I had never visited Turkey prior to my trip with the Rumi Forum. To prepare myself before the trip, I read a history, “Istanbul: The Imperial City,” and a history of the Ottoman Empire. From these books I learned a great deal about the glories of Turkey’s history, but I came away with a sense of sadness about the repeated conspiracies and intrigues in the ruling families and the court in both the Byzantine and the Ottoman periods, with brothers murdering brothers, and repeated violence. I also read several works of Orhan Pamuk: My Name is Red, Snow, and his memoir of Istanbul, including childhood memories. Pamuk presents Istanbul as a city of huzun, of melancholy, and describes a citizenry who do not feel worthy of the splendid monuments of their past. His powerful novel, Snow, presents a contemporary Turkey in conflict with itself, torn between Islamic militants and secular governing authorities. My Name Is Red is a wonderful evocation of painters at the Ottoman court in its heyday. I was also aware of some of the difficulties of Turkey from news reports.
The sights of Turkey are spectacular. One of the most moving moments in the trip was the first evening, when we took a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus. By the time we turned around to go back south, we had finished dinner, and it was dark. I went up on the deck and was moved by the beauty of the scene: the two bridges and the medieval fortifications and later on the sight of Istanbul at night. The major monuments of Istanbul are stunning, world-class masterpieces of architecture: Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the Suleimaniyya Mosque. I was also moved by the beauty of the palaces, both the traditional Topkapi and the nineteenth-century Dolmabace. The Spice Souk and the Grand Souk in Istanbul were filled with alluring sights and smells. It was moving to visit the house that is venerated as the place where Mary lived the last years of her life.Both Muslims and Christians have a profound devotion to her. She is honored in the Qur’an as the virgin mother of the prophet Jesus; she is the only woman named by her own name in the Qur’an, and also the only woman to have a sura (chapter) named after her. She has been held up as a bridge to the future for shaping Muslim-Christian relations.
The ancient Hellenistic ruins at Ephesus, where Paul preached, were striking, but even more impressive were the landscape and monuments of Cappadocia. I had read about Cappadocia for decades because of its great importance for early Christianity, but I had no idea of what it looked like, and this was probably the greatest surprise of the trip for me. Lunch at a restaurant perched high on a hill offered a gorgeous view of a mesa to the left, similar to those in the southwest of the United States, a snow-capped mountain in the middle, and caves in the rock to the right. Some of these once housed early Christian ascetics; people live in others of them today. In the same area we visited an underground village where early Christians hid during persecutions from the Roman Empire, as well as a medieval Christian monastery, where the mural paintings from the Middle Ages were still clearly visible despite being damaged.
The group of companions was most enjoyable and interesting, including a retired diplomat, the former dean of a law school, a rabbi, a minister of Unity Church, and a Franciscan sister who works in interreligious relations. I enjoyed getting to know each of them and have remained in contact with them. Our hosts from the Rumi Forum could not have been more gracious. We were welcomed into people’s homes for dinners and showered with gifts. The interreligious outreach was most impressive.
On the bus going toward Ephesus, the rabbi came up to me and said, “Leo, there was a creed of Ephesus, wasn’t there?” I answered, “Yes, there was a council that issued a declaration.” He continued, “I think we should write our own statement from Ephesus, and you are the one to draft it.” As I bounced up and down on the bus, I pulled out a piece of paper and drafted a preliminary statement based upon our experiences in Turkey. We circulated it and invited suggestions to improve it. Later, on our last full day, we had lunch in a gorgeous room along the Bosphorus at the Dolmabace Palace. As we finished eating, the rabbi led the group in discussing what we wanted in the statement. I took notes as one person after another reflected on our experience together. Later I composed another draft, incorporating many additions from our companions. We later circulated this through e-mails and finally delivered it to the Rumi Forum as an expression of our delight with the trip and our sharing of their concerns.
I have worked in dialogue with Jews and Buddhists for roughly twenty years and with Muslims for about ten years. I have come to know many wonderful people through these relationships. I also know that relations between Jews and Muslims can be strained because of the conflict over Israel/Palestine. The outreach of the Rumi Forum to the Jewish community is most important and vital, and I commend it heartily.
As for the conflicts within Turkey itself, they were not very evident on the trip. We did discuss the conflict between religious leaders and secular political and military leaders at times, but it was not a major focus. What we experienced again and again was the warmth and generosity of the members of the Rumi Forum, as well as their extensive educational system. Their dynamism and energy in seeking to provide a first-class education for students from pre-school through Fatih University offers much hope for the future in Turkey and beyond. I am delighted to be part of the ongoing dialogue with the Rumi Forum that meets at Georgetown University.