Christian Remains

In Turkey, I saw exactly one functioning Christian church: St. George’s Cathedral, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which the Turks, in their generosity, allow to be headquartered in Istanbul. Otherwise, as the result of Islamization in the Middle Ages (detailed by Speros Vyronis in The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century) and population transfer (or plain old persecution) in the twentieth century, 99% of Turks consider themselves Muslim, or at least culturally Muslim. Yet at one point Asia Minor was very Christian indeed, and Christian remains abound (although I should say that these are Greek Christian remains – Turkey has attempted to systematically erase any evidence that Armenians ever lived there).

¶ The most famous formerly Christian site, of course, is Istanbul’s Church of the Holy Wisdom (“Hagia Sophia” in Greek, “Ayasofya” in Turkish). This was ordered built by the Emperor Justinian in the 530s, and for almost a thousand years it was the largest Christian church in the world. (Its central dome, too, was the largest until surpassed by Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence Cathedral in 1436.) As the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, it was considered especially holy, and decorated accordingly. Procopius describes it as:

distinguished by indescribable beauty, excelling both in its size, and in the harmony of its measures, having no part excessive and none deficient; being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than those which are not of so just a proportion. The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church….

No one ever became weary of this spectacle, but those who are in the church delight in what they see, and, when they leave, magnify it in their talk. Moreover it is impossible accurately to describe the gold, and silver, and gems, presented by the Emperor Justinian, but by the description of one part, I leave the rest to be inferred. That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds’ weight of silver.

Witnessing his creation, Justinian is said to have proclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!”

Of course, anything richly endowed will become a target for looters, and Hagia Sophia was pretty much stripped bare by western Crusaders when they sacked Constantinople in 1204. Any replacement decoration was stripped again in 1453, when the Ottomans under Mehmet II conquered Constantinople and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque, complete with mihrab, minbar, and minarets, and eventually large roundels with the names of Allah, Mohammad, the first four caliphs, and Mohammad’s grandchildren Hassan and Hussein, suspended from the ceiling.

Roundels of Hassan and Hussein, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

Hagia Sophia remained a mosque until Atatürk closed it in 1931, and then reopened it in 1935 as a museum. This has allowed archaeologists to uncover some Byzantine mosaics that had been plastered over.

A partial mosaic of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, and John the Baptist, Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul.

It seemed to me, when I visited, that the museum’s marketing depends far more on its Christian than its Muslim heritage, but I wonder how much longer it will be before it becomes a mosque again. Following Pope Francis’s acknowledgement of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, protesters gathered outside demanding that Hagia Sophia be recommissioned as a mosque, and the following year Muslim prayers were held there for the first time in 85 years. (Given that there are some 3000 mosques in Istanbul, this does seem a trifle selfish, but it’s certainly in keeping with the times in Turkey.)

(Frankly, as historically significant as the building is, I did not find it that impressive. It’s as though Justinian bit off more than he could chew when he ordered it. Someone mentioned that they’ve been rebuilding it since it was first built – and it’s true, there are all sorts of kludge repairs that you notice when you get to see it up close. Istanbul’s grander mosques, like the Suleyman Mosque or the Blue Mosque, are much more architecturally impressive.)

Elsewhere in Istanbul, we have “Little Hagia Sophia,” a former Byzantine Church commissioned by Justinian and dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus. The Ottomans turned into a mosque and it remains in use as one. You won’t see any Christian decoration, but the style of the columns and the awkwardly placed minbar indicate that it wasn’t originally an Islamic building.

Near Hagia Sophia, one finds Hagia Irene (the Church of the Holy Peace). This church was also built by Justinian, but was not converted for use as a mosque – it became an arsenal for the nearby Topkapı Palace. Since 1980, it has been used as a concert hall on account of its superior acoustics.

Note the cross on the apse, an artifact of the iconoclastic period, which prescribed such simple, symbolic decoration.

The central dome through anti-bird-poop netting.

Chairs, stage, and side aisle.

The most Christian archaeological site that I saw in Istanbul was Chora Church, which was originally a part of a monastery located in the fields (“chora”) outside the walls of Constantinople. Like Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora became a mosque following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, and like Hagia Sophia became a museum in the twentieth century. This allowed the uncovering of a great panoply of mosaics and frescos, far more than they have found in Hagia Sophia. I spent quite a bit of time there transfixed by the beauty of it all.

Christos Pantokator mosaic.

Mosaic of the enrollment for taxation under Governor Quirinius.

View of the esonarthex.

Fresco of four bishops.

Fresco of St. George.

Mosaic of Theodore Metochites presenting a model of Chora Church to an enthroned Christ. Metochites paid for the church’s restoration after the depredations of the Crusaders. Apparently fourteenth-century Byzantines wore turbans.

