Early Christianity in modern Muslim Turkey

Drinking from the fountain at the Virgin Mary’s house in Ephesus (Pic A)

The citadels where the early Christians built their churches (Pic B).

That’s me emerging from one of the narrow corridors in an underground shelter that the early Christians used to hide from marauding raiders.

Today is Good Friday. It’s the day when Christians all over the world remember the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. It was his final act of humanity while on planet Earth. It means that he lived the human existence to its natural end. When we remember his crucifixion we are reminded that he suffered mortality like all of us do and that we can now relate to him as a human being.

Easter, which we Christians celebrate on the Sunday following Good Friday is when we celebrate His entire existence because He rose from the dead. A man can’t do that but God can and He did.  His resurrection is the hope on which all of Christianity is built. It’s the hope that in the man and God, Jesus Christ, we can live out our mortality by faith in Him who can help us every day and raise us up to Him after death. That’s what Christians mean by “having eternal life”.

It’s a faith that has survived for more than 2000 years. Going on the Turkey tour two weeks ago we visited a couple of places where the early Christians lived. The country was then known as Asia Minor and covers most of present-day Turkey.

Two places particularly caught my attention. The first was in Selcuk, the Turkish name for Ephesus. It is a poor area of Turkish peasants who make a living selling souvenirs to tourists who come to see a well-preserved underground shelter that the early Christians took refuge in from marauding raiders.

It amazes me that faith could drive people to tolerate such extreme deprivations. The early Christians hid in these small underground caves linked by low narrow corridors. I would have died of claustrophobia! But they survived! And faith kept going!

The other place was in the Goreme National Park in Cappodacia. It’s a huge beautiful area of volcanic formations (no volcanic activity in Turkey now) known as citadels. They are mounds of volcanic rock in which the early Christians built their churches. There are many such mounds in the park. The citadels have holes for windows (see Pic B).

Many of the citadels are empty of relics except for one which preserved some of the relics that the early Christians used. I don’t have any pic of that because its entrance was a bit too high for me.

The early Christians also buried their dead in these churches for fear that their enemies and raiders would destroy the bodies which would mean that they won’t have their bodies when they rose again.

This was a fear they had. The Biblical truth is that our bodies when we rise after death will take on different forms.

Another stop on the tour that shows Turkey’s Christian past is the Virgin Mary’s house, also in Ephesus. It’s a small cottage surrounded by towering trees through which the wind blows rustling the leaves. It’s a beautiful place, quiet and serene. We can’t take pictures in the cottage but outside there’s a fountain with water that has been running since the time Mary lived there. That’s me drinking from the fountain (Pic A).

Turkey is full of history and there are many excavated sites where ancient structures have been unearthed and preserved. It’s a beautiful country with snow-capped mountains and resource-rich agricultural lowlands. It enjoys a Mediterranean climate and Turkish oranges are one of the best I’ve tasted! It’s sweet with just a slight tinge of tanginess.

Turkey’s modern history is also very interesting. It’s the only Muslim nation in the world which is secular. It was established as a republic after its founder Mustafar Kemal Ataturk fought against the sultanate of the Ottoman empire and won. He proceeded to introduce legislation to ensure separation of state from religion. As a result, he made it a law that Turkish women would not be forced to wear the hijab. The majority of modern-day Turkish women don’t wear the hijab.

He also made it law that Turks could only have one spouse. When it comes to fasting and other religious practices, no one is forced. Turks can marry anyone from any religion and that person is not forced to convert. Religion is regarded as a personal matter and left to the individual to choose.

The current government is backed by religious factions and they want to bring back some of the religious practices that Ataturk set aside to make the government secular. That tension between secular and religious Muslims continues.

But, when you walk the streets of Istanbul (formerly known as Constantinople, the capital of the Roman/Byzantine empire and later the Ottoman empire) and the current capital, Ankara, you see modern cities and modern people in modern attire. Less than 10% wear Islamic-type clothes.

It tells you that Islam can be a modern-day religion, if its adherents choose it to be so.

Modest belly dancing at a Turkish restaurant

There’s Sufi Islam in Turkey. Here’s a dance as they pray.

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