

Well, once again, I’m not going to get involved in the debate of who did what to how many of whom and when they did it. I do, however, want to take issue with the Pope’s jaw-dropping cultural arrogance in selectively focusing on the 20th century, and on Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia and the Ottoman Empire as the worst offenders. First off, that gentleman is boss and CEO of a trans-national organisation that has been persecuting, torturing, enslaving, war-mongering, genociding and paedophiling for most of its 2,000 year history. OK, they’ve done some good stuff along the way too, but come on! That’s not just a glasshouse you’re living in, Frank. It’s a monumental crystal palace built on a foundation of quicksand!

George Clooney

George Clooney was there – but the Kardashians couldn’t make it this time.

And then what’s the big deal with the 20th century? Why pick an arbitrary cut-off point like 1900 CE for your moralising? As if I didn’t know. As far as the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims are concerned (beating the Catholic’s best estimate by 30 million), it was the year 1416, dating from the Hijra of Muhammad and his followers to the city of Medina. The Year of Our Christian Lord 1900 equated roughly to 4597 in the Chinese calendar, and 5660 for those of the Jewish faith. Just another year, in other words. Remember the doomsayers forecasting worldwide computer failure, financial meltdown, and apocalypse now for the year 2000? And what happened? If there is a God out there somewhere, I’m fairly sure He/She doesn’t give a monkey’s whatsit for calendars, Christian, Muslim, Zoroastrian or whatever.

Still, from Popey’s point-of-view, ignoring those previous 1,900 years allows him to erase some pretty horrendous demographic obliterations. Modern scholarship suggests that the pre-Columbian population of the Americas could have been up to 100 million. Admittedly not all of the deaths were deliberately caused by the Roman Catholic Church in particular and Western Europeans in general – but undoubtedly their actions directly and indirectly led to near total extinction – and the new-comers weren’t too unhappy to see them go.

He can overlook the Roman Catholic Inquisition and the ‘Reconquista’ of the Iberian peninsula that turned a scientifically progressive and culturally diverse multi-religious, multi-ethnic society under comparatively tolerant Islamic rule to an exclusively Christian RC preserve where Muslims and Jews were tortured, massacred or forced to migrate. Most of the survivors ended up in the Ottoman Empire whose Islamic government welcomed them with open arms.

Slave sale

Bucks and wenches – people, actually.

Well, maybe you think that’s going back too far in time. OK, let’s think about the contribution made by slave labour and the slave trade to the British Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the USA as an industrial power in the 19th century. According to Wikipedia the transatlantic slave trade uprooted and transported more than eleven million Africans between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Possibly four million more died after being captured and before they even boarded a slave ship. 1.5 million are estimated to have died on the journey, and many more died young as a result of the brutality of living and working conditions. From the 17th century, Britain became the main slave-trading nation, and industrial towns like Bristol, Liverpool and Manchester benefitted greatly from exporting goods such as guns to Africa, selling the slaves purchased, and importing the produce of slave-labour, such as sugar and cotton. Admittedly most Brits were C of E, and not Catholic, but it obviously suits the Western/European version of history to gloss over these realities – and African Americans are still waiting to be ‘paid for the work they done’.

That 1900 date cut-off also conveniently allows the omission of other war crimes and near-genocidal campaigns carried out by the British Empire during the 19th century: violent and punitive ethnic cleansing against the indigenous Maori in New Zealand, the Aboriginal tribes in Australia, the Zulus in South Africa – and the war of 1899-1901 where the Brits are credited with having invented the concentration camp to facilitate their aggression against Boer farmers. We can forget the ruthless brutality with which British rulers suppressed the Indian rebellion in 1857-59, calling it a ‘mutiny’. It has been estimated that more than 100,000 Indians died, most of them as a result of a ‘no prisoners, no mercy’ policy of revenge carried out by the British Army after the rebellion was defeated.

No event in history takes place in a vacuum. There are always reasons and causes not always acknowledged when the victors write their version of history. Ottoman rulers had learned, during the 19th century, what would happen to Muslims when parts of their empire and its hinterland were ‘liberated’ by ‘Christian’ Powers. Muslims were massacred or expelled when the Kingdom of Greece was established in the 1820s. The process was repeated as Imperial Russia expanded southwards into Crimea and the Caucasus – culminating in an event remembered by descendants of survivors as the Circassian Genocide in 1864.

But let’s accept Pope Francis’s arbitrary date for a moment, and consider how sincere he really is in looking for suffering peoples to sympathise with. Exception has been taken to his repeating of the claim that the Armenian tragedy was the first genocide of the 20th century. That honour apparently can rightly be claimed by Germany, and their ‘attempted annihilation of the Herero in South-West Africa (present-day Namibia) from 1904 to 1907’.

Algeria

Selective remembering – and forgetting.

Possibly Francis decided not to count official world wars in his brief list, but it seems a pity not to mention World War One, believed by many to have been brought about by an unholy alliance of European Imperialists and capitalist financiers. Seventeen million combatants and non-combatants died and a further twenty million were wounded. He may also have decided to gloss over France’s unsuccessful war to prevent Algerian Independence. Depending on which side you’re listening to, between 350,000 and 1.5 million died between 1954 and 1962, mostly Algerians.

Similar disagreement exists over how many Iraqis died as a result of the United States’ invasion in 2003. Estimates range from 151,000 to over a million – but possibly their importance is lessened by being of the wrong religion. We do seem to know with greater accuracy the number of US military personnel who lost their lives: 4,491. It’s too early to put a figure on the civil war in Syria. Again estimates vary widely, ranging from 140,200 to 470,000. Al-Jazeera claims that 10.9 million, or almost half the population of Syria, have been displaced and 3.8 million have been made refugees.