Mosaic of the wedding at Cana.

I highly recommend Chora Church if you’re visiting Istanbul. Hopefully the restoration work on the nave will be completed before too long and you’ll be able to see that, too.

(My thanks to Stephen Bartlett for telling me about all of these sites.)

¶ In the interior of Turkey, around the city of Nevşehir, is an area designated “Cappadocia” for tourist purposes, so-called after an ancient area of the same name. The distinguishing geographical feature of Cappadocia is its soft volcanic rock that is easily carved into dwellings. Here is the view from my hotel, which itself was carved into a hillside

Cappadocia was the site of a thriving Christian community even prior to the conversion of the Roman Empire; Cappadocia’s relative remoteness and the ability of its inhabitants to create underground cities which could shelter them from persecution were advantageous (this was certainly the case for the subsequent Persian, Arab, and Turkish invasions). The church fathers Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus all hailed from Cappadocia, and one of St. George’s place designators is “St. George of Cappadocia.” (This title, though, was likely transferred to him from another George of Cappadocia, the Arian archbishop of Alexandria in the 360s, who was certainly no saint.)

The main attraction for Christian remains in Cappadocia is the Göreme Open Air Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features several rock-cut churches and chapels. Some of these were in use up until the expulsion of the Greeks in the 1920s; it’s nice that they have been preserved and not destroyed. Some of the art is gorgeous, although photography is generally forbidden and you have to be surreptitious about it.

I was pleased to snap this one of St. George. My favorite painting showed St. George and St. Theodore sharing a dragon to kill.

Interestingly, many of the churches are decorated in a style deriving from the iconoclastic period, not showing saints, but monochrome drawings of crosses and other geometric designs.

In the afternoon I drove to the Ihlara Valley, which turned out to be over an hour away and in the next province over (the tourist map was not really to scale). But it was certainly worth the trip! I enjoyed hiking along the Melendi River, and exploring any number of rock-cut chapels in the cliffs.

Their decoration was not as well preserved as at Göreme, but certainly captivating.

I spent way too little time in Cappadocia and am hoping for an excuse to return some day.

¶ Selçuk, on the Aegean coast, has a great archaeological museum, but the real attraction is the Roman city of Ephesus, whose ruins are some of the most extensive anywhere. You get a real sense of what it must have been like to live in a Roman city.

Main Street.

Library of Celsus.

Theater.

Ephesus was important to Christian history. St. Paul lived there for two years in the AD 50s, cultivating a Christian community; one of his later letters to this community was canonized as the Epistle to the Ephesians. Visitors can see some vestiges of Christian Ephesus, like these crosses…

…or this eight-spoked wheel, which is supposed to represent all the letters of the word ΙΧΘΥΣ – an acronym for “Jesus, Christ, Son of God, Savior” – lying on top of each other.

Ephesus was one of the seven churches in Asia enumerated in the book of Revelation, and it was the site of the third ecumenical council in 431, which affirmed the Nicene Creed and the acceptability of designating the Virgin Mary Theotokos (as opposed to merely Christotokos). I saw the remains of the church of St. Mary where this council took place, although the sun was in the wrong place for any pictures.

Sadly, I did not get to see the cave of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, the House of the Virgin Mary, or the Basilica of St. John. Next time!

Israel

Israel is one of the world’s great hotspots; perhaps the greatest, now that the Troubles in Northern Ireland have abated somewhat and the Civil War in Sri Lanka has come to an end. It’s true that violence in Israel has tapered off too, but it seems that everyone has an opinion on Israel and its relationship to the Palestinian Arabs whom they conquered at their founding, and then in the Six-Day War in 1967. These opinions roughly follow a left-right axis, with those on the left favoring Palestinians, and those on the right Israel. I think that this pattern was set during the Cold War: once Israel allied with the United States, and the Arab world the Soviet Union, well, that’s all that most people needed to know about who the good guys and who the bad guys were. That the United States picked Israel, even after such things as the Lavon Affair, the Suez Crisis, the attack on the USS Liberty, or the shenanigans of Jonathan Pollard, is usually seen as a testament to the outsized influence of American Jews, who tend to be visceral partisans of Israel for obvious reasons, combined with the influence of American Evangelicals, who support Israel on account of their dispensationalist theology.

But I think that politics on a left-right scale doesn’t completely explain things. Allow me to share with you my own theory: you can divide the world into two types of people. The first group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so they’re pretty much allowed to do whatever they want from now on – they’re certainly entitled to their own ethnostate. The second group believes that no one has suffered like the Jews have suffered, so you’d think they’d be careful not to cause other people to suffer too (cf. “You shall not oppress the stranger that is within your gates, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”). In other words, we have a conflict between tribalists and universalists. Universalists simply don’t like hypocrisy, and they think that Israelis are hypocrites, having suffered oppression, and then proceeding to dish it out to other people. They believe that even if the Holocaust was “unique,” it still doesn’t justify the Apartheid state the Israelis have constructed. 

