Exploring Istanbul – The old and the new

I’m a little confused about Turkey these days. It seems I am assailed on two fronts by people telling me, on the one hand, that the country is headed for Islamic fundamentalist disaster, possibly orchestrated by the United States of America with Tayyip Erdoğan as their puppet – while on the other, a large proportion of the population seems to believe that Tayyip Bey is a national saviour, leading the country into a new era of prosperity, tolerance and self-confidence. Who to believe?

Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus - soon to open as an exhibition hall and conference centre

Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus – soon to open as an exhibition hall and conference centre

Sometimes you just have to get out and see for yourself, I reckon. Yesterday I went a-wandering in the old city. My first destination was that corner of the ancient metropolis where the sea wall on the Golden Horn joins the land walls stretching across to the Sea of Marmara. The area is called Ayvansaray, but in former times it was known as Blachernae, after the palace where the last Byzantine/Roman emperors lived. There must have been quite a complex of buildings here in those days – and what little that survives above ground to the present day is said to be one of the few relatively intact examples of late Byzantine secular architecture in the world’.

When I first came to Istanbul in the 1990s, this area was a forgotten part of the city – most of its residents living in poor quality housing with little architectural merit. The nooks and crannies in the city walls and remains of the palaces were inhabited by an even poorer population with no other fixed abode. No doubt archeologists and ancient historians knew of the palaces, but there was no sign that anyone was taking any serious interest. Since 2010 there has been major renovation and reconstruction going on, and I pay a visit from time to time to see how work is progressing. It’s a huge job, of course, requiring major financial investment. One project is restoration of the Anemas Dungeon, located under the long-gone Blachernae Palace. My old guidebook said you would need a torch/flashlight to explore the labyrinth of tunnels – but it would have taken a visitor much braver than I to venture in. Tourists wandering off the beaten track in less isolated parts of the old city have met unpleasant ends. I’m looking forward to the day when the complex opens as a museum so that I can check it out in safety under more reliable lighting.

An old curiosity shop to waylay the rambler

An old curiosity shop to waylay the rambler

Nearby, another Byzantine Palace, Porphyrogenitus, is also undergoing renovation – and apparently the plan is to turn it into an exhibition hall and conference centre. While I understand those purists who see this as commercially driven sacrilege, I’m not sure what the alternatives are. Leave it as it was, a slowly mouldering heap of rubble inhabited by the city’s poorest? Wall it off behind glass panels so that a few rare visitors could attempt to recreate, largely in their minds, the glory of a bygone age? In reality, the preservation of such buildings is an enormously expensive business, beyond the means of the Turkish government to fund. Some of the finance inevitably has to come from the private sector, or by re-utilising them in some way that will provide an income. Where would the grand cathedrals of Europe be without their entrance fees and charges for photography? Even in countries where the culture and religion are theoretically unchanged?

As I often have cause to remark, Turkey’s biggest problem in being understood – even in understanding itself – is that so much has happened here during its long millennia of recorded and previous unrecorded history. Archeologists and even historians don’t have the facts, and the English language lacks the words to describe, never mind explain, the origins of the people who live in this region today.

The city of Byzantion is said to have been founded by ‘Greek’ colonists in 657 BCE. But who were these ‘Greeks’? Still, if that date is correct, it makes the city pretty near as old as Rome – and one might argue that Rome’s claimed establishment date of 753 BCE owes more to myth and legend than incontestable historical fact. Nevertheless, there we have a city, located on the historical peninsula inhabited by people speaking a language that is a forerunner of modern Greek. Then along came Constantine, Emperor of the pagan Roman Empire, establishing his New Rome (later to be called Constantinopolis in his honour) in 324 CE on the site of Byzantion, and the language of government became Latin.

Trendy cafes amongst the history of millennia

Trendy cafes amongst the history of millennia

During the course of his reign, Constantine reportedly became a ‘Christian’, and also established the principle of dynastic succession – two serious blows to democracy, sad to say. It wasn’t till 50-odd years later that the Emperor Justinian established ‘Nicene Christianity’ as the imperial state religion – some might say a political rather than a spiritual decision, marking the beginning of that religion’s descent into intolerance, persecution and political manipulation; but that’s another story.