So it’s not surprising that there is disagreement over how many Armenians died back there in the early 20th century. Of course even the lowest estimate adds up to a terrible tragedy that should never be forgotten. On the other hand, selective remembering and forgetting of historical events almost always has a political purpose, and seekers after truth should be open-minded in their search. Photographs can be used to dishonestly stir emotions – even those taken in the days before Photoshop. Anecdotal evidence also has emotive power, but historians at least cannot rely merely on first-hand accounts of ‘survivors’.

Joseph Hirt

There’s the tattoo right there, see?

A recent item on CBS News highlights the danger. ‘A 91-year-old Pennsylvania man who has for years lectured to school groups and others about what he said were his experiences at Auschwitz now says he was never a prisoner at the German death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.’ The admission came after a New York high school history teacher made inquiries when his suspicions were aroused. Joseph Hirt had apparently gone to the extent of having a false prisoner identification number tattooed on his arm.

So, Pope Francis – I am suspicious of your motives.

Sebastian Martyrs and the Cult of Atatürk

October and November are big months in modern Turkey. Three important dates in the history of the Republic are commemorated:

  • 6 October – The liberation of Istanbul
  • 29 October – The foundation of the Republic
  • 10 November – The anniversary of the death of the founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

I’ve been in this country long enough to have witnessed a few annual returns of these dates, and it seems to me that of late the celebrations have become somewhat muted. Possibly that’s understandable. The elitist old guard have taken a bit of a beating in recent years from the new political kid on the block, the Justice and Development Party. The AKP, to use its Turkish initials, ‘Islamic-rooted’ as the foreign press persistently tells us, has been governing the country since 2003. Despite vociferous opposition from the left, right and centre of the traditional political spectrum, the AKP has won majorities in five parliamentary elections, and succeeded in having its candidate elected president in the first general election ever held for that position.

The country’s military leaders, long-established protectors of the sanctity of the constitution (which they wrote), have been nudged back to the more conventional role of defending the state from outside threats. Middle-aged social mediaholics, prefacing their Facebook profile names with the initials TC (for Turkish Republic) are convinced that the country is plunging headlong into a dark medieval night of alcohol prohibition, judicial beheadings and compulsory black burqas for women. You can understand their despair, given their total inability to make an impact at the ballot box.

sivas_turkiye_haritasinda_yeri_nerede

Location of Sivas province

As for me, I’m an optimist. Foreign visitors to Turkey have long been puzzled by the seemingly idolatrous adulation accorded to statues, photographs and death masks of the nation’s founder. I, at least, have read enough about Atatürk’s achievements to sympathise with the veneration accorded him. In a nutshell, if it hadn’t been for Mustafa Kemal Pasha, no country remotely resembling the modern nation of Turkey would exist today.

I do feel, however, that the time is right for authorities to lay aside the conventional blind adoration and work towards a realistic appraisal of Atatürk the man. While this may require some acceptance of his human failings, it will, I am convinced, result in a more profound appreciation of the mental and moral strength required to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against his people in those days.

I worked in a school for some years whose commitment to secular Kemalism would rank among the more dedicated. From the day they entered our doors, pupils were drilled in the minutest details of the great man’s life, the colour of his eyes (piercing blue), the names of his father, mother  and sister (Ali Rıza, Zübeyde and Makbule respectively), the colour of the family home in Salonika (pink); and encouraged to shed tears of grief at 9.05 am every 10th of November. By the time they reached high school, it was difficult to get them to attend school ceremonies on those most sacred days in the Republican calendar. Most of them had had enough. Which struck me as sad.

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

Another thing that struck me as sad – and somewhat surprising in view of the school’s dedication to the lore of secular republicanism, was how many of my students thought that the Liberation of Istanbul had something to do with the conquest of Byzantine Constantinople by the 15th century Sultan, Mehmet II. Very few seemed to be aware that, after leading the army of National Salvation to victory against the invading Greeks, and driving them out of Izmir, Mustafa Kemal turned his troops northwards towards Istanbul, faced down the threat of war with the mighty British Empire, and watched the invaders leave as they had come, without firing a shot. The disgrace to Great Britain actually led to the collapse of David Lloyd George’s government and Winston Churchill’s (temporary) exile to the political wilderness. Whether Kemal Pasha’s eyes were blue, brown or bloodshot red, you’d think that would be something worth telling kids about.

29 October was the date in 1923 when the newly established parliament of Turkey proclaimed the foundation of the Republic. It has enormous symbolic importance, and is celebrated annually as Turkey’s equivalent of America’s 4th, and France’s 14th of July. As an actual historical event, however, the proclamation was a formal acknowledgement of a situation that had already existed for over three years. The nation’s Republican parliament (Millet Meclisi) had been inaugurated on 23 April 1920, in the new capital city of Ankara. Nevertheless, Turkey without Istanbul would be inconceivable, and one might argue, therefore, that winning that city back from the armies of occupation was an event of unparalleled significance.

Undoubtedly the fledgling Republic of Turkey suffered a great loss when its first President passed away on 10 November 1938. On the other hand, they were lucky to get him at all. Few nations in the world have been blessed with a leader whose multi-faceted genius encompassed military victories against fearsome odds, constitutional revolution, and statesmanship on the international stage. And of course, no one lives forever. Have you ever paused to consider what might have happened to Christianity if Jesus Christ had been allowed to see out his three score years and ten, instead of being martyred in the prime of life at the age of 33? Atatürk made it to 57, and it could be argued that his best years were behind him. How would he have dealt with the traumas of the Second World War, and pressure to give his people the vote? Possibly it’s for the best that we didn’t have to find out.