Alas, Zionism, of necessity, is tribal. The direct connection between the Shoah and Eretz Yisrael is taught in Israeli schools, and is on full display at Yad Veshem, the Israeli national Holocaust memorial. The museum there takes the form of a maze that gets tighter and tighter as you proceed through it, emphasizing how there was no escape from Nazi persecution. But as you come to the end you step out onto a terrace that affords a beautiful vista of the valley of Giv’at Beroshim – the idea being that the land of Israel is the answer to the problem of Jewish suffering.* I actually overheard an Israeli tour guide discounting this idea. He said that nowhere else in the world is the Holocaust taught this way, and furthermore the idea does not go over well with the Arabs. He said that President Obama, when he gave a speech in Cairo in 2009, specifically referenced it, and the guide imagined a telephone conversation a half hour afterwards between Obama and Netanyahu, who may have exclaimed: “Are you nuts?! Never say that to Arabs! To them, the Holocaust was a project carried out by European Christians – and it’s now Middle Eastern Muslims who are paying the price for it!” No, said the guide, that the State of Israel was founded after the Holocaust is simply a chronological coincidence. The Jewish settlers in Palestine could have declared their independence in the 1930s, but then the war intervened and prevented it from happening. The Holocaust is why Israel deserves to be strong, and to take its security seriously, but its existence is another matter entirely. The Jews have a right to their own state in the Levant because… that’s where their ancestors lived in the first millennium BC! (And how well does that idea go over with the Arabs? I stood there wondering. Are they just meekly supposed to accept the notion that they’ve been squatting for 1500 years?)

But I found that other people believe this too. If Israel is not compensation for the Holocaust, then it is simply the latest instantiation of the ancient Hebrew monarchy. In Jerusalem I spoke with a guy, a real settler type, who was carrying around a large Israeli flag, “just for fun.” He actually referred to the West Bank as “Judaea/Samaria” and said that archaeologists recently uncovered some more artifacts there from the First Temple period. “How can you ‘occupy’ your own country?!” he asked.

But I’m afraid that the Palestinians weren’t much better in their uses of history. Two of them matter-of-factly told me that the Jews lost the rights to their land after the Romans destroyed their temple in AD 70, and expelled them in the 130s. Clearly God was judging them.

How can you argue with people who think like this?

My personal feeling is that Israel is no less legitimate than any other country created in the twentieth century – but this legitimacy has little to do with the Holocaust, and even less with any history recorded in the Bible. Instead, Israel is a settler nation, like Canada, the United States, or Australia. Enough people moved there, bought up enough land,** constructed the apparatus of a state, wheedled the Balfour Declaration*** out of the British, and then recognition of their independence from the UN. What more do you need? Its treatment of the Palestinians is distasteful, of course, but it would really have helped if the Arabs had not declared war on the state in 1948, and in 1967, and in 1973, and in 1987, and in 2000, and continue to carry out attacks even now. I confess that I find it hard to sympathize with people who so readily resort to violence, and that there is great deal of merit in Golda Meir’s claim that “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” In any event, I was surprised at how much pro-Palestinian sentiment the Israelis tolerate. The settler pictured above claims that the police will confiscate his flag as “too provocative” when he shows up at certain rallies. And I was amazed at some of the t-shirts on sale in the Old City expressing things that would never be allowed, say, about Armenians or Kurds in Turkey.

Self-government may be preferable to good government, but having been to both places now I think I would rather live on the West Bank than in Egypt. As tribal as Zionism may be, functionally it does produce some positive externalities for everyone.

* Fr. Richard LeSueur of St. George’s College, Jerusalem first pointed this out to me.

** Alan Dershowitz, in The Case for Israel, makes a big deal about land ownership. According to him, it is self-justifying. (By this notion, I guess the Chinese who have turned Vancouver into “Hongcouver” have the right to declare their independence – in fact, they already constitute a nation! It suggests that every sovereign state ought to take immigration, and real estate, very seriously.)

