Wednesday, July 17, 2013

10/11 News Central Nebraska Story on NEH Trip to Istanbul

Here's a story that aired on the evening of July 16, 2013 regarding my National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute in Istanbul.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Ramadan Reflections

Picture taken at sunset on the first night of Ramadan.

Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, serves as month of fasting, prayer, and sacrifice for Muslims around the world.  As one of the Five Pillars of Islam, it lies at the heart of Muslim tradition.  The dates of this month change from year to year on the Gregorian calendar due to the Islamic calendar's foundation in lunar phases which means that Ramadan moves roughly eleven days earlier each year.  This year in Istanbul, Ramadan started at sunset on Monday, July 8.

Since finding out that I would be traveling to Istanbul, I have been absolutely thrilled with the prospect of being in Istanbul for the first few days of Ramadan.  Ramadan is something that is discussed in the classes I teach and students always have lots of questions about how Ramadan works.  In the past, I have taught my students the fundamentals, as I best understood them.  Basically, I focused on the fact that many Muslims abstain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan.  Many try to eat and drink something before sunrise and the beginning of morning prayers, as well as break the fast with large family or community meals after sunset.  Ramadan is a month of prayer, fasting, and avoiding other vices and sinful practices.  More than anything else, it is an opportunity to sacrifice, practice self-control, develop greater awareness of the challenges of the poor and hungry, and deepen one's personal relationship with God.

Students are always fascinated with the challenges of such a lengthy period of daily fasting.  In particular, they realized that depending on the calendar, Ramadan can fall during the long daylight hours of the summertime (like this year) or require significant shorter days of fasting in the winter.  We do discuss that fasting is something that can be found in many world religions and also draw the parallel between Ramadan and the fasting/sacrifices of the Lenten season in the Christian tradition.

However, the reason that I wanted to write this blog entry is due to the fact that I've learned so much about the culture and customs that surround the month of Ramadan here in the Istanbul area.  Here are some observations:

  • Ramadan creates an incredible sense of community.  This becomes clear when one witnesses the iftar or fast-breaking meal.  As sunset nears, people begin to gather in parks, squares and other communal spaces throughout the city to share in a meal together.  Many bring a picnic dinner and have everything set out and ready for when the local mosque or TV announces that the fast has ended for the day.  For many, the first thing they do is open a bottle of water and drink for the first time in 15-16 hours.  It has been profoundly moving to watch hundreds or even thousands of families begin eating and drinking at exactly the same time.  In addition to families, I've seen construction coworkers, waiters, and others working together prepare and break the fast together before they get back to their duties.   

    Thousands breaking the fast together in the Hippodrome.

  • Ramadan entails a tremendous degree of sacrifice, but also incorporates a feeling of celebration each evening.  It is very cyclical in that sense.  This appears to be one area wherein the Christian season of Lent and Islamic season of Ramadan differ.  Lent is a 40-day linear season of sacrifice and prayer that leads to Easter, while the cycle of fasting/breaking fast occurs each and everyday during Ramadan.  That distinction being drawn, it is important to note that Ramadan and Lent share much in common with regards to being seasons of increased prayer, attention to proper behavior, and increased attention given to charitable works and contribution.

  • While I can't comment on other cities throughout the Islamic world, the mosques, public spaces, and businesses of Istanbul very much embrace Ramadan with formal celebration.  I've witnessed the lights hung on the minarets of mosques around the city, as well as the lights spelling holiday greetings that span the space between minarets.  I've seen public spaces in the hippodrome and at Taksim Square where massive iftar feasts have been prepared to feed thousands.  Nearly every green space in the city is prepared for the picnics of families.  There is even a craft market that opened in the Hippodrome during Ramadan full of artisan crafts, baklava, Turkish Delight, ice cream, and other snacks.  On Istiklal Street, a trolley transports "Ramadan Rock Bands" up and down the street to entertain people.  Near my hotel, a small amphitheater presents concerts or other entertainment programs each night.  Finally, restaurants throughout the city may be a bit slower throughout the day as people are fasting, but many have special iftar fixed menus that include soup, bread, dates, olives, salad, rice, meat dish, desert, and tea for a set price.  Even fast food restaurants like McDonald's make special accommodations during Ramadan to open at 2:00am or 3:00am in the morning so that people can eat before the sun rises.
Entrance to the Craft Bazaar on the Hippodrome.

Soup, salad, and appetizer portion of a fixed menu iftar meal at a cafe on Istiklal Street.

Part of the iftar fixed menu meal I had included Kofte (lamb and beef meatballs).

McDonald's make accommodations throughout the city to open early enough for people to eat before the fast begins.

In witnessing the first few days of Ramadan here in Istanbul, I have to say that I have a whole new appreciation for the depth of sacrifice, but also the incredible sense of togetherness and celebration brought about by the season.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Hagia Sophia: Church? Mosque? Museum?

Hagia Sophia

In 532 A.D., Emperor Justinian began the process of building arguably the greatest structure of late classical antiquity.  Even more astounding is that the Hagia Sophia or Church of Holy Wisdom was completed in only five years.  Since then, this structure has seen the rise and fall of empires, as well as weathered the forces of nature for nearly 1500 years.  It's dome has collapsed and been replaced due to earthquake, while the immense weight of the building has required massive reinforcement.

Buttresses added later to support massive walls and domes.

