Tag Archive: religion


I’m a little bit peeved about what I see when it comes to religion and travelling. I’m not going to bring up the topic of the riots going on across the world at the moment regarding that ridiculous and horrible video that apparently went up on youtube (which I have not seen and refuse to watch) because I’m not going to talk about tolerance and peace and blah blah blah in this post. I’m talking about visiting religious sites.

I like to consider myself a respectful traveller. I like to learn a bit about a place before I go. The history, the background the demographics, the culture to make sure that I don’t insult locals with my behaviour, dress or complete ignorance. I also am a big fan of visiting religious sites. I like to see the difference (or similarities) and what influence other cultures have had on what is considered some of the most important architecture and sites in religious countries. When you go into the Vatican, it is expected that your knees and shoulders will be covered. In many religions, women must cover their hair when entering a place of worship or shorts are not allowed. For this reason, when I know I will be visiting a church or cathedral or mosque I bring a long skirt and a pashmina.

A few examples for you:

In the Russian Orthodox church, women must wear skirts (foreign visitors can wear pants) and cover their heads. Many a Russian Orthodox church has numerous large signs posted on the door where you cannot miss them unless you are completely blind saying “no shorts, no tank tops, no pictures, women must wear skirts, men must wear pants” There are pictures to go with these words and they are pretty difficult to misinterpret. Despite all this, everyone is taking photos of the beauty and grandeur of these places. I have been into places of worship where pictures are allowed, which is awesome. I snap away in these places. But MANY of the places I have been on my travels prohibit photos. The Monastery I went to in Kiev had signs every 10 feet depicting “NO PHOTOS” and writing it in about 6 different languages. Despite this, pilgrims (the monastery is a pilgrimage site) were happy snapping all over the place, including in the churches and cathedral. Signs everywhere saying “this is a holy place of worship, please respect it through dressing appropriately, being silent and not taking photos”. I saw people right next to these signs taking photos.

When I was in Turkey last year they required women to be fully covered in the Blue Mosque. Understandable as it is a functioning mosque. Didn’t have something to cover your legs/arms/hair? They would provide scarves and what not for you. Despite this, I still saw girls in the mosque taking the scarves off their head the second they made it inside or sitting with the legs straight out, bottoms of the feet pointing to whomever walked by (a great insult in Islam as the bottom of the feet are considered dirty. I’m sure you all remember someone throwing a shoe at George Bush, Jr.). Talk about disrespectful. You are in a place of worship! You may not believe in a god or follow their religion, but if they came into your house and started disrespecting your stuff how would that make you feel? Do you want them to come into your home and start walking with their shoes on your table or jumping on your sofa?

More recently, I was visiting the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain and I was absolutely horrified. Signs everywhere near the entrance saying no photos, no shorts, no singlets/tank tops. “It is a functioning place of worship so please be respectful.” The inside was absolutely spectacular. I could have taken hundreds of photos inside. Out of respect, however, I didn’t take my camera out once. I was very tempted to take it out and take a photo of a girl wearing a tiny leopard print tube dress. The dress was tight, scant and barely covered her bum. It was horrific to see something like that in a church. I saw people snapping away, people wearing shorts, tube tops, singlets. With the hundreds to thousands of people that go through the Mezquita every day security can’t keep everyone from taking photos, I understand that. But it just really ticks me off that these people can be SO DISRESPECTFUL. I am an atheist and have zero reason to be respectful in any of these places. I don’t believe in any of their notion or ideas on God, I heartily disagree with many of the more conservative ideas on ethics and morals, yet I am often the most respectful person in the place. People, who claim to be of the very religion of the place they are disrespecting are not behaving properly and they are not being respectful and this just drives me up the wall.

So what is my solution? Because since I am ranting and raving about it I need to offer up a solution. In a place where photos (and mobile phones for that matter) aren’t allowed, they should be required to turn them in at security. They can get them back when they leave. Not dressed appropriately? Give them a shroud to wear, male or female. If they need a head covering, give them a scarf to put over their head. If they take it off, kick them out AND fine them. Require they turn in a card or ID with their camera’s and phones as collateral. It absolutely disgusts me to see people being so insanely disrespectful in a place that matters so deeply to their religion or to other people in the area of that religion. Perhaps this is why they don’t allow non-Muslims into most mosques or holy places in Morocco.