*** Courtesy Tom MacMaster, an interesting dissenting view on the Balfour Declaration by the Jewish Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India:

Zionism has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain, or to be treated as an Englishman. I have always understood that those who indulged in this creed were largely animated by the restrictions upon and refusal of liberty to Jews in Russia. But at the very time when these Jews have been acknowledged as Jewish Russians and given all liberties, it seems to be inconceivable that Zionism should be officially recognised by the British Government, and that Mr. Balfour should be authorized to say that Palestine was to be reconstituted as the “national home of the Jewish people”. I do not know what this involves, but I assume that it means that Mahommedans and Christians are to make way for the Jews and that the Jews should be put in all positions of preference and should be peculiarly associated with Palestine in the same way that England is with the English or France with the French, that Turks and other Mahommedans in Palestine will be regarded as foreigners, just in the same way as Jews will hereafter be treated as foreigners in every country but Palestine. Perhaps also citizenship must be granted only as a result of a religious test.

I assert that there is not a Jewish nation. The members of my family, for instance, who have been in this country for generations, have no sort or kind of community of view or of desire with any Jewish family in any other country beyond the fact that they profess to a greater or less degree the same religion. It is no more true to say that a Jewish Englishman and a Jewish Moor are of the same nation than it is to say that a Christian Englishman and a Christian Frenchman are of the same nation: of the same race, perhaps, traced back through the centuries – through centuries of the history of a peculiarly adaptable race. The Prime Minister and M. Briand are, I suppose, related through the ages, one as a Welshman and the other as a Breton, but they certainly do not belong to the same nation.

When the Jews are told that Palestine is their national home, every country will immediately desire to get rid of its Jewish citizens, and you will find a population in Palestine driving out its present inhabitants, taking all the best in the country, drawn from all quarters of the globe, speaking every language on the face of the earth, and incapable of communicating with one another except by means of an interpreter. I have always understood that this was the consequence of the building of the Tower of Babel, if ever it was built, and I certainly do not dissent from the view, commonly held, as I have always understood, by the Jews before Zionism was invented, that to bring the Jews back to form a nation in the country from which they were dispersed would require Divine leadership. I have never heard it suggested, even by their most fervent admirers, that either Mr. Balfour or Lord Rothschild would prove to be the Messiah.

I claim that the lives that British Jews have led, that the aims that they have had before them, that the part that they have played in our public life and our public institutions, have entitled them to be regarded, not as British Jews, but as Jewish Britons. I would willingly disfranchise every Zionist. I would be almost tempted to proscribe the Zionist organisation as illegal and against the national interest. But I would ask of a British Government sufficient tolerance to refuse a conclusion which makes aliens and foreigners by implication, if not at once by law, of all their Jewish fellow-citizens.

I deny that Palestine is to-day associated with the Jews or properly to be regarded as a fit place for them to live in. The Ten Commandments were delivered to the Jews on Sinai. It is quite true that Palestine plays a large part in Jewish history, but so it does in modern Mahommendan history, and, after the time of the Jews, surely it plays a larger part than any other country in Christian history. The Temple may have been in Palestine, but so was the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion. I would not deny to Jews in Palestine equal rights to colonisation with those who profess other religions, but a religious test of citizenship seems to me to be the only admitted by those who take a bigoted and narrow view of one particular epoch of the history of Palestine, and claim for the Jews a position to which they are not entitled.

Islam

Some notes from my first visit to Muslim-majority countries.

• The adhan, the call to prayer, is given over loudspeakers five times a day. I confess that I did not find it aesthetically pleasing, especially when you’re in an area with lots of mosques and there’s a great cacophony of competing adhans. But even on its own the chant seems the opposite of tuneful. I really think the muezzins could mix it up a bit.

• The Friday noon prayer is the most important one, the one at which the imam gives a sermon. I did not get to witness this from inside a mosque but I did stop for tea down the street from a mosque in Cairo while the sermon was going on. I knew this because the sermon was being broadcast over the same speakers that issue the adhan. I could not understand it but the imam sounded very emphatic and angry. Afterwards, the cafe filled up with men and boys coming out of the service.

• It seems that it’s not enough to read the Koran, you have to listen to it. The Turkish airways inflight entertainment system on the way over featured a Koran option, which you could listen to with subtitles in the language of your choice.

The television in my hotel room in Istanbul featured several channels broadcasting the Koran. Businesses would often have televisions on and turned to such channels, and taxi drivers would have it on their radios as they drove around. You’ll know it’s the Koran because it’s not just being read, but chanted, by a reciter known as a qari. You can listen to several examples of this chanting on YouTube. (It’s somewhat interesting, but like the adhan, not particularly tuneful.) One guy told me that this is how the angel Gabriel actually revealed it to Mohammad, and you have to learn the chanting from someone who learned it from someone who learned it from someone, etc. going all the way back to the Prophet.

