Intercultural Trip to Turkey - June 2009

Kansas City Turkish Cultural Center.jpgThis summer’s tour group included teachers, university professors and administrators, a seminary librarian and research director, legislators, a student, a diplomat, and an orthodontist. (See the complete list at the end of this article.) The group visited ancient cities; met with professional organizations, businesspeople, teachers, and students; laughed and chatted with Turkish families; and enjoyed the intriguing and delicious Turkish cuisine.

The starting and ending place was Istanbul, one of the world’s great international cities. Built on countless layers of history, the city’s skyline is punctuated by minarets as well as sky-scrapers and apartment buildings (each with its solar water heaters). On its streets, the group saw every kind of dress, from the most conservative to the most daring, and people doing business, shopping, enjoying the nightlife, and taking the family for an outing. (May 29 - June 12 , 2009)

In Istanbul, the group wandered through the Spice and Grand Bazaars and visited Roman, Christian, and Islamic sites, including the great mosques--the fourth-century Aya Sofia, now a museum but for a thousand years the largest cathedral in the world, the Blue Mosque, the Suleymaniye—as well as Suleyman the Magnificent’s Topkapi Palace, where the Holy Koran has been read for centuries, night and day, without pause, in the room where sacred objects are stored. Under the city, the group saw the Roman cistern, re-discovered after centuries of darkness, with two immense columns rising from the heads of Medusa and her Gorgon sister.

Istanbul also offered warm hospitality, as the visitors dined with the family of a member of a women’s group and were hosted by an organization of journalists and writers. During a tour of a well-known TV station, the group watched the production of a news show and received DVDs of popular programs.

From Istanbul the group flew to Izmir, ancient Smyrna, founded by the Aeolian Greeks more than 3000 years ago. They visited the ruins of the agora, outside the modern city, and then spent the evening in one of the first of the famous Gulen Peace and Friendship schools, where boys and girls who achieve high test scores can get a first-rate education regardless of financial need (three-fifths of the students in the Izmir school receive aid—some pay no tuition at all). They heard a student band, just returned from a tour of Europe, play haunting traditional Turkish music.

A short drive from Izmir took the visitors to Bergama, a mountain city beside the ruins of ancient Pergamon and for a thousand years a center of carpet-weaving. Local businesspeople provided an elegant meal, and after a trip to the agora and theatres of Pergamon, the group visited a carpet maker and exporter who showed his wares and explained traditional fabrics and designs.

Next the group visited the House of the Virgin Mary, high above the Aegean Sea, and the ruins of Ephesus, where the famous library, wide avenues and mosaic floors make it easy to imagine the ancient city. Ephesus housed one of the seven early Christian churches of Asia, the recipient of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.

The group’s next destination was Antalya, resort city and home of the Garden of Religions, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship side by side. Here the Mediterranean sun poured through the windows of a small, lovely mosque while a young imam chanted verses from the Holy Koran for the visitors. Outside Antalya the group visited the theatre of Aspendos, the best preserved ancient theatre, where a crew was preparing for the evening’s production of Verdi’s Aida.

From there, a road trip through snow-capped mountains took the group to Konya, a beautiful, busy city where in the evening musicians played traditional songs in a hill-top park. Here the group visited the tomb of Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi poet whose works are widely read around the world today. The Mevlana Museum and tomb are surrounded by gardens crowded with roses of all colors, a symbol of devotion. Dinner was on the terrace of a local restaurant, hosted by local business owners.

The next destination was Cappadocia, where the group stayed in an elegant boutique hotel cut into the living rock outside Nevshehir. A local civic leader accompanied the visitors to the Goreme Open Air Museum, to see the early medieval rock-cut churches with their intensely colored frescoes.

Cappadocia’s Hittite history is reflected in the traditional designs painted on the local pottery. The visitors tried their hand at throwing pots in an underground workshop and watched a demonstration, hosted by the proprietor and his family, who have owned the shop for many generations.

From the natural beauty of Cappadocia the group moved to the wide avenues of Ankara, capital city, where they spent an afternoon in the well-designed Anatolian Museum of Civilizations, which shows the role of Turkey as a crossroads of peoples and cultures from before recorded history to the present time. The group dined with members of the current Turkish administration and of Parliament, one of whom sketched each visitor’s name in calligraphy while discussing current affairs and Turkish cuisine. “When I look at the diversity of people around this table,” said one of the visitors, “I feel hopeful that people can learn to get along with each other and work together.”

The last stop before the return to Istanbul was Sanli Urfa, City of Messengers, possibly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, located in the cradle of civilization—the Tigris-Euphrates river valley. In this mainly Kurdish city, the group visited traditional sites such as the Cave of Job, Fish Lake, and Abraham’s Cave, as well as another of the Peace and Friendship schools, where they talked with the principal, teachers, and students. The visitors ate a home-cooked dinner with a local family, and returned the next day to Istanbul.

Members of this year’s tour group (in alphabetical order):

  • Dr. Young-Ho Chun, Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Paul School of Theology, and his daughter Helenna Chun, student;
  • Dr. Karen Dace, Deputy Chancellor for Diversity, Access and Equity, University of Missouri-Kansas City;
  • Jason Holsman, member of the Missouri House of Representatives, and his wife Robyn Lea Boyd, elementary school teacher;
  • Jacob Prado Gonzalez, Consulate General of Mexico, and his wife Andrea Ofelia Rios Rivera Melo, orthodontist;
  • Kristi Ryujin, Director of Diversity Initiatives, Office of Diversity, Access, and Equity, University of Missouri-Kansas City;
  • Dr. Kimberly Stanley, Professor and Chair, Department of Modern Languages, McPherson College, McPherson, Kansas;
  • Logan Scott Wright, Associate Professor of Theological Bibliography and Research and Director of Library, Saint Paul School of Theology;
  • Jake Zimmerman, member of the Missouri House of Representatives.

TRIP REFLECTIONS:

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