Moral of the rant? If you are visiting a holy place, treat it with respect, respect the rules and respect the requests of the institution. You want pictures? Look them up online and photoshop yourself in. You don’t need photos as proof you have been someplace.

Aya Sofya

So unfortunately I have been insanely busy and have not been able to update my blog due to group projects, tests, etc. However, now that the group project and test are done with I’m going to attempt to power through and finish blogging about my trip to Turkey.

This particular blog is about Aya Sofya, Haiga Sophia, Saint Sophia. However you say it, no one can deny that it is a MUST SEE on the list of places to see before you die. I must state up front that nothing I write about this museum and none of the pictures I post can ever do this place justice.

As museums are closed on Mondays in Istanbul (I don’t know why) we had to give this one a miss that day and see it Tuesday before our briefings with the Intercultural Dialogue Platform and the archaeologist from Bosphorus University.

The Aya Sofya is one of Istanbul’s iconic sites and like every other tourist site in Istanbul, requires you to go through two security points, watched closely by armed members of the military. Just satnding outside the building is inspiring. I’m pretty sure I took at least 50 photos before we even entered into the entrance hall.

The Aya Sofya was built by the Byzantian Emporer Justinian in 532. This enormous engineering marvel only took 5 years to bulid and it is still standing. It probably helps when you have thousands of slaves at your disposal, but I don’t think a building of that magnitude could be built in 5 years in this day and age. Originally the Aya Sofya was built as an Eastern Orthodox Church and was the largest cathedral in the world until the Seville Cathedral was built in 1520. It was converted into a Roman Catholic Cathedral from 1204-1261 until it was once again converted into an Eastern Orthodox Church. This only lasted until 1453 when the Ottomans took over and converted it into a mosque.

When visiting the Aya Sofya, one notices that despite being a mosque for hundreds of years, the wall are absolutely peppered with intricate mosaics of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, St Paul and numerous emperor’s and their wives. In Islam, there are no depictions of people in art. It’s a cultural/religious thing. When the Ottomans took over, rather than chipping the ornate mosaics from the walls (though they did do a little bit of that to sell to visitors), they simply covered them with some form of plaster. While I am sure they did not do this in anticipation of a future where millions of people would want to see these mosaics when it was no longer a mosque, this incidental preservation does make one appreciative of laziness for a change.

So from the outer courtyard we went through a set of oversized doors into the entrance hall. This hall in and of itself was insane. The hall was solid marble. Marble floors…Marble walls…probably a marble ceiling containing beautifully ornate mosaic designs. One of the many Christian depictions is still intact over the main entrance from the entrance hall to the main room.When our tour guide was telling us about the entrance hall and a bit more about this history of the structure I was awestruck by the size of the entrance hall. If just the entrance was this large, how vast could the main hall possibly be? I soon found out.

We walked through the second set of doors into the colossal main hall. I was dumbstruck. Completely speechless (not necessarily a bad thing). The floor was solid marble (still). There is so much marble in this country. Everything seemed to glitter due to the natural light streaming in and hitting the marble, the onyx and the shining gold paint of the mosaics. We looked up to see the domed ceiling (iconic Byzantian architecture) and had to bend over backwards while craning our necks upwards to check it out. The height of the room from the floor to the top of the dome is 56.6 metres. The most amazing thing about this is that the Aya Sofya doesn’t have the 4 supporting pillars that other domed buildings have. It is held up by the internal walls, the external walls and small supporting pillars on the second level. While this is a feat of engineering, it doesn’t seem very smart as when we went up to the second floor you can see the walls and pillars leaning from the weight of the dome. Apparently the dome actually collapsed just after they finished building it due to an earthquake. It was obviously immediately restored.

Anyway, the Aya Sofya, in my opinion, epitomises the “East meets West” reputation that Istanbul proudly claims. When you look up at the not insignificant height of the building the four corners of the internal supporting walls depict 4 cherubs, only one of which shows the face of the angel. I am unsure of the significance of this, but I think the other faces were covered by the Ottomans and only one has been uncovered. There was a bit of a debate between the tour guide and one of the girls in the group who’s dad is apparently very into theology about that.

