As the historic capital of major Christian and Muslim empires, and a land where the world’s three monotheistic religions have long coexisted, Turkey has a rich cultural and religious heritage. Given the historical ties amongst different religions in this region, whatever one’s faith, visitors travelling through Turkey will find much to discover, with a plethora of superb mosques, churches and synagogues, including more than 200 practicing churches and 24 synagogues. The secular constitution of the Republic of Turkey guarantees freedom of worship and those of all faiths are welcomed – continuing in the Ottoman tradition of diversity and tolerance, where many different faiths lived in harmony.
In south-eastern Turkey, Sanliurfa is said to be the birthplace of Abraham, the patriarch of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The town draws visitors of all three faiths, particularly Muslims who revere Abraham as a prophet, to see the cave where Abraham is said to have been born and to the Hazreti Ibrahim Halilullah mosque complex built in his honour. In the surrounding region are other sites connected to Abraham, including the town of Harran, mentioned in the Book of Genesis.
Early Christian History
Anatolia is of special importance in early Christian history. From the missionary journeys of the Apostles, to the role of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire and the early Ecumenical Councils, many key developments in the spread and organization of the faith took place in Anatolia.
Saints John, Paul and Peter all lived in southern Anatolia. The ancient city of Antioch (modern-day Antakya), once the third-largest city in the Roman Empire, was the headquarters of St. Paul’s missionaries, the base for several missionary journeys, and the place where followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Saints Peter and Barnabas also preached in the city, and the cave-church of St. Peter, from where Peter is believed to have preached to Antioch’s Christians, is considered one of the earliest Christian houses of worship, perhaps even the first church in the world. In 1963, the Vatican designated the site a place of pilgrimage. Nearby Seleucia Pieria (now called Cevlik) is mentioned in the New Testament as the port from which Paul and Barnabas set sail for their first missionary journey to Cyprus.
Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul, is located 30 km east of the city of Mersin, on the edge of the fertile Cukurova Plain. Visitors to Tarsus can drink the sacred water from the well in the garden of St. Paul’s house. Further west on the Mediterranean coast near Silifke are the cave-church and tomb of St. Thecla, known as the first female Christian martyr.
The Churches of the Revelation
The Roman city of Ephesus was one of the Seven Churches of Asia mentioned in the Book of Revelation, all of which were located in Anatolia. St. Paul spent three years living in the city and preaching to its citizens, and St. John the Evangelist, who went to Ephesus in AD 95 near the end of his life, is said to have written his Gospel there. John is buried nearby in present-day Selcuk and the site is marked by the Basilica of St. John. The other six churches, all in present day Turkey, are located in Smyrna (Izmir), Pergamum, Thyatira (Akhisar), Sardis and Denizli – and there are number of companies who organise tours to visit these sites.Meryam Ana Evi, The House of Mother Mary
Tradition has it that sometime after the Crucifixion John brought the Virgin Mary to Ephesus, where she spent her last days in a small stone house atop Bulbul Dagi (Mt. Koressos). Called “Meryemana,” it is a popular pilgrimage site, also open for prayer.
Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus)
St Nicholas, or Father Christmas, is one of the most popular Saints in the Christian world. Few people realise he was born in what is modern-day Turkey, in Patara, a port in the province of Lycia, around 270 AD. Although his life is shrouded in legend, we do know he was bishop of Myra at the time of Constantine the Great. The Church of St. Nicholas in Demre ancient Myra, can still be visited today and there is a festival held there each year in the first week of December to mark his feast day.
The Journeys of St. Paul
St. Paul was one of the first preachers of the new religion, having himself undergone a conversion on the road to Damascus. Paul completed several apostolic journeys during his lifetime and there are several tours retracing the steps of his first journey today through Perge, Antioch in Pisidia (Yalvac), Iconium (Konya), Derbe, Attaleia (Antalya) and back to Antioch. He later spent many years in Ephesus preaching the new religion of Christianity to Jews and Pagans.
Christianity became firmly established in Anatolia in the 4th century, when it was made the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. The first seven Ecumenical Councils, which sought to resolve doctrinal questions and unify Christianity, were all held in Anatolia, beginning with the Council of Nicaea (present-day Iznik) in 325 AD. Turkey’s Christian heritage is evident today in the many churches across the country, the largest and most impressive of which are in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). Though Hagia Sophia and Chora Church are the most famous, dozens of other churches—from the Byzantine era and later, representing many Christian denominations—are to be found around the city.
Cappadocia, in central Turkey, is another destination that is not to be missed. Within a few centuries after the death of Jesus, Cappadocia became an important centre of Christianity, particularly for monastic Christian communities that took advantage of the region’s seclusion and stark landscape to practice their religion without interference. In the 4th century, the region was home to three important saints known today as the Cappadocian Fathers—St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea (present-day Kayseri), St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. George of Nazianzus—and their legacy attracted the faithful to the area. Over the centuries, Cappadocia’s Christians carved hundreds of churches out of the region’s porous rock and decorated them with elaborate frescoes.
Turkey, the former centre of the vast Ottoman Empire, has many sites that are sacred to Muslims. In Istanbul, visitors to Topkapi Palace can view relics of the Prophet Mohammed and other important items from Mecca that were brought back to Istanbul after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. Eyup Camii & Turbe, the mosque and tomb of Eyup Ensari (Ayoub al-Ansari) is considered Islam’s forth most holy site. Eyup Ensari was a companion of the Prophet Mohammed who died during the first Arab siege of Constantinople (674-78). The 13th Century twin minaret Medrese (religious school) in Erzurum is another notable site.
Mevlana or Sufis
The city of Konya is another significant Muslim pilgrimage site, for it houses the tomb and shrine of the 13th-century Sufi mystic poet and philosopher Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, who spent much of his life, and died, in Konya. While the tomb is impressive and moving at any time of the year, visitors to Konya during the annual festival in honour of Rumi, which takes place the first two weeks of December, will also have the opportunity to see traditional performances of “whirling dervishes” and other tributes to Rumi.
As well as Istanbul’s synagogues, you can also visit the archaeological excavations of early Jewish settlements in Sardis (Sart, near Salihli), host to one of the world’s oldest synagogues from 220 B.C., or journey to Mount Ararat, said to be the landing place of Noah’s Ark.
A COUNTRY OF ALL FAITHS
Any visitor to Turkey will be struck by the plethora and variety of religious buildings and ancient shrines. There are temples dedicated to ancient gods, churches of many denominations, synagogues and of course, plenty of mosques too. As civilizations succeeded each other over a period of 8000 years, they bestowed their religious legacy and following the monotheistic domination of Anatolia, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism co-existed in harmony.