It was late evening on a bus headed towards Sanliurfa, one of the Southeast’s major cities, when our bus stopped for “petrol.” But not at a normal gas station, instead two men hailed our bus to the side of the road and guided the bus behind a roadside parking lot. Once there, a green jeep pulled up beside us, and the bus attendants and driver went outside. The men pulled gas cans from the bus, and a hose from the jeep. For the next twenty minutes the men transferred what was apparently gasoline into the cans. The women in the bus chided the staff for the reckless stop while my seatmate explained the oil was likely from Iraq or Syria, sold on the black market. Oil in Turkey is extremely expensive because of taxes from the government so apparently this company was trying to save a little money. On my second visit to Sanliurfa, my friend found a man leisurely rolling “knockoff” Marlborough cigarettes in the lobby of his two-star hotel.
My friend Emily called this region the “Wild, Wild, East” in her blog. There are similarities to America’s “wild, wild West.” The region is far more arid, less developed, and yes, the law does not always go as far.
But amidst the wild desert, now becoming greener due to recent dam projects, the region is also believed to have been the birthplace for Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Turks and many Muslims believe that Abraham was born in a cave just under the largest hill Sanliurfa, Turkey. The Hebrew Scriptures tell of Abraham being born in Ur, which many believe to have been actually located in Northern Iraq. So, it is not precisely known where Abraham was actually born since it was believed to have been at least 3,000-4,000 years ago.
In Urfa, “the cave” where Abraham was born has become a very busy pilgrimage site for Muslims. But the larger attraction is the nearby pool of “sacred carp.” The Balikli Gol (Fish Lake) is a massive placid pool that lies within the mosque complex surrounding Abraham’s “birth cave.” According to legend, Abraham was brought up to the top of the hill in Urfa before the ruling emperor. At the time, Abraham’s society believed in numerous pagan gods. It’s widely known from surviving ruins that the moon and sun, among others, were worshiped as gods during the time Abraham is believed to have lived. The emperor, threatened by Abraham’s insistence, is said to have thrown Abraham off the hill and into a fire as a death sentence. But according to lore, the flames became water and the wood chips became fish. Abraham was saved. Today, the residents have recreated the legend by filling the pool with hundreds of fish. The fish are considered holy and removing them is said to bring a curse on the thief. The fish are fed constantly by visitors, and because of that, they swim in crowded globs awaiting the sprinkles of food from visitors.
The Koran and the Old Testament say Abraham grew up with an intrinsic knowledge that there was only one God. All the “Abrahamic religions” agree that he was the first to believe and make a covenant with that God. They all tell stories of how Abraham left home bound for a new world where he could establish and live with his new faith. Some stories say Abraham traveled to Harran after fleeing from his pagan captors. Today, Harran is a small village between Sanliurfa and Syria. It’s known for unique beehive shaped houses, and again, for being another way point for the prophet Abraham. The ruins of a large mosque and old fortress rise above the desert landscape, but little else does. For me, it was interesting to visit the same places mentioned in the Bible and where Abraham may have passed through.
However, Abraham is not the only prophet who is believed to have passed through southeastern Turkey. The prophet Job’s “cave” also resides just outside
Sanliurfa’s city center. Muslims, like Jews and Christians, believe in the testing of Job. The cave is thought to be where Job resided while undergoing his trials. A holy well stands near the cave entrance, and Muslim pilgrims crowd around it, pressing their faces against the metal grate covering the opening. The well is believed to mark the source of water Job opened up after his trials. The Koran says a spring of water rushed forth after he touched his foot to the ground at God’s command. They believe the air around the well can have mysterious healing or other beneficial powers. Like the Abrahamic legend, no one can confirm this, and several other locations including Lebanon and Palestine claim Job as a resident.
Whether or not you believe in these spiritual stories, the age of Sanliurfa and its surrounding villages are undeniable. Just 20 km west of the city lies the oldest temple known to exist anywhere on Earth. The stone formations found at Gobekli Tepe are estimated to have been built around 11,000 B.C.
