Monday morning, the last day of the first leg of our pilgrimage, and the day that I am due to take over as pilgrimage organiser.
We boarded the bus and headed straight off to the Topkapi palace once again – this time with the major objective of seeing the inside of the Hagia Eirene Church within the grounds of the palace. (On the way, I was amused to see a shop full of busts and statues of Ataturk. I guess they have to buy them from somewhere! Greg Barton commented that if we were playing the popular Turkish travel game of “Spot the Ataturk”, that shop would have been a winning score.)
Hagia Eirene (wrongly marked as the Church of St. Eirene on the information plaque outside – the name translates as the Church of Holy Peace) was the site of both the First (381 AD) and Second (531 AD) Councils of Constantinople. It was the first Church built in Constantinople, although the present structure dates to the same age as the Hagia Sophia, and was also built by Justinian. I have seen one other Justinian church, the ruins of the Basilica of St John in Ephesus. The building was never used as a Mosque, serving mainly as a storage space during the Ottoman Empire. Today it is, like Hagia Sophia, classified as a museum, although it is rarely opened for visitors, and certainly never used for worship either by Muslims or Christians, but Orhan appears to have spoken to the right people to enable us access. A search on Google last night revealed that the interior decoration had been largely defaced not by Muslims but by the Christian Iconoclasts, who replaced the ornate mosaics over the apse with a plain painted cross which is still clearly visible.
It was fascinating and rather overwhelming to wander around this ancient place of worship. Anne, whose special area of study is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, explained the significance of this Church to the whole group. It was in this Church that the creed which the Christian Church recites every Sunday in every liturgy in (practically) every tradition – usually known as the Nicene Creed, but more correctly referred to as the Niceo-Constantinopolitan Creed – reached its final form, It was a highlight for the journey, and we marked our visit jointly in the most appropriate way imaginable for a pilgrimage such as ours. The acoustics were absolutely perfect – something that is not always obvious in these ancient buildings due to the usual (but here entirely absent) crowd of noisy tourists.
We then went to look quickly over the rest of the Palace complex. We went first to the relics hall, where we saw such wonders as the staff of Moses, the sword of David, the a piece of the skull and forearm of St John the Baptist, and the Sword and Beard of the Prophet. Once again, as with the discussion on the intercession of saints, we found that different traditions within Islam accord differing significances to relics. I found myself wondering if these relics were collected by the Muslims themselves or whether they were Christian relics which were captured by the Ottomans at the time of the invasion. The answer appears to be that they were in fact collected by the Ottomans themselves. I also found myself wondering whether the relic of the skull of John the Baptist that is supposed to be in the Mosque in Damascus has a large piece missing from it…
We looked around the gardens – resplendant in tulips – and the other major rooms before heading out to the offices of the Gülen movement inspired newspaper Zaman. We were fed lunch here and then given a tour of this very modern building and told about the work and distribution of the newspaper – which is a subscription paper and hence not dependant so much upon advertising. This means that its layout is very open and clean and easy to read. Like L’Osservatore Romano, Zaman is daily in the local language, but also comes in a number of weekly foreign language editions, including English (there is also an Australian edition) and is available on-line. It is a very readable newspaper – the English edition is written in English, not translated – and generally represents conservative views, but “balanced”, as the editors themselves claim.
At the steps outside of the Zaman office, before boarding the bus for the final trip to the airport, Bishop Prowse conducted a short “thank you” ceremony for Orhan and Emre and the other organisers and sponsors on the Turkey leg of our Pilgrimage. Emre and Greg left us at this point – they were going on to begin the AIS Gallipoli tour.
At the airport, there were the usual struggles getting onto the plane. Istanbul is one of the easiest Airports to arrive through and one of the hardest to leave, due to double security checks on baggage etc. The flight to Rome was short and uneventful, but excitement seemed to be mounting among the group.
Our joy at our arrival in the Rome airport, however, was tarnished by the inevitable realities of modern day international travel. Doing a head count at the baggage claim, I realised that one of our number was missing. In fact, she was on the other side of the customs desk through which we had all hurried – unable to locate her passport. Quick work on the part of several members of the team (requiring translation in both Turkish and Italian) soon located the missing document: it was still on the plane. At the same time another problem was becoming apparent: one of the couples on the tour had lost their baggage. This problem was not so easily fixed, and was to remain an issue for almost four days before the luggage was recovered – thanks largely to the persistent efforts of our official Italian translator, Fr Denis.
It was after 6:30 that we left the airport, which presented us with the difficulty that the Monastery of St Gregory – where we were staying – was shut down for prayers between 6:30 and 8:00pm. So on our bus transfer to the Monastery from the airport, we had to make new plans regarding the evening. In the end, we decided that the best thing to do was to unpack our luggage and leave some of the group to look over it at the doors of the Monastery, while the rest of us went to book our place at the pizzeria where we would have tea and to buy supplies for breakfast from the Supermarket.
Also on the bus, new protocols for leading the pilgrimage were put in place. From this point on, Bishop Prowse was our official “chaplain”, so that while I was chief organiser (or “chief cook and bottle washer”, as I usually describe my role) I was not the one having to make the final decisions or to convey them to the group as a whole. This was a situation with which I was entirely comfortable – and indeed grateful!
So Bishop Prowse welcomed everyone to Rome, and asked for prayers to be said, keeping in mind that this was a pilgrimage and not simply a study tour. This observance of prayer together had been a feature of our week in Turkey, but it was to take a more significant place in our days in Rome. Accordingly, both Anita and Mehment offered prayer for the new part of our journey.
Our plans for dinner and breakfast worked out well. On return from the shopping expedition, we were welcomed by the monks and by the Superior, Fr Innocent. We sorted out our rooms and heaved our bags up the staircases, before going out to the Li’Rioni Pizzeria in the Via del SS Quatro Coronati. This is where Cenap Aydan had taken Cathy and me on Good Friday, and it was enjoyed by all, although not without having to iron out a few of the expect food difficulties and concerns of some of the Muslims.
Food was always going to be an issue on this trip. Basically, if you are a Muslim travelling in Rome or if ever you are taking Muslim friends to Rome, the fact is that there are no halal restaurants. You can find takeaway kebab joints all over the place – but these are of doubtful authenticity as far as their halal certification goes. Still, most Muslims are happy to accept any proprietors claim to serving halal food – the fault lies with him if he is being deceptive. But generally our solution, wherever we went, was simply to order vegetarian food or fish dishes. The options for these are almost limitless. The only remaining difficulty is the concern some Muslims (also in our group) had with whether the same oven was used for cooking non-halal food (eg. pork) as the vegetarian dishes and whether the cutlery and plates had been properly (ie. three or seven times) washed since serving non-halal food. This was not a concern for all on our trip, but it was for some, and so for them the only option left was bread and salads for the entire week. That too does not necessarily mean that you will go hungry, as the Romans make great salads, but it does mean you will miss out on what Roman restaurants really have to offer. Nevertheless, I am told that about the only place on earth in which you will find a halal Italian restaurant is, in fact, in Australia, so…
As in Istanbul, so in Rome, I shared a room with Max. Both of us were delighted to declare the other a “non-snorer” and so our nights were relatively uninterrupted.