The walls also had the green and gold discs that you find in every mosque containing the names of important people in Islam. It was impossible to get a photo of the scale of these discs because you can’t actually stand next to them, but I tried. These discs would have been about 4 or 5 times my height I’d say. They were the largest discs I’ve ever seen in my life. The area where the alter once stood now contains the mihrab which faces Mecca. Behind the mihrab you can see the stained glass windows that are very popular in Christian/Catholic churches and cathedrals. 

Anyway, we had a gander down on the main level and in 2 corners of the mosque were marble “vases” that a Sultan had brought from Pergamon. These vases, like everything else about this place, were larger than life. 3 people of my size could have squeezed into one of these vases (would have been a tight squeeze). They were huge and impressive. I find it especially impressive that these vases were made of one solid piece of marble. They aren’t exactly light and easy to maneuver.

Rather than hanging around downstairs we went up to the second level. Rather than stairs leading up to the balcony level there is a rather unimpressive stone ramp with very little light that just curls around until you get to the second level. When I say “unimpressive” this is relative to the granduer of the rest of the building. I thought it was actually really cool looking, even if it was a bit drafty and creepy.

The second level contained most of the mosaics that we have been hearing so much about. We started out in the loge, which had painted walls rather than mosaics, but the paintings were still well preserved, intricate and beautiful. I’m not entirely sure on this, but the painted parts may at one time have been mosaics that are now simply painted on as a representation to show what they once looked like.

Outside of the loge we came upon numerous mosaics (and a very random marble doorway to another hall). As previously stated, most of these mosaics are of an adult Jesus, emperors, saints and Mary. The largest of the tiles that we saw was probably about as big as my thumbnail, at the very largest and many of them had some sort of gold guilding. For all I know they may have been real gold (if Topkapi Palace is any indication), but they still glimmered magnificently.

The view from the balcony was just as amazing as the view from below, though a significantly different view. We were able to see the discs up close, and they look much smaller from below, if that is any indication of the size of this place. Eventually, we made our way around to the bottom of the horseshoe shaped balcony and came upon what I thought was the most amazing depiction of Jesus I have ever seen. It was a common theme that all baby Jesus’s had the body of a baby but the face of an adult Jesus. This particular baby Jesus looked like Chucky, the creepy possessed puppet doll thing. It was spectacular! It was at this point that I became extremely upset and disappointed because my camera died. It was very emotional and I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway, as this balcony actually is similar to a horseshoe (there is about 6 feet that separate the 2 ends and they are blocked off by a giant wall) we had to double back through and go down the other side. The other side didn’t seem to contain very many mosaics for some reason. I’m not entirely sure of the reason why, but the museum had signs up telling about different aspects of the museum and restoration. We went down another stone ramp to get back to the main level and came out near the mihrab and minbar. Once again, East meets West with the minbar and mosaics of Jesus in the background on the upper level. We had another 15 minutes to wander around and check out the place and I decided to give the weeping wall a miss. The weeping wall is a portion of a wall that has a hole in it and it is said that if you stick your finger in it and it comes out wet your ailments will all be cured. I purposefully decided to give this a miss as I didn’t want to stick my finger in it and have it come out dry.

I’m completely aware that this blog just cannot do the Aya Sofya justice or even begin to touch on the size of this place. I do have some photos which can be seen on my facebook album here and here.

Briefing-Historical Background of Modern Turkey

This briefing was absolutely fascinating. It was like having a National Geographic Article in the flesh. Our academic for this briefing was Asli Ozyar and she has become one of my role models. She was brilliant and I cannot wait to debrief with myself in Australia and email her to get resources off of her.

Her idea of modern Turkey is anything from the past 10,000 years. She briefed us on the Hittites (many of you will recognise them from the Bible) and the ancient Anatolians. Basically the Paleolithic era. This. Woman. Was. Fascinating. I took 6 pages of notes on this briefing so you will have to bear with my idyllic blubbering.

She mainly discussed the history of Turkey prior to the Greco-Roman age. Did you know that the very first man-made monumental shrine IN THE WORLD was discovered in Turkey? Yeah. Impressive. I’m impressed. These weren’t just any random monumental shrines, these took some serious manpower to build. We are talking Stonehenge times 15. Serious manpower. I’m really upset that we weren’t able to go to the Hittite Museum in Ankara, but I shall make it a priority on my next trip.