• It is most meritorious, upon hearing the adhan, to stop what you’re doing, make your way to the nearest mosque, and join your fellow believers in communal prayer. Of course, not everyone is able to do this (it seems that most people who went to prayer were elderly men), and I wonder if the imam doesn’t get pretty lonely at certain times. All the same, you can stop in at the mosque and pray on your own if you can’t make the prescribed time. If you can’t make it to a mosque you can unroll a prayer rug and pray in the direction of Mecca on your own. This is not as meritorious but better than not praying at all.

• “Woman in Burqa Condemns Woman in Chador” read a headline in The Onion once, and I must confess that I found female Muslim garb rather confusing. Most Muslim women at least cover their hair with a hijab, although not everyone does, and it did not seem that there was necessarily tension between the two camps (although I’m sure I was missing a lot). But you would think, for example, that high school girls would naturally congregate into two groups based on whether or not they were wearing this most obvious symbol of religious observance. However, in Turkey I saw several groups of high school students taking tours of museums, with about 50% of the girls wearing hijabs, and the other 50% with their long dark hair just flowing out for all the world to see, and it seems that everyone got along; the presence or absence of a headscarf was seemingly irrelevant to social interaction.

Outside of this context, many Turkish women went further than the hijab, and would also wear a long, straight dress of a solid color – some went even further and wore a complete niqab (that is, a black cloak-like garment including a face covering with only a slit for the eyes). Do these people talk to each other?

(I regret that I have no photos but I did not want to risk offending people by taking pictures of them.)

• Men do not seem to have a similar sartorial decisions to make, at least not in Turkey. In Egypt a lot of men wear the taqiyah, a knitted skull cap, although fewer than women who wear a hijab. Men can also wear the jellabiya, a long beige dress, sometimes with a turban, but I think this is more cultural than religious. Here I am with Mahmoud, one of the excavators of Karnak Temple, who is wearing this garb.

And here is Ahmed (seated) and his standing assistant, my felucca pilots on the Nile and jellabiya wearers.

• If there is a male equivalent to the hijab, in Egypt it is the zebiba or prayer bump that appears on one’s forehead as the result of the constant ritual prostrations one must do. I assume it is meritorious to acquire one.

• Some of the more popular tourist mosques have banks of pamphlets, and even missionaries, proselytizing for Islam. They take great pride in the purity of their monotheism, as demonstrated by this sectarian propaganda on the Mosque of Omar in Jerusalem.

Another thing they take pride in is how Koran 55:20-21 has been vindicated by science. The relevant verses read: “He has made the two bodies of water flow. They will one day meet. Between them is now a barrier; they encroach not one upon the other.” According to a pamphlet I received: “A physical force called surface tension prevents the waters of neighbouring seas from mixing due to the difference in the density of these waters. It is as if a thin wall were between them. This has only very recently been discovered by oceanographers.” So there you go.

• Everyone I spoke to insisted that Isis and Al-Qaeda do not represent Islam, and resented people thinking that they do. I was happy to hear this, although one always wonders how situational people are being – and why so many other people do believe that Islam justifies violence….

• To return to Turkey, everyone knows that Erdoğan’s schtick has been to undo some of the compulsory secularism of Kemal Atatürk. A colleague leant me a book entitled Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds by American journalist Stephen Kinzer and first published in 2001, on the eve of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party coming to power. Kinzer, it seems, had a cautiously positive attitude towards that movement: secularism might be fine as a principle, but when it’s compulsory, it is just as stultifying as any established religion. Why should it be scandalous that a cabinet minister’s wife should wear a headscarf? Why should it be forbidden for a female university student to wear a headscarf? Kinzer, perhaps on account of his own nationality, favored an American-style secularism, whereby no law shall be passed establishing a religion… or prohibiting the free exercise of the same. I do not know if Erdoğan has completely lived up to this promise. I spoke to some people who were appalled by his program – yet his party keeps getting reelected, and has not yet been displaced by a Kemalist coup. So Turkey does seem to be getting more Islamic. A fellow traveler told me that far more women wear the headscarf now than they did twenty years ago. It says something that there’s a Koran channel on the inflight entertainment system on Turkish Air, as does the notice that that their food “is prepared according to Islamic principles.” Such principles do not, for now, prevent the serving of alcohol on Turkish Air, but in Turkey itself beer is now pretty expensive, and served only during limited hours, on account of new laws. (The same fellow traveller told me that a restaurant wouldn’t serve him a beer if he was sitting at a table on the sidewalk, because the Islamists who lived across the street enjoyed spying on and complaining about the place.) I was surprised to see a qari practicing his craft in Topkapı Palace, a state-run museum.

Perhaps most interestingly, Erdoğan has sponsored a mosque-building program throughout Turkey, including an extremely large six-minaret one on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. I believe this is it on the skyline.

Çamlıca Republic Mosque.