While passing through what seemed like an endless expanse of rocky desert, we came across all sorts of fragments of past civilizations. Much of what remains of those ancient origins include crumbling caravansarais and churches, city foundations and their underground escape tunnels, and a rocky hill with stone reliefs and cuniform writing.
If you’re looking for where it all started, you can’t miss Turkey’s wild southeast.
(For all of my photos, browse the Sanliurfa and Harran-Kilis photosets the photo gallery.)
Yesterday, April 20, I found the floors of my classes littered with rose petals. I walked through campus, and found students and faculty carrying single roses in their hands.
The reason, I would come to learn, is in honor of the Prophet Muhammed’s birth. Most Muslims believe that Muhammed was born on April 20, 570 A.D. Although celebrating the Prophet’s birthday is not an official religious event in comparison to Christianity’s celebration of the birth of Christ. Many Muslims in Turkey choose to honor the day by giving out roses. The roses are distributed at mosques across the country, including on our university campus. Some roses came with a saying of the Prophet, reminding the bearer to be faithful and just.
Why a rose? The rose is a popular symbol for Muhammed. Since photographs, drawings, and other pictorial depictions of Muhammed are forbidden, popular symbols have evolved. In Turkey, the rose is a dominant symbol for love and passion (just like in many other cultures). But, the rose has also been linked to Muhammed by some of Turkey’s most famous poets. In one poem, well-respected philosopher Yunus Emre writes:
“Gül Muhammed deridür bülbül anın yarıdır
Ol gül ile ezeli cihana bile geldim”
“Rose is the scent of Muhammed and fellow of the nightingale.
Because of that rose, I came into being.”
According to lore, even Muhammed’s sweat smells like roses.
Another rose fact, many first and last names include the word rose (Gül), often for its spiritual connotations. The current president of Turkey is named Abdullah Gül, or President Rose.
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.
(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.”
Cars and trucks blow up dust as they caravan their way into a barren valley on the city’s edge. A cow groans while chained to a post. Nearby is a field soaked in blood. Sheepskins and various organs lie in piles, a few heads that haven’t been tossed stare up into the sky.
It’s Kurban Bayram, the Sacrifice Holiday. Eid al-Adha in Arabic, it is the 4-day climax of the Islamic calendar. Muslims congregate in Mecca as part of the yearly pilgrimage (known as Hajj) during this time.
Observed on November 27 (the date moves back 10 days each year), the holiday celebrates the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael (Isaac in Christianity and Judaism). According to scripture, Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his son for God. As Abraham was about to follow through, God ordered him, instead, to sacrifice a lamb.
On the first day, Muslim families with enough money remember Abraham’s obedience by slaughtering livestock.
“It’s going to be like a big pig roast,” joked American Hugh Turner to friends accompanying him to the kesim yerine, the cutting spot. Unlike the others, Turner spent some of his childhood in Turkey and knew what to expect.
At first glance, the holiday seems far from festive. Men walked with six-inch blades, their hands covered in blood. Pens of crowded sheep sat across from plastic tents, where some soon found themselves skinned. But Kurban is more than the first day’s gruesome sight.
“As a child, I always remember Bayram as a happy time,” said 45-year-old Ilhan Unlu.
Unlu’s memories included his parents giving him the traditional set of new clothes for Bayram while his family would come together.
Entire families like Unlu’s take part in the slaughter. Men cut the neck of the blindfolded offering while repeating the required prayer. Burly village women picked up axes to cut the meat on bloody stumps. Young boys and girls moved troughs of water and plastic bags to help their parents clear the waste and pack the meat.
The meat is traditionally divided into three parts: one for the poor, one for visiting friends and relatives, and one for the owner. The skins are donated, many to the Turkish Airforce to make leather jackets.
“Every part must be used for God,” said Sezari Ozgul who collected sheepskin scraps for the poor, “Nothing can be used for evil [to make a profit].”
On the way back into the city, our taxi driver stopped at a student cafeteria turned butchery. Inside, racks of meat hung from the ceiling as families carried their kill in oversized shopping bags to be chopped into cuts. Teenage boys wearing yellow slickers and boots pushed wheel barrels filled with guts and poured them into a garbage truck. Some of the meat was cooked on site and given out.
