For one final time last weekend, I found myself jetsetting off on a whirlwind trip to spend Thanksgiving in Istanbul, Turkey. As the culmination of my semester, I headed to one more completely unfamiliar place to immerse myself in yet another culture. Little did I know how much it would overwhelm my senses, challenge my faith, and help me to grow.
After spending an entire semester in Rome, in the heart of the Catholic faith, I found myself in an almost completely Muslim country. I no longer had the comfort of knowing there were at least
five churches in my vicinity at one time – in fact, I didn’t visit a single Christian church that weekend. Instead, I walked past mosque after mosque, listening to the call to prayer five times a
day being proclaimed from each mosque, fully aware of the unfamiliar religion that surrounded me.
On our first full day in Istanbul, we toured the Hagia Sophia, a Christian church turned mosque turned museum, built when the city was known as Constantinople. Touring the magnificent building was the most intense religious experience I had in the city, as it is a sacred sight for both the Islamic and Christian religions. The huge dome loomed over me, and I recalled the words of Justinian as he gazed at his completed masterpiece: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee.”
Although there were many ancient, impressive Christian mosaics inside, the most compelling sight inside was a huge apse mosaic of the Virgin Mary, flanked by two large roundels with Arabic script from the Koran, which bear the names of Muhammad and Allah. Never before in my life have I seen such duality present before me, and nowhere else in the world can you see it so clearly. For me, it represented the mixing of cultures present in the city of Istanbul, as well as the mixture of old and new, past and present.
Putting on a headscarf and taking off my shoes, I literally stood in the shoes of a Muslim as I walked into the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. I felt both close to their faith and very far away as I watched the men at the front of the mosque participate in a complex ritual of prayer. Proclaiming myself as a believer in Christ, it is hard to experience another religion and try to understand their way of life, yet it was one of the richest experiences I had all semester. I found beauty in both the rich Islamic traditions and history, something that is common with the Catholic faith, and the faithfulness of the people. Coming from such a secular place, it is incredible to see a religion so outwardly present in a city.
My weekend in Istanbul was about Thanksgiving, and not only because of the American holiday we celebrated there, sans the turkey and mashed potatoes. The trip was about giving thanks for the faith I have that Christ has given to me, but also for the opportunity to experience another religion and culture, and to let their beautiful way of life enrich my own.
My semester studying abroad in Italy has come to a close. I find myself finishing classes, writing those last few papers, and stuffing my bags full of souvenirs to bring home. I also find myself reminiscing and reflecting on who I am, why I came here, and how I’ve changed during my whirlwind time studying, traveling, and finding myself all over Europe. This weekend, I gave thanks for the opportunity I’ve had to see the world this semester, and for the challenging, enriching, and amazing people I’ve met along the way.