Archives > Benedict at the "Hinge of the World": The Pontiff Heads for Istanbul
Benedict at the “Hinge of the World”: The Pontiff Heads for Istanbul
- by Dr. Robert Moynihan: Istanbul, Turkey - Day 1
November 26, 2006
At first there was just a carpet of cloud, and in the distance, a blue expanse beyond the clouds, which I took to be the Aegean. Then the plane descended through the clouds and the curving runways of the Istanbul Airport appeared. The plane touched down as lightly as a comforter is spread on a bed and came to a stop.
My first impressions were of the letters, many K's and Y's and H's, or so it seemed to me. And the round heads of the Turks, strong round skulls and short-cropped hair.
I walked through the airport, which was like all modern airports. There was a window to get a visa - three months for Americans at $20, or 15 euros. I showed my passport, the attendant pulled out a sticker and pasted it into the passport, and I handed him a $20 bill. It took all of seven seconds.
I then showed the passport, and walked out of the airport. It was cool and a bit grey, though there was also a translucent light which seemed to lighten the sky from underneath. I took the first cab at the curb, and asked the driver to take me to the Ritz Carlton. We set out.
With the Latin alphabet on the signs, it was easier and more familiar than Russian with its Cyrillic letters. We moved fluidly through heavy traffic. "Today is holiday in Istanbul," the driver said. "Everybody driving."
Once my hand tightened on the handhold above and to the right of me, as the car in front of us stopped and my driver braked - a little too late. We were about to thump into the rear of the other vehicle when he steered to the left, into the breakdown lane, and avoided the other car by inches. "Bad driver," he said, pointing to the other fellow. I was thankful my visit hadn't begun with a crash.
We drove several miles and crossed a bridge. The city began to crowd around us. I saw heaps of stones. I had a sensation of age. There were also colors - some greens, a blue, some rose-colored walls - punctuating the grey of stone and cement. There was a working-class area, with auto shops and little trucks loaded with oranges and winter squash, and a few women in kerchiefs, but no veils. Men seemed to favor black jackets and have five o'clock shadows at noontime. The buildings had strange mushroom shapes on their roofs - ah! they were dishes to receive television signals, eight or ten on each roof!
Then it was down a street with cars parked on both sides, and half over the curbs. Why? Around the corner I saw a Ferris wheel. It was an amusement park.
Turning another corner, we came to the gate of the Ritz. I paid my fare - 35 in Turkish money, which I did not have, so he asked me for 25 euros, which I did have, and I had arrived.
I walked in. They ran my bags through an x-ray machine, and then I was in the lobby, looking out at these plate glass windows which are in front of me now, with the blue of the Bosphorus below me, and half a dozen ships plying their way between this side and the other side - a tugboat pulling a barge, a white ferry, four or five smaller pleasure craft.
My tea is served in a glass cup shaped like a glass vase, with a shiny gilded circle around the top inch of the lip. The waiter brings me a tiny jar of honey, just an inch high. I marvel at the capacity we have to produce jars, and lids, of such miniscule proportions.
As I look out over this water, I think of all the history which has flowed back and forth over this spot, hinge of Asia and Europe. These waters, over which I am surveying the slow-moving boats, once held fleets of Venetian war ships and saw the passage of Jason and his Argonauts as they sought the Golden Fleece on the coasts of the Black Sea.
Here Constantine, recognizing the strategic "lynch-pin" of his empire, which encircled the Mediterranean Sea, set up the city he wished to be called by his name, Constantinople, laying the cornerstone on May 30 in 330 AD, and titling the city "New Rome," much in the manner of "New York." And just as "New York" surpassed York, so "New Rome" in time surpassed Rome, attracting to itself the riches of the east, and developing into "Byzantium." This is the city that the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, contended had reached the highest possible level of human culture, art and artifice, becoming for him a metaphor for all human striving to represent reality in art, for all attempts to shape this sometimes shapeless natural world. In his poem "Sailing to Byzantium" it was the golden nightingale of the emperor which typified the artifice and art of the Byzantines - a nightingale made by a goldsmith, and somehow endowed with the mechanical ability to sing before the lords and ladies of Byzantium.
