Come, come whoever you are.
Wanderer, idolater, worshipper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
-Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi (1207-1273 A.D.)
During one week in December, thousands of pilgrims made their way to see the Sema, a ritual that is over 1,000 years old. Performed by the Mevlevi, also known as the Whirling Dervishes, the Sema is a dance signifying the mystical properties of life. The white shrouds symbolize burial cloaks and flat hats symbolize tombs while the dance commemorates the soul’s ascension into heaven. or “marriage with God.”
But, it’s the message of its creator, Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, that has grasped the world’s attention.
“It doesn’t matter are you Jew, Christian, or Hindu. It doesn’t matter. Just come,” says Pennti Koskinen, a Finnish artist who has been visiting Konya during the Mevlana festival for the last few years.
Over 500,000 visitors descended on Mevlana’s home of Konya, Turkey during the ten-day festival remembering his death. And a single book of Rumi’s poetry has sold over half a million copies and is the best-selling book of poetry in the United States.
“My wife and I met and in our first meetings we were pen pals and we would send each other Rumi poems,” said Michael Farris who currently teaches English in Konya, “So for us to be able to come here, it’s wonderful because the atmosphere he generated just through the translation is here in the town.”
Konya residents pride themselves on following the poet’s ideals.
“They separate you, you are Muslim, you are Christian, you are Buddhist, you are blah blah blah, you are black, you are white,” said Mustafa Uslu from Konya, “But Mevlana, he is telling, “Come, whoever you are come. So everybody feel comfortable here, I think.”
Visitors found Konya’s residents very conscious of the Sufi mystic’s teachings.
“Even in something as simple as a cup of tea, they say “Oh come and sit!” and they mean just coming and sitting, and sharing in moments,” the American Farris said.
With so many visiting, some residents feel that touristic fanfare and merchandising shroud the message.
“There’s some you can here the telephone cameras, “Kchhzzz, Kchzzz,” and I don’t want it to feel touristy,” Farris said, “I want people to experiences the reverence for the process.”
Others say the chotskies and showmanship come with the territory of being a top world destination. Banu Uslu, who served as an emcee for the festival performances, made her case concerning the festivals “reverence.”
“Ofcourse, for them, it has to be the business way. But the people who are coming here for this are just sharing this sacred moments,” Uslu said.
And so amidst the flashes and crowds, the Dervishes continue to whirl and revolve around each other just like the Earth, the planets, and stars.
Two weeks ago, I started a trip through Turkey’s green and olive tree laden shores, the Aegean coast. When the New Testament was written and assembled, the land was also known as Asia Minor and a major center for the Roman Empire. With over 300 miles of coast, the region proved to be one of the most fruitful and temperate ares of the known world. Empires have continuously fought over this land up until the day Turkey declared itself independent in 1923. For these reasons, the area also received a special nod in the Bible’s doomsday prophecy:
“Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand…write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.” (Revelations 1:3,11)
All seven “churches” are located inside modern Turkey. At the time, the word “churches” referred to the community of believers (or non-believers as John was told to warn each city about their unfaithfulness). Today, some of the locations do exhibit fantastic ruins including a church or two. Although unintentional, I’ve had the chance to visit three of the seven settlements, also known as the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse.
The first church I visited is located near the modern city of Denizli, Turkey. I actually visited this site several months ago, and didn’t make the connection until I visited the other two on my last trip. Laodicea was a prosperous Roman city that was known for its black wool. Cicero, the famous orator from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, lived in the city until being put to death by Marc Anthony. The Laodicians were condemned by God because of their indecisiveness on matters of faith. The Bible described them as “neither cold nor hot” (Revelations 3:15).
The first excavation was begun in the 1960s by a Canadian team, but only the nymphaeum, a special Roman fountain, was dug out. Recently however, Turkish businessmen have allied with the city of Denizli (see related article here) to excavate more of the city. Since 2004, the teams have unearthed amazing discoveries including a 10,000 seat stadium, two large theaters, and a statue of Hades, the Greek god of the Underworld. After the end of Rome’s pagan era, a large Christian community combined with a significant Jewish one lived there until the city was destroyed by an earthquake.
I was completely impressed by how intact Laodicea was. The city remained undisturbed for a 1,000 years under Turkey’s rolling hills. Unlike nearby Hierapolis, the streets and remaining structures were built out of a gorgeous white marble. I found interesting remnants of Roman masks and crosses strewn about the excavation site.
The second church I visited is located in one of Turkey’s most visited settlements, Ephesus. Ephesus was well known from St. Paul’s letters to the Ephesians in the New Testament. The Ephesus Church was one of the more dominant churches, and remained so until finally degrading during the Ottoman Period (1423-1920 A.D.). In Revelations, the church was praised for it’s strength, but according to God it had strayed from its path.
“Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.” (Revelations 2:4-5).
It may have been related to the dispute St. Paul had with Ephesian craftsman who made a lucrative business selling silver idols at the Temple of Artemis nearby (one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World by the way). Today, one gargantuan column remains from the original 127. Just a half mile from the Temple is the site of Ephesus’s “double-church” or Church of the Virgin Mary. The church had the name double church supposedly because one aisle was dedicated to St. John the Apostle and the other to Mary, who both allegedly settled in Ephesus after the crucifixion of Jesus. Visitors, like myself, should not be fooled to think that this Church was part of the reference by the Book of Revelations. The Church itself would not have actually been built until later when Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire. It was the location however where theologians met and declared Mary, “the Mother of God”, at the Council of Ephesus.
A marker remains at the church’s altar and apse where Pope John Paul II visited. An octagonal adult baptismal remains in one of the adjacent chambers of the massive church. I couldn’t help myself but reenact the watery ritual!
Ephesus remains one of the most complete ancient settlements in the world, and there’s plenty more to discuss and share (at a later point). The city was prosperous because it used to be connected to an ancient harbor that silted up by 700 A.D. The city also suffered an earthquake during the 5th century and several raids from Arab tribes. Eventually, even the Ottomans left the ancient city to form a new village nearby now known as Selcuk.
“And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write…I know thy works, and where thou dwellest, even where Satan’s seat is: and thou holdest fast my name, and hast not denied my faith, even in those days wherein Antipas was my faithful martyr, who was slain among you, where Satan dwelleth. But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication.” (Revelations 2:13-15).
Pergamon, like Ephesus, was both commended for it’s faithfulness during uncertain times, but also chided for paganism. Unlike the other cities, John’s Revelations does call out a specific church referred as the “seat of the devil.” However, it likely wasn’t this one as churches would not have been established until much later. Some archeologists, including a friend of mine whose blogged can be found here, points out that it was more likely that revelations refers to the grand altar of Zeus located in Pergamon’s upper city.
Even if not the “throne of Satan”, the Red Basilica still stands as an impressive building, albeit without a roof and marble floors that have been partially destroyed. The church, known as the Red Basilica, was apparently so big that when the Eastern Orthodox Byzantines controlled the region they actually built a second church inside it. The Red Basilica was made out of a deep red brick in contrast to the white marble that makes up the city center at the top of a nearby 1,000 foot hill. The structure was believed to originally serve as a temple for Serapis, the Egyptian god of the Underworld. Tunnels and sub structures are found underneath the basilica, and I was able to crawl into the hole where pagan priests would hide. Above them would be a statue of a god, and the priests would act as if the god were speaking to the congregation.
Pergamon, now Bergama, also served as a major center for medical research and treatment during the Greek Empire. The cult of Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing, practiced their experiments in Pergamon at its “Asclepion.” Physical and psychological techniques were developed at the Asclepion to treat patients. Asclepius still lives on in today’s medicine. He is mentioned in the Hippocratic Oath, and his rod, a snake wrapped around a walking stick, is sometimes used by medical practitioners. However, some hospitals use the rod wrapped by two snakes which is not the Rod of Asclepius, but the Cauduceus Rod. (See the differences between the rods here)
At its height, Pergamon was one of the richest kingdoms in Asia Minor. A resident could look out from the top of the Pergamon’s city and can look as far as the Aegean sea on one side, and for miles into Anatolia on the other side. The houses surrounding it’s Acropolis and temples also sport some very fine mosaics. Today, the flood waters of new dam projects can be seen surrounding some parts of the ancient province, burying priceless treasures deep under water.
I’ve yet to visit the other four churches: Sardis, Smyrna (now Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city), Thyatira, or Philadelphia (no, not in Pennsylvania). All four are in Turkey. As mentioned, the churches were not actual buildings, but the references to the communities therein. Whether or not you believe Revelations’s doomsday predictions, it’s interesting to see the places that would have been the equivalent of today’s New York City, London, Tokyo, and Istanbul. For a long time, Turkey was the center of the world, and the most prized commodity for emperors and kings alike.
Still, nothing last for ever. Each of these cities except for one were completely wiped out over the course of a 1,000 years. Today, the marble pillars and cracked altars humbly remind us of that fact. While walking through Turkey’s ruins, I think to myself, where will Boston be in 1,000 years? Where will the United States be? Where will humanity be? What will people write about us? Rome fell because it couldn’t sustain itself, as did Byzantium, and the Ottomans. Is our demise inevitable?
Does our globalized world share the same apocalyptic future as the Seven Churches of Asia?
Edits made to this post on February 19, 2010:
1. The Double Church or “Church of the Virgin Mary” did not exist at the time of the writing of Revelations. A pagan museum or gymnasium may have existed in the same location prior, but it’s foundation was completely changed.
