I’ve been thinking a great deal about Istanbul and Turkey lately.
It’s because my daughter and I will be leaving in less than three weeks for an exciting adventure in Turkey — Istanbul, Bursa, Izmir and Ephesus. I’m very excited that I’ll share with her this country and its people whom I’ve grown to love so much.
My thoughts have turned to Turkey each and every day since I first visited this magical place three years ago. My upcoming trip to the former seat of the Ottoman Empire will be my fourth in as many years.
Why have I fallen in love with Istanbul? I get that question quite often from people who know this country only through movies like Midnight Express.
I recently discovered a passage by Frances Mayes (author of Under the Tuscan Sun) that almost perfectly captures my sense of wonder about this city. It’s featured in a lovely new book, edited by Barrie Kerper, Istanbul: The Collected Traveler: An Inspired Companion Guide.
This is the most mysterious city on earth. I love the houses along the Bosphorus, the dervishes, Orphan Pamuk’s Istanbul, the fortune-teller who told a truth, the raucous greetings of the rug merchants (“I can take your money!”), and the fantastic Topkapi complex that looks like an ideal liberal arts college. But most of all I love the strange call of the muezzin, especially when it splits the air between dark and dawn. The voice begins with a drone, a wobbly shriek, then works up to intensity. It’s old, old, primitive–it sounds like something pulled up from a deep fissure. Sometimes it sounds like an otherworldly cry from beyond, sometimes like sawing through cellophane. When I wake up hearing that call, I always get a delicious flash, I am somewhere very far from home.
Istanbul is, indeed, one of the most interesting cities in the world. Ancient and mysterious in so many ways, it is also thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan.
It’s not only captured my imagination, but my heart.
Not a day goes by since I left in the summer of 2009 that I haven’t reflected on the stunning beauty and complexity of the only city in the world that straddles two continents.
But I also think often of the grandeur the Hagia Sophia; the fascinating sights of Cappadocia; the hospitality of the people in Matlatya and their region’s succulent apricots and cherries; the historical treasures of Ephesus; and the infectious energy of Izmir and Ankara.
And then there’s the amazing tastes and textures of Turkish cuisine.
More than the food, however, are the most important and lasting memories of my three trips — the remarkably hospitable people I’ve met over meals, in restaurants in Izmir and Istanbul or in homes in Malataya, Nigde, Konya, and Ankara.
In my Christian faith we have a story from the gospel of Luke that is particularly meaningful to me. After the crucifixion of Jesus, a couple of downcast disciples are walking from Jerusalem to the nearby town of Emmaus. Along the way, Jesus joined them, but these men simply didn’t recognize him. Finally, the disciples reached destination and begged this fellow traveler to join them for a meal. So, he did. And when Jesus broke the bread, the disciples’ eyes were suddenly opened. And they finally recognized him for who he was.
That story speaks to me about the importance of food, not only for our physical sustenance, but also as a means to improve our spiritual eyesight. It was, after all, in the breaking of bread that the disciples finally saw their Lord.
And, for me, it was in the breaking of bread with wonderful, loving, welcoming Muslim families in various places around Turkey that I fully realized the power of our common humanity.
During those meals, something sacred happened. A bridge suddenly spanned the cultural and religious differences that had sometimes prevented me from fully seeing the spark of the divine in every person.
It was in the meals, in homes, surrounded by extended family and friends, that I truly came to know the delightful Turkish people. While sharing dinner in a backyard garden in Malatya, I was struck by how important family is to every human, by how much every parent loves his or her children and wants for them a prosperous future and a more peaceful world.
It was in a small apartment in Ankara that I saw how much Turkish children are like my children. And that Turkish teenagers and college students aren’t all that different from my own students.
And it was in Istanbul, on a cool June evening, sitting at a backyard table heaped with all kinds of sumptuous Turkish food, that any vestiges of my own cultural biases disappeared. I watched the parents at that table dote over their children. I saw them delight so completely in our company and in the company of family members and neighbors.
I laughed with them — and as we broke bread, it was then that my eyes were fully and completely opened to the reality that there is so much more that unites us than divides us. That we can learn so much from each other. And that, most important, we worship the same God – just in different ways.
So, in a few weeks, my daughter and I will board a plane and head to Istanbul.
I’ll be going there to show her the beauty of the Turkish cities, the stunning countryside, the food, the shopping in the Grand Bazaar. In Ephesus, we’ll stroll down the same streets that St. Paul walked almost two thousand years ago. We’ll see the grand palaces and the mosques. We’ll do all of that and more.
But the real reason I’m taking her is that she will have the opportunity to be an honored guest in the home of some lovely and hospitable Turkish family.
I’m hoping that, like me, that in the breaking of bread with these warm and giving people, her eyesight will never be the same.