At some point, the locally predominant Greek tongue re-emerged as the language of administration; the western Roman Empire fell, and Constantinople stood alone as capital of . . . what? The Roman Empire, as they themselves believed? Or some other mysterious entity, subsequently, and retrospectively, named ‘Byzantium’ by Western historians. Then the Ottomans appeared, finally conquering the (Eastern) Christian city in 1453 CE, turning it into the capital of their 600-year empire. Certainly the state religion was Islam, but ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Armenian’ Christians, and Jews, were tolerated and given rights of worship, language, education, even administration over their own people. To Western Europe, the Ottomans were ‘Turks’, just as their conquered predecessors had been ‘Greeks’ – but it was a long time, and many generations of inter-marriage with locals, since their ancestors had migrated from Central Asia. However, the power of words is strong to influence minds for good or ill.

But let’s get back to my ramble around that old city, delineated by the majestic walls built by Constantine, and extended by Theodosius II in the 5th century. The walls enclose a roughly triangular area with a perimeter of approximately twenty-one kilometres, so you can’t hope to see much in your three-day visit. My guide for exploring this huge area has been a handy little publication, ‘Step by Step Istanbul’[1], which has allowed me to concentrate on sections of the old city and to discover gems of historical interest in their labyrinthine streets. Yesterday my route took me along the shore of the Golden Horn back towards the Galata Bridge at Eminönü.

300 year-old mansion of Dimitri Kantemir

300 year-old mansion of Dimitri Kantemir

Certainly Istanbul is changing. Urban renewal is taking place everywhere. Huge state-sponsored projects are under construction alongside those of private sector commercial interests, great and small. Inevitably there will be gains and losses. We will regret the disappearance of some of the city’s old ‘character’ while at the same time, happily availing ourselves of its modern amenities.

My route took me past two old houses, formerly home to two important Ottoman figures, neither of them Turkish or Muslim – Panayotaki Nikosi and Dimitri Kantemir. Despite the sole online reference I found referring to the former as a ‘magnificent villa’ it has been a neglected shell as long as I have known it. The other, however, is in the process of renovation and being turned into a museum. Dimitri Kantemir was a Prince of Moldavia who lived in Istanbul from 1687 to 1710. According to Wikipedia he ‘became a member of the Royal Academy of Berlin in 1714. [He] was known as one of the greatest linguists of his time, speaking and writing eleven languages, and being well versed in Oriental scholarship.’ His writings include works on history, geography, philosophy, linguistics and music. Restoration of his house is a joint project between the Istanbul Metropolitan Council and the Government of Romania.

Orthodox church of St Nicholas with its sacred spring

Orthodox church of St Nicholas with its sacred spring

So, whatever people say about the religiosity of the Istanbul City Council, they seem happy to put money into preserving non-Muslim buildings. A little further along the road, work is progressing on the small Orthodox church of St Nicholas. It’s not a particularly ancient building, having been erected in the 19th century – but it stands on the site of a much older Byzantine edifice, its location chosen because of the sacred spring which bubbled beneath it. Another waterside restoration is being carried out on the 19th century Bulgarian church of St Stefan – architecturally interesting because it was made from cast iron sections prefabricated in Austria and shipped down the Danube River.

A chance discovery while I was looking for the Kantemir house was a small mosque with an unusual wooden minaret. This mosque, plaques in Turkish and English informed me, was built by the Grand Vizier Şehit Ali Pasha in 1716 after a certain Ebu Zer Gifari appeared to him in a dream. That gentleman had been a companion of the Prophet Muhammed, and one of the very first to accept the new religion, subsequently bringing many converts.

Mosque of Ebu Zer Gıfari, companion of the Prophet

Mosque of Ebu Zer Gıfari, companion of the Prophet

I have been reliably informed that UNESCO has been considering naming and shaming Turkey for allegedly failing to adequately protect and care for the historic peninsula, officially recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage site. One project that has attracted considerable attention is a bridge recently built across the Golden Horn to carry one line of the city’s new Metro system. The bridge, say critics, is a blight on the historic landscape, disrupting lines of sight on the famous skyline and totally out of keeping with its unique architecture.

Well, I have to tell you, I love that new Metro system. There are some who say it should have been done years ago – but it wasn’t, and now it is. The bridge in question seems to be a reasonable compromise between a living city in dire need of a modern public transportation system, and an archeological paradise containing irreplaceable treasures of several major empires. Without the excavations associated with Metro construction, some recently discovered treasures would never have seen the light of day. Designers of the system have located a station in the middle of the new bridge, meaning that pedestrians can access it from both shores, enjoying, as they do, unparalleled views of the ancient city. I haven’t seen it at night, but I imagine it must be spectacular! And if my calculation of angles is correct, the only part of the city from which views may be obstructed would be the Prime Minister’s very own constituency of Kasımpaşa.