Sivas's famous kangal dog

Sivas’s famous kangal dog

It does seem to me though, that the outpourings of grief on anniversaries of his death, sincere though they may be, militate against a genuine appreciation of Atatürk’s outstanding achievements. Certainly he lives on in true Turkish hearts, and in that sense, is not actually dead – but the reality is that he’s not coming back. The Republic needs to move on, and to do that, 10 November provides an opportunity to give thanks for his life, and to begin evaluating, with a vision unclouded by tears of mourning, exactly what relevance his legacy has for Turkey in the 21st century.

Strange to say, my inspiration for this post did not actually come from any of those dates listed above. Last week there was a festival held in our new park by the seaside at Maltepe. Entitled ‘Sivas Günleri’, it was a celebration of the cultural identity of a region in central Anatolia east of Ankara. Sivas, its citizens driving cars whose number plates are prefixed with ‘58’, is, in area, the second-largest of Turkey’s 81 provinces, and one of the most sparsely populated.

It was a very Turkish festival. Two large marquees had been erected in the vast public square of the new park. The larger of the two housed displays of Sivas’s various districts, displaying local handcrafts and traditional costumes, and serving tea and snacks to mustachioed middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, one assumes hailing from those parts. There was also a central auditorium with a stage from which various minor dignitaries were holding forth about whatever these kind of guys like to hold forth about – with a rather sparse audience exhibiting scant interest in what they had to say.

Help yourself

Mouth-watering Sivas cuisine

The adjacent marquee held more appeal, not only for me, but for the crowds in attendance. It contained a number of restaurants serving Sivas cuisine, and stalls purveying local produce: honey, fresh and dried fruit and vegetables, and a marvellous variety of peculiarly Turkish delicacies. I bought a doll in traditional costume for my granddaughter, Kiri, and a packet of sweets made from hazel nut paste, which were a taste sensation! Then, since it was around lunchtime, and my salivary glands were in a state of high excitement, I allowed myself to be enticed by the sight of lamb carcasses rotating on spits over hot coals, and sat down to a meal of sırık kebab. Words cannot describe . . .

But what has this got to do with the Turkish Republic and its revered founder, I hear you ask. Well, Sivas, in contrast to its current relative insignificance, has a very colourful history. My sources tell me there was a Hittite settlement in the area as early as 2,600 BCE, though little is known about the town until the Roman general and political luminary, Pompey, founded the city he named Megalopolis, which later became Sebaste. You may be interested to learn, as I was, that the name ‘Sebastian’ derives from the Latin adjective meaning a citizen of that city.

Apparently Sebaste was quite a hive of early Christianity, back in the days when the Roman Empire was trying to stamp it out – and consequently is remembered for a number of martyrs, by churches that go in for that sort of thing. One particularly memorable event involved forty soldiers back in the 4th century who, to demonstrate the error of their ways, were exposed naked overnight on a frozen lake in the middle of winter. Well, nights can get pretty chilly out there on the Anatolian steppe at an altitude of around 1,500 metres, and there weren’t many signs of life the next morning; but to make certain, local authorities had the bodies burned and the ashes cast into a nearby river.

Sivas's 4th century 40 martyrs

Sivas’s 4th century 40 martyrs

Continuing the tradition of misfortune, Sebaste’s location at the eastern reaches of the Byzantine Empire exposed it to the earliest depredations of Turkic invaders in the 11th century. By the 12th century it had become Turkish to the extent that it served as one of the capitals of the Seljuk Empire, and in 1408, was incorporated into the expanding Ottoman dominions. In spite of Muslim conquest, however, Armenian and Orthodox Christian communities survived, with their churches, into the 20th century.

The Republican connection dates from September 1919. British and French armies had occupied the Ottoman capital Istanbul at the end of the First World War, and their governments began the process of dismembering the empire according to plans they had been making in secret for some years. The last straw for Turkish patriots was when a Greek army, sponsored by the victorious allies, landed in Izmir, intent on re-claiming their once extensive Byzantine territories.

There is some debate about the circumstances surrounding Mustafa Kemal’s departure from Istanbul and arrival in the Black Sea port of Samsun on 19 May 1919. Nevertheless, that date is recognised in modern Turkey as the beginning of the War of Liberation (Kurtuluş Savaşı). He wasn’t alone, of course, but it was undoubtedly Kemal Pasha’s charisma that inspired his war-weary people to one further struggle. Two congresses were held, in Erzurum and Sivas, laying the groundwork for the forthcoming conflict, and these two cities are recognised as crucial in the foundation of the Republic.

Sivas has two other claims to fame. One is its status as the home of the kangal, a large breed of dog renowned as a guardian of livestock and villagers against wolves, bears and jackals.

The other, less honourable, is a shameful event that took place on 2 July, 1993. On that date, the city was the venue for a cultural festival attended by a gathering of artists, writers and intellectuals, many of whom were Alevi. A mob of religious extremists set fire to the Madımak Hotel where many of the visitors were staying, resulting in 35 deaths.

Stop the killing - there are better things in life

Stop the killing – there are better things in life

Again there is some debate about the reasons for the attack. Some say it was targeting a gentleman by the name of Aziz Nesrin, who had angered orthodox Sunni Muslims by translating Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, into Turkish. Others say it was more generally directed at the Alevi community as a whole. It was asserted at the time that local police stood by and allowed the arsonists to do their work unmolested. That’s entirely possible – although the government of the day did seem to do its best to bring perpetrators to justice.