In addition to the structural challenges this building has faced, the historical transition from the Byzantine Empire to Ottoman Empire to the modern state of Turkey has seen this building undergo massive change in use throughout the years.  During the Byzantine era, it stood as one of the greatest churches in all of Christendom.  However, in 1453, Mehmet II the Conqueror defeated what was left of the Byzantine resistance and began establishing his imperial capital in the city.  Hagia Sophia was indeed a great treasure, so he converted the building to a mosque, preserving much of the original architecture, but adding minarets, and over time, many of the legendary Byzantine mosaics were covered as Arabic calligraphy and Quranic verse became the ornamentation of choice within it's soaring walls and domes.  Finally, after the fall of the Ottomans shortly after World War I and the establishment of the modern state of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), the Hagia Sophia's role changed once more into that of a secular museum that sought to preserve the best of all previous traditions.

Christian and Islamic features are present throughout the Hagia Sophia.
Today, the Hagia Sophia continues to serve as a museum to the thousands that walk under its massive domes everyday.  It is arguably the best preserved classical era building in the world, and yet, preservation, restoration, and repair are nearly constant.  At 1500 years old, this incredible structure needs a great deal of attention.

Scaffolding draws attention to current restoration efforts.
The obvious physical repairs needed are one thing, but they are complicated by the fact that it isn't always so clear what exactly should be preserved.  Do the restoration efforts focus on Byzantine Christian murals or the Islamic features of the Ottoman era?  What layers of history within the building should be preserved?  In addition, there are discussions among small Christian and Muslim groups who would like to see the Hagia Sophia again serve their communities as a house of worship.  In that case, does it become a church or a mosque?  How would a transition back into a house of worship impact religion and politics in the city of Istanbul?  Interesting questions that are terribly difficult to answer, but I did come across a pretty fascinating article from Smithsonian that outlines the complexities of this 1500 year wonder of architecture and belief.  Interested?  Check out "A Monumental Struggle to Preserve Hagia Sophia"

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Watching the World Go By at Pierre Loti

A small lull in the pedestrian traffic as the tram goes by the cafe where I'm working.
So while our hotel's internet access has proven to be one of the great mysteries surrounding the city of Istanbul, I have finally found the alternative I have been looking for.  Tonight, I sit in a nearby cafe on the busiest street in Sultanamet.  As I type, tweet, post to Facebook, load and organize photos, and otherwise control my little digital empire, the whole world (or at least half of Istanbul) seems to go by.

After being here for about ten days, I feel like it is possible to be a bit more reflective about what I've seen and experienced.  This post may seem like a wide variety of disconnected ideas, but here are some observations from the last week and a half in Istanbul.

Ability to Navigate (and Function) within the City
Istanbul is a chaotic, busy, and frequently loud place.  Upon arrival last week, the sheer masses of people, as well as the constant barrage of hawkers promising terrific deals on carpets, souvenirs, or food, made one wonder if there was any peace to be found within the city.  It felt like you couldn't walk five feet without being literally asked in a good-natured way, "How can I rip you off today, sir?".

Fast forward to today...the geography of the city lends itself to incredible walk-ability provided one avoids the trams, cars, pedestrians, and other obstacles.  Distances across various parts of the city are not vast.  In addition, the great mosques, monuments, and the sea provide excellent landmarks to orient oneself.  As my mental map of the city has become increasingly refined, I've noticed that the hawkers pay less attention to me as I walk with far more of a purpose than earlier in the program.

Good Nature and Humor
I truly have encountered incredible hospitality throughout the city.  While many times outreach may be tied to the prospect of financial profit, I have found the assistance to be rather genuine.  A friend of mine in this program wanted to buy a public transit card, but didn't know where to purchase one.  She asked a young man, and he escorted our group to several small shops that were supposed to sell them.  Each one was sold out, but he persisted until we found the card she was looking for.  He stood to gain nothing in this venture, but just wanted to help.  I've seen museum security guards sneak into and "photobomb" pictures, smiling and laughing the entire time.  I've also seen these same museum guards invite small children to play and splash in small fountains.  Hoping to share in this spirit, I felt like I'd achieved pseudo-local status today when I helped a tourist find where he was at in the city.

Plain, Unsweetened Yogurt: The Perfect Compliment to Kebab!

Chicken kebab wrapped in bread with tomatoes, peppers, and yogurt

Throughout this trip, I've tried eat as wide a variety of dishes as possible.  It took over a week, but I've finally discovered the wonders of plain, unsweetened yogurt on seasoned lamb or chicken.  Think of it as a slightly more healthy (I hope!) sour cream covering everything.  Does it get any better?  The food has been fantastic, and I couldn't be more happy to have another week and a half of Turkish food.

Historical Revelations
Obviously, my time spent here in Istanbul is supposed to be about the role of this city as a crossroads of East and West.  To that end, I am thrilled at how much I've learned about the Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Venetians, Genoese, and others who impacted this city and course of world history.  This is a city with layers upon layers of history, and through the help of incredible teachers, readings, and site visits, we've begun to peel back the layers.  The beauty in trying to understand this world, including the past, present, and future, is when patterns and connections start to take shape.  Just looking out from the terrace of my hotel over breakfast, one can see a Byzantine Church (Hagia Sophia) turned mosque, turned museum, with the incredible Blue Mosque sitting beside it.  In front, is the Roman Hippodrome, and across the Golden Horn is the Genoese Galata Tower.  Seemingly everyone has left an imprint on this city.  Tracing these developments not only makes the past infinitely more comprehensible, but also helps make sense of current issues facing this city, country, and larger world.  Next week, we begin looking more at those modern Turkish issues, but even informal conversations has begun to shed light on the opportunities and challenges of the present.

The Journey Continues...