Turkey, Focal Point of Three Faiths
Throughout its long history as a nurturing homeland to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Turkey has embraced their diverse beliefs and preserved their holy sites. For more than a millennium, Turkey has been at the crossroads of civilization, a melting pot of eastern and western traditions and a place where faiths converge.
Tradition holds that Abraham was born in Ur, in today’s Sanliurfa, and sojourned in a little cave in Harran, in Southeast Anatolia. St. Paul, born Saul of Tarsus, spread Christianity on his many missionary journeys throughout the land. The Eastern Orthodox faith reveres the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. Sultan Selim, upon the conquest of the Mamluks in Egypt, claimed the title of Caliph, or Commander of the Faithful, for himself and established Topkapi Palace as the new home for Islam’s holiest relics. It is no wonder, as incubator or dwelling for the world’s three monotheistic religions, that Turkey is often invoked as “The other Holy Land.”
One may say it all started in the beginning, in the Southeastern town of Sanliurfa, also known as the City of Prophets. Here, the Halil Rahman Mosque now surrounds the cave that is thought to be the birthplace of Abraham. Located 30 miles south of Sanliurfa, the city of Harran (Altinbasak) was Abraham's home when he heard God's call. Also south of Sanliurfa, in the district of Eyyubiye, the Prophet Job, famed for his patience, is believed to have spent seven years in a cave recovering from illness.
Today, visitors seeking to experience Turkey through the eyes of their faith can visit such seminal sites as the House of the Virgin Mary, Harran Cave, St. Paul’s Grotto, and the Seven Churches of the Revelation, while simultaneously feasting on the wonders of a country that embraces people of all faiths.
From the last home of the Virgin Mary to the first cathedral, Anatolia served as incubator and inspiration for Christianity’s very foundations. From the Seven Churches of the Revelation, to seven ecumenical councils, to hosting 24 saints, it is no surprise to find some of the Church’s most fundamental foundations and history in sites of pilgrimage throughout the country.
St. Paul, born as Saul in Turkey’s Southeastern town of Tarsus, preached the gospels throughout Anatolia from a cave in Antioch, which, in 1963, was recognized by the papacy as the world’s first cathedral. St. Paul’s Grotto, together with the wider community of Jesus’ followers at Antioch, is where adherents to this Jewish breakaway sect were first labeled as “Christians.” At the Antiochean port of Seleucia Piera, St. Peter and Barnabas set out on their first missionary journey to spread the Gospel, into the heart of Asia Minor to communities at Iconium and Antioch in Pisidia through the Mediterranean ports at Antalya and Perge.
St. John the Apostle continued to spread the Gospel at Ephesus, one of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor that include the Aegean cities of Smyrna (Izmir), Pergamon (Bergama), Laodiciea ad Lycum (Denizli), Sardis, Philadelphia and Thyatira (the latter three located in the Province of Manisa). John was accompanied on his journey to Ephesus by Mary, who is said to have lived out her final years in a small house now known as the House of the Virgin Mary, set atop Bülbül Dagi (Mt. Koressos) near Ephesus. In Selçuk, the Basilica of St. John, is a tribute to the saint constructed by Justinian in the 6th century, atop what is likely St. John’s final resting place.
Home to one of the largest churches in Christendom as well as the seat of an enduring Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate, Istanbul’s Basilica of the Hagia Sophia and the Ecumenical Patriarchate both act as powerful magnets for all of the Church’s global flock. The Patriarchate followed a procession of seats, beginning with the Hagia Eirene, the basilica set in the leafy first courtyard of Topkapi Palace. Emperor Justinian preferred to construct a more symbolical edifice, and for almost a thousand years, the Hagia Sophia sparkled as the jewel in the crown of the Byzantine Empire. The Hagia Sophia was equaled in opulence only by the church of St. Savior in Chora, whose gilded mosaic panels depicting scenes of early Christian history and the life of Mary reflect the wealth of a waning empire. With the fourth Crusade, the Church, led by the Byzantine emperor, was forced to flee to Nicaea. Shortly after the empire’s triumphant return to Constantinople, the Patriarchate was again displaced, this time to the Church of the Pammakaristos, with the Ottoman conquest of the city. Over the successive two centuries, the Patriarchate found a seat in the Havariyun Church, now Fatih Camii, in the Church of the Virgin Mary and to St. Demetrios, in Istanbul’s Balat neighborhood. The Patriarchate has been a beacon for half of the world’s Eastern Orthodox diaspora from its current seat in the Church of St. George, in Istanbul’s Fener neighborhood, since 1601.
As a refuge for Christianity’s earliest monastic sects, Cappadocia held a prominent role in the formation of Christian doctrine. Its pliable landscape of undulating tuffan hills and valleys, of fairy chimneys and underground cities, became a leading place of monasticism and of early Christian worship. The region holds more than 200 ancient chapels, embellished with arches, apses and columns carved out of the rock and decorated with remarkable frescoes. The best-preserved collection of these churches is found in Göreme, with its National Park now listed as a World Heritage Site.