Well, the 1990s are not so long ago, when you think about it. Those were bad times in Turkey, as opponents of the present government should not forget. The history of Sivas has a lot to teach us, if we choose to listen.

The Vefa District – Centre of three world empires

Boza cafe in the Vefa district

Boza cafe in the Vefa district

Stay in Istanbul for some time, mix with Turks, and one of them will very likely offer you a drink of boza. In fact the beverage is found throughout in the Balkan countries and Central Asia, though the recipe seems to vary from place to place. Essentially it is made from fermented wheat or millet and has a low alcohol content of around 1% – so don’t bother trying to get drunk on it. The boza you are most likely to come across in Istanbul is Vefa Boza – found in most supermarkets but produced by one of Turkey’s oldest companies (founded 1876) whose only authentic outlet is a small unpretentious shop in a back street of the old city not far from the campus of Istanbul University.

The establishment is still operated as a family business from the premises founded by two brothers from Albania, Hacı İbrahim and Hacı Sadık, and their light-coloured, millet-based beverage served with cinnamon quickly became the standard tipple in Istanbul. If you find your way to Vefa Bozacısı, the leblebeci across the road will sell you a portion of roasted chickpeas to complete your libatory experience.

The very glass that Atatürk drank boza from in 1937

The very glass that Atatürk drank boza from in 1937

Contrary to common belief, the area you are now in was not named after the boza shop. In fact, the opposite is true. The area had long been known as Vefa and its roots go back at least 400 years prior to the business venture of our two Albanian immigrants. Sheikh Ebu’l Vefa el-Konevi was a Sufi master of the Sühreverdi Sect, born in Konya but brought to Istanbul at the command of Sultan Mehmet II after his conquest of the city in 1453. The once-great metropolis of Constantinople, even before the Ottoman victory, was a shadow of its former glory, much of it in ruins, and its population reduced to perhaps 50,000. One imagines the lengthy siege and final capture did not improve matters, and the young sultan was faced with a daunting project in turning Istanbul into a capital worthy of his expanding empire. Although only 21 years of age, Sultan Mehmet recognized that the city would need spiritual guidance as well as major building construction and repopulation, and Sheikh Vefa was one given the task of educating its future leaders.

A külliye was built as a base for the Sheikh’s activities – not just a mosque but a complex containing a school, a bath house, drinking fountain, alms house for the poor and accommodation for teachers and students. Not much remains of the original buildings, apart from an ancient cemetery, but the local council has recently rebuilt the mosque in recognition of the importance of the site.

Interestingly, across the road from the Vefa Mosque and up a side street, but visible from Vefa Caddesi (Avenue) itself is an even more venerable structure that did manage to survive the ravages of time. My guidebook, ‘Step by Step Istanbul’, in both English and Turkish versions, refers to it as the Vefa Church Mosque, a rather oxymoronic title, and signs on the building itself call it the Mosque of Molla Gürani. It is immediately obvious from the exterior architecture, however, that the building was once a Byzantine church, and this is confirmed when you enter and see Roman marble columns and ornate capitals supporting the domes. Carpets in the main sanctum are also a giveaway, their diagonal lines showing that the direction of prayer had to be re-oriented after the building was transformed into a mosque. Surprisingly after such a conversion, the authorities evidently allowed the cleaning and revelation of Christian mosaics and frescoes. The name of the original church has not been clearly determined, but it may have been dedicated to St Theodore (Hagios Theodoros), and was probably constructed in the 10th or 11th century.

Molla Gürani Mosque (Hagios Theodoros)

Molla Gürani Mosque (Hagios Theodoros)

Molla Gürani himself seems to have been an interesting character. Some sources claim he was Kurdish, though this, of course, is subject to some debate – but he was the tutor of Sultan Mehmet II (mentioned above) and became the first Müfti of Istanbul after the Conquest, so the building may have been a mosque for longer than it was a church.

If you want to tour yourself around these lesser-known sights of Istanbul, you will probably want to start from the Süleimaniye Mosque, the grand four-minaretted edifice on the ridge overlooking the Golden Horn and the Eminönü district. I won’t go into detail here because any basic guidebook will give all the information you need. Suffice to say it is more worthy of a visit than the better-known Blue Mosque of Sultanahmet. First, it is a masterpiece of the incomparable 16th century architect Sinan. Second, its garden is an oasis of green peace with a magnificent view of the city; and finally, the restaurants nearby provide delicious traditional Turkish food at very reasonable prices. The barbunya beans on rice (kuru fasulye) are not to be missed!

With a full stomach you can strike out from the western corner of the mosque precinct following a street of old wooden houses renovated as restaurants, Internet cafes and hostels mostly serving the university community. You will pass under an arch of the Aqueduct of Valens, built in the 4th century CE and, for more than a thousand years, a lifeline of the city bringing water from distant springs to fill its reservoirs and supply its fountains and public baths. At this point the aqueduct is somewhat neglected, but restoration is taking place, and it continues for almost a kilometre, one of Istanbul’s more prominent landmarks as it crosses Atatürk Boulevard. You may actually see people walking on top of the aqueduct. As far as I am aware, there is no official access, and city authorities may take a dim view – but, as Turks themselves are often heard to say, ‘This is Turkey’.

