Istanbul at first seemed a bit off-topic as an introduction to our Uzbekistan-focused tour of Central Asia, but in a good and useful way. It oriented us to a city and region dominated first by Christianity and then by Islam, with Jesus followers long reduced to tiny-but-still-significant status there, perhaps presaging what we will come to appreciate about the Mennonite trekkers in Ak Metchet on whom we will focus later in our tour.
This city, known for more than a millennium as Constantinople, was the political and religious center of a vast Christian empire. Hagia Sophia, then the largest church in the world, was the best known and most visible surviving symbol of the power and extent of that empire. But many of us on the tour were more moved by the incredibly intricate mosaic art of the Chora Church, a comparatively tiny church and community.
Both the huge Hagia Sophia and the small-scale Chora were captured and occupied by their 15th-century conquerors, as Constantinople became Istanbul, now the center of the large and powerful Ottoman Empire. Interestingly, there was little destruction and mass killing in this profound regime shift. Instead, the Muslims mostly whitewashed, plastered over, or otherwise effaced the Christian symbolism of the religious buildings that they claimed, while also building thousands of mosques, including large, beautiful ones on all the city’s highest hills. Now, in a more secularized city and nation, many of these “recycled” buildings have again been repurposed as museums by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which sees value in somehow respecting the dramatically different eras in their history.
Water was another focal point of our two days in Istanbul. We viewed the remains of the aqueduct that for more than 1400 years transported the city’s water supply, as well as the unbelievably large and ornate cisterns in which that water was stored.
Built at about the same time as the aqueduct, the ornate Basilica Cistern was the largest in a series of underground caverns to store the city’s water supply.The Bosporus, a 19-mile strait that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, also divides Istanbul into its European and Asian sides. The Golden Horn, an elongated bay projecting northward, long served as the city’s harbor and still defines its unique nature.
Our tour leader John Sharp introduced us to Istanbul’s importance to Mennonite history. It was here, at this strategic water link, one hundred years ago, that Orie Miller organized the staging grounds for massive amounts of food and other supplies collected by North American Mennonites to relieve their starving brothers and sisters in South Russia. That was the birth of the Mennonite Central Committee, whose centennial we will commemorate in 2020.
— David Klaassen, tour participant