By Marny Lombard
We strolled down Istanbul’s Istakliel Avenue amid fashionable young Turkish couples. Decorative lights crowned the pedestrian avenue. With doors thrown wide, shops showcased high heels, hip clothes, sculpture, jewelry, artwork, books, music, the distinctive ice cream of Turkey. We found ourselves in the heart of a city of 14 million people and 1,700 years of history.
Twenty Zags and honorary Zags, plus one Whitworth Pirate gathered this June in Turkey for two weeks of exploration and adventure. Were we ready to be woken at dawn by the muezzin chanting the call to prayer from the neighborhood mosque? Ready to enter the Hagia Sophia, which early visitors thought must be heaven itself? Ready to travel through a moderate Moslem republic, economically strong and culturally diverse, with a guide who was at once a Turk and a Gonzaga University alumnus?
We certainly were.
Many of us anticipated this would be the trip of a lifetime. What we didn’t realize was how deeply colored our experience in Turkey would be by Gonzaga. In some respects, we underwent a Gonzaga immersion. We began as timid freshmen/tourists. Sixteen days later, we emerged with an exuberance and energy produced by our shared learning. Our experiences created among us a tight-knit community with an appreciation for the different ways in which humanity has sought to live, to worship and to flourish.
Our lecturing scholar was Gonzaga’s Andrew Goldman, associate professor of classical civilizations. His lectures wove history, culture, art and tales from his 20 summers of archeological digs in Turkey. Our spiritual leader was Father Ken Krall, S.J., who freely shared a sense of peace, joy and laughter. Our guide, Aydin Aygun, is a native Turk, who, along with his business partner Patrick Olson, earned a master’s degree at Gonzaga. Aydin and Patrick, partners in Eon Tours, first met and became friends in Father Krall’s 8 a.m. Greek class. But that’s another story.
Our first evening, we followed Aydin, easy to spot in his orange jersey, as led us through the crowds. Four-story banners hung from buildings facing onto wide-open Taksim Square. One banner celebrated Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Erdogan, then running for re-election. The other touted a rock star. That first evening and many meals thereafter we ate outside. The Turks love their shade. And their conviviality. And their food, which is served in many small courses called meze.
Our group was tantalized, at once jetlagged and beguiled by the buzz of Istanbul. For the next two days we saw the ancient landmarks: the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Istanbul Museum, repeatedly gathering to listen to Aydin describe Turkish history, with these enormous sweeps of empires, invaders and cultures clashing and evolving over hundreds of years.
Originally an Eastern Orthodox church, then a mosque and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia appears as a confection of domes floating upon domes. Its architects are said to have referred to Archimedes’ mathematics, and its interior height surpasses Westminster Abbey’s by 60 feet.
Some in our group were mesmerized by the architectural details. The pendentives, for instance – those charming triangular curved sections that provide a base for the domes. Or the glimmering mosaics of Mary, Jesus and John the Baptist. For me, the telling detail of the Hagia Sophia and other ancient buildings and ruins we visited lay in the thresholds – marble thresholds that once must have been as stout as concrete blocks, worn through the centuries into sinuous curves. That spoke to me most eloquently of the people and the hard work that made Turkey what it is today – an amalgam of East and West.
Turks see themselves as both Eastern and Western. Aydin emphasized this point. Turkey’s history involves the Persians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Balkans. What was once eastern Greece is now western Turkey. All of this in a nation the size of Texas.
Lunch with a village family that bakes flatbread in an outdoor oven used by all of the village women? We did that. We hiked through Cappadocia’s valleys dotted with fairy chimneys – eroded, almost lunar, towers of volcanic ash, from which were carved early Christian churches. Exploring those still existing churches made real to us the painstaking faith of ancient worship – and brought out the punster in Father Krall: “Is that a one-hump monastery?” he quipped.
Each day brought, yes, the early call to prayer – at 4 a.m., no less. But we savored fresh delights, too. We learned some of the characteristic differences between the Eastern Orthodox Catholic Church and the Roman Catholic Church. While our tradition portrays the crucifixion as the dominant vision of Jesus, the Eastern Orthodox tradition portrays Jesus, flanked by the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist. Their faces and the faces of Saint Basil and others, sometimes marred, sometimes perfect, looked down on us from the ceilings of the intimate little carved-out churches.
We discovered that the smallest excavations in Cappadocia’s rock formations – rows of tiny carved areas – were designed as pigeon roosts, allowing local farmers to gather guano for fertilizer. Farmers still work those tiny valleys, raising vegetables and fruits. We learned that Turks are exuberant in their welcome for Americans, and that Turkish ice cream can have an almost elastic quality, if it is made with powdered orchid root .
On the 10th day of our trip, we arrived at the harbor of Fethiye, where hundreds of sailboats hugged up to the docks. Waiting for us to board was a traditional Turkish gulet – a two-masted sailing boat outfitted for pleasure cruising, with a crew of five and accommodations to match. We rested, we swam – yes, in the Mediterranean Sea. We joined for Mass in the fore-cabin. Oh, and how we ate. Dinners on deck stretched hours over conversation and marathon joke-telling sessions.
We broke bread. We became friends. We created community.
High points kept coming all the way through our journey. We explored the ruins of Perge without another soul in sight, just a tortoise or two in the early evening cool. And we enjoyed a fine day at Ephesus, where Paul based his ministry for almost three years. Amid Roman ruins that have been under excavation since 1863, with the hot Mediterranean sun on our backs, our Moslem guide held up his Bible and read to us from Acts, relating the story of Paul at Ephesus.
Given all things – the Arab Spring and the years of grief and international tension surrounding 9/11 – it was quite a moment.
Only to be topped that afternoon, when Father Krall gently celebrated Mass with us on the grounds of the House of Mary, not far from Ephesus, where it is believed she lived her last years.
Gonzaga’s Alumni Office organized this trip for alumni, faculty and staff through Eon Tours. Gonzaga’s Alumni Director Bob Finn plans to offer another alumni trip to Turkey in June 2013.