The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


Taking in Turkey

Recently I had the opportunity to spend time in Turkey. My adventure gave me an in-depth knowledge and a real appreciation for the country—its potential, strategic geographic location, history and, mostly, its people.

The Faith Sultan Bridge spans the Bosporus Strait, connecting the European side of Istanbul with the Asian side. Opened in 1988, the suspension bridge is a four-lane highway that is part of the Trans European Motorway.
An important U.S. ally, Turkey is in complex ways critical to future world events. As its recent history has changed and maneuvered toward the West, the debate on its entrance to the European Union continues. While I’d like to be able to write more concretely, Turkey is a confusing and complex country to itself and the outside world. So much of Turkey feels like a contradiction—poised between Europe and Asia, between the glories of its Ottoman past and its hopes for a democratic future. The tension between the dominance of its army and the needs of its civilian citizens is evident as the struggle between its secular expectations and its Muslim traditions sort themselves out.

The call to prayer rings out in Arabic five times a day in all corners of the 99.9 percent Muslim nation. Christianity is a relic of the past. Might it be a possibility in the future? As secular expectations gain momentum, some turn to atheism, alcohol or the evil eye for safety, rather than filling a spiritual void within their soul through faith in Christ.

Turkish desserts line market shelves, tempting shoppers whose choice of sweets includes baklava, rice puddings and helva. Kaymak, clotted cream, often tops the desserts, which are served with tea or thick coffee.
I had considered Turkey to be a region with a lack of human rights, an exotic and dangerous land. But then I met some people. Merhaba! Nissilsinez? Hello! How are you? Turkish greetings are warm, inviting and genuine—the hospitality and food unspeakably delicious.

In Turkey you can walk the ruins of lost civilizations. The apostle Paul traveled there. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is said to have spent her final years on the western coast along the Aegean Sea. Noah’s ark rested on Mount Ararat to the east. Much of the Bible takes place in what today is modern Turkey. Here is where the Galatians and the Hittites mingled. Ephesus today remains a strong coastal village.

Flying from Jerusalem to Istanbul is like flying from Minneapolis to Chicago. And the Israeli-Arab conflict hits very close to home in more ways than one.

Crossing the Bosporus Bridge, I traveled in less than 10 minutes from Europe to Asia. For me, in that moment, the world came together in a new way.

Promising protection from Nazar, the “Evil Eye,” Boncuk, the “ little magic stone,” hang in profusion at stalls in bazaars in Turkey. Popular with tourists, the blue glass disks are a staple in daily life for residents as well. Mothers typically pin a small Boncuk on the clothes of their babies to keep Nazar away. When a Boncuk is found cracked, it means it’s done its job. A new one is needed.
I observed women dressed in black from head to toe, almost always accompanied by a man. Walking confidently and independently past were women in the most modern of Lycra suits on their way to work. About half covered their heads with beautiful scarves I might envy on a bad-hair day.

When told Santa Claus originated in Turkey, I didn’t believe it at first. This was Nicholas, whose legend grew from his helping needy children, giving them gifts—traveling the south-central region of Turkey a few hundred years back. In the 20th century, the West dressed him in a red suit and got him a job at the department store. I wonder what Turks today make of that, if they even think about it.

Did I happen to know actor Mel Gibson, one gentleman asked, as we relaxed on the Aegean Sea with a group from the community. Well, I didn’t know him personally, but I had seen his movies. The gentleman had recently seen The Passion of the Christ. Six times, in fact. And he’d bought the video that week.

As I experienced the sites, sounds and smells of this land, new to me, I couldn’t help but wonder what sorts of impressions the people of Turkey are taking from the West. And I wondered what, if anything, I could do to make it positive.

Turkey is stepping out as a new nation. She is a work in progress—a unique model in the developing world that has the potential to become a force in shaping the 21st century. For all who work for peace and freedom, this should not go unacknowledged.

Golden Arches in Istanbul signal McDonald’s, just like in so many other parts of the world. The sandwich of choice isn’t a Big Mac, however, but a McTurco, rather like a gyros.
Pray for the future of Turkey. Pray for the devoted Muslims and Christians in Turkey. Pray for all the people of Turkey.













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