History has been incredibly generous to Turkey, which has been vital in the history of the three major religions; Judaism, Christianity & Islam. Turkey is one of a few countries where all three religions have co-existed peacefully for centuries. There are a many important sites in Turkey of interest to people of all faiths. Although predominantly a Muslim nation, the Secular Turkish State respects all religions & all faiths. A remarkable example to this is right in the heart of Istanbul. Ortakoy a ditrict on the Bosphorus brings these three religions into one place, where one can find a church, a synagogue & a mosque within few hundred yards to each other.
Visitors to Turkey are often touched by the call to prayer from lofty minarets. The call is heard five times a day, inviting the faithful to face towards Mecca & pray from the Koran. Although Turkey is a secular democracy which guarantees freedom of religion for all people, Islam is the country's predominant religion. People of all faiths may visit Turkey's mosques.
Islam's roots in Turkey date to the 10th Century. In the ensuing centuries Seljuk & Ottoman Turks constructed impressive mosques with elegant interior decorations & imposing domes & minarets. Virtually every Turkish city has a mosque of historical or architectural significance. Sultanahmet Mosque in Istanbul stands as perhaps the most impressive. Built between 1609 & 1616 in the classic Ottoman style, the building is more familiarly known as the Blue Mosque because of its magnificent interior panelling of blue & white Iznik tiles. The Suleymaniye Mosque is the largest in Istanbul. It was built between 1550 & 1557 by Suleyman the Magnificent, the greatest sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Other cities also have impressive Islamic architecture. The Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque) with its 20 domes & Yesil Cami (Green Mosque) in Bursa, was constructed between 1419 & 1420. The mosque derives its name from the exquisite green & turquoise tiles in its interior. Haci Bayram Mosque in Ankara was built in the early 15th century in the Seljuk style & was subsequently restored by the master Ottoman architect Sinan in the 16th century. Selimiye Mosque in Edirne reflects the classical Ottoman style & Sinan's lasting genius.
Konya ranks as one of the great cultural centres of Turkey. As the capital of the Seljuk Turks from the 12th to the 13th centuries Konya was a center of cultural, political & religious growth. During this period, the mystic Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi founded a Sufi Order known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes. Mevlana's striking green-tiled mausoleum is Konya's most famous attraction. Attached to the mausoleum, the former dervish seminary now serves as a museum housing manuscripts of Mevlana's works & various artefacts related to the mystic sect.
The Ottomans claimed the title of the Caliphate in the 16th century & the Sultan's were the religious leaders of Islam until Ataturk abolished the system transforming Turkey into a secular democratic republic in 1924.
More & more people are discovering the important role Asia Minor (Turkey) played in the history of Christianity. Travelers can discover many magnificent churches, some nearly as old as Christianity itself & can retrace the footsteps of Saints Peter & Paul from the Biblical city of Antioch to the underground churches of Cappadocia. Many of the most important events in Christian history occurred in Turkey. Born in Tarsus, the Apostle Paul spread the word of Jesus Christ across Asia Minor, expanding Christianity's reach from a predominantly Jewish base to Gentile communities.
Not far from Tarsus on Turkey's Eastern Mediterranean coast is Antakya known in biblical times as Antioch. This ancient city was founded around 300 B.C. & was home to the first important Christian community, founded in 42 AD by St. Paul. Jesus' followers were first called "Christians" in Antioch & from here Christianity spread to the world. St. Paul departed from Antioch on his three missionary journeys. The city holds the Church of St. Peter, a cave-church where the apostles Peter & Paul are believed to have preached. In 1963, the Vatican designated the site a place of pilgrimage & recognized it as the world's first cathedral.
The "Seven Churches of Asia Minor," a series of communities located near the Aegean coast, is where St. Paul visited, preached & built the early church. Their ancient names - Ephesus (Efes), Smyrna (Izmir), Thyatira (Akhisar), Sardis (Sart), Philadelphia (Alasehir), Laodecia (Eskihisar) & Pergamum (Bergama) are familiar from the New Testament's Book of Revelation.
Ephesus, perhaps the most prominent of the Seven Churches, is where St. Paul wrote his letters to the Ephesians & where St. John the Evangelist brought the Virgin Mary to spend her last years. The Vatican recognizes the Virgin Mary's house, located in the hills near Ephesus, as a shrine. Just outside Ephesus, in Selcuk, is the Basilica of St. John where he preached & is believed to be buried.
Many other regions in Turkey offer a wealth of attractions to the Christian traveler. St. Nicholas was born & lived in Demre on the Mediterranean coast. A church dedicated to the original Santa Claus still stands. Visitors to the biblical area of Cappadocia, located in Central Anatolia, can explore more than thousands of carved rock churches beautifully decorated with frescoes depicting early Christian motifs, & a seven-story underground city where Christians took refuge from their persecutors.
The stunning Monastery of the Virgin Mary located near the Black Sea in Trabzon is a well-known monastic centre dating to the 4th century. Built on the edge of a l200 foot cliff & accessible only by foot, it housed some of the Orthodox Church's greatest priests.
Istanbul became the centre of Christianity in 330 AD & Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in Constantinople. It was here that the largest church in Christendom at the time, Hagia Sophia or the Church of the Divine Wisdom, was dedicated by Emperor Justinian in 536 AD. The Kariye Museum, a Greek Orthodox Church from the 11th & 14th centuries, is famous for its incomparable Byzantine frescoes & mosaics.
Judaism has had a continuous presence in Turkey since ancient times. Signs written in Hebrew & menorahs carved into stone at historical sites such as Ephesus, Kusadasi, Priene, Hierapolis & Pamukkale attest to long history of Jews in Turkey. In Sardis, near Izmir, the remains of the largest ancient synagogue in existence date to the 3rd century AD. Its frescoes & mosaics suggest a large, well-established & successful Jewish community in Sardis.
According to the legend of the great flood, Noah's Ark ran aground at Mount Agri (Ararat). When the floodwaters receded, Noah & his family descended from the mountain to the fertile Igdir Plain & repopulated the world.
Jewish Patriarchs Abraham & Job also made their mark in eastern Turkey. Sanli Urfa in South Eastern Turkey is known as the city of Prophets. A cave there is said to be the birthplace of the prophet Abraham. It has become a place of pilgrimage & is now surrounded by the Halil Rahman Mosque. The Prophet Job, who was famed for his patience, is believed to have spent seven years recovering from illness inside another cave located in the district of Eyyubiye two kilometres south of Sanli Urfa.
Jews have enjoyed tolerance & peace in Turkey for centuries. After the Jewish communities in Spain & Portugal were exiled in 1492 during the Inquisition, Sultan Beyazit II welcomed them to the Ottoman Empire. As a result, many Jewish communities still thrive in modern Turkey.
Istanbul is of particular significance to Jewish visitors. In the city's old Jewish Quarter is the 19th century Neve Shalom Synagogue, the Zulfaris Jewish Museum & nearby, the 15th century Ahrida Synagogue. The first Jewish printing press began operating in Istanbul in 1493 & Jewish literature & music flourished during this period.
In Bursa, a short drive south of Istanbul, visitors will find the Gerus Synagogue, built at the end of the 15th century by the first Jews who settled in the city after being expelled from Spain. The name of the synagogue in Hebrew means, "Expelled". Izmir, located on the Aegean coast, has several synagogues, including Beth Israel Synagogue; Bikour Holim Synagogue, named in memory of an epidemic when city hospitals were so full that synagogues were used to house the sick & Giveret Synagogue, rebuilt after an 1841 fire.