an excerpt from my humorous travel
Sun, Strong Tea. (The
previous episode is Champagne
in the Air.)
I returned to Istanbul,
but I spent little time in my apartment.
Istanbul to me was the Hippodrome,
the historic center of the old city.
I stopped in at the Blue
Mosque, as I still do, just to
sit for a few minutes in its sacred
The Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I (built
1606-1616) contains a visual tip-of-the-hat
from its architect, Sedefkar Mehmet
Aga, to the architects of Ayasofya (Hagia
Sophia) who worked their miracle a
thousand years earlier.
people realize this among the crowds
of tourists who enter it once in
their lives to marvel at its grandeur,
or among the crowds of locals who
pray there every day. I think of
it as the Magic
of the Blue Mosque.
discovered the Magic, Mehmet Aga's
salute to Anthemius of Tralles and
Isidorus of Miletus, one day as I
approached the mosque from the Hippodrome,
walking slowly through the gate in
the outer wall, complete with its
hanging chains that forced horsemen
to dismount when entering the holy
precinct. I looked ahead and my eye
rose up the broad staircase and penetrated
the tall portal of the mosque courtyard.
Through the portal in the center
of the courtyard was the domed sadirvan (ablutions fountain). Above its dome
rose another dome, the one atop the
main portal into the mosque sanctuary.
I approached the steps and climbed
them slowly, looking ahead, watching
in amazement as dome after dome appeared above the two I had already noticed.
A cascade of domes and semi-domes
billowed heavenward until the mosque's
great dome appeared triumphantly
I entered the courtyard the two slender
minarets flanking the mosque shot
heavenward insistently: Up! Look
two great buildings, Ayasofya and
Mosque, stand beside one
another on the Hippodrome, separated
only by a small park. They are both
entered from the same direction.
In one, the visitor's eye
is lifted heavenward inside, in the
on the outside: master architects
conversing across a millennium.
walked across the courtyard and approached
the west door of the mosque, which
was reserved for Muslims (tourists
used the north door). An old man
smiled and pointed toward the north
door, but I said a few words in Turkish and
he chuckled an excuse-me-I-didn't-know-you-were-a-Turk.
(At that time it was accepted without
question that no foreigner spoke
Turkish, so I must be a Turk.)
was not prayer time, so there were
only a few people in the mosque performing
their "catch-up" prayers for ones
they had missed earlier. I carefully
avoided walking in front of them.
I had been taught that the strictest
Muslims didn't like anyone walking
in front of them at prayer because
it might be misinterpreted that they
were praying to the person in front
of them instead of to God.
found a quiet place near one of the
massive marble pillars and sat down
in the traditional position, legs
folded beneath me. I closed my eyes
and listened to the stillness, the
soft padding of stockinged feet on
rich carpets, hushed movement and
rustle of garments as a few men performed
their ritual genuflexions. God-rays,
colored by the stained glass windows
above the mihrab (prayer niche),
pierced the still air, illuminated
floating motes of dust, then blazed
on the floor.
a few minutes I was conscious of
someone approaching and sitting down
near me. The mosque was nearly empty,
so he must have approached on purpose.
I looked his way. He nodded. I nodded
was young and relatively tall, with
black hair and moustache, and a smiling,
speak Turkish," he said in Turkish,
half as an exclamation, half as a
old man must have told him.
you a Turk? Where are you from?"
And you speak Turkish? Amazing!" he
said. "Good for you!"
was carrying the sort of big leather
open-mouthed satchel that mailmen
carry all over the world.
a mailman?" I asked.
yes. Are you a tourist? A soldier?" These
were the two most likely possibilities.
I'm a teacher," I said, choosing
not to get involved in I'm-writing-a-guidebook-but-I've-just-started,
etc. "I've been teaching at a school
good! You have come to teach us?
sat in silence for a moment, enjoying
the peace and vastness of the holy
"Uh,...." Pause. "Are
you a Christian?" he asked hesitantly,
approaching the topic as delicately
as possible. He was embarrassed,
and I was embarrassed by his embarrassment,
by his having raised one of the three
topics—politics, sex, religion—which
must be approached delicately anywhere
in the world. He might as well have
asked "Was that fart yours?"
any young person out in the world
searching for the meaning of life
is liable to have complicated religious
loyalties, but it was easiest to
give him the answer he expected,
which was... "Yes."
good." Pause. "Yes, Christianity.
It is good. Judaism, too. All good." Pause.
He pondered his strategy.
you know that the Prophet
Abraham and the Prophet
Jesus are sacred
to Muslims? Mary, too. And Saint
Peter. And Saint
Paul. And the Jewish
saints and lots of other saints.
Of course the Prophet Muhammed is
the last and greatest of the prophets.
We have lots of saints in Islam,
Muslim saints. We revere the Bible.
It is a holy book, like the Holy
Kur'an. And the Torah too. It is
holy. But the Kur'an is the final
book, the best of all."
paused, gathering strength for The
you ever considered becoming a Muslim?
It would be good. We would welcome
looked at the mailman. Careful, careful....
I'll think it over, but at the moment
I'm fine being what I am."
Fine!" he said. "Yes, of course!
I just wanted you to know about Islam.
Perhaps you will think it over, and
you will see. Judaism came
first, then Christianity, and finally Islam,
the last and best.
the good things in those earlier
religions are in Islam. Think about
it: we have all your saints...and
quantitative approach to faith!
shook hands. He got to his feet.
your stay in Turkey," he said, smiling. "Thank
you for coming to teach us. I wish
you all the best."
walked away to a quiet spot, raised
his hands in supplication to heaven,
and began his prayers.
here to order an autographed
copy of the book online with
credit card or PayPal.
from Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong
Tea copyright © 2004 by
Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.)
Blonde at the Circumcision Party)