Golden Horn Bridge carrying the new Metro line. Superb views from the station.

Golden Horn Bridge carrying the new Metro line. Superb views from the station.

Meanwhile, the private sector too is coming to the redevelopment party. All along the waterside road and adjacent streets, trendy new cafes are sprouting, side by side with refurbished traditional meyhanes and purveyors of that necessary follow-up, tripe soup. Again, despite the local council’s reputation for wowserism, there seems to be no prohibition on alcohol consumption. As well as this small-scale commercial development, larger enterprises are also involved. A foundation set up by the late industrialist Kadir Has has turned buildings of the former tobacco factory into a university campus. Again, purists may object – but the factory was originally built by foreign banking interests who had obtained one of the infamous ‘capitulations’ back in 1884, and had stood empty for twenty years before its current transformation. The old factory also houses the Rezan Has Museum, where you can currently see an exhibition of Urartian jewellery and ornaments dating from the 8th-7th centuries BCE, and a fascinating display chronicling the development of written language, much of which took place in this part of the world.

Next time you are in Istanbul, with a few hours to spare, I really recommend you to follow that route. I can’t say that I am in total agreement with everything the present government of Turkey does – but the evidence of my eyes suggests to me that citizens of and visitors to Istanbul have much to be grateful for. As I wandered slowly around the other day, I passed and was passed by a family of young German tourists, mum and dad with three small kids on foot and another in a stroller. Clearly they were travellers on a budget, as you would be, and not with a tour group. I can’t imagine young parents venturing with children into those parts of the old city ten years or so ago.

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[1] Latest edition published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Council, in association with Culture Co. Earlier editions by Intermedia.

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A New Pope for Easter

Turkish is a fascinating language, and a challenge for the well-meaning holidaymaker who thinks to pick up a little for the sake of international goodwill. One of its peculiarities is a feature known to linguists as agglutination, whereby grammatical functions are constructed by adding suffixes to a lexical root. There is in theory no limit to the number of suffixes that can be agglutinated, and Turks take pride in the following word: ‘Çekoslovakyalılaştıramadıklarımızdanmısınız?’which has eleven suffixes, and can be rendered into English as ‘Are you one of those whom we have been unable to make Czechoslovakian?’

Of course every country and culture likes to feel that it is the best at, or has the biggest, longest, whatever, of something – it’s a natural human (or at least a male) thing. So as native speakers of English, we understandably dredge our memories for the longest word we know – and maybe come up with ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’. It doesn’t quite measure up, but it does at least have a useful and significant meaning (unlike its longer Turkish counterpart): ‘opposition to the disestablishment of the Church of England.’ 

Why am I telling you this? Because ‘establishment’ in this context means that Anglicanism is the official state religion of England, which, in turn means that England is not strictly speaking a secular state. The main precedent for this is the adoption of Christianity as the state religion of the Roman Empire by the Emperor Theodosius I in 380 CE. You might think that the world has moved on a little in the intervening 1630 years, but the English Parliament (wherein twenty-six seats are reserved for senior bishops) is holding the line.

What got me thinking about this was the recent election of a new Pope to preside over the international community of Roman Catholics – more specifically, a couple of discussions that surfaced in a circle of history buffs I follow online. The first was prompted by someone asking the question: If Benedict XVI was not the most intelligent head of state ever, who was?” Now I have to confess, it’s not a question that would ever have occurred to me – not least because I never really think of high intelligence as being a major requirement for a head of state. Nevertheless, once the question was posed, it got me thinking. Is being highly intelligent compatible with being a Catholic? Is the Pope actually a head of state?

Pope Gregory XII, resigned 1415
Well, probably the second question is the easier of the two, so let’s look at that one first. It seems that international law gives diplomatic recognition to two institutions of the Catholic Church: the Holy See and Vatican City. The latter, I was interested to learn, was actually established as an independent state by an agreement, in 1929, between Pope Pius XI and Italy’s ‘Duce’, Benito Mussolini. According to Wikipedia, “Vatican City is an ecclesiastical or sacerdotal-monarchical state, ruled by the Bishop of Rome—the Pope. The highest state functionaries are all Catholic clergymen of various national origins. It is the sovereign territory of the Holy See (Sancta Sedes) and the location of the Pope’s residence, referred to as the Apostolic Palace.” If that sounds positively archaic to you, it’s not surprising. A ‘See’ in RC parlance was originally the chair in which a bishop sat, but has come to mean the area over which the seated bishop has episcopal authority. Twelve of these gentlemen are said to derive their authority from an unbroken succession going back to Jesus’s twelve apostles. One of them, The Holy See, claims pre-eminence on the basis of direct descent from St Peter himself, and its official existence seems to date from some time in the 5th century.