Mosaics and frescoes can still be seen in the Molla Gürani Mosque

Mosaics and frescoes can still be seen in the Molla Gürani Mosque

A short detour to the right will bring you to another sacred pile of some antiquity, the Kalenderhane Mosque. Again, the brick exterior architecture clearly distinguishes it from most post-Conquest mosques. It is believed to have been the Byzantine Church of Theotokis Kyriotissa, which I am told means ‘The Most Holy Mother of God Enthroned’. Historians and archeologists find the site particularly fascinating as it seems to have been in continuous use since its original construction as a bathhouse in the late Roman period. In the 6th century a church was built, subsequently enlarged and modified, briefly taken over by invading Crusaders in 1204 and converted to a Roman Catholic monastery until the city was retaken by the Byzantine Greeks in 1261. After the Ottoman Conquest there was another switch of religion when Sultan Mehmet gave it to the Kalenderi Dervish sect, from where it gets its present day name. Of special note are beautiful coloured marble panels on the interior walls dating from the building’s glory days as a church. Frescoes and mosaics uncovered during restoration are on display in the Istanbul Archeological Museum.

From here you can follow GPS directions on your iPhone 😉 to find Vefa Caddesi for a taste of boza and, for the more adventurous, a visit to the church/mosque mentioned above. After leaving the boza café take a left and a right and you will emerge on Şehzadebaşı Caddesi next to the monumental mosque after which the avenue is named. This is one of the early works of the Architect Sinan, commissioned by Sultan Suleiman (known in English as ‘The Magnificent’) in memory of his beloved son Mehmet who seems to have met a violent end in 1543 at the tender age of 22.

The longest name for a mosque in Istanbul

The longest name for a mosque in Istanbul

Ottoman rulers endeavoured to avoid the difficulties experienced by King Henry VIII in England by keeping a bevy of women on hand for procreative purposes. This expedient, of course, sometimes led to the converse situation wherein there was a surfeit of potential male heirs. Şehzade (Prince) Mustafa was Suleiman’s oldest son and therefore first in line to succeed on the death of his father. Apparently, however, Suleiman preferred the younger Mehmed, whose mother, Hürrem (Roxelana) he had actually married. It is not 100% certain that the lady Mahidevran, Mustafa’s mother, had Prince Mehmed murdered – but it seems not unlikely. Sadly for Mahidrevan and her son, Mustafa didn’t live to take his rightful place on the throne, murdered in turn, by strangling with a bowstring, on the orders of Suleiman as a result of a plot hatched by Sultana Hürrem, her daughter Mihrimah and loyal son-in-law, Rüstem Pasha.

The tomb of Şehzade Mehmed in the garden of the mosque is beautifully decorated with 16th century Iznik tiles. Next to it is a stone column, said to mark the geometrical centre of old Istanbul as calculated by Sinan. According to my guidebook, the column used to revolve – but no longer does.

You may be ready for some refreshments after your voyage of discovery, but I recommend one last quick stopover on the way. Cross the main road to Gençtürk Caddesi and a short distance along you will come to a mosque of far more modest dimensions – which nevertheless is said to have the longest name of all the multitudinous mosques in Istanbul: Kadı Hüsameddin Çamaşırcı Hacı Mustafa Efendi 18 Sekbanlar Camii. This Mustafa seems to have been a man of many parts, a laundryman who became a judge in the religious courts and also completed the pilgrimage to Mecca. In an attractively landscaped garden alongside is a small cemetery housing the mortal remains of eighteen soldiers killed in Sultan Mehmet’s siege of Constantinople back in 1453. The Sekban were originally masters of the royal hunt, later incorporated into the Ottoman military as a company of the much-feared Janissary regiment – the name apparently coming from a Persian word meaning ‘keeper of the [hunting] dogs’.

Tea, backgammon and water-pipe in Taş Han

Tea, backgammon and water-pipe in Taş Han

It is now a very short stroll to the Taşhan, a renovated inn or caravansaray built in the 18th century as part of the Laleli Mosque complex. The building’s interior architecture is a little masked by displays of leather jackets and erotic underwear for sale to Russian (and more recently Arab) visitors – but at its centre is an open-air courtyard where you can lie back on cushions and sip tea or Turkish coffee to the restful burbling of water in a small fountain. Active smokers may complete their day by ordering a nargile (water pipe) fuelled by a cake of aromatic tobacco flavoured with the fruit of their choice. Their passive companions may actually find the second-hand fumes not unpleasant. Followers of the Turkish soap ‘Aşk-ı Memnu’ will remember Taş Han as the place where Adnan Bey closed some of his business deals.

The Magic of Forty-two – Konya and Keyrings, Carpets, Christmas and Yellow Canaries

