Catholic-Muslim Pilgrimage – Day Two (April 14): “Old Rome, New Rome”

I can’t quite get over this. One day I am sitting in an ancient monastery overlooking the forum and the Colosseum in Rome, the next day (or actually, the day after that – ie. today) I am sitting on the 5th floor roof of a very comfortable hotel on a hill in Old Istanbul in a soft sofa chair, smoking my pipe and overlooking the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. That is what I am doing right now, connected to the Hotel’s free wifi internet. Does it get any better?

Today the program for our tour group was a tour of the Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, the Cistern, and the Hagia Sophia with free time after lunch for exploring the district and the Bazaar.

I started the day very early again, as Ismail had asked me to join him for morning (ie. dawn) prayers in the Blue Mosque. Having been to the Mosque before, but during the day when lots of tourists were there, I thought I would take the opportunity. You can’t sleep after the muezzins get going any way, so I thought I would get up and join him. He was waiting outside my door, so I am glad that I did not disappoint him. It was nice down there at dawn, with the atmosphere something like early morning mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral. About 40 men and a few women showed up – some running to catch the start of prayer as the imam entered and began. I knelt behind the barrier at the back and used the time for quiet meditation and prayer myself.

Prayer in Islam is a little like the Daily Office in Catholicism. You can do it on your own, but it is better done together with others, and better still – at least from a spiritual sense – if done in a place of prayer. Dawn prayer in Islam is quite short and not compulsory, although Ismail tells me the Prophet was pretty hot on it. We all know that in this respect, he is in full agreement with Christian and Jewish tradition also.

Breakfast is a very big meal at the hotel, with a lovely buffet and lots of pastries and fruit and yoghurt and cheese and olives and bread etc. etc. I miss the Roman coffee though – I was getting used to my caffee latte hit first thing in the morning! The Muslim contingent of our pilgrimage are a bit concerned when they hear of Roman breakfast being just a coffee and a pastry or bread roll. I think we will stock up on yoghurt and fruit and cheese and bread and such for their rooms at the monastery so they can have something to eat before we have Roman Second Breakfast at a cafe later.

Visiting the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia was a good experience given that I had visited both before. This time I was less awed by my surroundings and could concentrate on the reactions of the other visitors – especially the Muslims who had not been to the Hagia Sophia before. I took lots of photos, but of the faces rather than the places. Last time (2007) I came home with many postcard like photos but few photos of either myself or the group that I had travelled with. This time I snapped continually at the group as they interacted with their surroundings.

The guide we had at the Hagia Sophia really was out of his depth. He began with his usual spiel on the history of Christianity (which was wildly inaccurate) and then felt embarrassed when he discovered he had professional Christian academics in front of him. Much the same as I would feel, I guess, if I tried to explain the history of Islam to a bunch of imams. He gave Bishop Prowse full marks for recognising the symbolism of the serpent… After he left we went upstairs and investigated the Mosaics. I am aware now that we really have to put San Clemente on the itinerary when we are in Rome, so that the full byzantine mosaic effect can be seen.

One place I had not been on my previous trip was down into the ancient underground Cistern, which is like an underground cathedral with water a metre deep on the floor (complete with gold fish the size of tuna).

I have to switch off now and come back in a minute. Bishop Prowse wants to celebrate mass and we are negotiating where we can do it and whether we can have wine in the hotel (currently the answer to the last question is no).

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