Fine and dandy. I have no problem with Roman Catholics adhering to whatever beliefs give them comfort in the long dark teatime of their souls. Only I don’t quite understand why they get to have international recognition of statehood on the basis of their strange beliefs and their Pope’s alliance with a fascist Italian dictator in the 1920s. If Catholics, why not Presbyterians? Which brings me to the question of intelligence – and I suppose you’d have to admit that people who can pull that kind of stunt on the international community must be pretty smart characters.

It’s self-evident that you do need some kind of smarts to get yourself elected or appointed to a leadership role at that level of society. After all, the Roman Church does claim to have 1.2 billion adherents, even if 1,199,999,880 of them don’t actually have any say in choosing the new fella. But as for intelligence, that’s a curly one. IQ (Intelligence Quotient) used to be thought of as a way of measuring human intellectual capacity, but has gone out of favour in recent years. Former world chess champion Bobby Fisher (IQ 187) probably contributed to that as his genius for chess descended into vitriolic diatribes against the United States and the Jewish people. These days most discussions of intelligence recognize nine different types, one of which, linguistic, may be what Benedict XVI had.

The big thing for me is that intelligence can’t exist in a vacuum. It manifests itself in outcomes, and from those we will judge the mental capabilities of the individual. So it seems to me we can look at the ex-Pope’s intelligence in three ways. First, the guy is undoubtedly smart, and, discounting Tony Blair’s miraculous conversion, I reckon it must be pretty tough to be intelligent and to believe all that stuff that Catholics are expected to believe. So full points to the ex-Holy Father for being able to compartmentalize knowledge, if that’s what he did. On the other hand, it may be that early in his academic life, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger decided that he wanted power, and thought the Church was a good career path, so he mouthed the mumbo jumbo in order to get where he wanted to be – another sign of a certain kind of intelligence, for sure. Then there’s the fact that Benedict resigned – the first Pope to do so since Gregory XII in 1415. Undoubtedly, for believing Catholics it’s a disappointment, and not at all the done thing – but in the greater scheme of things, we may think Father Joseph finally saw the error of his ways – and being able to admit your mistakes may be a another indicator of intelligence.

That last comment may seem unduly harsh, but take a close look at the history of Roman Catholicism and you’ll see what I mean. Here I want to touch on the second topic being discussed by my online friends, which involved some scholarly debate on the definition of ‘heresy’, and whether it differed from ‘dissent’, in the context of Christianity. In the course of my Euro-centred Christian-oriented education, I learned that the early followers of Jesus were strong-minded innocent souls suffering terribly at the hands of Roman Emperors, who employed various methods, of which feeding to lions was a favourite, to discourage the spread of the new religion. What I didn’t learn until much later was that, once those Roman Emperors, for reasons of their own, which may or may not have had much to do with actual spiritual experience, decided to ‘establish’ Christianity as the state religion, the apparatus of institutional persecution was turned on those who failed to toe the official Christian line.

The process, essentially was this: the emperor and his sacerdotal henchmen gathered together in various ecumenical councils, most of which were held within the territory of the Eastern or Byzantine Roman Empire (in modern Turkey) and formulated a doctrine, or set of articles which would thereafter be required beliefs for ‘orthodox’ Christians. These councils, by the way, were convened 300 years or more after the death of the church’s namesake. The articles of ‘faith’ were designed to include elements which made it relatively easy for adherents of earlier pagan and folk religions to find points of contact with the new official system, while, at the same time, provided a basis for getting rid of troublesome parties who might foster dissent from within. The result was a creed, or creeds, containing ‘truths’ never claimed, as far as I am aware, by Jesus himself, and closing debate on matters that a reasonable human being might consider highly debatable, even irrelevant to the essence of the business.