At its groundbreaking ceremony in 2016, Erdoğan said: “When a donkey dies it leaves behind its saddle, when a man dies he leaves behind his works. We will be remembered for this.” I think he is right.

Mosques

Some notes:

• The Muslim worship space, of course, is called a mosque. It is essentially an empty room, which can be as small as the living room in a suburban tract house, or as large as a minor-league hockey arena. The floor is usually carpeted, and larger mosques feature large chandeliers that are suspended from the ceiling all the way down to about ten feet off the floor.

Interior, Prince’s Mosque, Istanbul.

Interior, Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

• Generally you’ll know it’s a mosque by the presence of one or more minarets – tall “steeples” that rise from the corners of the building. The number is significant, although I do not know the precise reason why some mosques warrant more minarets than others. Historically, the müezzin would climb up one of the minarets to issue the adhan – that is, the call to prayer, which is done five times a day. Nowadays, he gives the adhan over a PA system, connected to loudspeakers on the minarets. Turkish minarets are generally tall, round, and thin, while Egyptian ones tend to be squatter, and can be square or octagonal in shape.

Sultan Ahmed (“Blue”) Mosque, Istanbul.

Mosque, Necmettin Erbakan Square, Ankara.

Mosque of Qani-Bay, Cairo.

Islamic Cairo.

• Mosques can also be signified by the presence of a dome over the main structure. In Turkey, most mosques follow the pattern established by Hagia Sophia, where a large, central dome over the main room has a circle of windows along the base to let in light. Also like Hagia Sophia, several half-domes can “cascade” down from the central one.

Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Interior, Sultan Ahmet Mosque, Istanbul.

In Egypt, domes can be smaller, more vertical in shape and/or not centrally placed.

Mosque of Mahmoudiyah, Cairo.

Mosque of Umm Sultan Shaaban, Cairo.

• Usually there is some means of making ritual ablutions on the way in – in the grander mosques there is an entire front courtyard with an ablution block devoted to this function.

Yeni Cami (New Mosque), Istanbul.

Outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Muhammad Ali Mosque, Cairo.

Islamic Cairo.

• Some mosques, however, consist of nothing more than large courtyards, with the “room” for prayer simply a deep colonnade on the far side as you walk in. I believe they are known as Persian style mosques. The Al-Hakim Mosque in Cairo is one such.

Al-Hakim Mosque, Cairo.

• “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground,” God commands Moses in the Book of Exodus. Muslims retain this tradition; one must always remove one’s shoes before setting foot inside a mosque. (In fact, I would highly recommend wearing sandals or loafers if you are going to be visiting a number of mosques in a given day – constantly having to retie your shoes gets old rather quickly.) 

• But that’s not all: modest dress is required in other ways, too. (Not to worry, they’ll lend you a headscarf and/or a wrap-around skirt if you’re dressed immodestly.)

• In large mosques that tourists want to see, there is generally a viewing area at the back of the central room. Only men who wish to pray are allowed to go further. (Women who wish to pray are granted their own area, usually at the back of the mosque, and behind a screen.)

• On the opposite wall once you enter are two features you can’t miss: the mihrab and the minbar. The mihrab is nothing more than a niche in the wall, indicating the qibla, that is, the direction towards Mecca and thus the direction one faces for prayer. The minbar, usually to the right of the mihrab, is a pulpit from which the imam gives a sermon following the Friday noon prayers. It consists of a staircase going straight up; it doesn’t look like your average church pulpit.

Mihrab and minbar, Elvançelebi mosque, Çorum Province, Turkey.

Mihrab, Vasat Atik Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul.

Minbar, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

Mihrab and minbar, Gazi Atik Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul.

Minbar, Molla Ferani Cami, Istanbul.

Mihrab and minbar, Sahib Ata Mosque, Konya.

Mihrab and minbar, Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo.

Mihrab and minbar, mosque of Al-Nasser Mohammed Ibn Kalawoun, Cairo.

• Mosques famously do not feature sculpture or (much) representational art, in keeping with the monotheistic prohibition of images. This means that their decoration consists of intricate designs or texts from the Koran. (In Turkey, these are often rendered on tiles.) I’m certain that there are art historians who would be able to delineate the history and meaning of all of these…

• As far as I can tell mosques do not have the same connection with burial that Christian churches have traditionally had, but some mosques do have cemeteries outside of them, or outbuildings that serve as mausolea for important people.

Outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Sultan Süleyman Turbesi, outside Süleymaniye Mosque, Istanbul.

Şehzadeler Türbesi (“Prince’s Tomb”), outside Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

• But just as it was meritorious, in Catholic Europe, to sponsor the building of a church, so also it was meritorious to sponsor a mosque – thus the multiplicity of mosques in Istanbul and in Cairo, which may not have been justified by the population numbers. But as to who owns the title to the mosques, or who is responsible for their upkeep, or who appoints the imam… these things, at present, I do not know.

