9,000 years ago  

“What a feeling to walk around where people lived 9,000 years ago,” said Jessica Glover, a Nursing major at the University of the Incarnate Word, after visiting the excavations of  Çatalhöyük, Turkey.

This Neolithic site is one of the first places where people had lived a sedentary life and developed farming. About 8,000 people lived in adobe houses adjacent to each other.

Troy Steen, a UIW Environmental Science major, reflected, “It was very interesting to see the digs, but the whole area was the most beautiful place I saw the entire trip. It was hilly and covered in purple flowers. The air was fresh; it wasn’t too hot outside. The sky was clear. I felt most at peace and I probably spent more time gazing around the hillside than I did looking at the dig. It was a chance to really appreciate nature and the spiritual feeling that comes  with that.   I loved the fields of flowers and wondered if ancient people enjoyed them as much as I do.” UIW students and faculty were part of  a Dialogue Institute of the Southwest two-week study tour of Turkey, visiting not only ancient Çatalhöyük, but also Istanbul, Kasraie, Konya, Izmir, Ephesus, and Bursa.

Excavation site at Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Photo by Martha Ann Kirk.
Excavation site at Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Photo by Martha Ann Kirk.

2,000 years ago                                                                                                               

We stayed in Izmir, a city on the beautiful Agean Sea, and we drove about an hour south to Ephesus, which seems to be the best example of a Greco-Roman city today — even better than Rome, which has been covered. It was the capitol of Roman province of Asia and the home of St. Paul for two years.  Later he wrote the epistle Ephesians to them. Acts of the Apostles tells of the riot of the silversmiths in the Great Theater of Ephesus because they opposed St. Paul preaching about one God.  Sr. Martha Ann Kirk, UIW Religious Studies professor explained, “Their trade was to make statues of Artemis (Diana). The whole city benefited from the tourist industry because thousands of  pilgrims came to her temple, one of the largest sanctuaries in the ancient world.  \The idea of one spiritual God would ruin their economy. Through the ages, controversies continue between economic systems and religions. Often economics, more than the content a faith tradition, is what fuels discrimination and conflicts.”

1000 years ago                                                                                                                       

We climbed and strolled around the Cappadocia area which has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is famous for the underground cities carved into the volcanic rock where people might have lived, safely hidden from enemies; for its rock-cut churches, and for its moon-like landscape and “fairy chimney” formations. Glover was impressed by these Christians who were devoted to their faith even though they might be hunted by opposing peoples.  From the fourth to the 13th century, the Göreme area was an important Christian center with many monks and nuns. Over 400 churches were carved into the rock and decorated with frescoes of Bible stories and holy people. Göreme Open Air Museum has some of the most beautiful chapels and churches which were mainly from 900 to 1200 A.D.

Homes and churches carved into the rock at Göreme Open Air Museum in Cappadocia. Photo by Jessica Glover.
Homes and churches carved into the rock at Göreme Open Air Museum in Cappadocia. Photo by Jessica Glover.

800 years ago

In the 1200’s the mystic poet and philosopher Jelaleddin Rumi, also known as Mevlana, lived and wrote in Konya, a center in the Seljuk empire. He inspired the founding of the Whirling Dervish Sufi order.  His deep wisdom and love have impressed people around the globe. Even a few years ago, Rumi was the best-selling poet in the U.S.

Steen explained, “Our tour guide told us how Rumi had requested to not have a tombstone because the sky was the most beautiful tombstone of all. It was so poetic, simple, and true. It was his first words that really resonated with me. Well, his descendants did not respect Rumi’s wishes; they built a tomb and mosque to hold his remains. It is now a museum and the main tourist attraction in the region.”

500 years ago                                   

The Dialogue Institute tour took us to a small, but fascinating former synagogue, now the Jewish Museum of Turkey in Istanbul.   While the museum display began with information on Jews during Greco-Roman times, of particular interest were stories of the Muslims welcoming and protecting Jews in 1492 and in the 1930s and 40s.