As an illustration of this, let me include an excerpt from the Athanasian Creed, which came into use in the 6th century, and is apparently still, I understand, subscribed to by mainstream western Christian churches, though, perhaps understandably, no longer much used in everyday worship:
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance. For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Spirit incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated nor three incomprehensible, but one uncreated and one incomprehensible .  . . . So that in all things, as aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.”
Says who? you may ask. Well, I have to agree, you need a certain kind of intelligence to get your head around that, or even to want to think about trying. You might also suppose the word ‘incomprehensible’, included five times in that text, and rightly applied to any entity worth worshipping as GOD by an intelligent human being, would let you off the hook – but not so. Those words were carefully and specifically chosen to allow authorities to weed out deviants from the true path. The Wikipedia entry on heresieslists fifty-four distinct ideas that have qualified as such over the years under ‘established’ church law, the most recent of which involved a nonagenarian lady in Canada whose followers believed she was a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary, and were duly excommunicated by the Pope in 2007. Early heresies tended to focus on what Jesus actually was, given the church’s insistence that his mother was a virgin and his father was the Lord God Almighty. Clearly an incomprehensible God would need an equally incomprehensible agent to carry out such worldly activities, hence the Holy Spirit (or Ghost, if you prefer). Then the debate tended to get entwined in arguments over whether Jesus’s body was actually like yours and mine, or made of some less corporeal stuff; whether he had a normal soul like other mortal men; and whether there was some kind of divine substance in there too, setting him apart from the rest of us.

The consequence of all this was the establishment of a state religion with a very strict code of ‘beliefs’, and the expulsion, excommunication and persecution of dissenters from the party line (labeled heretics, which has a more resonant ring to it, the better to justify punitive action). The big winner was the Roman Empire, by this time, centred on the eastern capital of Constantinople, especially after the fall of western Rome to the barbarians in 476 CE. It’s also pretty obvious that most of the early action in the birth and evolution of Christianity took place in eastern lands, with the West a relative latecomer on the scene.

Still, once they got going, Western Christians set about making up for lost time. Early convocations of bishops formulating the creeds of the established church took place in eastern cities, Nicaea, Chalcedon and Ephesus, and you couldn’t really deny their conclusions without getting yourself out on an insecure limb. What you could do, however, was sneak an extra word or two into the text (in Latin so the ordinary Joe wouldn’t notice), then, when the time was right, insist that your version was the correct one, thereby creating a doctrinal split, giving you grounds to excommunicate the other side and set yourself up as the true church. Which is more or less what the Romans did. It’s known in theological circles as the ‘filioque’ controversy, and relates to a word inserted into the 4th century Nicene Creed in Spain some two centuries later. By the 11th century, Western Christendom felt itself strong enough to challenge Constantinople for supremacy, and that word provided doctrinal justification for the Great Schism of 1053.

Not long after, in 1071, Seljuk Turks defeated the Eastern Romans in battle and began serious incursions into territory long-considered part of the European sphere of influence. Pope Urban II’s launching of the First Crusade in 1096, and subsequent Crusading invasions by armies from Western Europe may have been ostensibly aimed at freeing the so-called Holy Lands from the clutches of Muslim unbelievers; but subsequent events suggest that uniting Europe under Papal and Roman Imperial authority played a major part; as did a desire to expropriate and/or plunder wealthy eastern lands and cities; and to demonstrate to Eastern Christians where the real power in Christendom now lay.

Things didn’t work out exactly according to Papal plans, of course. The Holy Roman Empire never really got off the ground. The   Byzantine Empire fell, but to the Ottoman Turks. It was another five centuries, nearly, before those Holy Places returned to Western control, by which time they had been in Muslim hands for most of the previous two thousand years, and continue to cause severe headaches for all concerned.

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church had ‘established’ itself as a dominant player in European power games by the beginning of the second millennium, and the concept of heresy was the major tool in its box of tricks for ensuring compliance. It was obvious to many, even in those days, that the search for temporal power had resulted in an organizational structure that had more interest in matters material than spiritual. For four hundred years before the successful emergence of Protestantism in the 16thcentury, various groups (Catharsand Waldensians in France, for example) were challenging the materialism of the established Roman Church, and being viciously suppressed for their idealism.

The Inquisition was not a peculiarly Spanish invention, but it achieved notoriety during the 15th century as the mechanism whereby the Iberian Peninsula was ‘reclaimed’ for Christendom. Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or leave, and the backsliding converted were ruthlessly hunted out. Some modern Catholic sources suggest that there wasn’t as much burning at stakes as we had been led to believe – but the existence of the threat may have been enough to overcome the reluctance of some; and if not, there were less fatal but nonetheless exemplary methods of persuasion, among which foot-roasting was apparently popular.

