"From Tucson to Turkey" - Tucson News Now

"From Tucson to Turkey"

By Dan Marries

Special Report: "From Tucson to Turkey"

Part I: "Westerners Meet the Islamic World"

There's a widespread perception in the United States that Islam is a violent religion. The debate was brought up again last week as america marked the 7th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. A recent study by the Washington Post found that nearly half of Americans, 46 percent, have a negative view of Islam. It's this very reason I spent nearly two weeks in Turkey; a country whose population is 99 percent Muslim. I was part of an Arizona delegation travelling with state lawmakers, an advisor to Governor Napolitano, and several University of Arizona professors.

Turkey is a country with a multitude of identities. Situated on two continents, Europe and Asia, it's been invaded and ruled by different empires since the beginning of recorded history.  Ancient ruins dot the landscape as well as mosques with an estimated 70,000 spread throughout Turkey. Devoted to the divine worship of God, Muslims pray five times a day and are reminded to do so by calls to prayer that echo through the cities and countryside. With 99 percent of the population Muslim,  people of other faiths may feel out of place.  Members of our group quickly realized that's simply not the case. 

Bob Kaiser from Arizona has travelled the world as a former journalist. An author of 12 books, he's well versed and educated but says this trip to Turkey has given him an education of a lifetime, "Islam religion is so different than what I imagined it to be," Kaiser says with a smile, "what do I know about it? What I read in books and what I read in the newspapers after 9/11. Islam means terrorism right?" he asks with a tone of sarcasm, "well not here it doesn't. These people are so kind and loving."

Part II: "Gaining a Better Understanding Through Cultural Awareness"

Bringing back a better understanding of Islam is what Jannah Scott, an advisor to Governor Janet Napolitano is bringing back to Arizona, "I think we ought to focus on what we have in common and stop focusing on our differences and we would have a lot more peaceful and united world," she says.

Bringing people together is something Arizona Rep. David Lujan wants to do as well, "I think that's something that is important to lawmakers is that we need to realize government can't do it all. It really does take a community and people working together to solve problems and that's what they do so well in Turkey," he says.

Part III: "Turkey is at a Crossroad"

Turkey is a secular nation and it's the only Muslim country in the world that has no state sponsored religion.  The younger generation wants more Democratic freedoms while its older and more traditional leaders want Islamic law to rule.  There's close to 70 million people in Turkey and 99% of them are Muslim but there's a small number of Jews and Christians scattered in the mix, including the the arch bishop of the Armenian Catholic Church, "I am the arch bishop who is taking care of all the churches in Turkey," he tells us.

Turkey hasn't always been a Muslim country.  In 380 A.D., Christianity was declared the official state religion of the Roman Empire which at the time included present day Turkey.  Christians began building churches like the grand Hagia Sophia.  The current building was built in the 530s and it remained the biggest Christian church in the world for nearly 1,000 years until the Ottoman empire took control and turned it into a mosque.  Today, it's a museum and the government has been painstakingly removing plaster revealing centuries old mosaics like the one above the front doors. It shows Jesus raising his right hand in a blessing and holding the Holy Bible in his left.  Our guide translated the writing, "on the Bible it is written in Greek language 'peace be with you I am the light of the world.'"

Just across the street from the Hagia Sophia is one of Turkey's most holy places-the Blue Mosque.  There are several places where churches, mosques, and even synagogues co-exist in harmony.  Like at the religious gardens in Belek where priests, imams, and rabbis, work side by side putting their religious differences aside and embracing each others different faiths.

For Jannah Scott it's an example we all can follow, "I think it's a wonderful opportunity to see especially the commonalities the three faiths have in common because the Abrahamic faiths really do share a lot in terms of one god a monolithic faith," she says.

Part IV: "Turkey Shares Similarities with Tucson"

Turkey may be half a world away but it shares a lot of similarities with Tucson.  Some of the earliest human settlements have been found in Turkey dating back some 10,000 years; about the same time the Hohokam indians lived at the base of "A" Mountain.  Archeologists are excavating the ancient site learning more about early humans in the process. 

For UA professor of anthropology Dr. John Olsen, visiting the archeology museum in Konya, Turkey is like a professional pilgrimage, "having the opportunity to come here myself and see things that I've studied and seen pictures of in books for 30 years is really an emotional lift.  We're within 100 miles of the first transition from people moving away from hunting and gathering to settle down in the little villages and that's the first steps towards cities, right?" Dr. Olsen asks our group as he excitedly shares his knowledge of the area, "the evidence of the earliest agriculture anywhere in the planet is displayed in this museum."