I worked at a boarding school in New Zealand years ago, and one of my more cynical teaching colleagues told me, one day, when I was complaining about the difficulty of gaining access to some room, I forget exactly where . . .  ‘Locks are to keep the teachers out,’ he said. It’s a variation on the theme: ‘Keys are for honest people’.
Well, I guess, at least by that definition, I am an honest person, because I always seem to have bunches of them. The drawers in my desk are full of keys whose purpose I have long since forgotten but am afraid to throw out because I am sure that, a week after I do, I will remember what crucial lock they would have opened.
These days I try to be more systematic, and as an aid to memory, I am attracted to gizmos that will allow me, at a glance, to identify the purpose of a particular bunch of keys. One of the things I love about the Turkish language is that it has a word for these things. ‘Anahtar’is Turkish for ‘key’ and ‘anahtarlık’ is one of those decorative thingos to which you attach a bunch of keys, allowing you to immediately understand that they are yours, and that they open the doors at your workplace, or home, the car, or whatever. ‘Keyring’ doesn’t really do justice to the concept, does it?
Incidentally, the Turkish language is full of these marvellous words, which you don’t really appreciate the lack of until you return to English and find that you just can’t say what you wanted to say any more. ‘Kaçıncı?’ is another one. It means ‘How manyth?’ As in ‘JFK, ABD’nin kaçıncı cumhurbaşkanıydı?’ ‘JFK was the how manyth president of the USA?’In case you were wondering, he was the 35th, which for some reason, Americans seem to find important. A residual hankering after dynastic imperial grandeur perhaps.
As usual, I am digressing. What I wanted to tell you was that, as a result of moving to rental accommodation in consequence of our house being in line for demolition for the purposes of urban renewal, I acquired another bunch of keys. Scanning the display of key whatsits in our local locksmith’s, I was attracted to a bronze doodah in the shape of the numeral ‘42’. What could I do? I had to buy it – and of course I intend to tell you why.
Pretty much everyone knows that a cult developed around the number 42 after it featured in a memorable episode in Douglas Adams’s ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. Adams, along with Spike Milligan, was, of course, one of the two great geniuses of the 20th century. In this particular episode, a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional beings built ‘Deep Thought’, the second greatest computer in the universe of time and space. They then tasked it with producing the ultimate ANSWER, to Life, the Universe and Everything. Well, it was a tricky question, requiring a good deal of deep thought, but the mega-computer finally came up with the answer (after 7.5 million years of calculation) which was . . . forty-two.
Another thing I love about living in Turkey is that my shoe size, which for the previous 30 years I had thought was 8, in fact turned out to be 42 – a much more emotionally satisfying number, at least for a male of the species. ‘42 also happens to be the year in the 19th century when two ships, the ‘Jane Gifford’ and the ‘Duchess of Argyle’, arrived under sail in the embryonic British colony of Auckland, New Zealand, disgorging immigrants from the old country, among whom were George and Eliza Scott, my paternal great-great-great grandparents.
All very interesting, you say, but what about that key doohickey? What do Turks care about your shoe size, ancestry, even Douglas Adams, great as he was? And you are absolutely right – they don’t give a dingo’s kidney. Something that is very important to them, however, is the fact that their country is divided into 81 administrative districts, known as ‘İl’. For a long time the list was alphabetical, beginning with Adana as number 1 and progressing to Zonguldak at number 67. Sad to say, the best-devised human systems are prone to decay, and there are now a further fourteen ils, no’s 68 to 81, upsetting the satisfying logic of the original list.
An important aspect of this system is that the number plates of cars in Turkey all begin with the digits of the il in which they were registered. Residents of other cities can immediately recognize and resent a driver from Istanbul by his or her distinctive ‘34’ number plate. Another beauty of the system is that it allows Istanbul drivers to immediately identify an out-of-towner and add an extra personal touch to their abuse of his (or her) driving incompetence. 
But getting back to my key whatchamacallit, ‘42’ is in fact the il number of Konya, an Anatolian city located exactly where it should be, right there between 41 Kocaeli and 43 Kütahya. Which reminds be of another episode from ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide’ featuring an extra-terrestrial being known as Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged – but I refuse to be diverted!
