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

Friday, 1 November 2013

Our pilgrimage to Eastern Turkey Day 1: Erzurum

For those of us who had never been to this part of Turkey before, I don’t think any of us had very much idea what to expect from this trip. The itinerary, telling us that we would start with an exploration of the abandoned ruins of Armenian Christianity and some spectacular remains of their civilization, meant little to me anyway, in spite of some background reading beforehand.

I found history very boring at school but I wish I'd paid a little more attention because I soon found that it was important to understand some of the historical background to the places we were to visit if we were to get the most out of our trip. So here's a little background to Erzurum, in Eastern Anatolia. This paragraph can be skipped if you just want to read about the sites visited and nothing more but I promise you it does have some relevance now and later!

Erzurum can only be traced with certainty to the 4th century AD, when it was part of the old Armenian Empire, where our pilgrimage begins. Some however claim a history dating as far back as 4000 BC. It is located on the historic Silk Road from Persia to the Black Sea and is Turkey’s highest main city at more than 1750 metres. Erzurum is famous for its Seljuk architecture, the House of Seljuq being a Turkish Sunni Muslim dynasty that gradually adopted Persian culture and contributed to the Turko-Persian tradition in the medieval West and Central Asia. As with so many of the towns in this part of the world, Erzurum has had a turbulent and violent history. Occupied twice by the Russians in the19th Century and again in the First World War, it features in John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle, a mainly fictional story but with a smattering of truth; in the story Richard Hannay of The Thirty Nine Steps fame, and his friends, must thwart the Germans’ plans to use religion to help them win the war, climaxing at the battle of Erzurum. In 1915 in real life the town suffered from the genocide by the Ottomans of its prominent Armenian Christians and by 1919 the mostly Christian Armenian population, predominantly of the Armenian Apostolic Church, had virtually died out. This ethnic cleansing of Armenians during the final years of the Ottoman Empire is air brushed out of some history books and not always accepted as the genocide that it clearly was. It is estimated that 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives in the persecutions of 1894-1896, and then in 1915-1916, when during WW1 the Turks regarded the Christian Armenians in Turkey of being potential allies of Imperial Russia and therefore the enemy. It is clear that there are still deep and unhealed wounds felt by the remaining Armenians from this era. It was a sobering start to our journey.

Erzurum is now a huge commercial and cultural center, known for its winter sports, its precious minerals and tourism, but mainly perhaps for its Ataturk University, which makes an important contribution to the economy of the city. On the surrounding fertile plain crops of wheat, barley, millet, sugar beets, and other vegetables, are grown, and there is much livestock trading. As we drove in from the hotel we saw huge flocks of sheep and goats seemingly roaming freely everywhere around the outskirts, under the watchful eye of one or more shepherds, usually assisted by a dog or two.

We stopped off in Erzurum mainly to see the Çifte Minareli Medrese or twin minaret madrasa, a typical example of a Seljuk Koranic school, and the Ulu Cami, a somewhat plain looking mosque from the street before we entered, but noted for its seven wide aisles and pillared hall, and for being the oldest building in Erzurum after the madrasa.

Unfortunately the madrasa was closed and undergoing extensive renovation at the time of our visit so we were unable to enter the museum or see very much of the outside beyond the scaffolding. But we could clearly see the two fluted brick minarets flanking the exceptionally fine ornamented entrance portal, and make out the partial relief decoration in the form of ornamental borders, a tree with a double eagle and a vase of leaves.

Before we took a guided tour of the Ulu Cami, just around the corner from the Medrese, and opposite the town hall, our attention was caught by the "Three Kümbets", to the rear of the medrese, up a side street lined with what were clearly very old buildings, some housing small shops and cafes. These Kumbets, or mausolea, free standing buildings that housed burial chambers or interment spaces, date from the 13th or early 14th century. The Taj Mahal is of course the most famous and most photographed mausoleum, and these were not quite in that league, but interesting none the less. The most splendid of the three is the octagonal Emir Sultan Türbesi, with a conical roof, stalactitic mouldings and handsome reliefs of creatures such as snakes, eagles, and rabbits' heads.

Some boys had been watching us explore the mausolea. Soon they came over and invited us to go with them to view what turned out to be a very old house furnished in the old Armenian style, presented as a museum of that culture. We all took off our shoes as is the custom and went indoors, ducking our heads as we climbed the very old, low ceilinged stairs to enter into the amazing array of rooms within, seemingly on many different uneven levels. In the first room, the main living area, the no nails roof construction gave a curious and appealing appearance of an internally terraced cone. This was to be repeated in later mosques and churches we visited.

The door knockers on the outer door were fascinating. There were two, one larger, for the men, and the smaller one for the women and children; so the people within could know who was knocking!

We finally made it to the mosque where the Imam was waiting to show us around. My abiding memory from that visit is of a man with the kindest glowing face who clearly loved showing off such an interesting and ancient building. He can be found giving much the same guided tour of his mosque on YouTube. The mosque was constructed in 1179, but was badly damaged in the massive 1939 earthquake which claimed many thousands of lives in the city. It has now been accurately and sympathetically restored. We learnt so much that was fascinating about the design and architecture of mosques from this man. The mosque pillars here, we were told, were placed for best acoustics. Windows high above us in the walls were designed to capture the changing directions of the sun’s rays throughout the day to signal the times for prayer. This mosque, we were told, was also used as a depot in Ottoman times. Early mosques were built with very thick walls, and often several columns and domes, to support large enough spaces to accommodate the male and female faithful in segregation.
The floor space was wide rather than long, so that all could be as close as possible to the mihrab, the ornamental indentation present in the wall of the mosque which marks the direction of the qiblah, the direction that should be faced by a Muslim in prayer. It was only later that the floor plan became square. Early mosques did not have minarets, as long as there was a high point from which to call people to prayer. The minaret design may have been inspired by the towers of Byzantine buildings. We were later to observe the marked similarities between these mihrabs and some of the more ornate altars within the sanctuaries of the Syrian Orthodox churches which we visited and in which we worshipped during the second part of our pilgrimage.

As we left Erzurum on our coach we glimpsed through the gaps between the shops and houses the Medieval Citadel Fortress high on its hill in the center of town. It is thought that this was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius around the 5th Century AD. Guide books tell us that there is a very good view to be had from the clock tower of the city’s landmarks including the Medrese and the Ulu Cami. Some also say that the clock in the tower was made in Croydon, England, and was a gift from Queen Victoria to the Ottoman Sultan in 1877. But I understand that the tower is now closed to visitors and with a long journey ahead and much more to see today we chose to drive on.

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