One of those first cities was Catalhoyuk.  Archeologists are excavating the site unearthing artifacts, even burial sites. This early civilization buried their loved ones under their homes and the skeletal remains of an baby are on display. Believed to be about a year old the baby was probably buried around 8300 B.C. placed in the fetal position strings and beads can be seen on his wrists and ankles.

Another ancient site we visited was that that of Aspendos.  It's one of Turkey's oldest theatres. It was built in the second century A.D. In its hey day, 20,000 people would pack these stands to watch gladiators fight fierce lions and battle each other.  "It's just there's so much history and it gets you thinking about your own place in the world and how small we really are in the big picture," says Arizona Representative Theresa Ulmer.  She says, "it's been overwhelming and humbling. It's also been very spiritual. A good rest to rejuvenate my spiritual inner self that had been neglected the last couple of years so it's been amazing and wonderful."

Part V: "Turkey is a Land of Ancient History"

For centuries Turkey has been conquered and ruled by various empires-a tug of war for power and religion.  For those caught in the middle, finding refuge became a way of life and some went underground to stay alive.  Cappadocia is one of Turkey's most visually striking regions.  Three million years ago, violent eruptions of nearby volcanoes covered the surrounding plateau with tuff-a soft, porous rock formed by volcanic ash.

Since the most ancient of times people have hollowed out homes in the rock, even entire underground cities stretching more than 200 feet deep into the earth.  They were connected with a massive and winding tunnel system. The cities were well-hidden and safe.

The tunnels at Cappadocia are more than 2,500 years old. They date back to the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. and for a period of time Christians would use these to hide from Roman persecution. "Cappadocia has always been on my life places to visit so it's really special to be here," Dr. John Olsen tells me while we both catch our breath from walking the dimly lit areas.  This underground expedition is an experience he'll always treasure and even share with his students, "it makes you think about how many tens of thousands of people used this space and the reasons why is a pretty emotional experience," Dr. Olsen says. "I have included in classroom discussions about the way in which people use underground sanctuaries and refuges so to be able to get out of the text book and see it firsthand is pretty exciting."

Our group learned a lot about Turkey.  From its ancient history to rich cultural diversity we found it to be a fascinating country filled with wonderful people who love to share their way of life. Our tour of started in the country's biggest city Istanbul.

Home to some 12 million people and a major sea port it's the cultural and trade center of the entire region. A great way to see Istanbul is to take a boat ride along the Bosphorous. It's a stretch of sea that not only separates Istanbul but also two continents, Europe and Asia. Along the banks of the Bosphorous is the Topkapi Palace. It was the official and primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years. The palace is filled with royal heirlooms given to the various sultans by world leaders over the years like an elaborate chandelier-a gift from the french it weighs 3,000 pounds.

Part VI: "Turkish Hospitality is a Way of Life"

Hospitality is one of the cornerstones of the Turkish way of life. We enjoyed lunch at the home of a Turk family in Konya eating fresh fruit and vegetables from their garden. Turkish food can be described as a fusion of central asian, middle eastern and balkan cuisines. On one of the days we ate fresh fish right along a river. From the water to our plates within minutes.

A trip to Turkey wouldn't be complete without a visit to a traditional rug shop. In Antalya it's a show as much as a sales pitch.  There are many places of Biblical importance spread throughout Turkey. It's home to Ephesus where the apostle Paul preached for three years. He wrote the Book Ephesians to the residents of this ancient city. The home of the Virgin Mary is here and people of all faiths make the pilgrimage here to pay homage to the Holy Mother.

Turkish people are the most gracious and generous hosts. In every corner of the country we were met with such traditional hospitality, "it was the people that really made the difference," says Arizona State Senator Linda Grey, "they welcomed me as if I were part of their family."

One of my personal highlights of the trip came in Istanbul when we stopped by the studios of Samanyolu TV. This would be like visiting the CBS studios in New York. S-TV is an international news network broadcasting to 114 countries. I got to meet the main news anchor who is well known throughout Europe, Asia, and the middle east. I gave him a saguaro cactus lapel pin as a gift from Arizona and we all were so excited to see him wearing it on the evening news that night.

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