Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Religious History in Istanbul

Hello, world, this is Michael Nedvin reporting from Istanbul! Blogger seems to have mislaid my authorship permissions, so I'm using Lynn's account to summarize the day.

This day started with an excursion to Balat, which had been the old Jewish quarter in the time of the Ottoman Empire. In fact, Balat was the area where the poorer Jews lived, along with the Greek Orthodox Christians, and it's still not a wealthy area today. Walking through the narrow streets, it was as if we were in a completely different city from the Istanbul we've seen for the past week. There was no English on any of the signs, and we were not invited to look at anyone's shop or restaurant. The aggressive salesmen who seem to line every other street in the city were nowhere to be found.

Our first stop in Balat was outside of the Yanbol Synagogue. I would not have recognized it as a synagogue unless our guide had pointed it out to me, as all we can see from the street is a plain metal door, squeezed into the tiny space between a telephone office and a bank. So few Jews are part of Yanbol's congregation that it is only open on the High Holidays--which means that there was no access for us today.

The next stop was outside of the Ahrida Synagogue. Here, there is a sign of Judaism--a Hebrew inscription above the gate. The gate opens into a courtyard which is surrounded by a high wall. Our group had originally planned to visit Ahrida, but it was only upon reaching Istanbul that we learned that  due to the threat of terrorist attack, Ahrida is not open to tourists. The general public enters only on holidays and the Sabbath.

Leaving Balat through a small fruit market (the first fruit market where no one tried to stop us and sell us fruit), we returned to the bus and crossed the Haliç to the Pera district. This was the area where the wealthier Jews had gathered in Ottoman times, and we set off to find a Mevlevi lodge that had been converted into a museum.

The lodge had once been a gathering place for practioners of Sufism, a mystical spiritual practiced derived from the teachings of the scholar known to the west as Rumi.  Jalal ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi was a teacher in the great schools of the Seljuk Empire, and his subject was philosophy. He taught a method of thinking through which one could come to love everything, and thus be closer to the Divine. The Galata Mevlevi lodge contains many artifacts of the Sufi practice, and is an extremely peaceful place even though it is at the end of one of the busiest streets in the district.

After leaving the lodge, we trekked towards the Neve Shalom synagogue, which we had chosen to visit  instead of Ahrida. "Neve Shalom" means "Oasis of Peace", and it is the largest synagogue in Istanbul. That doesn't mean that security is relaxed, though; Neve Shalom has been attacked multiple times, and as a result, tourist entry is very controlled. 

We arrived at 12:40, but were told to come back at 1:00, our appointment time. After waiting in the shade of the Galata Tower, we returned to the synagogue, and the gate guards unlocked the door. We passed through several security checkpoints, and once everyone was through, we proceeded to the sanctuary. It is a beautiful room, with an ornate scroll cabinet and a floral arch at the entrance--the latter was due to the fact that Neve Shalom is used for weddings extremely frequently.

There were some things that we found strange, of course. The most memorable was the list of names above the main door to the sanctuary, which served as a tribute to those who died in the terrorist strikes on Neve Shalom. The most unexpected would have to be the hard hats kept under each seat. With these helmets--emergency protection for congregants in the event of a terrorist attack--we could see how a history of violence continues to affect the area today.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting day for all of you - thank you for posting.