An interesting concept I came across recently is something referred to in RC literature as ‘The Black Legend’, which argues that most of that Inquisitorial unpleasantness didn’t actually happen, and that stories about events in Spain and Spanish conquests in Central and South America were concocted and spread by Protestants keen to discredit their religious rivals. To me it sounds rather akin to Holocaust Denial. What was the reason for all those Spanish Jews uprooting themselves from their homeland of centuries and resettling thousands of kilometres away in the Ottoman Empire in the 1490s? Maybe they just felt like a change of scenery?

As we head into another Easter weekend, I find myself wondering again about the strangeness of that central event in the Christian calendar. As far as I can learn, the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325 CE determined the date of Easter to be the first Sunday after the full moon following the March equinox, which is why the holiday moves around from one year to the next (a moveable feast, in technical parlance). But you’d want to ask, why would they do that? If you’re commemorating the date Jesus Christ was crucified, why not go for the actual date, or at least fix a date and run with that? Could it have been that a lot of the local populations were partying up large at spring fertility or seed-planting celebrations and the Jewish Passover at that time of year, and the machinery of state decided to make a virtue of necessity? If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, and then gradually shift the official emphasis. Makes a lot of sense.

Similar theories have been advanced as origins for the stories of Jesus’s virgin birth at the winter solstice, his crucifixion and resurrection at the spring equinox, and the cult of his mother, Mary. Just down the road from the supposed House of the Virgin Mary near the town of Selçuk in Aegean Turkey are the remains of the classical Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The Greek goddess Artemis is linked to the Phrygian female deity Cybele, and the generic Anatolian mother goddess. Virginity was one of their characteristics, as was, paradoxically, a quality of universal motherhood. Associated with Cybele was a young man, Attis, born to a virgin mother who may or may not have been Cybele. Whatever the case, week-long festivities in their honour were being conducted well into classical times, and may have inspired those early church authorities to add sympathetic embellishments to their own creeds.

Well, who knows? It’s all too long ago for anyone to be able to demonstrate sure proof of what actually went on. What we can say with some certainty is that a good deal of what passes for Christian ‘belief’ was determined by power-hungry gentlemen in days of old with very secular imperial aspirations, and a fair amount of rather nasty coercion was applied to ensure that dissidents were silenced or removed to a safe distance. That’s the reason that ‘disestablishment’ movements have constantly resurfaced over the centuries. In the end, the search for truth starts and ends in your own heart. If the new Pope’s ok with that, then I’m ok with him.

A Christmas Message – Origins of Christianity

A few years ago I was travelling through central and eastern Anatolia on a personal expedition to see some of the less accessible sights of Turkey: the Tomb of the Sufi mystic, Mevlana, in Konya; the statues of the ancients gods on the summit of Mt Nemrut; the sun setting on the waters of Lake Van; the snow-capped peak of Mt Ararat . . . and I spent a couple of days in the eastern city of Malatya. There weren’t many tourists around at the time, and I don’t look much like a Turk, so I attracted a certain amount of interest among the locals – especially when they found I could speak a bit of Turkish.

I was wandering around the bazaar, and one of the stallholders invited me to drink tea. I accepted, and soon a small crowd gathered, one of whom, it turned out, was a Hadji, a much-respected older gentleman who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and was clearly something of a theological authority. It was also soon clear that here was a rare opportunity to corner a Christian and interrogate him about the peculiarities of his religion. Muslims in Turkey are quite accepting of Christians and Jews, since we are all members of the same monotheistic family. Nevertheless, there are some perplexing issues. ‘What’s this business about Jesus being the son of God?’ ‘Can you just briefly explain that Holy Trinity thing?’ Well, I know my Turkish wasn’t so good at the time, so maybe I didn’t do total justice to my western Christian heritage. I certainly felt it was a little unfair that I should have been chosen as the spokesman and apologist for my religion and culture in that small group of hospitable but genuinely curious Turkish Muslims.

