In May, I packed my bags for a journey of a lifetime… a trip to the exotic and ancient land of Turkey as a guest of the Rumi Forum. I had my reservations about taking this trip. For years I’ve heard that Americans are not liked in many parts of the Muslim world, so I wondered about how I would be treated there. I knew that Turkey, a predominately Muslim country, is different from other middle east countries. Even though the language, religious beliefs, and cultural values are different, Turkey has been an American ally for decades. That fact along with the warm friendly smiles and generous invitation of the Rumi Forum made my choice to visit Turkey a simple one.
I expected to see ancient sites and people entrenched into antiquity, living fifty years ago in the past. I expected to see the Turkey of the movies as in Midnight Express or an old James Bond movie. And as much as I hate to say it, I expected to see a third world country. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see Turkey for what it is, a beautiful and modern country where old and new and the east and west meet. Streets bustling with new cars, people going to work, children going to, and everybody was busy with the things of life.
My first sight of Turkey came from five thousand feet. As my plane was descended to land, I could see Istanbul, this huge city of millions, spread out beneath me for miles and miles yet split by the meandering blue of the Bosporus. The vast expanse of red clay tiled houses and apartments neatly separated by rows of roads was adorned by beautiful mosque domes…like colorful shells on a clay beach.
At the airport I was greeted by smiling faces of friendly strangers. The customs and immigration officials and the man that sold me my visa all seemed happy to welcome me to Turkey. (My worries of losing my luggage were all for naught.) With luggage in hand I was quickly greeted with smiling faces of my new Rumi Forum friends that would be showing me their country.
I remember my very first meal in Turkey, my soon-to-be dear friend, Dr. Ali Yurtsever, put his arm around me and with a chuckle in his voice he said, “Come with me and we will eat at my favorite place in town.” We left the hotel, crossed a busy boulevard, strolled down some side streets in the old part of the town and sat on the outside patio of a little restaurant. Within minutes there was a table of delicious food, served with a welcoming smiles by the restaurant owner and his brother. They made me feel as if I was somebody really important. It was then that I first tasted the treasures of Turkish hospitality and delicious Turkish food.
Later in the day as I checked into the hotel, I met with the rest of my fellow travelers that were also invited for this Rumi Forum tour. Our touring group would be ten Americans, and four Turks. Incidentally this hotel and all of the other hotels we stayed in during our trip were excellent. Modern, clean, and very comfortable, just like any hotel I would find in the states or Europe.
On our first evening in Turkey, our bus took us from our hotel to the banks of the Bosporus where we boarded a boat for a dinner cruise. A night time dinner cruise on the Bosporus is a must see part of any trip to Turkey. The view of Istanbul, the Topkapi and Dolmabahce palaces and numerous mosques is spectacular…and of course the food was delicious.
Our second day in Turkey started with a great breakfast buffet equal to any I’ve had at the Marriott’s and Hiltons. Then while the day was still young we were off some of the best attractions of Istanbul. The rest of the day we toured the Blue Mosque, the Hagias-Sophia Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. WOW!!! I can’t say enough about all of the beauty and the grandeur of these places…truly amazing.
The rest of our days in Turkey were also equally busy and amazing. We toured the cities or Bursa, Manisa, Izmir, Capadocia, Ephesus, and Kayseri. We visited schools, so called “Gulen Schools“, that spanned the education spectrum from elementary grades to college. We also dined with several different families that opened their homes and their hearts to us and made us not only feel welcome but making us feel like we didn’t want to leave.
Our longest day on this tour started from Izmir at 4 am where we were bused to the airport for a flight to Kayseri. Little did we know that our day would last to midnight. From Kayseri we bussed to the ancient unearthly city of Capadocia, where homes are carved into the volcanic rock called tuffa. Imagine stone tee-pees hundreds of feet tall that had been hollowed out for homes in this primitive wilderness two thousand years ago. Very cool. And to think many of these strange homes are still inhabited today. We lunched there on more delicious food at a restaurant with a spectacular view of the city of stone below. Then it was from one strange dwelling place to another, the next stop was Nevsehir, the underground city. Although nobody lives in this city today, it was estimated that up to twenty thousand people could stay in these ancient places for several months at a time.
By 9 pm in the evening on this day we were all tired and eager for our hotel beds. Boy were we surprised (pleasantly I must add). Our bus turned off the main road and started up a dark narrow driveway lined with bushes that scraped both sides of the bus as we passed by. Those of us still awake knew that this was not the way to the hotel. After a few hundred yards of bus bush whacking we drove into a clearing with two houses and a beautiful night time vista of Kayseri lit up like a thousand glittering diamonds below. Standing between the two houses was a family waiting patiently to greet us and share dinner with us. We ate, we sang, we danced, and we smiled till our faces hurt. Wow what another great day.
Visiting the ancient Biblical city of Ephesus was also very amazing. The ruins of the library and the amphi-theater are still very impressive today. Nearby to Ephesus we also visited the home of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. I always wondered how Mary spent here later years of life…now I know.
Most of all, this trip to Turkey was more than a sightseeing journey to visit exotic places and see wonderful sights of great history. This was a trip into the heart and soul of the Turkish people. I didn’t just eat food with strangers and newly made friends, I feasted with families that set a place at their table for me and welcomed me into their hearts and homes.
Turkey is a feast for the senses. It is a place for learning of old and new. Yes it’s true that Turks speak a different language, and have different cultures and religions, but you know what? It doesn’t matter…it doesn’t matter what religion, what race, what culture, or what country people are from. People are people. We all laugh and cry and love and hate. We all love our families, and we all want to be happy and pursue the joys of life.
On a final and deeper note, my trip has also taught me a great lesson.
For the longest time, I have wondered if there could ever be peace between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Seeing the centuries of conflict and hearing the horrible events of sorrow and death on the daily news, I doubted that it would ever be possible. After my trip to Turkey and being welcomed with open arms, I have hope anew. I know if there is to be peace between cultures and religions that seem so different, the key to that peace is the Rumi Forum, the Fethullah Gulen movement, and the loving and tolerant teachings of Mawlana Jalaladdin Rumi