My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.

"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden

Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Pilgrimage to Syriac and Armenian Christianity in Eastern Turkey

Istanbul is in a unique location geographically, bridging Europe with Asia. Not only that, it is centrally located on the historic Silk Road and has served to meaningfully connect very different civilizations and cultures over millennia. 

We were coming to Turkey at the time of the Islamic Feast of Sacrifice, an important annual occasion for Muslims, symbolizing the obedience of Abraham to God and the submission of Ishmael. We were to experience this holiday festival first hand much later in our travels when we arrived in Tur Abdin. Whilst the idea of such animal sacrifice now seems anathema to the Western Christian, there are more similarities between Christianity and Islam than many realize. For a start they are both Abrahamic faiths, sharing the same God, although some would claim that Islam is merely a heretical form of Christianity. Then again some Muslims claim that the Christians are heretical in their Trinitarian approach to God, in Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therein lie tensions and intolerances rather than the building of respect and understanding.

It wasn’t until I read William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain that I realized the profound kinship of Christianity and Islam, the close affinities between these two religions, how the Islamic culture was forged in the Eastern homelands of Christianity. 

Christianity was after all and first of all an oriental faith. We forget this in the West with our current demonization of Islam and the threat of Muslim fundamentalism. When Dalrymple underwent the travels which formed the basis of his book, in the late 1990’s, the Eastern Christians were fleeing to safer countries in the face of persecution and hostility from the Islamic establishment. Now the future looks a little more secure for Christians in this part of the world.

We were here as a small group from our Anglican Diocese, our intent to make a pilgrimage first to the abandoned ruins of Armenian Christianity in the North East of Turkey, then to experience at first hand the flourishing Syriac Church of the Tur Abdin region of South East Turkey, now showing signs of dynamic growth after decades of persecution and sad decline. 

I hoped that I for one would understand much more clearly by the end of the pilgrimage the dynamics and history of the two greatest religions of the world, from the places we were to visit.

As we flew from Istanbul eastwards to Erzurum the seemingly vast empty countryside and dark mountain ranges soon became hidden from view by white fluffy meringue clouds scudding by below us; the clear blue sky above gave little hint of the cold that was to confront us on touch down. As we neared Erzurum and came once more below the clouds there was a patchwork quilt of fields spread out below us, in all shades of green and brown, and for the first time in Turkey we could see snow dusting the distant mountain tops. The temperature when we left London was 16.5C. It was now 9C, and worse was to come. I was glad I’d packed some thick warm cardigans but they were deep in my suitcase. Gulgun met us at the airport. She was to be our able guide for the next nine days, with Mustafa our driver behind the wheel of the comfortable and spacious coach we now boarded and which was to accompany us throughout the trip.
Over the course of the next few days and weeks I shall be telling the complete and fully illustrated story of our pilgrimage.. 
Do join me on my journey and I welcome comments as long as they follow normal rules of decency...

The photo by the way is the view from our first ski resort hotel room near Erzurum looking out to the ski slopes waiting for their first snow...