Catholic Muslim Pilgrimage – Day 7 (19 April): “O What a Lovely Morning!”

That was Bishop Prowse’s comment as the Christian delegation made its way back from its outing to mass this morning. Let me tell you about it.

At Breakfast, I greeted everyone with a cheery “Happy Easter!” It took a while to dawn on everyone that it was Easter Sunday in the East – ie. here. “Happy Divine Mercy Sunday”, responded Bishop Prowse. “If you are in Poland, my Lord”, I responded. “No, no, it is a universal feast”, he said. “I didn’t know we had cancelled the Second Sunday of Easter,” said Fr John Pearce.

We Christians got on the bus to travel to the Cathedral of St Esprit (ie. the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit) at 8am. On the way, Denis led us in Morning Prayer. I led the song, since I had the text of the traditional carol for the Sunday after Easter, O Filii et Filiae, on my iPAQ. All nine verses with the others on the bus joinging in on the Alleluia chorus.

We arrived outside a high wall with iron gates with the papal crest on them. Otherwise there was no sign that what was inside was a Church. Inside we entered a large courtyard with a larger than life statue of the hapless worker for peace, Benedict XV (who reigned during the First World War and received no thanks for his efforts to broker peace between the warring parties). I bought a few trinkets – cloth icons of St Paul for the children and a very nice rosary bracelet for myself, which I asked Bishop Prowse to bless later on over lunch.

We met the head of the Salesian Order that has lived there since 1903, and then went inside the Church. By chance, the Apostolic Vicar, Bishop Louis Pelatre, was present. I had written to him before the Pilgrimage and received an answer (in French) to say that he would not be able to meet with us because he would be at the Fanar with the Ecumenical Patriarch for the Easter celebrations today. However, it turned out that he had a special French pilgrimage group for whom he had agreed to say mass at the odd time of 8:50am. So our bishop and priests arranged to say mass with him (or at least Fr John Dupuche said mass while the others participated silently). Fr John read the readings in French also. Bishop Pelatre was not able to stay with us to greet us afterwards as he was in a great hurry for his appointment at Fanar. Bishop Prowse stayed to greet the English congregation gathering for 9:30am mass – mostly Filipino and African workers, but a few Americans and one or two Australians.

We then prevailed upon our guide Kadir to take us to the Church of Our Saviour in the Country – known usually as “The Chora“. This church, of ancient origin, was rebuilt in 10th Century, and restored in the 13th. Although used as a mosque in the Ottoman period, many amazing mosaics and fresco icons survive. Today, of course, it is a museum.

This is a truly breathtaking church, which gives us some idea of what Sancta Sophia might have been like in its hey day. Few of the mosaics in the interior of the Church remain but the two narthexes are richly decorated with story cycles from the life of Christ, and a side narthex has the most stunning icons of the harrowing of hell.

I had not come here on my first trip to Istanbul in 2007, and our local guide, Kadir, was unaware of its existence. Yet there was a good sized crowd of tourists about. We were lucky to have Anne and Anita with us to alert us to the necessity of making this visit, which will truly linger as a high point of the pilgrimage. I must say that I felt very sad to be in this Church and to see the damage that it had suffered during its conversion into a mosque. I wanted to sing the “Rorate Coeli” inside (but did not have the words) as I think that it is a suitable lament for this building, especially these verses (originally refering to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem):

Do not be very angry, O Lord, neither remember iniquity for ever: thy holy cities are a wilderness, Zion is a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation: our holy and our beautiful house where our fathers praised you.
2. We have sinned & are become as one unclean: and we have fallen as a faded leaf: and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away. You have hidden your face far from us: and have consumed us because of our iniquities.

Outside, I bought some bookmark souveniers, and sat with the others for a cup of sahlep (which we really must import into Melbourne coffee houses).

Arriving back at the hotel, I had ten minutes to do some laundry and get back on the bus to go out with the whole group (the Muslims had spent the morning at the local Haman – the Turkish baths) for our cruise on the Bosphorus. We had a quick lunch of pide sandwiches, and then climbed on board our own private charted boat. It was a calm and pleasant day – not too hot nor sunny – and we all had a chance to relax and have some fun. Sunday in Istanbul sees everyone coming out of their houses in family groups to gather in the parks along the shore – many of them fishing for their lunches or dinners. At least one vestige of our Christian heritage survives in Turkey – the celebration of this weekly day of rest!

Later on, when we were on the tram travelling to the Topkapi palace, Albert demonstrated his knowledge of the criminal classes by picking the back pack of a member of our team. With great ease he opened the zips and pulled out the passport without him feeling a thing. When the poor victim discovered his loss, he naturally went into a panic, but Heba had mercy on him and told him Albert had it. A good warning for taking care once we get to Rome!

As we were getting off the boat, I commented to Orhan that I had a sore backside from sitting in the bus so much over the last week, and that in Rome, the pain would shift to our feet as we walked just about everywhere. He responded that he would rather have pain in his backside than in his feet, to which I responded “Yes, maybe, but there has never been a saying about something being a pain in the foot.”