Thus did this city come to sum up all that the classical world strove to produce in human culture, in architecture, in religion, in art, in mosaics, in legal codes, and even in government, as the Byzantine Empire extended in time from 330 until 1453.
And then, the city fell.
To the Turks.
Who had embraced the Muslim faith.
So ended the glory that was Byzantium, after eleven and a half centuries, and twenty-two centuries after the founding of Rome itself, on the Tiber, in 753 BC.
What the World Needs to Hear
Five hundred and thirty-three years have passed since Byzantium's fall, and on this November in the Year of Our Lord 2006, the Pope of Rome, Benedict XVI, with the eyes of all the world turned upon him, is about to make the most significant journey of his pontificate. He will arrive in Istanbul in two days.
The bishop of old Rome will come to what once was called "new Rome" and here seek to cement the ties of friendship and understanding which have been growing for half a century between the Orthodox and the Catholic world. He is invited here by Patriarch Bartholomew, to celebrate with him the Feast of St. Andrew, the brother of St. Peter, who is believed to have come to this city in the first century, to evangelize Byzantium before it was Byzantium. The feast falls on November 30. Since Patriarch Bartholomew has visited Rome on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, which falls on June 29 each year, the pope has decided it is appropriate to return the gesture, and visit Bartholomew on the Feast of St. Andrew. Christian relations, internal Christian matters, are one chief motivation of this trip: the healing of the "Great Schism" which has divided the Orthodox - the Eastern Christians - from the Roman Catholics since 1054, now 952 years.
But there is another focus of this trip, which destiny, or history, or personal choice - it is impossible to say which - has imposed. And that is the dialogue, and confrontation, with Islam.
For this trip falls 77 days after Pope Benedict's speech at Regensburg, Germany, where he spoke of Islam, and cited a Byzantine emperor's accusation that Islam was spread by coercion, by force. He spoke also of the West's own form of "violence" and "irrationality" in its denial of the transcendent. Indeed, his comments were more directed toward the West and the danger of its renunciation of the transcendent than they were toward Islam and its alleged embrace of coercion in matters of religion.
But his words fell like sparks on dry tinder and enflamed outrage throughout the world. Many Muslims felt the pope had insulted their faith. (Many secularists said he had done precisely that, though it is difficult to see what standing they have to make comments in this matter.) In any case, following the Regensburg talk, which occurred precisely five years and one day after 9/11 and the fall of the Twin Towers in New York City, the prospects and significance of this papal trip to Istanbul altered. Instead of concentrating on Christian questions, on relations with the Orthodox, the trip was transformed into an opportunity to attempt to grasp and clarify the issues that now increasingly divide the Muslim world from the post-Christian West.
These coming days in Istanbul promise to set the pope within a spotlight of attention to his every word, his every nuance of phrase, to discern whether he, as the "moral authority of the West" - though the West itself no longer recognizes his moral authority, but rejects and often mocks it - has something of importance to say to the entire world at this current moment of apparent impasse.
As the war in Iraq burns on; as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians remains unresolved; as the direction of European culture seems to hang in the balance with the decision of whether to permit Turkey to enter the European Union; as the problems of world energy supplies seem to grow more acute, making the Middle East ever more central to the world's economic future - as all these elements come together in November 2006 in Istanbul, the pope is preparing his words carefully. What will he say?
No one knows, of course. But if he is true to his office and his own past, he will speak in a profound way about the one thing most important to him: the Gospel. That is, the Christian faith. He will attempt, as St. Paul attempted, to speak in such a way that the whole world can hear him. The Muslims of Turkey and the Islamic world, the Jews of Israel and the Diaspora, the humanists of the West, and his own co-believing Christians - Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike. To all he will preach the message of Christ, of salvation from sin and death through faith and hope in Jesus Christ, and in love as "the way" which men are invited to follow, that they might live.
Will this message be pronounced eloquently and courageously? Will it be heard? Will it be perceived as an offense? We will see in the coming days. But it is clear already that these upcoming days in Istanbul will be historic ones, worthy of a city which is still, in so many ways, the hinge of the world - of Europe and Asia, of ancient and modern times, of clashes between civilizations, and of the possibility of finding a way to live in peace for a post-modern world which is seeking its path into mankind's future.
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