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The Eternal Bridge: Turkey

With its rich history and traditions, Turkey remains a fundamental part of the history of Christianity.

Just about forty years ago, a Syrian merchant riding a train between Tripoli and Istanbul made an apparently-unimportant observation to the man sitting in the opposite seat. Referring to Istanbul, the late Turkish capital city, he said: “Nature has made it the bridge between East and West.”

The British gentleman seated across from him found the comment noteworthy, though. He was researching the travels of a very famous Turk, and so, the Syrian’s carelessly-tossed line during a routine train trip was immortalized in H. V. Morton’s In the Steps of St. Paul.

There’s little wonder why Morton found the comment so important. The description fits not only the city of Istanbul, but also the country of which Istanbul is part – Turkey.

In ten words, the Syrian had summarized the geography, history and religious past of Turkey. With one sentence, he had captured the essence of a vast and varied country.

Turkey’s geography seems to have fostered its development as a link between Orient and Occident. Actually, as well as symbolically, the rectangular-shaped nation forms a bridge between Europe and Asia, separating the Black Sea in the north from the Mediterranean Sea in the south. Having a total area of 300,000 square miles, Turkey is divided into two regions: Eastern Thrace, or “Trakya,” in its northwestern corner, and the high plateau of Anatolia lying in Asia Minor.

As might be expected in a country of Turkey’s size and geographic location, the Turkish people are of mixed backgrounds. It is believed that the name “Turk,” once probably the Turkish term for “people,” was given by the Arabs in the Middle Ages to anyone speaking the Turkish language. By this definition, Turks include both Mongoloid and Caucasoid physical types, urban dwellers and nomads, professional people and peasants, to name just a few. This last group – peasants – make up 70% of the country’s population, which now numbers about 40 million.

Examining the fabric of Turkish society, one recognizes eastern tradition and religions intermingled with modern western civilization. This duality – belonging to two worlds – has been a characteristic of Turkey throughout its long history, and is an important consideration in the study of Christianity in the country. For it was in such a mixed soil that the early Christian movement took root, under the guidance of the native Turk, St. Paul. It was such a culture which prompted St. Paul to bring together Jew and Gentile in Christianity.

H.V. Morton, the gentleman riding that Istanbul-bound train so long ago, underscored this characteristic double nature in writing about Paul of Tarsus: “There is a certain inevitability in the fact that the man who was chosen to interpret Christianity to the West should have come from a city which, above all others in the Hellenistic world, was a perfect amalgamation of Orient and Occident.”

The role of Turkey in the early Christian Church was as distinctive as that of the native Turk himself. Christianity was introduced during the Roman rule. The first Christian groups assembled in houses and it is believed that a cave outside of Antioch may have been the locus of the first Church. This is today the site of the Grotto Church of St. Peter.

There is a tradition that the Virgin Mary moved to Ephesus after the Crucifixion, accompanied by St. John. According to this account, the Blessed Virgin died in this part of Anatolia. (Another tradition fixes the site of Mary’s death as Jerusalem.) The ruins of the great Basilica of St. John and the restored house of the Virgin Mary are found in Ephesus today.

St. Paul, who conceived of Christianity as a universal rather than provincial religion, crossed tha land of Anatolia, intending to spread the “good news” of salvation. During his missionary journeys in Turkey, he travelled through the cities of Antioch of Pisidia, Antioch of Syria, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, Perga and Ephesus, remaining in the last city longer than in any other place, with the possible exception of Rome.

The inroads which Paul made were extended by his followers, as Christianity became more firmly rooted in Turkey.

Surviving the persecutions of Diocletian’s reign, the early Christian movement went on to prosper, first under the rule of the Armenian King Tiridates, and subsequently under the reigns of Constantine and Theodosius.

Turkey hosted the first seven Councils of the Church, through which official Christian dogma was to evolve, and Hellenic-Christian civilization had its roots in the teachings of the fourth century Anatolian Fathers of the Church, including St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen.

With such a rich history and tradition, the Church in Turkey may be expected to be fluorishing. Since 1453, however, when Constantine’s city was conquered by the Turks, the influence of Christianity has declined. In fact, until the Republic which Mustafa Kemal, or “Ataturk,” founded on October 29, 1923, the roles of sultan (king) and caliph (the Moslem equivalent of pope) were identified with the same man.

Although the idea of separation of Church and State was introduced in the 1930s, Islam is still unquestionably the established and predominant Faith in Turkey. Today, an estimated 99% of the country’s population is Moslem.

Nonetheless, there is no erasing the Christian mark in Turkey.

Standing proudly in Istanbul, the Church of St. Sophia is a particularly fitting symbol of Christianity in Turkey. Built by Constantine in 325, and reconstructed by Justinian in 532, “Hagia Sophia” became a mosque in 1453 (its surrounding minarets testifying to that conversion), and a museum of Byzantine art in 1932.

How similar the story of this great Church is to the history of Christianity in Turkey. Though no longer the prevailing religion of the country, Christianity, like St. Sophia, is invincible. What’s more, Turkey itself is a kind of grand museum, forever holding within its borders the mosaic chips of the history of Christianity.

As Christians, we have our roots in the country where St. Paul preached and Constantine ruled, where “Santa Claus” lived and Our Lady may have died, where the monks prayed and the Councils met, in the country that God handpicked to play an important role in His early Church.

As St. Paul himself realized, “Nature has made it the bridge between East and West…” All Christians are eternally linked with Turkey and its people.

Mary Ann McDonnell is a freelance journalist currently living in Larchmont, New York.

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