One of the reasons it is difficult for those of us from the ‘New World’ to understand what goes on in the ‘Old’ is that it is just so damn old! Konya itself is believed to have been inhabited since at least 3000 BCE, although excavations at a nearby site known as Catal Höyük have revealed a Neolithic proto-city dating back to 7,500 BCE. Konya (or Iconium) was incorporated into the Hittite Empire around 1500 BCE, and subsequently taken over successively by Phrygians, Cimmerians and Persians before Alexander the Great came hurtling through on his mission of world domination in 333 BCE. Kings of Pergamum ruled Iconium during the Hellenistic period until it passed into the hands of the Roman Empire in 133 BCE. It gets a mention in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 14, where Paul and Barnabas are said to have stirred up some trouble among the locals with their preaching. A certain Tertius of Iconium was, they say, the original scribe who recorded Paul’s Epistle to the Romans for posterity. After the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the city came under repeated attack by the Muslim Arabs in the 7th – 9th centuries and was razed on more than one occasion.
Seljuk Turks began seizing control of Anatolia after defeating the Byzantine Graeco-Roman army at Manzikert in 1071 CE. The resulting Seljuk Empire or Sultanate ruled much of Anatolia as far as the Mediterranean Sea and almost to the Aegean. Around 1100 CE the Sultan Kılıçarslan established his capital at Konya. Defeating him and his Islamic Empire was one of the main objects of the First Crusade launched by Pope Urban II in 1096 – although, perhaps ironically, it was the Mongols under Genghis Khan who finally put an end to the Seljuks.
One of Konya’s contributions to Western civilization was a particularly fine type of hand-woven carpet, of which the 13th century explorer Marco Polo is reputed to have said they were the most beautiful in the world. Certainly they were much sought after by the wealthiest European families, and featured in the art of several painters, most notably Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543).
Konya is also the place where the iconic Turkish folk philosopher, Nasrettin Hodja breathed his last, and where Ahmet Davutoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the current government, his first. These days, however, the city is probably most renowned as the last resting place of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, founder of the Mevlana sect of Islam. Rumi, as he is known in the West, was a 13th century Sufi mystic whose followers are sometimes called Whirling Dervishes, and who was, according to Wikipedia, ‘the most popular poet in America in 2007’. As everywhere in Turkey, when you visit Konya, there are special mealsthat should be eaten: okra soup and etli ekmek, for example – the latter a kind of elongated pizza featuring the meat of local lamb.
Well, enough of Konya. Though you might wonder whether it acquired the number 42 purely because of its place in an alphabetical sequence, or if there were mystical mathematical forces at work. For sure there’s something going on with that ‘42’ business. Experts in number theory tell me that it is, in fact, a primary pseudo-perfect number, which may be significant, given that such numbers apparently satisfy the Egyptian fraction equation, whatever that may be. We in New Zealand remember 1642 as the year a Dutch mariner by the name of Abel Janszoon Tasman got himself lost in the South Pacific Ocean and stumbled upon our South Island in the false impression that it was part of South America. Apparently the local Maoris killed and ate a few of his sailors, which perhaps deterred his countrymen from returning – that and the fact that they would have been unlikely to find it by following his directions.
A century earlier, in 1542, our Scottish ancestors crowned a new queen, Mary I, who, I gather, was only six days old at the time, which may have been a bad move in view of how things subsequently turned out for Bonnie Scotland. 1742 was the birth year of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, sometimes referred to as ‘The Uncrowned King of Scotland’. In spite (or possibly because) of his opposition to the abolition of slavery, Dundas gained some popularity in the land of his birth, helping to establish the New Town of Edinburgh and commemorated by a 46 metre neo-classical column in the main square. According to his Wikipedia entry, Dundas was the last person to be impeached in the United Kingdom for misappropriation of public money – though it seems he was acquitted, whether from innocence, good luck or a good lawyer is not made clear.
The original Tweety Bird, 1942
And what of more recent times? Well, the following have nothing to do with Scotland, Konya or Douglas Adams, but I can tell you, for instance, that, in 1942, the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Trinidadwas severely damaged by a salvo of its own torpedoes and soon after scuttled by her own crew. 1942 was also the year when Bing Crosby recorded ‘White Christmas’, that schmaltzy Irving Berlin song said to be the biggest-selling single of all time. ‘Der Bingo’, as he is referred to in the Andrews Sisters’ song ‘Rum and Coca Cola’, nudged out the Pope and the favourite baseball player of the day in 1948 to top the poll for ‘most admired man alive’ – one assumes the poll was conducted in the USA. His own family seem to have been less admiring – eldest son Gary having published a book in which he portrayed his father as ‘cruel, cold, remote and both physically and psychologically abusive.’ The Wikipedia entry reports that two of Bingo’s other sons committed suicide.
To end on a happier note, 1942 saw the first appearance of Tweety Pie, the yellow canary bird featured in Warner Bros Looney Toons cartoons. Tweety (or Sweety), another icon of US culture, is indelibly etched in the childhood memories of generations of kids with his most famous line, ‘I tawt I taw a puddy tat!’