“The sharing of food levels the playing field,” said Ozden Alp, a female fitness instructor, “In the past, this was the only way. Today, you can give directly to charities.”
With the price of livestock on the rise, more are giving to charities that include care for veterans, cancer research, and refugee aid from Palestine to Turkmens in China. For many however, tradition still dominates.
“Normally, I give to charity,” said 35-year-old Mertan Korkmaz with a blood spotted chin, “But my mother is here, and she wants this.”
As Turkey becomes more urbanized, more debate how Turkey should regulate the practice. Some even ask if the practice should continue at all. In earlier years, sacrifices were made in backyards, roadsides, and in city center gatherings.
“Kurban Bayram is a rule in Islam, and it’s not going to disappear,” said the stylishly dressed Alp, “The problem is when people don’t have enough knowledge to do it safely.”
Today, most cities regulate sacrifices to approved areas for health and safety purposes.
“The city laws make it easier for us,” agreed Korkmaz, “It’s much safer now.”
At the end of the day, only a few hundred sheep remained alive in the field from what must have been nearly a thousand in the morning. People left dirty and tired, but ready for the next three days of feasting with family and friends.
Before leaving, I asked Korkmaz if he ever felt bad for the sheep.
“Yes. Always,” he replied.
(For complete pictures from the day, visit the “Kurban Bayrami” photoset in the Photo Gallery. WARNING: Graphic Content.)
One of the most common sounds heard throughout Turkey is the Islamic “Call to Prayer.” The video here is from an apartment window in Ankara. The sound is played along with the time relapsed video of the rising moon.
Although Turkey is a secular nation that separates religion and government, it’s population is still 95-98% Muslim according to recent statistics. For this reason, mosques are found everywhere in Turkey with at least one in every village, town, and city. The mosques are strictly regulated by the state in a number of ways including payment for the Imams.
(This article was first published on September 28, 2009 for the Study Abroad section at Global Post. View the original article here.)
As twilight turned to night, roads that 20 minutes earlier were choked with impatient cars in twisted gridlock became calm. Congested sidewalks emptied, and a scattered few now meandered down the streets. The call to prayer echoed through the neighborhood. Allah-hu-akbar … It was time for iftar in Balgat, a neighborhood in Ankara, Turkey.
Muslims worldwide fasted 30 days for Ramadan, their holiest season. Devout Muslims will abstain not only from food and water during daylight hours, but other items like cigarettes will not touch their lips. Life for many Turkish residents, even if they aren’t practicing Muslims, revolves around the sundown dinners, called iftar, where observant Muslims break the daylong fast.
Imagine celebrating a mini-Thanksgiving dinner every night for 40 days, or so it seems to me. During Ramadan, observers rotate invitations to their families or friends. Even I, a stranger, attended at least 15 different iftars, some large, some small, some formal, some not.
“It’s the best time to invite people to your home,” said Mehmet Canpolat, “It’s a time for sharing dinner, sharing life.”
I had iftar several times with Mehmet, his wife Malek, their 4-year-old daughter and their spirited 10-year-old son, who always asked if I was fasting. After I said no, he replied proudly that I didn’t have the muscle because I wasn’t Muslim.
Iftars with the family were usually simple. Mehmet would watch TV, waiting for the signal broadcast on Turkish stations that it was time eat. Dates, the traditional fruit the prophet Muhammed used to break his fast, lay on the table with large bowls of soup, plenty of fresh bread, salad and a main course. After dinner, the family and I would settle in the parlor for dessert, tea and plenty of fruit.
Iftars at home include families or neighbors, but restaurants serve iftar, as well. Ranging from city-funded free dinners for the poor in tents to meals at Turkey’s high-end restaurants, groups flooded eateries that lay mostly empty during the day. In Balgat, it took three tries before finding a restaurant with one lonely table amid a feverishly hungry crowd that the wait staff scrambled to serve.