From Dr. Furnish

Reinhardt professor Tim Furnish draws our attention to a blog post of his from Good Friday in 2014, discussing Isma’ili Islam’s view of the Crucifixion.

For some 14 centuries, the vast majority of Muslims, following mainstream Islamic doctrine, has denied that Jesus was crucified—and thus, of course, that He was Resurrected. The proof text for this Islamic rejection of the central teaching of Christianity is Sura al-Nisa’ [IV]:157:

And [for] their saying, “Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah .” And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. And indeed, those who differ over it are in doubt about it. They have no knowledge of it except the following of assumption. And they did not kill him, for certain.

Muslim commentators such as Ibn Kathir, et al., have long maintained that Jesus was taken to heaven and someone else—probably Judas—was crucified in His place. Other Islamic writers over the centuries have held slightly differing positions, but the bottom-line conclusion has always been that Jesus’ Crucifixion is a Christian lie. However, one group of Muslims—the (heterodox) Isma’ili (Sevener) Shi`is—has for centuries held a unique view of Jesus’ Crucifixion, as elucidated in the paper by Khalil Andani, “`They Killed Him Not.’ The Crucifixion in Shi`a Isma’ili Islam” (2011). Andani makes several points herein—that: the Qur’anic text does not deny the Crucifixion per se—but rather that the Jews perpetrated it; over the centuries Muslim commentators have held views ranging “from total denial to actually asserting that the crucifixion did take place historically;” and, most importantly, “it was only the human body or the nahut of Jesus that was killed and crucified upon the Cross while the eternal reality of lahut of Christ can never be killed or crucified.”

Illustrations and links in the original – read the whole thing.

Links

  • 155-year-old mousetrap, on display in the Museum of English Rural Life, claims its latest victim.
  • The Helgo Treasure, from Viking Age Sweden, includes a bronze Irish crozier, a Coptic ladle, and a bronze Buddha from the Indian subcontinent – a testament to how much Vikings were plugged into early medieval trading networks.
  • Related: a Viking woman was buried with a ring reading “For Allah.”

Isis and the Middle Ages

A fellow Georgia medievalist and Dartmouth grad, Allen Fromherz of Georgia State, wrote an article for the American Interest last month on “Isis vs. History.” The whole thing is worth a read, but keep in mind that it will be your “one free article” at AI for the month.

ISIS vs. History

What the rise and fall of a 12th-century Islamic empire does (and doesn’t) tell us about the rise (and fall?) of ISIS.

For many good reasons, professional historians mightily resist comparisons between recent events and the distant past. Our training teaches us to respect the principles of the 19th-century founder of source-based history, Leopold von Ranke, who professionalized the discipline to focus as much as possible on the past as it was. History, he believed, should be written for its own sake, not treated as a ghost of itself in service of the present, nor strip-mined for jewels of supposed relevance to current objectives or concerns.

We do not always succeed in this, but at our best we try to avoid the facile and misleading uses of history that non-historians all too readily deploy in the service of some other goal than good scholarship. Case in point: Not long ago, Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina claimed that her bachelor’s degree in medieval history would help her “defeat ISIS”: “Every single one of the techniques that ISIS is using, the crucifixion, the beheadings, the burning alive, those were commonly used techniques in the Middle Ages.”

Fiorina’s comments set off a rare storm of comment in the relevant halls of the academy. Not one medievalist, or any historian for that matter, supports her contention that the medieval past is particularly well described or defined by its level of violence. Most these days would argue that the concept of the “medieval past” is little more than an artificial punctuation to separate the period between the fall of Rome from the 15th century age of discovery and the subsequent rise of modern nation-states.

A similar negative reaction attended a March 2015 Atlantic article by Graeme Wood, entitled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The article similarly mooted a form of ISIS “medievalism.” That was enough to set the small and eclectic but wonderful world of medievalist social media atwitter in righteous indignation.

The main problem with these comparisons, as Stephen John Stedman recently noted, is the lack of any careful or precisely drawn context for making them. The result is the all too easy use of wildly inaccurate stereotypes about particular past periods. In this case, the stereotype is that “everything in the Medieval past, especially medieval Islam, was brutal and violent.” But far from being an age of brutality, the “medieval period” of Islamic history was defined by its relative tolerance. One of the greatest of cities in 10th-century Europe was Muslim Córdoba. Astonished Christian visitors such as the itinerant German nun Hrostsvita of Gandersheim recognized Córdoba as an “Ornament of the World.” Its shine came from the fact that Córdoba had street lamps that glowed at night, reflecting the running water of fountains and the light of knowledge and science from a library that rivaled ancient Alexandria. Although lower in status under Islamic law, minorities were not only protected in Islamic cities like Córdoba but often ascended to positions of great influence, such as the Jewish leader, scholar, poet, and physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who served as de facto minister of foreign affairs for the blue-eyed Caliph of Córdoba, ‘Abd al Rahman III (the Umayyad Caliphs often intermarried with Gothic, Christian royal families in the north of Spain).

