"The world is not a rectilinear world, it is a curvilinear world. The heavenly bodies go in a curve because that is the
natural way..."

-- George Bernard Shaw

"I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein."

-- Oscar Niemeyer

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

15. Istanbul: Pilgrimage to an Islamic Shrine

Many years ago, I was born into a reasonably observant Jewish household in Toronto. As a child, I was accustomed to spending the high holidays in religious institutions, surrounded by devout men with beards. So when luck found Heather and I travelling in Istanbul on Yom Kippur, we decided to go for a repeat of my boyhood experience. But with a twist. We would spend the Jewish Day of Atonement in a mosque!
 
But not just any mosque: the Eyup Sultan Mosque.


Eyup Ansari was the standard bearer for the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) as well as the last survivor of his circle of companions. Ansari died in a failed attempt to conquer Constantinople around 699 AD. His body was purportedly found during Mehmet the Conqueror's successful siege of the city in 1453. In tribute, Mehmet ordered Istanbul's first mosque to be built by Ansari's tomb. While the original mosque was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1799, Ansari's shrine remains. Today it's considered Turkey's holiest Islamic site and a major pilgrimage destination.
With the weight of all that history and religion on their shoulders, many non-Muslims might be too intimidated to visit the site. But Heather and I are quite comfortable in Islamic environs. Still we were a bit apprehensive about how the faithful would react to our remaining for prayers.

We needn't have worried. After the service in the cavernous (but jam-packed) house of worship, a number of men came up to me, shook my hand and patted their hearts with their hands - a gesture of welcome and respect. Others nodded and smiled. Heather was received with equal warmth by the women.

Happy, and relieved, we walked with the devotees to the sacred shrine. That's where the real wow factor set in. The outside of the building was enveloped in golden Arabic calligraphy and blue Iznik tile - widely admired as the most beautiful tile work in the Islamic world:

 
Since Islam strictly forbids representational art, the tiles here featured elegant floral patterns:


We entered the shrine, I through the men's door and Heather through the women's - something I've never really understood about Islam since both doors lead to the same chamber where men and women freely mingle. Many of the women were already seated by the back wall silently praying:


After a few minutes of quiet, some of the women got up, took out their cellphones and began jostling with the men for the best photo positions for snapping shots of the solid silver sarcophagus on the raised dais. We joined them in the photo-taking, but not the jostling (we figured they had "right of way") and managed to get this shot:


And this one:


One more extremely important point about Eyup Ansari's shrine. On a wall, in a setback case framed in silver, was a piece of rock embedded with the purported footprint of the Prophet Mohammed. It's almost impossible to get a good shot of it, the glass is thick and tinted green. But I know my Muslim friends would want me to show it:



Strolling back through the mosque's outer courtyard, I couldn't help but reflect on how our experience might have differed had we been a pair of Muslims entering a prominent church or synagogue in North America, taking photos, staying for prayers, and visiting a sacred shrine. In the U.S., we would have been surrounded by armed men faster than you could say "Homeland Security". Yet in visiting mosques in three countries -- Turkey, Syria and Jordan -- we experienced nothing but kindness and welcome. Think about that for a bit.

NOTE: If you might be interested in buying one of my digital art photos, please visit either: http://seymour-kanowitch.fineartamerica.com or http://zazzle.com/wowchitecture*