Holy Togetherness in Holy Peace

It seems to happen all too rarely--a communal event that inspires hope for our future. We'd like to tell you about one that we recently witnessed. It was an amazing religious/musical presentation in the Hagia Irene (Holy Peace) Church on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The inside is strikingly lighted, which is especially effective at night. The walls are bare, except for a large cross on the ceiling of the front dome, above the apse. Hagia Irene, the second largest Byzantine church after St. Sophia, dates from the year 360. It is used today as a classical music concert hall because of its excellent acoustics and mystical atmosphere.

 Greetings from Istanbul, Turkey! 

It seems to happen all too rarely--a communal event that inspires hope for our future. We'd like to tell you about one that we recently witnessed.

It was an amazing religious/musical presentation in the Hagia Irene (Holy Peace) Church on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. The inside is strikingly lighted, which is especially effective at night. The walls are bare, except for a large cross on the ceiling of the front dome, above the apse. Hagia Irene, the second largest Byzantine church after St. Sophia, dates from the year 360. It is used today as a classical music concert hall because of its excellent acoustics and mystical atmosphere.

The concert featured two groups. The first one was a 35-member men's choir, the "Lovers of Istanbul Music Who Live in Athens." They sang a cappella hymns and prayers from Greek Orthodox services. The music was almost like chanting, in minor keys, solemn and reverent. Dressed in black robes, the men were of all ages. Hagia Irene was packed with perhaps a thousand people for this event. Some of the compositions by the Greek choir were very old, from the 6th century, and it was thrilling to hear this music just as it must have been sung in the very same building fourteen centuries ago. What was also special was that it was the first time this choir appeared in Istanbul.

After the Greeks left the stage, a Turkish group came on called the "Association of Modern Lovers of Mevlana." This group presented their Sema ceremony, a worship ritual combining music, poetry, and dance. Westerners call these people "Whirling Dervishes" because of their twirling sacred dance. The Mevlana (or Mevlevi) followers are Islamic mystics who are organized around a charismatic leader, or sheikh. Their first such leader, Mevlana, is called Rumi in the West, where he is best known for his poetry and messages of love and tolerance. UNESCO has declared this year, 2007, as a special year of celebrations of Rumi's 800th birthday. The Hagia Irene concert took place in this context.

This Mevlana group (there are several in Turkey and throughout the world) consisted of both Muslim men and women in almost equal numbers, which is perhaps one of the innovative features that merits the term "modern." In their worship ritual there were the usual roles: the instrumentalists, the choir, the dancers, the dance master, and the sheikh. All participants seemed to be in their 20s and 30s, something which also evidences the term "modern," because the traditional Mevlana image is that of an elderly man.

As with the Christian Greek Choir presentation, the Islamic Mevlana ceremony was also done in great reverence. Everyone in the Mevlana group was dressed like the Greeks in black robes, but each participant additionally wore the traditional tall, brown, felt conical hat. When the sacred dance began the dancers took off their black robes, and we saw that their dancing costumes, which were traditional in shape, were in various colors for the women-pink, green, orange, blue-while the men wore the more traditional white. Each dancer slowly approached the sheikh for a blessing and then began to twirl in place, causing the skirt to billow out. The dancers' arms are held up at shoulder height, and the head slightly inclined to one side, in the traditional pose. They twirled like this for maybe 20 minutes, off and on. There were about a dozen twirlers, each holding the same pose, and it formed an impressive and colorful sight as the music-solemn, minor in key (like the Greeks) and mystical in tone-accompanied them. The theology is that the dancers are a metaphor for the innumerable cycles of nature and the universe. With one hand up and one hand down as they twirl, they symbolize the granting of God's blessings to the earth. (The accompanying photo shows a scene from the balcony:  http://www.milliyet.com/2007/12/03/yasam/yas02.html)

When the Mevlana group finished their ritual they did not leave the stage, but the Greek choir came back on and joined them. The Greeks then began to sing something sounding similar to their first presentation. The Mevlana instrumentalists accompanied them, while the dancers once again began to twirl. We were all astounded. The darkness outside the building, the grandeur of the ancient gigantic space inside, with its mystical atmosphere and lighting, the dignified minor key music, the chant-like singing, the repetitive twirling dance, the mixture of Greek and Turk, Christian and Muslim, all combined to make a mind-blowing experience. We feel privileged to have been there. We are not aware of such a thing happening before. As one person said, "Only in Istanbul."

Why can't this mutual interplay of religious forces be more common? Why don't we have more of this openness to inspiration? There are those who want us to believe that Greeks and Turks are eternal enemies; who claim that Christian and Muslim civilizations must clash; and that history is only a power struggle in which one way must triumph. The event we witnessed shows us alternatives. It shows us that God has created us to be more than selfish antagonists. There is hope: mutual respect and appreciation and love of God can rise above our prejudices.

Peace, 
Ken & Betty Frank

Ken & Betty Frank serve as missionaries with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey.  They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board.  They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).