“Jews were forced out of Spain during the inquisition, and Sultan Bayezid II of Turkey welcomed the Jews and sent ships over to ferry them back,” Steen said. “He said that they had a right to be who they were and practice how they wished. He made laws banning Turkish people  from discriminating  against the Jewish immigrants” The Turkish leader Ataturk in 1933 started inviting German Jewish professors to come work in Turkey to get away from the dangers of Nazi Germany.

100 years ago

Dialogue Institute trips are more than visits to the ordinary tourist sites.  In Kayseri (from Caesarea, one of the many Roman cities named after Caesar), we were taken to an overlooked Armenian Church.  The size and beauty of St. Gregory the Illuminator  Church built in 1856 indicated that there had been a flourishing community there.  Now only five Armenians remain in the area. According to the Ottoman census of Kayseri in 1914, there were 50,000 Armenians, many of them prominent in business and medicine.  In 1915 they were forced to leave, though  Muslim neighbors hid and protected some of the Armenians in the empire.

To prevent the church from being confiscated, a few times a year clergy from Istanbul go there to have services, and Armenian pilgrims go to this special place where St. Gregory lived in the late third century. After he had become a Christian, he went to Armenia and converted King Tiridates III to Christianity. In 301, the king proclaimed Christianity the state religion making Armenia the first country in the world to do so. In 2001, a service was held in the church to commemorate the 1700th anniversary of that proclamation.

Some call Kayseri the Armenian “Mecca.”  Mehmet Oguz, director of the Dialogue Institute in San Antonio, met and listened to a man of Armenian descent from Los Angeles, who came to visit the place where his father’s grandparents had lived and prayed in Kayseri. They left in the early 1900’s. The man was grateful that Oguz listened to his story of family roots and Armenian Church roots in Kayseri.

Mehmet Oguz, a local host, and the caretaker in St. Gregory Armenian Church. Photo by Jessica Glover.
Mehmet Oguz, a local host, and the caretaker in St. Gregory
Armenian Church. Photo by Jessica Glover.


Denisse Ibarra, who was finishing a degree in religious studies at UIW, said,  “Within the first few days of being in Turkey, I learned of a few organizations that bring people together from all over the world to discuss ways we can form foundations and build bridges for intercultural dialogue. In order to grow in wisdom we must first learn compassion for others who are different from us. In Istanbul, I learned of the Journalist and Writers Foundation, which is an outlet for activists with a cause.  This organization gives writers a voice on an international level and has paved a way for people to come together from different parts of the world to discuss issues regarding racism, sexism, classism, and anti-environmentalism.

(See “Development Goals for the Global Family”)

“This is the ideal way to resolve issues, to come write about it, share it, then to do something about it; being proactive begins a ripple effect of awareness that mandates immediate attention. A problem clearly stated is a problem half solved.”

UIW strongly urges students to participate in civic activities, to be involved in volunteer service projects, and in relation to these has started a Center for Civic Leadership.   In light of this, plans have been made for UIW students to visit and learn from Kimse Yok Mu, a solidarity and aid organization in Turkey.

Kirk had written a book, Growing Seeds of Peace, about their work.  We were seeing emotional news reports about a coal mine explosion in Soma, Turkey, where a few hundred miners had died and others were still trapped. When we visited the central office of  Kimse Yok Mu, we not only learned of their extensive work to help suffering people in over ninety countries, we found out that they had dispatched rescue workers to the mine explosion in Soma.  The organization was also leading a campaign to raise funds to help the families of the miners.

Sifa University students sell their homemade baked goods to benefit victims of the mine explosion in Soma. Photo by Martha Ann Kirk.
Sifa University students sell their homemade baked goods to benefit
victims of the mine explosion in Soma. Photo by Martha Ann Kirk.

