Katie and I spent last weekend in Istanbul, Turkey as part of the Rice Centennial Celebration there. When Edgar Odell Lovett, Rice’s first president, traveled the world collecting ideas for the institution he was about to launch, Istanbul was an important stop on his journey. Therefore, as one of many celebrations Rice has organized this year in honor of its hundredth birthday, a weekend of festivities, fellowship, and learning was organized in Istanbul.
Katie and I arrived Friday just in time for the opening dinner, which was held at the Ritz-Carlton. This featured several speakers, including Rice’s current president, David Leebron, and several local dignataries and . . . a delicious buffet! Everything in the buffet was labeled as “Turkish” this or “Turkish” that. I have my doubts as to how authentic the “Turkish chocolate mousse” was but it was all delicious.
This dinner was a fun opportunity to catch up with many people I knew from Houston in a very different local setting – something I have always enjoyed. Moreover, it was a great chance to meet several Turkish alumni. I reconnected with one of my classmates (who is Turkish) whom I haven’t seen since graduation – what fun! The trip was off to a good start.
Saturday morning began with an amazing breakfast at our own hotel. The buffet was set up on the top floor with 270 degrees of view overlooking the beautiful Bosphorus strait. The Bosphorus surprised me with how much traffic it supported; even early in the morning there were ferries, cargo ships, and huge barges crisscrossing all over the place.
We made our way back over to the Ritz where we were treated to a morning of lectures and panel discussion, including Ambassador Edward Djerejian (also a founder of Rice’s Baker Institute of Public Policy) on repercussions of the Arab Spring and David Leebron discussing the future of the university with the president of the American University in Cairo.
As a group we then took a bus to the Old Town where we had lunch and toured two mosques. The first, the Blue Mosque, was really impressive with its very elaborate tile work (the rich colors of which give the mosque its name) and the second, Hagia Sophia, was equally impressive with its huge dome and frescoes and mosaics.
After a sunset cruise along the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, we were received by Ali Koç, a Rice alum whose family is very prominent in Turkey’s private sector. He hosted an al fresco gala dinner at his family’s industrial museum, which was a wonderful setting aided by continued wonderful weather.
Sunday we took an organized tour with several other weekend participants. We started at Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultan for centuries. It was a fascinating compound with an amazing view. Of particular interest was a collection of incredibly ornate jewelry and arms as well as a collection of relics including a bronzed footprint of the prophet Mohammed and the staff of Moses.
On our way back to the bus we stopped by an artist’s shop to see Ebru artwork in action. It was really cool and the artist produced a work specifically in celebration of Rice’s 100 years. Given that we had spent the previous 24 hours immersed in locations dating back multiple millenia, Rice’s centennial seemed a bit small by comparison! Still, the gesture was very well received and much appreciated.
Lunch was at a restaurant that specialized in traditional Ottoman cuisine. For the first time I felt like we might be dining on something pretty authentic. There was a great deal of cinnamon even on our savory courses, which is something I could REALLY get used to! My favorite dessert of the weekend, pistachio ice cream floating in sesame pudding, was here.
After lunch we visited the Chora Church, which has rich, beautiful frescoes on every wall and ceiling. We then wrapped up the day with my favorite destination by far: the Basilica Cistern. Many hundreds of years ago this huge underground cavern was used to store water (transported by aquaducts for up to 19 km) in the event of water supplies being cut during a siege of the city. There was a network of hundreds of these cisterns but this was the grand daddy of them all. Propped up by row after row of columns that had been repurposed from Greek and Roman temples, this “bat cave” was a truly impressive sight. I want one. As my wine cellar!
For dinner several of us headed to a restaurant with a 360-degree view. We watched the sun set as we drank local wine and dined on local fish. It was an excellent ending to a short, but really wonderful, trip.
When Mom and I traveled to Egypt 17 years ago, some of my biggest take-aways came not from the Pyramids and ancient temples but rather from immersion for the first time in Muslim culture. This trip to Istanbul was my first time really back in a Muslim setting since then and was the first time I ever set foot inside a mosque.
After spending time in several mosques and learning a bit about the teachings of the Quran, I couldn’t help but be impressed by just how similar Islam and Christianity – or at least Catholicism – are. Between the big, domed houses of worship, the prayer beads, the artwork on the walls and in stained glass, the relics of significant people, I was just left with such a sense of, “Are we so different, you and I?”
This point was particularly driven home in the church-mosques we visited – former churches that were now in use as mosques. In each mosque there is a mihrab that shows the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca. In Istanbul, this points South-East. It turns out that the churches had been set up to face South-East already to capture the sun’s rise and much of its daily journey. So the mihrab in these church-mosques was barely off center from where the original alter had been! Converting a church to a mosque had required very little change at all!
Surely someone much more learned than I might point out all the differences but to me this served as a poignant reminder that ISLAM is not our enemy. EXTREMISTS are the ones who have attacked and terrorized us (and others) and EXTREMISTS exist in Christianity and Judaism (and probably most other faiths – or non-faiths) as well. I’ve known that distinction rationally, of course, but you really FEEL it when you’re on the ground, soaking up the culture.
The trip was too short and we will have to return to spend more time. In the meantime we are in the suspended reality of summertime Switzerland (or “Paradise” as I like to call it) where I have some IMD-related meetings over the next couple of weeks. More on that soon!