Let’s start with a little bit of background though. Anatolia in Greek translates to “land as seen from Greece” or “land where sun rises”. Apparently they are one and the same. Turkey, being where east meets west, meaning in Anatolia itself there were complete regional differences. This does not include the area outside of Turkey. 3-400,000 years ago the first hominids appeared in Istanbul and about 10-12000 years ago they found the first permanent settlements in Turkey. Part of this was from climate change and part of this was due to the discovery of food production. Gotta love that agricultural lifestyle.

Anatolians

One of the big questions she asked was “What came first? Settling or agriculture?”. I found this to be an interesting question in light of my American and Australian background knowledge of Native Americans and Aboriginals. Certain Native American tribes would actually participate in agriculture using low maintenance crops that they could plant and then come back to at a certain point in the year to harvest and settle down for winter, while being hunter/gatherers the rest of the year. The Aboriginals would frequently cultivate and harvest native plants while at the same time living their hunter/gatherer lifestyle. I sort of assumed it was similar to that beginning and then they just happened to develop from this type of lifestyle to a fully agricultural, community driven lifestyle. In reality, it’s been discovered that they settled first and then developed into an agricultural society. They are still digging up the evidence regarding this, but there is enough evidence to say that they settled first. Archeologists are still trying to figure out the how and why of it all.

As previously stated with the massive religious shrine, Turkey is the home of the first known permanent sites in the world. The curious thing about this, as stated above, is that they were hunter/gatherers and there was actually no necessity for these permanent sites at this time. They still don’t know how they were capable of making these shrines. Everyone knows a lot of the sites in Turkey was made by slavery, but as these were hunter gatherers we are talking about I doubt they had a significant amount of slaves. These shrines were made with very large, very heavy stone slabs. There’s about 15 shrines in the one location in total and they contain monolithic pillars (one giant slab of rock rather than individual slabs contained in each pillar) and they weigh a couple of tons each. This would have taken some serious engineering and social skills.

In light of this, I should let you know that the only known earlier artwork there are cave paintings of wild boar and birds at Gobekli Tepe.

Following this monumental structure, there have been village type architecture found in Cayönü which coincides with the megalithic structures used for worship. All this led to the Bronze Age (for this region, not necessarily for other regions) which happened in the 4th millennium BC. During this age they’ve discovered that Anatolia was full of villages, but not large cities and most of them had access to mines. The exploitation of metals in this region began very early and very few other regions in the world can compete on the same timeline.

In the scope of human evolution in regards to civilisation, metallurgy (the working of metals) has been a key ingredient to social progression and cultural complexity. Copper “swords” were found from the 4th millennium BC and by the 3rd millennium BC elaborate burials for the elite were being performed. They found crowns, golden goblets and writing as well. From the remains that they have been able to put together almost all the remains are identified as female. They are still unaware of the exact significance of these burials, but obviously the women in these societies were important. The big thing to understand here is that the treasure they were buried with, much like the pharaohs of Egypt, was produced purely for the burial.

These people were the first known people to work metals. Bronze and copper and all that jazz. They were making metal pots before most civilisations were working out how to drink out of their hands. Turkey has an insanely rich history. The Hittites and their ancestors were essentially the peak of ancient human civilisation. They kept everything recorded on clay tablets using cuneiform writing when the Egyptians were discovering Papyrus. I’m recording this digitally and it’s going to be destroyed and lost far before the baked cuneiform clay tablets from thousands of years ago.

Hittites

I’ve always had a rather strong fascination with Turkey due to the fact that it does have the East meets West history, but I never really knew about its ancient history. Now that I have a very limited background on its ancient history I have even more of a fascination with it. I reckon I could get a holiday home on the beach as they are super cheap here, spend three months out of the year here studying Turkey for the rest of my life and be a happy person. One of the things I find fascinating is all the history about the Hittites. The old testament of the Bible mentions the Hittites quite a few times but really doesn’t say much about them, but we learn so much about them from recent discoveries.

