Soul of the Garden

Images of Turkey


The Blue Mosque, Istanbul

In June of 2009, I had the opportunity of participating in a remarkable journey to Turkey sponsored by the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, a Turkish Muslim group that the organization I lead, Austin Area Interreligious Ministries (AAIM) often partners with. The intent of these annual trips is to introduce Americans to Turkish and Muslim culture on a first hand basis so that real life experiences can dispel the negative stereotypes that almost inevitably frame our media saturated perspectives of the Middle East and Islam.

For me, this trip was in many ways a pilgrimage, I have a nearly life-long fascination with the history of Turkey and this region - since I was a little boy I have read about the Hittite, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ottoman Empires and have long dreamt of visiting the famous sites associated with these cultures. I expected to be overwhelmed by the layering of monuments, artifacts and archeology and I was. However, what really impressed me about this journey was the Turkish people themselves. I have never encountered such hospitality and warmth on such a deep and consistent level. A lot of this was due to our remakable hosts, who worked tirelessly to ensure that we had a rich experience, however, even random encounters on the street were often memorable, with people going out of their way to be friendly and engage us. The total experience was intense, moving, and deeply spiritual. I cannot thank the Insitute for Interfaith Dialog enough and hope to be able to return to Turkey in the future.

Throughout these pages, I will often refer to "we" and I cannot begin without acknowledging my remarkable traveling companions - a small group of Austinites and Houstonians who shared this experience. We were a wildly divergent group (perhaps even a motley crew?) but I was glad that  every single person who was on the trip was there - especially our amazing guides / hosts Yetkin Yildirim and Kaan Turkyilmaz. We all became friends - brother and sisters - thanks to everyone! Continuous and joyful blessings to all!



The historic heart of Istanbul as seen from the Bosphorus with the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the tower of the Topkapi Palace.

Istanbul - for centuries it served as the literal crossroads of the world. It was the terminus of the famed Silk Road, and the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and then Ottoman Empires. During the early Middle Ages, as Constantinople, it was larger than all of the cities of Europe combined. Its monuments, including the glorious Hagia Sophia church (started in 532 AD) were the envy of the civilized world.  Constantinople was the final redoubt of the Christian Byzantine Empire and fell to the Ottoman Turks in a dramatic siege in 1453 - just a few decades before the first voyage of Columbus. The Ottomans rejuvenated the depleted city, renamed it Istanbul, and once again it became the seat of a great empire. Ottoman artists and architects filled the city with their own masterpieces, including the famous Blue Mosque. Today, Istanbul is once again the largest city in Europe, and it is the cultural, artistic, and economic powerhouse of Turkey. a dynamic country of over 75 million people. Friends of mine visit Istanbul every year - they love the city, and even though my brief visit there gave me just a taste of its history and culture, I consider myself hooked too.

In the pages below, I will try to describe the parts of Istanbul that I encountered and I will share many images. I hope that you enjoy traveling with me.

Istanbul - Views of the City

Istanbul from the Sea

Istanbul - The Hagia Sophia

Istanbul - The Blue Mosque

Istanbul - The Topkapi Palace



Column - Basilica of St. John.

Ephesus is one the the most significant archeological sites in the Eastern Mediterranean. Located on the Turkish Aegean coast, Ephesus was originally a Greek city which became one of the most important religious and mercantile centers of the Roman Empire. For centuries it was the leading city of Rome's richest province - Asia Minor. Ephesus was the home of several of the wonders of the ancient world including a library that rivalled the one in Alexandria and the famous temple of Artemis - which was perhaps the most important temple devoted to a female diety in the Roman Empire. The temple was detroyed by a Christian mob in 401. Legends suggest that Mary, mother of Jesus, spent her last days here in under the watchful eye of the Apostle (and Gospel author) John. Many historians believe the legend was a Christian attempt to offer Mary-worship as a suitable alternative to Artemis-worship. During the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, an enormous basilca was built here over what was purported to be the tomb of St. John. The basilica was the second largest church in the world when it was completed, and today, its ruins are a very impressive site sitting on a hill in the shadow of a Byzantine castle. For visitors to the Turkish Aegean - Ephesus is a must visit site.


Basilica of St. John - Ephesus / Selcuk



The Mediterranean from Antalya.

Antalya is an ancient city located on the Mediterranean coast that is now a booming tourist destination - it also happens to be Austin's "Sister City." We spent several busy days there and I especially enjoyed the Old Town with its Roman ruins, narrow streets, and ancient harbor (now a yacht basin.)  The coast itself is magnificent with waterfalls spilling into the sea and mountains framing the views.  While we were in Antalya, we also visited the "Garden of Religion" which features newly built religious structures including a church, synagogue, and mosque.



Kapydokya / Cappadochia

Bizarre rock formations in Cappadochia.


Cappadochia (Kapydokya in Turkish) is famous throughout the world for its volcanic landscape and unique "cave homes" carved into the soft volcanic stone. The region, inhabited by Christians during the Byzantine era, is dotted with villages dug into cliff sides and the unique eroded rock features know as "fairy chimneys" that are an emblem of the region. Entire underground villages were constructed where the inhabitants could flee during times of war. Several monastaries were also carved into the stone and today you can still see vibrant frescoes painted in the 10th century by Italian artists. Amazing! Today this region depends on the tourists who come to marvel at the landscape and visit the old villages, it is about a four hour car ride from the Capital of Ankara.

Kapydokya - Cappadochia



Whirling Dervish in Urfa.

Sanliurfa, or as it is more commonly known, Urfa, is a city of about a half-million people in the desert near the Turkish-Syrian border. Archeological sites from Urfa and the surrounding region are among the oldest in the world with some sites (like Harran) thought to be between 11-13,000 years old. Throughout its long history Urfa was occupied by countless different civilizations including: Akkadians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites,  Armenians,  Assyrians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Macedonians (under Alexander), Seleucids, Arameans,  Romans, Sassanids, Byzantines, Crusaders, Ottomans, and very briefly (and unsuccessfully) after World War I, by land-grabbing European powers. Urfa is called The City of Prophets and there are several sites associated with Abraham and Job. The legends associated with Abraham here are very strong and he is claimed as a native son. One of the highlights of a visit to Urfa is visiting the The Pool of Sacred Fish (Balikligol) where legends report that Abraham was thrown into a great fire by the polytheist king, Nimrod. According to the legend, after Abraham was thrown into the fire, two springs emerged from underneath his knees that extinguished the fire and spared his life. The story also reports that the burning embers of the fire turned into fish, and today two spring-fed pools are filled with colorful carp. When food is thrown into the pools for the fish it is easy to interpret their color and churning frenzy as fire-like. The pools grace the grounds of the Halil-ur-Rahman mosque, built in 1211 and now surrounded by beautiful gardens filled with families and pilgrims from throughout the Muslim world.

Urfa was for me the highlight of my trip to Turkey, its exotic locale, history, and pilgrimage sites were unforgettable. My visit to the Halil-ur-Rahman mosque will remain with me for the rest of my life. Inspired by the legend of Abraham and my experience there, I wrote a poem:  The Source.

Urfa - Scenes from the City



Friends in Urfa

Traveling Companions


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