Like Christmas in the West, Turkey’s capitalistic markets have taken advantage of seasonal Ramadan. Cell phone companies, clothing retailers and others advertise special sales for Ramadan and Bayram, the holiday ending the month of fasting. Restaurants and supermarkets publicize special meal deals.
“The important thing is not iftars,” Zeynel Oz told me over Turkish tea at his home. “What’s important is fasting, not iftars.”
Practicing and more devout Muslims like Zeynel and Mehmet are not always happy with Turkey’s commercialization of the holiday. Zeynel scoffed when I referred to the Bayram holidays as Seker Bayram (Sugar Holidays). In Turkey, traditions have emerged where children go door to door looking for candy treats from neighbors and family. Just like the U.S. during Halloween, candy retailers push Seker Bayram festivities.
Discipline is the real lesson of Ramadan, according to Mehmet and Zeynel.
“All humans want everything,” said Zeynel. “But God says, ‘No, not everything.’ ”
Mehmet grew up in Istanbul and started fasting in university. Like Zeynel, he sees it as an opportunity to cleanse the spirit and discipline the body.
“The main point is a whole behavioral change,” Mehmet said. “You must be a good man, woman, kid — whatever you are.”
These ideals are the ones that Mehmet and his wife Malek admired the most. They agreed that during Ramadan, many try to live up to these ideals.
Some in Turkey worry about the growing popularity and religiosity during Ramadan as a harbinger of fundamentalist expansion. The secular government allows minority voices on both ends of its political spectrum, but continues to uphold its constitution.
Zeynel prays during Ramadan that conflicts can be reconciled and people will respect each other. When asked about an Islamist takeover, Zeynel said he doesn’t want to force his religious views on anyone.
“The fundamentalists are a problem, and they cause issues for more modern religious people,” said Zeynel. “The Koran tells me to be modern … I don’t see modernity and religion as opposing forces. They are in the same glass.”
The President’s address to the Muslim world was another encouraging step for many reasons. One of them was the President’s emphasis on debunking the assumptions and stereotypes that have caused confusion, anger, or worse between Americans and Muslims.
“I consider it part of my responsibility as president of the United States to fight against negative stereotypes of Islam wherever they appear,” said President Obama, “But that same principle must apply to Muslim perceptions of America. Just as Muslims do not fit a crude stereotype, America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire.”
Mr. Obama has yet again put dialogue and airing out stereotypes on the table as something that should be treated seriously. Mr. Obama was keen to note passages from sacred texts of all three Abrahamic faiths. Some obviously have brushed this off as nothing more than political pandering, but one could also look at it as an example of how to reach out. We can’t be afraid to open our minds and learn about the beliefs of others. It is this very example the Turk Film Project seeks to follow.
As for reactions, I did not get to speak to many people today to see if this or any particular part of the speech resonated for them. Ofcourse, pundits from CNN to Fox News made the traditional comments either blasting or commending the president. Republicans like House Minority Leader John Boehner said he was “concerned” about President Obama’s stance on Israel and while other Republicans like Mitt Romney also wished Obama would end this “apology tour” for past US policy moves.
Still, even Obama’s critics like Marc Thiessen, former Bush speechwriter, said the address emphasized many strong points including the fact that more Muslims have died at the hands of Al-Quaeda than Christians or Jews.
Coming back to the point that an open look at our selves and each other would improve relations, supporter Andrew Sullivan wrote for The Atlantic, “At its heart, the speech sprang, it seemed to me, a spiritual conviction that human differences, if openly acknowledged, need not remain crippling.”
With nearly 2 billion followers, Islam is the world’s second largest religion. However, Americans, many who don’t work or see Muslims on a daily basis, understand very little about the religion including its basic belief elements. This video was made at Boston College for a presentation by the college’s Muslim Student Association. The video polls students on some basic questions about Islam.
If you have questions you’ve always wanted to ask, or would like to see certain issues addressed in future videos about Islam or countries like Turkey where the religion is prevalent, check out the Islam Awareness forum on the site.
With some of the world’s most heated issues involving religious conflicts, it is no longer possible to avoid or put off learning about one another’s basis for belief. Mutual respect can only come forward through mutual understanding.