The Hittites formed urban states that contained territorial aspects. Turkey, as hosts to the Hittite Kingdom, was essentially the first real “State” as we know nation states today. Ankara has an open air museum that I will definitely be visiting next time I am in Turkey that is a UNESCO World Heritage site containing preservation of early state archives on clay of a land deed written in an Indo-European language recorded in cuneiform script. This is the earliest recorded Indo-European language found and is a sister language to Greek. The benefits of writing on clay tablets is that they don’t degrade like paper and paper-like items (such as papyrus), they survive fire, you can put them back together if they are broken. It’s beautiful.

They have also found peace treaties between the Hittites and the Egyptians used as a means of empire building. There was a formal international treaty between Pharaoh Ramesses II and Hattushili III, they have found land titles from Anatolia, letters from scribes to their families. It’s so amazing. It was an annalistic recording of political events which provided a model for later widespread use of annals in the Near East and shows a great historical consciousness. 10’s of thousands of archives have been found and there was also a great amount of artwork found of pottery that had handles and sharp edges, imitating metals before most people were making clay pots. It was also found that the Hittites were very fond of falconry and likened falcons to symbols of deities. The god that they worshipped originally was the weather god (the bull, aka Zeus in later times) and this was especially important for them as they relied on dry farming.

The more interesting thing is what happened to all of this, in my opinion. There is a sudden period between the bronze age and the  iron age in which all trace of their culture is lost. I liken it to Babylon where everyone suddenly started speaking a different language. They stopped using clay tablets to record things and we aren’t really sure what happened to them as a civilisation.

The Iron Age

The collapse of the Bronze Age shows a strong change in the balance of powers. It’s very bizarre because it shows a de-evolution of people (as opposed to regression, which we are seeing today). Sites were abandoned, there was new migrations of people and the 1st millennium also shows the rise of the Assyrians and the Persian Empire. There was the uprising of Alexander the Great and the first forms of what we know as globalisation (as opposed to the previous empire building) began to make an appearance. The reasons are unknown, but it is theorised that this was due to climate change and civilisation in Anatolia and Egypt reaching a saturation point.

I also find it interesting and it sort of relates to a book I need to reread called When God was a Woman. Women were buried with gold treasure that was specifically made for the burials. I think it would be fascinating to know the culture that held women in such high esteem and why it necessitated them being buried with such beautiful treasures. It is a far cry from the lack of women’s rights in the world today, Turkey included. It forces me to consider the interesting dynamic between regression and evolution in human cultures.

Based on briefings we have had during my time in Turkey and discussions with the people on this trip most of the people agree that mankind in general is regressing. It just gives me one more thing to think about. Once again, using Sara as an example, being Muslim she believes that Judgement day will come and she believes that it is near due to the fact that there is very little decency and compassion left in the world. This is a far cry from the academic who briefed us, who when questioned about her religious beliefs in such a predominantly Muslim society stated “I know too much to believe in any god”. I find that I can relate to her and really look up to what she said. I must say, with as much as we know, it takes someone who is very devout and strong in their faith to believe anymore, but it takes someone who is just as strong in their belief that there is no God to deny something that many people may socially persecute them for.

I know what it is like personally as I have been persecuted by many people, some my own “family” though I only consider them related by mere coincidence rather than family at this point.

While this religion topic may seem to digress it is highly relevant to how historical Anatolia shaped modern Turkey. Historical Anatolia and the Hittites started out with few gods, but they were definitely polytheistic. They had the Bull, which represented Zeus essentially, they had the deer to represent mother Earth and another god that I can’t recall, possibly the falcon. They were very Hellenistic as they realised that allowing cultures to keep their own gods allowed for better assimilation (back to the assimilation and integration briefing) and the culture grew to possibly thousands of gods, similar to Egypt or ancient Rome and ancient Greece.

Somehow, for better or worse, you decide, the polytheistic belief system developed into the monotheistic Ibrahimic religion that it is today. It varied throughout history, shuffling between Christian and Muslim, into the conservative Muslim society that most people associate with Turkey. I have barely scraped the surface of this briefing (once again with scraping the bloody surface), but I hope it has been enough to inspire anyone reading this to learn more about the topic at hand. I have purchased a copy of the Qu’ran and my copy of the Bible is in the US but I plan on bringing it back with me next time I am in the US so I can read more on the Hittites and ancient Palestine.

If anyone wants the email of the professor who gave this briefing so that they can get some more sources on the topic at hand please let me know and I can get you her email address.