My old Sunday School – Takapuna, NZ

I was brought up in a good Christian family. I was sent off to Sunday school by church-going parents who contributed generously to the weekly collection, and even served on committees. I did my best to make sense of the stuff they used to tell us in Sunday School and Bible Class, until the age of about 12 or 13, when the questions seemed to demand more than the old superficial answers. I’d find myself mouthing the words of one of those creeds (Apostles’ or Nicene) and wondering if I was the only one harbouring secret doubts about all those affirmations that, one assumed, one was expected to believe if one was to call oneself a Christian:


I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Amen.
Well, it’s a big ask, isn’t it! There’s some fairly demanding stuff in there, wouldn’t you say? ‘Son of God’, ‘Born of the Virgin Mary’, ‘resurrection of the body’ . . . It’s a challenge worthy of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, who trained herself to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Not easy without that kind of determination. In fact, only two of the four Gospel authors, Matthew and Luke, make that claim about the Holy Spirit’s paternity – and you can’t help feeling, as you read their words, that they have the ring of something written after the fact; which, of course, they were . . . at least 60 to 80 years after.
And what about Jesus himself? Did he believe his mother was a virgin? References to ‘my Father’ don’t count for much, because God was pretty much everybody’s father figure in those days. Jesus was more inclined to talk about the ‘son of man’, which is a rather more modest claim, and probably has pretty much the same meaning as ‘human being’.
So where do these so-called ‘creeds’ come from? Who concocted them? And who decided that accepting them holus bolus was the sine qua non of being a Christian? I remember one church minister, more adventurous and intellectually credible than most, making some attempt, from the pulpit, to reassure inquiring minds in his congregation that the words of the creed, seen in the correct light, were not as outrageous as they might at first appear. But in the end, the words are there, aren’t they?  You can’t really weasel your way around ‘descended into hell’ and ‘on the third day he rose again’, can you? And, of course, that’s exactly what the writers intended! But who were those writers?
I guess I’d put all such questions on to the mental back burner long before I came to Turkey. I came here to work, unlike some who come on a search for spiritual truth: the touchingly naïve Americans who, from time to time, embark on expeditions to Mt Ararat hoping to excavate the remains of Noah’s Ark; or others convinced that they are praying in the house once inhabited by the Virgin Mary. However, the very existence of such places brought those questions back to mind . . . and, surprisingly, provided unexpected answers to fundamental questions about Christianity, in a country whose population is reportedly 99% Muslim.
One thing you can’t escape from in Turkey is the reality of the early Christian church, and all those places and people: Peter, Paul, John, Mary, Ephesus, Antioch, Galatia . . . At the same time, you come to see also how much the development of Christianity was tied up with its acceptance as a state religion by the Roman Empire centred on Constantinople, and the political realities of that time and place. So, it’s an interesting paradox. On the one hand, you are confronted with the undeniable reality of people, places and events that gave birth to the Christian religion. On the other, you also see that much of the dogma of that religion, the articles of faith which one was expected to espouse as a true believer, were formulated and codified long after the founding events by committees of priests and politicians, for what might often have been pragmatic rather than spiritual reasons.
So let’s start with the real places and people. The Tigris and Euphrates are branches of the river that, according to Genesis, flowed out of the Garden of Eden – and both rise in eastern Anatolia. You’ll be unlikely to find remains of Noah’s Ark, but Mt Ararat can definitely be seen rising to 5185 metres near the border of Turkey and Iran. Head south and west and you will come to the city of Urfa, where you will find a queue of faithful Muslims waiting to enter a cave deemed to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.
OK, that old stuff, you may say. But what about the New Testament, the actual Christian business? Well, keep heading west towards the Mediterranean coast and you will find yourself in Antakya, the ancient city of Antioch, the base of St Paul’s missionary activities. You can visit the grotto-church of St Peter, in this city where Christians were, so the story goes, first actually called ‘Christians’. Somewhat more accessible to the tourist resorts of Aegean Turkey lies the town of Selçuk, a short drive or a middling walk from the site of Ephesus, one of the best-preserved cities of the ancient world. It was also the location of one of the Seven Churches of Revelation, all of which are to be found not far away in other parts of western Turkey. There is a widely accepted tradition that the apostle John, charged by the dying Jesus with the care of his mother, Mary, took her eventually to Ephesus, where they both drew their last breaths. Certain it is that the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had a basilica church built there in the 6th century over what was believed to be John’s final resting place – not far from a restored house held by many to have been the last dwelling of Jesus’s mother, Mary.
