Thinking long-term about Christian-Muslim relations

Posted: Jul 15, 2004 12:00 AM

ISTANBUL , Turkey -- When President Bush was here on June 28--29 for the NATO summit, he steered away from talk about a "clash of civilizations" between Christianity and Islam. He is strategically shrewd and probably also factually accurate, as he explains our war on terror, to emphasize that most Muslims oppose homicidal bombers. But it's hard not to think in "clash" terms when you stand at one particular spot here in this city.
The spot is smack dab between two architectural wonders. Look one way from benches, and you'll see Hagia Sophia, the famous domed cathedral that was a Christian wonder of the world for nearly a thousand years. Century after century the church added beautiful frescos and mosaics. A ramp ascending to the Sophia balcony even provided access for the disabled (or empresses too haughty to walk) before access was cool.

 But Hagia Sophia became a mosque following the Muslim conquest of this city in 1453. The conquerors ripped off crosses and destroyed or plastered over the magnificent art. They added huge (and tacky) medallions in Arabic and sayings from the Quran.

 Today, the house of worship is a drab museum that shows off in desolation its huge slabs of marble, with scaffolding aggressively entering what should be open space.   Hagia Sophia is one sad site, and maybe that's the way Muslim Turkey wants it to be, because look the other way from those outside benches and you'll see the mother of all in-your-face building projects: the magnificently-domed Blue Mosque (aka the Sultan Ahmet).

 Sixteenth-century Muslims were saying to Christians:, Aanything you can do I can do better. The mosque, unlike the now-barren Hagia Sophia, is beautiful inside, with wall tiles in cobalt blue, aqua, red and white floral patterns. Advantage, Islam -- but this architectural contest is rigged. What about the larger confrontation? Will Muslim and Christian civilizations inevitably clash? They already are in Nigeria, but here in Turkey moderate Muslims hoping for peace are currently in charge.

 Istanbul includes many reminders of past Christian-/Muslim conflict, and other parts of Turkey have even more. The Cappadocia region east of here displays the remnants of conflict: When the armies of Caliph Omar invaded in 717-718, Christians turned cliff caves into worship and hiding places.   Christians used them again in that way after the Seljuk Turk conquest in 1017.

 Frescoes in the cave churches have regular biblical scenes but also scenes of "warrior-saints" with swords. One church commemorates the counter-attacks of Nicephorus Phocas, who in the 900s took back Antioch and Tarsus from the Muslims. At the Karanlik (Dark) Church, where you can view by flashlight a wall covered with paintings, one fresco of a muscular Jesus -- big biceps and pecs -- is most prominent.  

 Those Christians saw a clash of civilization that went on for centuries, and their paintings are very much in an Onward Christian Soldiers motif, with lots of red ochre, green, and cobalt blue. In places of Cappadocia without cliffs, the Christians went underground: 32 Thirty-two underground cities probably housed at times 20,000 or more, with multiple entrances and exits for escape.

 I visited one underground city at Derinkuyu that went down eight levels and included a church, classroom, baptistry, storerooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, wine cellars, stables on the first and second stories, wells, tombs, and 52 ventilations shafts to a depth of 75 to 90 yards.   Christians apparently built the city by hollowing out airshafts and excavating from the sides of the shafts.

 And talk about security: Christians built not bolt locks but bolt stones -- two feet thick and weighing half a ton -- that could be rolled across passageways in case of attack. Which leads to a question: What kind of bolt stones do we have today? We need to pray for peace and work to build honest Muslim-Christian friendship.   But we must also be discerning, so that terrorists don't force us into a position of weakness where all we can do is hide.