Dialogue Institute trips try to include visits to institutions or groups inspired by the Hizmet (Service) Movement, which might especially interest the participants.  Since university people were on this trip, we got to visit three universities, Meliksah University in Kayseri, Mevlana (Rumi) University in Konya,  and Sifa University in Izmir.  Sifa University especially focuses on health careers and is associated with six hospitals.  They extend invitations to health professionals and to students in the field to do extended observations in their hospitals.  They invited Glover to come back and spend time with them.

After seeing the sad news about the miners and their families, we were impressed by the Sifa University students who were having a kermis, a benefit sale to help the Kimse Yok Mu relief effort.  We helped by buying and eating lots of their sweets!

Dialogue Institute trips include dinners in homes with local hosts. Mary Margaret Lobb, a teacher from the University of Houston – Clearlake, said, “The highlight of the trip for me was the wonderful dinner in the home of Dr. Figen Es.   he and her colleague Dr. Gül?ah Gülal, prepared a delicious meal consisting of at least twenty dishes – Turkish hospitality at its best. We were stuffed to bursting and were encouraged to eat more! But the best part was meeting and conversing with these two outstanding women.

“Dr. Es had just finished giving the keynote address at the Women’s Conference on Mary in the Quran and the Bible and I look forward to reading her speech. She was a great hostess, and a terrific cook with a non-stop smile. I really appreciated the fact that she found the time to make such an epicurean extravaganza with her busy schedule.”

Dr. Es is a physician, has a research clinic, and is one of the three hosts of “Family Guidance” a weekly program on Samanyolu television, which can be watched online in the US.

Lobb also said, “Dr. Gülal helped Dr. Es prepare the meal and taught me a priceless lesson: how to make Turkish coffee. She had just completed her residency in radiology in Mardin in southeastern Turkey. She positively glowed when sharing the ‘hardest but greatest spiritual experience’ of her life. Imagine having the strength to begin a two year residency with a six-month old and a two-year old on your own far from home (Dr. Gülal’s husband works in Istanbul). Both of these gracious and intelligent women were exemplars of joy, faith, and love for others. It was an honor and privilege to meet them.”

Mary Margaret Lobb, Dr. Figen Es, and Dr. Gül?ah Gülal in Es's home in Istanbul. Photo by Jessica Glover.
Mary Margaret Lobb, Dr. Figen Es, and Dr. Gül?ah Gülal in Es’s home in Istanbul. Photo by Jessica Glover.

Reflecting on the trip, Ibarra noted, “There are various common misconceptions about the ‘other’  that are based on ignorance and in extreme cases, xenophobia which is basically prejudice rooted in fear. Many of my friends in San Antonio believe that Muslim women wear a hijab because they are forced to wear one, but as I have come to learn many Muslim women in Turkey choose to cover themselves out of devotion to Allah, which means God in Arabic. That is not to say that countries do not exist where women are forced to abide by religious law.  However, there are many regions where women are free to choose how they devote themselves to Allah.  It is important to communicate with people from different backgrounds from all over the world so that instead of having to imagine the rest of the story, we can learn the whole story from the direct resource. This can put an end to a lot of the prejudice that leads to injustices.”

A boat ride on the Bosporus River was a lovely way to spend the last afternoon in Istanbul and a definite enticement to return to Turkey, a marvelous crossroad of east and west.  “My experience there was an unforgettable one. I completely fell in love with the culture; their way of life amazed me every day,” Ibarra said.  Glover came home and had a “Turkish Party” inviting family and friends to see, touch, taste, and smell some of the delights she had enjoyed.

Top/Featured image: Jessica Glover, Troy Steen, and Denisse Ibarra pose for a photo beside the mosque over Rumi’s tomb. Photo by Martha Ann Kirk.

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Sr. Martha Ann Kirk

Sister Martha Ann Kirk, a professor of religious studies at UIW, teaches “Arts for Christian Worship” and is very grateful for her students who are compassionate and creative.