So there you have it . . . Do numbers have a special significance or life of their own? Undoubtedly many people believe they do. Most of us, if pressed, will admit to having a number we consider to be personally ‘lucky’. Results of a poll published the other day in The Guardian announced that seven is the world’s favourite number. Well, seven is a factor of 42, but I’m sticking with the larger multiple. It seems to me to encapsulate much of the true meaning of life – if we only knew what the question was!

Excommunicating Greg – Who’s weirder, Muslims or Christians?

One of my favourite books while studying English literature at Auckland University was ‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy’, a quirky work of fiction by 18th century writer Lawrence Sterne. Generally regarded as a novel for want of a more appropriate category, the book doesn’t have much of a plot. We learn the circumstances surrounding young Tristram’s conception and the inauspicious christening where he was misnamed. Apart from that we learn more about the idiosyncrasies of the baby’s father Walter and Uncle Toby than those of Tristram himself.
An episode that stuck in my mind was where the doctor attending Tristram’s birth suffers a small accident and begins to curse the servant whose negligence led to his discomfort. Walter Shandy offers to assist him by supplying Dr Slop with what he claims is the most comprehensive and effective curse of all time, provided the doctor will read the entire text – which he agrees to do. It turns out that the document he is obliged to read is the text of a Roman Catholic service of excommunication attributed to a certain 9th century Bishop Enulphus. Sterne prints the document in full in the original Latin version with accompanying English translation, which together take up all 14 pages of Chapter 11, Volume 3. Check it out online – you may find a use for it yourself one day.
Greg Reynolds
with his document of excommunication
Well, Lawrence Sterne, back there around 1760, was ever so politely poking fun at the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church for its archaic, anachronistic practices. 250 years on it seems little has changed. Last month news media informed the world that a 60 year-old Australian priest had received a New Year present from Pope Francis and his Doctrinal Congregation in the form of a lengthy document, written in Latin, informing him that he had been excommunicated.
Pope Francis
looking distinctly unimpressed
Maybe it’s something a new Pope has to do early in his term of office, to stamp his authority on the world of Roman Catholicism. This was Pope Francis’s first such act, and it was done, apparently, because the gentleman concerned, Greg Reynolds, an ordained priest, had been publicly advocating the ordination of women to the priesthood, and celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion without proper authority. According to an official RC source, Reynolds had resigned his position as parish priest and had his priestly faculties removed, but continued to celebrate the Eucharist and expound his unorthodox views, leaving the Holy Father with no alternative but the ultimate sanction – excommunication.
You can see his point. Rules are rules, and if you want to be a member of my club you have to toe the line. When William Webb Ellis, in the Year of Our Lord 1823, grasped a football in his arms and ran with it, he is said to have initiated the game of rugby football. Whatever game he was actually playing at the time (and there seems to be some uncertainty about this), that specific action was evidently frowned upon. The implication, at least in rugby circles, is that, if you want to be a man, run with the ball in hand, jump on opponents and be jumped on, you’d better join a rugby club and leave soccer to the girls.
So with Mr Reynolds. He may be perfectly justified in his belief that gay couples should be entitled to get married, and that women have as much right as men to serve as priests – but RC doctrine decrees otherwise. Pope Francis would probably have left Reynolds alone if he had been an ordinary parishioner keeping his unorthodox views to himself or sharing them with close friends in a Fitzroy pub. It’s a bit unreasonable on his part, it seems to me, to expect church authorities to tolerate his preaching those views from the pulpit.
Still, the whole business aroused my interest, and I did a little reading round the subject. It seems Aussie Greg has joined a rather elite band of 105 souls excommunicated by the Catholic Church[1]during its two thousand year history. Admittedly twenty-six of those have been added to the list in the last 114 years, so some might argue that its value has been somewhat eroded over time. On the other hand, church authorities don’t have the same powers of persuasion they once enjoyed, foot-roasting and burning-at-the-stake having become less acceptable in recent years.
Even so, I can’t help feeling, were I in Greg Reynold’s shoes, rather than being miffed at my fate, I would feel a certain pride in having been elevated to such august company, since it implies that the Pope and his inner circle are taking my views seriously and even feeling threatened by them. I won’t try your patience by itemizing the entire list of 105, but let’s just take a random sample. Father Greg Reynolds, a humble (ex-) parish priest from Melbourne, Australia, can now claim comradeship with two kings of France and one king of Scotland (Robert the Bruce). Several monarchs of England made the cut, including, as we know, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The list also includes five Holy Roman Emperors (one of whom apparently made it twice), one Byzantine Emperor and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1054 CE. Demonstrating the Church’s even-handedness with respect to women, French heroine Joan of Arc was excommunicated andburnt in 1431 – though later forgiven and even canonized. In 1577 an entire monastery of Carmelite nuns suffered the punishment, although it was revoked the following year – suggesting that even celibate Holy Fathers have a soft spot for the ladies. According to Wikipedia, Fidel Castro himself was excommunicated in 1962 – but even the US government didn’t manage to have him burnt.
One thing that struck me, as I perused the list, was that there seems to have been a diminishing of social status among recipients of the honour since the glorious days of the Middle Ages, when most seem to have been kings and emperors, or at least bishops and other members of the European aristocracy. Not to detract from Greg’s achievement, but it doesn’t really bear comparison with William I of Sicily who, in the 12th century, attracted the ire of Pope Adrian IV by waging war against the papal states and raiding pilgrims on their way to the tombs of the apostles.
I can’t help feeling there seems to be a tendency these days for Papal authorities in the Vatican to direct their awful power on more humble adherents to the faith, at the risk of demeaning their own majesty and credibility. It may be true that God in Heaven is convinced that abortion, family planning, gay relationships and women priests are abominations – but how can you really know? At the very least, you might think that a more enlightened approach by the Pope and his Holy Cardinals to such matters would endear them to the world community of Roman Catholics, and lure some of those lapsed bums back to the seats of parish churches and monumental urban cathedrals.
In 2009, Margaret McBride, administrator at St Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Centre in Phoenix, Arizona, authorised an abortion for a 27-year-old woman pregnant with her fifth child and suffering from pulmonary hypertension. Her doctors believed that her chances of dying if the pregnancy continued were close to 100%. McBride was excommunicated – though subsequently reinstated after a public outcry.
A group of Canadian Catholics calling themselves the Community of the Lady of All Nations was excommunicated en masse in 2007. Apparently they believe that their founder, 92-year-old Marie Paule Griguere is the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary. The Church begged to differ on the grounds that: A, reincarnation does not exist, and B, ‘Mary was assumed body and soul into heaven by God, and therefore Mary’s soul is not separate from her body, so that if she were to appear, it would have to be as herself, not a reincarnation.’
Well, what can you say to that? Medieval Christian scholars are said to have debated how many angels could dance, or at least sit, on the head  (or point) of a pin (or needle). That may or may not be true, but it is certainly true that arguments over the physical, spiritual and or metaphysical nature of Jesus Christ, as well as the question of whether the bread and wine in the sacrament of Communion actually became His flesh and blood, led to excommunications, major divisions in the Church, horrific violence against individuals, and even catastrophic wars.
If you are of the Roman Catholic persuasion, you may like to consider that any of the following can get you automatically excommunicated[2]:
  • Procuring of abortion
  • Apostasy: The total rejection of the Christian faith.
  • Heresy: The obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth, which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith – such as rejection of contraception, gay marriage and the ordination of women as priests.
  • Schism: The rejection of the authority and jurisdiction of the pope as head of the Church.
  • Desecration of sacred species (Holy Communion).
  • Physical attack on the pope.
  • Sacramental absolution of an accomplice in sin against the Sixth and Ninth Commandments – against murder and bearing false witness, which you might think leaves Tony Blah’s local confessor in a difficult position.
  • Unauthorized episcopal (bishop) consecration.
  • Direct violation of confessional seal by confessor.

The following offenses warrant excommunication as a result of a judgment from a church authority:
  • Pretended celebration of the Holy Eucharist (Mass) or conferral of sacramental absolution by one not a priest.
  • Violation of confessional seal by interpreter and others.

Well, you may think you’re on safe ground with most of those, and anyway, what the Holy Father doesn’t find out won’t worry him unduly. On the other hand, you might want to drop Greg Reynolds down there in Melbourne a note offering a little encouragement and support.