I could go on, but you get the point. It was a long time ago, but these are real people, and real places we are talking about here. However, things start getting a little murky when you move from history and geography, into the realms of faith, theology and dogma. Certainly the new religion took off, for one reason and another, and began to be seen by the Romans, who controlled most of the Mediterranean world (and much of Europe) in those days, as a threat to their established way-of-life. The story of the violinist-Emperor Nero is well known – he is said to have passed blame for his own torching of the Imperial City on to the Christian community, which then justified an orgy of bloodthirsty torture and execution lasting from 64-68 CE. More open to debate is the theory that, far from terminating the new religion, Nero’s excesses of violent persecution actually aroused sympathy for the oppressed Christians, and gave the movement strength.
Persecution continued, however, until the reign of Constantine I. He it was who founded the city of Constantinople in 330 CE, and is called ‘the Great’ on account of being the first Christian Roman Emperor. Again, there is some debate about how he acquired his new faith, but clearly, by this point in history, being a Christian had become rather more socially acceptable. The special relationship of a man with his mother is proverbial in the Mediterranean world, and it is known that Constantine’s mother was a Christian. A grander, and rather more ‘imperial’ tale asserts that, on the eve of the battle against his rival Maxentius, to unite the Empire after a period of division, Constantine had a dream instructing him to display the symbolic letters of Christ on his soldiers’ shields. His troops won the battle, and the rest, as they say, is history.
From here began the majestic pageant of Christianity leading to its eventual cultural domination of the world – or its downward slide into politics and corruption, depending on your point of view. Clearly, once Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, there was a need for an orthodox position and a clearly delineated set of beliefs. The first problem that required solving was what to do about the bishops and other high-ranking churchmen who had not only recanted their faith during the years of persecution, but, in some cases, to save their own skins, had actually dobbed in members of their own congregations. Certain purists, known as ‘Donatists’, were, apparently, of the opinion that such turncoats should not be allowed back into the church now that the bad times were over. As we might imagine, however, there is advantage to an emperor in having high-ranking subordinates who can be relied on to toe the party line – and not only were the former apostates allowed back, but many of them returned to high office. Needless to say, there would have been unhappiness in some quarters with this decision.
Nevertheless, having established a coterie of bishops to lead his new institutionalised state church, Constantine called them together in the city of Nicaea in 325 CE. Nicaea, incidentally, still exists as Iznik in modern Turkey, and was the location of a major ceramics industry during Ottoman times. But not to digress, the Council of Nicaea was charged with laying down a code of beliefs for the Church, and in doing so, to alienate heretics who might threaten the state monopoly. The ‘heresy’ of Gnosticism had already been dealt with in the previous century; Gnosticism being a mystical religious philosophy predating Christianity, which tended to avoid the more literal-minded excesses of mainstream Christianity. Having got rid of this threat, it was really just a matter of haggling over details, though these details did cause some serious splitting of the one ‘holy catholic church’.
The Nicene gathering had to deal with the so-called ‘Arian’ heresy. Well, I have no intention of trying to explain this or any of the subsequent theories in a similar vein which these and later holy fathers debated at great length, and, in their infinite wisdom, handed down decisions on. Some of them concerned the perplexing doctrine of the Holy Trinity – in particular, what exactly was the nature of the three beings, Father, Son and Holy Ghost; and what were their relationships to each other, if, that is, they were actually separate at all, which they weren’t, or aren’t. As Spike Milligan used to say, ‘It’s all rather confusing, really!’
Now you might think, with me, that some matters are better left alone, as being beyond the powers of mere mortals to comprehend; and the details might safely be left to the individual understanding of willing believers. Not so, however. The all-knowing holy fathers apparently felt themselves quite capable of making pronouncements on such matters, and began the tradition of formulating creeds for the guidance of future generations. And the wording of these creeds, far from being broad enough to encompass a spectrum of individual beliefs, was, on the contrary, agonised over at great length, so as to specifically proscribe any deviation from the ’true path’, as determined by the aforesaid holy fathers.
Well, it’s a complex but interesting business. Clearly, the process I have touched on here did not end in 325 CE at Iznik. It continued at Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy) in 451 CE, and at other councils throughout the days of the Byzantine Roman Empire. The situation was further complicated by the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054 CE, when Western and Eastern Christendom decided to go their separate ways; and again in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation of the 16thCentury – but we can leave those discussions for another day.
In summary, however, what I want to say is this: I feel a whole lot more comfortable about my Western religio-cultural heritage since coming to Turkey. I have a better understanding of the relationship between the world’s three great monotheistic religions. I have visited places which have added a sense of reality and objectivity to the traditions and culture which I absorbed with the air I breathed through my childhood and education. I have come to see that much of what bothered me, as an inquiring adolescent, about the Christian Church, is, to say the least, of questionable relevance to the philosophy and message of its eponymous founder. And if anything I have said makes you feel a little better in the coming weeks of the festive season, then I will feel my time has been well spent.