2. The Red Basilica served as a temple under the Roman Emperor Hadrian during first century period associated with the writing of the Book of Revelations. Scholars attribute the Seat of Satan to actually be Pergamon’s Altar of Zeus that overlooked the basilica from a nearby hill. The altar now resides in in Berlin.
3. The blog cited Pergamon as the second largest city in Rome for a period of time. This information has proven inaccurate and was removed. Pergamon was one of the richer cities in Asia Minor, however.
4. The blog mentioned that Izmir contained a church from the time period. It is unknown about structures in Izmir because its historically dense population has made it difficult for any excavations to begin.
(This article was first published on February 9, 2010 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
KAYSERI, TURKEY— With one foot inching toward Europe and the other firmly rooted in Islam, Turkish women wear societal friction not on their sleeves, but on their heads.
Headscarves, worn by more than half the female population, are a red flag in Turkish society — specifically, Turkey’s classrooms. The issue is as complex as the country itself: One part Europe, the other Asia. Proudly democratic, but staunchly religious and not to be confused with fundamentalist. Cosmopolitan and sophisticated while agrarian and conservative. For many Americans, it’s an issue not always understood.
For many years, headscarves were barred from classrooms and seen as promoting religion. But two years ago today, a law was passed allowing headscarves back in Turkish classrooms. The legislation seemed to enjoy popular support and passed by a wide margin, until crowds surged in deafening protest.
A few months later, Turkish courts quickly reinstated the ban.
Turkey is a “modern country,” said student Selma Soysal. “I have the freedom not to wear it. I feel like I perform all the responsibilities of my religion, and the headscarf is not the most important.”
For others, the scarf offers a different freedom.
“I feel protected against men, against their sights,” student Cansu Yilmaz said, her voice soft beneath her neon pink headscarf. “Islam says the hair is the most attractive part for men. … Even when you show a little hair, the men feel attracted.”
Turkey’s constitution has been staunchly secular since 1923, when the nation’s first president — Kemal Ataturk — began modernizing the nation. Marriages are legalized in a secular ceremony performed by a municipal official, and then celebrated at a religious function.
Many Turks believe that the headscarf is a dangerous symbol, and that attempts by Erdogan’s party — Justice and Development — to overturn the ban is an affront to Turkish secularism.
“The headscarf is a political symbol,” said opposition party member Canan Aritman during the 2008 demonstrations. “We will never allow our country to be dragged back into the Dark Ages.”
Others note that the ban hurts some women more than others. Religious women are forced to choose between religion and education when not allowed to wear a headscarf in class.
The 2007-2008 UNDP Human Development Report shows Turkey behind every Middle Eastern and North African country except Yemen, regarding the ratio of women to men enrolled in higher education.
“A friend of mine stopped coming to school because of the ban,” Yilmaz said. If a woman cannot wear her headscarf to class, she might not attend class.
In Turkey, nearly half of the women surveyed in a 2007 Gallup poll said they cover their hair in public — the majority of whom are 45 and older. Only 29 percent of women ages 15 to 29 say they cover their hair in one way or another.
Student Sevil Burcak said wearing a headscarf was too demanding a religious and cultural responsibility for her.
“You represent your religion,” Burcak said, “So you must always act in a good manner. You have to avoid all temptations.”
But she doesn’t feel forced to wear a scarf, Burcak said. Coercion or peer pressure might occur more in the rural, poorer, eastern areas of Turkey, she and a group of fellow students said.
“My mother doesn’t cover her hair,” affirmed Burcak. “We are not receiving pressure from anybody.”
But some do. Critics of the scarf say it is a public step that validates oppressing and subjugating women.
“Women are seen as second-class citizens by many in communities and families,” said Hacettepe University women’s studies professor Sevkat Ozvaris. Men and women learn it as children, she said.
Women’s rights are important in Turkey. Turkey’s General Directorate of the Status of Women (KSGM), a government entity created to study problems of inequality between genders, reported in 2008 that 18 percent of women polled were victims of non-familial violence last year.
The numbers jump to 41.6 percent when you look at familial or domestic abuse, usually inflicted by the partner. The numbers rose above 50 percent in Turkey’s eastern regions where more undereducated and poorer women live.
Expressing his democratic freedom and religious preference, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan sent his daughters to study at Indiana State University, where they wore their headscarves freely.
“Instead of sending his daughters to America, he should abolish the law,” the unveiled Soysal said.
Yilmaz doesn’t remove her tight-fitting scarf in school buildings. Instead, she wears a lopsided wig over her scarf to attend class and fulfill religious obligations. The Koran says women should dress modestly, Yilmaz said, and she said she believes the scarf is necessary to meet that rule.
“The salesman showed me how I can make the wig pretty,” said Yilmaz, “But I don’t want to style it, I want people to know it’s a wig.”