Throughout the growth and expansion of Christianity, Anatolia became the crossroads for preachers, saints and martyrs alike. The first seven Ecumenical Councils, where the entire existing leadership of the Church gathered in order to affirm the doctrine of the Church against unorthodox teachings, were held in Western Anatolia. St. Philip was martyred in the ancient city of Hierapolis (Pamukkale), and an octagonal basilica marks the site where the saint was slain. St. Nicholas was born in the Mediterranean port city of Patara, and later became Bishop of Myra in what is now the Mediterranean town of Demre/Kale, in the Province of Antalya. The Church of St. Nicholas, also called the Santa Claus Museum, houses what is believed to be the saint’s tomb. The virgin martyr, Thecla, one of Paul’s earliest followers, is honored with a basilica of the first female saint at Silifke, on Turkey’s eastern Mediterranean. Refusing to reject his Savior, St. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, was burned at the stake in the castle fortress in Izmir (Kadifekale). And on a searing cliff high above the Black Sea city of Trabzon, embraced in a misty and lush forest, is Sumela Monastery, established around 386 by Barnabas and Sophronius, two monks inspired by an icon they found there, reputed to have been painted by St. Luke.
Jews have inhabited Turkey for thousands of years, beginning with settlements between the Euphrates and the Tigris Rivers, as recorded in the Old Testament. According to local tradition, Abraham was born in a cave in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa, and received God’s command to go forth to Jerusalem from his home in the nearby village of Harran. One of the most frequented holy sites in Sanliurfa is the cave where Job passed seven years recovering from illness before he was healed by the water in the cave’s well.
In later centuries, these communities, joined by Jews fleeing Jerusalem after the fall of the Temple, migrated westward to contribute to thriving communities in all of the major metropolises of Asia Minor, including Antioch, Sardis and Ephesus. Stele and other stones inscribed in Hebrew or depicting Jewish symbols such as menorahs attest to the long presence of Jewish communities in many, if not all of the prosperous cities of antiquity.
Menorahs are inscribed in tombs uncovered in the Necropolis of Hierapolis (Pamukkale), on headstones within the courtyard of the Red Basilica (Pergamon), and even on the top step of the Library of Celsus (Ephesus). Sardis, with its magnificently preserved synagogue adorned in marble mosaics and geometric patterns, recalls a thriving Jewish community integrated into Roman civic life as late as the 3rd century A.D.
Turkey’s Jewish population again grew with Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II’s invitation to the expelled Jews of Spain, and later with persecutions of Jews through the 20th century. Today, Turkey’s Jewish communities are predominantly found in the major cities of Istanbul and Izmir, with a small community remaining in Bursa. Istanbul alone has 16 working synagogues, plus three additional houses of worship on the Princes’ Islands. Visitors can explore the city’s old Jewish Quarter in Galata, home to the 19th century Neve Shalom Synagogue and the nearby Jewish Museum of Turkey, curated within the 19th century Zulfaris Synagogue. Jewish immigrants in latter centuries settled mostly in the neighborhood of Balat, centered around the 15th century Ahrida Synagogue, adding to a community that existed there since Byzantine times.
Several other cities and towns have historic, working synagogues. The Gerus Synagogue in Bursa was built at the end of the 15th century by Jews who settled in the city after the Spanish Inquisition. In Izmir, Beth Israel Synagogue, Bikour Holim Synagogue and Giveret Synagogue are the remaining three of the original nine synagogues once lining Havra Sokak (Synagogue Street) in the bazaar.
Throughout the history of the Caliphate, whoever possessed the holy relics of the Prophet Mohammed led the faithful. With the conquest of the Mamluk Sultanate in the 16th century, Ottoman Sultan Selim I gained control of the heart of the Islamic world, of Islam’s holiest relics and of the title of Caliph. For the next 400 years, the Caliphate remained within the Ottoman Sultanate, until its abolition in the wake of World War I.
Today, Turkey remains custodian to Islam’s holy relic including the Prophet Mohammed’s bow, his footprint and his mantle, in the Holy Relics Room within the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle in Topkapi Palace, where the Koran has been recited continually for more than 500 years. Also on display is the sword wielded by the first four Caliphs, a turban worn by Joseph, Moses’ staff, and the keys to the Kaaba, in Mecca.
Up along Istanbul’s Golden Horn, the Tomb and Mosque of Eyüp Sultan is the fourth most holy site in Islam. The mosque sits atop the site where Eyüp al-Ansari, Mohammed’s standard bearer and closest friend, is believed to have been buried, having fallen during the Arab assault of 670.
Mystics of all faiths flock to the Mevlana Museum in Konya to pay respects to Celaleddin i-Rumi, better known as Mevlana. The sufi mystic’s tomb lies within the dervish lodge of the Mevlevi Order, a place of pilgrimage and prayer for all who continue to be inspired by his writings.
Dominating an empire for close to 500 years, the Ottoman Sultans realized the importance of these sacred relics of all faith and considered it a duty to humanity to preserve and protect them. The Ottomans themselves bequeathed a rich inheritance of religious and civil architecture, of mosques and tombs and of sites of faith. Now it is time for you to come to Turkey for inspiration in these holy lands.