We made our way to the Palace only to find that they were already closing for the day. At first we negotiated that we could get into the Church of Holy Peace (Hagia Eirene), the oldest Church in Constantinople and the scene of the Second Ecumenical Council, the First Council of Constantinople (I don’t know if the Second Council of Constantinople was held in this church in 553 – do you?), but then we were told we would have to come back in the morning for this too.

Waiting outside for the bus to arrive, the muezzins started the afternoon call to prayer. One of the Muslims said that it was strange that the call was coming from one of the minarets of Hagia Sophia. Then we noticed that there were men entering a small door on the building attached to the side of the Church. Intrigued, we entered and found a small mosque with men praying in it. Others entered, including the rest of our Muslim delegation, and then an imam came out to lead the prayers. Our own Prof. Ismail led the chanting of the Koran. We stood at the back and quietly observed the prayer after the manner of Benedict XVI. Some Christians in our group, however, found the idea of Muslim prayer taking place in this ancient place of Christian worship a little too painful – especially considering that it is not possible for us to have Christian prayer in this great Church. Upon further inquiry, however, we discovered that these rooms were not a part of the original Church, but a later Ottoman addition which was the Carriage House and arrival point of the Sultan for prayer in the Aya Sophia Mosque. There were extra rooms into which we were shown that have yet to be restored, adjoining and entering into the main building. Apparently about 20 years ago, there was a strong push from Muslims in the community for the whole building to be returned to its previous use as Mosque. Refusing this request, the Government granted a compromise that they could use this extension for a prayer room. Would it not be a great guesture, I proposed, if Christians too had a prayer room on the site somewhere? Some of the Muslims said, Ah, but remember Cordoba – while others readily agreed that such an action would show that that Turkey was truly ready to embrace religious freedom as a prerequisite for entry into the EU. Something to think about. Most were skeptical of the idea, but I said that we could dream of the future and then let God do what he willed in his own time.

For dinner tonight we split into three groups and went to private homes. A group comprising Orhan, Mustafa, Ikebal, Stewart and Charlotte, Denis, John and myself ate at the home of Ismail and Layla Citak. Ismail owns a chain of kebab stores in South East Asia. From their fourth story appartment building we had a wonderful view of the Marmara Sea. Ismail is a leading member of PASIAD (our hosts) and had visited Melbourne recently with his wife on one of Mehmet Ali Sengul’s visits. I was especially interested by a drink that they served us: fermented “purple carrot” (beetroot?) juice with hot chillis in it. Fermented? Yes, apparently this is allowed as long as no alcohol forms. I thought that alcohol begins forming the moment something starts fermenting, but apparently I am wrong.

It was the usual strange arrangement (strange to us, anyway) where the women do not eat with the men, and the man of the house waits on us at the table. Charlotte spent her time with the women eating in the kitchen. Ismail Citak eventually joined us and the discussion turned to the kebab business and sourcing halal meat. Ikebal said that this is a real problem in Australia as many of the companies claiming to sell halal meat are not properly halal or halal at all. He sees this as a major trade issue for Australia in selling halal meat overseas as well as at home. Denis asked questions about what it meant to be “clean” in Islam, and the practice of taking shoes off to pray in the mosque. Was there any symbolic spiritual meaning to this? Apparently not, except that it allowed for one to pray in a clean place. What about clean and unclean food? Then we got onto a discussion of the history of the way in which the laws against (for eg.) eating pork were relaxed in the Christian religion.

The time to go home and pack came quickly. We said our farewells and then waited for the bus to pick us up. At the hotel, while packing, Max and I ordered a small bottle of red wine (spelled “whine” on the drinks list). I did whine a bit at both the cost (10 euros = $20 for a half bottle) and the quality of the wine. If this is what was generally drunk in Eastern lands, no wonder the Muslim religion banned it! My Muslim friends thought this a good joke, and wondered what would have happened if Australian red wine had been readily available in 7th Century Arabia.

We sat on the terrace and smoked as we checked our emails and wrote letters etc. (blogged in my case). Everyone is coming down with colds on the trip – we blame Mehmet who had it first, but it was to be expected. Tomorrow we fly to Rome in the Afternoon, and then I take over as organiser of the pilgrimage. A daunting prospect, but one for which I have been preparing for 12 months, and intensely so in the last 3 months.

Time to go to bed and get some rest now. Gwenda is threating to take my batteries out!

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2 responses to “Catholic Muslim Pilgrimage – Day 7 (19 April): “O What a Lovely Morning!”

  1. Pax

    Thanks for sharing your journey with us David. It is wonderful to hear of places we may never be able to visit ourselves in such detail and in the context of a pilgrim group.

  2. Thanks for sharing your experiences David!
    It’s been 2 years since my first Easter in Rome, and it was quite incredible. Haven’t quite made it to Turkey yet, but please God I will get there sooner, rather than later.
    In answer to your question, a quick search revealed that the Second Council was held in the Great Hall attached to the Cathedral.