After a memorable week in Morocco in December 2014, we decided that we wanted to spend every holiday season in a non-Christian country. The perks are many: We get to visit exotic new places and participate in new cultural traditions; we can meet and chat with new people and hear their stories; and Christmas Day is just another day at the office. The people in predominantly Muslim Morocco were so welcoming, so friendly, and eager to swap stories, and we looked for another Muslim country to visit for Christmas 2015.
Turkey was an easy choice. As a secular country, with Western-leaning tendencies and a classic cosmopolitan wonder like Istanbul, it was the top of our list. But just as in Morocco, we weren’t just there so we could go shopping on Christmas Day, we were there as Westerners (especially Americans) to connect with the Muslim community and see their world. Here, Istanbul was another perfect choice, as, unlike Morocco, all of the city’s mosques are open and welcoming to non-Muslim visitors. Outsiders are welcome to step inside the holiest of holy places to experience the customs and traditions—and to learn that they aren’t so foreign as outsiders might expect.
There is no better place to start than a building that has been both a Christian church and a mosque. In the heart of the historic Sultanahmet district, this sixth-century church was the center of Istanbul’s religious influence for nearly a thousand years—first as an Eastern Orthodox Cathedral, then as a mosque after the Ottomans moved in.Today, it’s a tasteful museum, honoring both traditions and both histories. Step inside, crane your neck to see the detailed decoration in the massive central dome, and wonder, they built this thing how long ago?
Note the alterations made during the church’s Christian–Muslim transformation: the central apse, originally built to face Jerusalem, has been modified to face a few degrees to the south, to Mecca. The faces of angels and important characters in Christian circles were covered by Islamic calligraphy—depiction of human images is forbidden in mosques. Thankfully, some of the original Christian mosaics and frescoes were only covered with plaster, and have been restored to create the well-balanced presentation seen in Hagia Sophia today.
Just across Sultanahmet Square from Hagia Sophia is the much newer—but still pretty venerable, built in 1616—Sultan Ahmet Mosque, commonly called the “Blue Mosque” in English thanks to its highly decorative blue interior. Unlike Hagia Sophia, this is a working, breathing place of worship; neighborhood residents use the mosque for daily prayers, washing themselves in the ritual pre-prayer cleansing with the taps in the courtyard and spending a few minutes in silent meditation inside.Visitors enter through a separate entrance—no shoes, please—and are requested not to disturb those praying in rows on the floor. No pews in the mosque, just a grand space, decorated with almost impossibly intricate tile mosaics and gold-leaf calligraphy. Rather than sit in rows of hard wooden benches, the faithful kneel in lines marked on the carpet. Practical. Looking around, Christians—practicing and “cultural Christians” alike—will notice echoes of their own traditions: a ritual with water, candles, decorated walls and windows, a central pulpit (called a mihrab) from which a (male) cleric leads a weekly service, An audible signal from a tall tower that services are about to begin (bells for the Jesus fans, a vocal chant for Muslims). Even modesty rules (for men and women) shouldn’t seem too unfamiliar—how many Christian churches still require women to wear those enormous, silly hats? Looking at you, England! Callin’ you out, polygamist cult leaders!
Mosque Suleyman the Magnificent
Larger than the Blue Mosque, and high up on a hill overlooking Istanbul’s Golden Horn, the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent gets significantly less tourist foot traffic than its more famous friends down in Sultanahmet. But it’s no less worthy of a visit, and just as welcoming to non-Muslims.The interior follows many of the same conventions of the Blue Mosque—intensely decorated, high-domed, hauntingly beautiful, and still in use by local worshippers. Before stepping inside, however, visitors are encouraged to explore the cemetery in the courtyard. Just like the traditions of other Abrahamic faiths, Muslims are buried in consecrated ground in view of their places of worship. Walk through the headstones and admire the detailed carvings and finish with a visit to the opulent mausoleums of Suleyman—the Ottoman sultan who funded the construction of this mosque—and his family.
In a time when we live with so much intolerance and misunderstanding—religious and political—it’s important to remember that people all over the world, people, have many more similarities than differences. The best way to combat these prejudices is with a determined will to stay empathetic—not much fun—and a willingness to travel to meet new people, talk to them, hear their stories—much more fun.
And if you can find an open shop on Christmas Day, well, that’s just gravy.