More at the link.

 

Paris

Generally I don’t like participating in Media Events, but the recent attacks in Paris have shocked me more than most jihadist activity in recent years. One thing to think about, though, if you’re going to Do Something about it on Facebook: the French tricolor is symbol of France – but a secular, republican symbol, like Marianne or the Coq gaulois. By all means change your profile picture if you wish, but be aware that it is somewhat incongruous to display a French flag with “pray for France” written on it. 

(St. Louis, St. Joan or St. Denis might be better choices here. Or Charles Martel himself!)

Given that the attacks took place in Paris, the arms of Paris might also be a good choice to show at this time. The motto, translated as “She is tossed by the waves, but does not sink,” seems especially appropriate.

640px-Armoiries_paris_faïence

Via Wikiwand.com

The Bin Laden Tapes

Four years ago I participated in “Genefest,” a conference in honor of the retirement of Gene Garthwaite, a history professor at Dartmouth College and one of my undergraduate influences. Although I did not follow him into Middle Eastern studies, I was pleased to see him again, and to learn about what his other former students were up to. One of these, Flagg Miller, gave an interesting presentation on the Bin Laden tapes, a cache of audio cassettes acquired in Afghanistan in 2002 and which he had been analyzing. I am pleased to see that his extensive research has borne fruit in the form of a book, entitled The Audacious Ascetic: What the Bin Laden Tapes Reveal About Al-Qa’ida (Hurst Publishing, 2015). A VICE News article by the author provides a synopsis:

What I Learned About al Qaeda from Analyzing the ‘Bin Laden’ Tapes

In the months following the Taliban’s evacuation of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in December 2001, cable news networks set up operations in the city in order to report on the war. In the dusty back rooms of a local recording studio, a CNN stringer came across an extraordinary archive: roughly 1,500 audiotapes taken from Osama bin Laden’s residence, where he had lived from 1997-2001, during al Qaeda’s most coherent organizational momentum.

Discovered untouched by a local Afghan family after the rest of the house had been ransacked, the tapes were slated for use as blanks for recording Pashto pop-songs. CNN intervened with a cash-down offer and a different plan.

The FBI first reviewed the collection and declined stewardship. The vast majority of the tapes feature speakers who, although well-known Muslim preachers, reformers, and radicals across the Arabic-speaking world, were not al Qaeda members. Some recordings dated back to the 1960s and were considered to be more of interest to historians than intelligence analysts.

Unable to use the tapes, CNN passed them on to academics, first at Williams College and later Yale University. During those years I was brought on as the archive’s primary researcher. Trained as a linguistic anthropologist, I had spent many years studying political discourse, Islam, and audiocassette technologies in Yemen, Bin Laden’s ancestral homeland.

Over 10 years later, my resulting book focuses on key tapes in order to re-examine al Qaeda’s origins, development, and ideology leading up to 9/11. At the center of my study are just over a dozen previously untranslated speeches by Bin Laden dating from the late 1980s through 2001.

What do the tapes reveal about Bin Laden and al Qaeda? Here are several surprising discoveries.

First, Bin Laden was not al Qaeda’s leader at its outset — in fact, the organization sought to marginalize him. The “al Qaeda” frequently evoked in Western intelligence and law-enforcement circles referred originally to a specific training camp in eastern Afghanistan called Al-Faruq. Founded in the late 1980s, the camp was directed largely by Egyptian and North African militants who aimed to overthrow ruling regimes within the Islamic world….

Second, while al Qaeda is typically distinguished from other militant and terrorist groups for its unequivocal focus on attacking the West and the United States, the organization’s chief leaders prioritized multiple enemies, foremost among them authoritarian leaders within the Arab world. Bin Laden’s speeches from as late as 1993 avoid any public mention of directing militant activity toward America, despite the fact that massive US-led coalition forces had been stationed in his homeland for a full three years….

Third, Bin Laden’s first and most notorious “Declaration of War against the United States” in 1996 was neither a declaration nor a call to war. These labels were given to Bin Laden by Western journalists and translators who sought to draw attention to growing Arab anger at the devastating effects of US-led sanctions against Saddam Hussein on Iraq’s people.

Read the whole thing.