Rick Steves’ Europe: Experiencing Islamic traditions in Turkey

As someone who loves to travel – to engage in every corner of my world – it pains me to see the bum rap that the Muslim faith gets in my corner of the world. ISIS and the Taliban grabbed the headlines. But when you actually go to Muslim countries – especially moderate and accessible countries like my favorite Turkey – it’s inspiring to see how people incorporate their faith into their lives.

I love Istanbul – Turkey’s largest city – because of the way it connects East and West: geographically, part of the city is in Europe and another part – across the Bosphorus Strait – in Asia. And the new Eurasia Tunnel, recently dug under the Bosphorus, gave millions of commuters in the Asian suburbs an easy rail link to their workplaces on the European side.

As a guide in this environment, I want to introduce my tour members to Turkish culture and Islam. Turkey is officially a secular country (practicing the separation of mosque and state, which is on shaky ground under current President Recep Erdogan). But there are plenty of examples of how people’s faith has permeated society.

Driving into the modern upscale suburbs of this city, I pass an old shepherd whose small flock is enjoying some grass on a freeway cloverleaf surrounded by 15 million people. Amid all that modernity, he appears boldly timeless – raising sheep to be sacrificed for an upcoming Muslim festival.

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When it comes to experiencing Islam, I like to travel during Ramadan. This holy month in which Muslims do not eat during the day is determined according to the lunar Islamic calendar. Fasting is meant to turn the heart away from the world and toward God. By allowing people of all classes to suffer hunger pangs, it also encourages generosity towards the less fortunate: for many Muslim families, Ramadan ends with acts of charity and gift-giving.

During this holy month in Istanbul, no-name neighborhood mosques literally overflow during prayer time. Yet a tourist unfamiliar with Islam may not notice that practicing Muslims are not eating or drinking.

If you visit during Ramadan, you can hear the sounds of the dawn call to prayer and a hearty meal. Fasting begins at sunrise and daylight. Then, at 7 p.m., the food comes out and the night’s festivities begin. Mohammed broke his fast with a dried date or olive – and it was the most common fast breaker. Saying “Allah kabul etsin” (may God accept our fast today), staff at a restaurant welcomed me to photograph them and offered to share them later.

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Breaking the fast is like watching kids waiting for the bell – and it’s fun to watch a movie. During my Ramadan visit, every time I saw the end of the fast, people offered to share their food. At this particular restaurant I said no, but they set me up anyway – figs, lentil soup, bread, coke and baklava. I thought Coke was a bit odd…but they said it wasn’t considered American anymore. It is truly global.

Like Ramadan, prayer is a cornerstone of the Islamic faith. Tourists in Istanbul are called to prayer five times a day. According to tradition, as the sun prepares to rise, an imam stares at his hand. When he could tell gray hair from black hair, it was time to call his parish to morning prayer. While the quality and warble vary, the Arabic words of the call throughout the land are exactly the same: “God is great.”

They say that small mosques cannot afford a real musician, so the imam sings himself – not always the best quality. Larger mosques have a trained professional singer. Anyone can hear the qualitative difference. To the ear of a non-Muslim, the call to prayer, ringing simultaneously from the minarets of neighboring mosques, sounds like a furious howl. I have heard it all over the world – from Malaysia to Pakistan, through Arabia and Turkey to Morocco and then to America – like a stadium wave, a beautiful form of praise that spins as fast as the earth spins.

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My time in Muslim places like Turkey, with the sense of coziness that comes with Ramadan (much like it does with Christmas where I live), reminds me how travel takes the fear out of foreign ways.

I am a Christian who wants to believe that we can live peacefully with Islam. Maybe I’m naive, but one thing is clear to me: what I learn about Islam in the US media fills me with fear and anger. What I have learned about Islam through traveling to Muslim countries fills me with hope.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick’s favorite places over the past two decades. You can email Rick at [email protected] and follow his blog on Facebook.


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