An Orthodox Christian in the Mosque’s Place of Honor

By Nektaria Petrou

     On a warm evening during Ramadan in 2012, I was sitting beside a blond stone bridge spanning a dry stream in Mustafapaşa, Turkey. The rocks behind the bridge were riddled with cave windows — remnants of old mansions. The iftar table was set with a potluck spread of yellow lentil soup, meat-stuffed eggplant, pilaf, and salads prepared by my host, writer Süreyya Aytaş, over a long day without food and water. Aytaş — who has black hair and olive skin despite hailing from a blond and blue-eyed Macedonian family — settled into her chair, glad that it was finally time to rest. We waited quietly, enjoying the soapy perfume of the hotel’s jasmine trellis, until the call to prayer sounded from the village minarets. At that moment, Aytaş raised her hands, whispered a prayer, and then brushed her palms over her face in a gesture of finalization, like the Judeo-Christian amen. The day’s fast was finished.
     Less than a century ago, Mustafapaşa (at that time called Sinasos) was the hometown of the Rum Orthodox Christian caviar merchants and ship suppliers who did business in Istanbul’s Fish Bazaar and port. These Greek-speaking entrepreneurs used the fortunes they made in the Ottoman capital to turn their native Cappadocian village into a “Paris of the East,” as they were fond of calling it. They built mansions with neo-classical facades and ornate stonework, churches, countless chapels, and a mosque for their Muslim construction workers and field hands. Sinasos became a model of interreligious harmony. The central mosque and church were designed by the same architect to match. Christians sent plates of salted anchovies and mackerel to their Muslim neighbors during the Ramadan holidays. Muslims lit candles to Christian saints,  stood witness to the midnight Easter liturgy on the tufa hills above the churches, and bathed in the therapeutic spring of Saint Nicholas. One Christian Sinasitite remembered that, upon the death of his father, the imam climbed to the minaret, weeping like a child, and chanted sela, a funeral hymn sung only for faithful Muslims.
     Although early twentieth-century conflicts between Greece and the Ottoman Empire created interreligious tensions between Rum Orthodox Christians and Muslims throughout Anatolia, the peaceful symbiosis of Sinasos continued undisturbed. Sinasitite Christians fed poor Muslim children in their soup kitchens during World War I and, at the outbreak of the Greco-Turkish War in 1919, they even turned their homes into hospitals for battle-wounded Muslims.
     The Greco-Turkish War concluded in 1922, but not without bitter parting blows and mass atrocities committed by both sides. After the ceasefire, Turkey proposed a religion-based population exchange. Greece agreed. Between 1922 and 1924, the Rum Orthodox Christians of Turkey were forced to emigrate to Greece while the Muslims of Greece were forced to emigrate to Turkey. No consideration was given to language, cultural identity, or personal sentiment: the exchange was an absolute act of religious cleansing. With no choice but to leave behind their ancestral homes and family friends, caravans of Rums departed Sinasos for the port of Mersin, though they didn’t go alone. Their Muslim neighbors accompanied them on the 300-kilometer journey over the Taurus Mountains, ensuring their safety until the moment they boarded ships bound for Greece.


     One of my reasons for travelling to Mustafapaşa in 2012 was to meet Aytaş, a descendent of the Macedonian Muslims resettled in the village as part of the exchange. I knew that Aytaş was the author of numerous books and films about her ancestral village near Kastoria, Greece, but I was surprised to find that she was also quite knowledgeable about the Christians whose empty houses her grandparents had occupied in 1924. Pleased to speak about her work — yet weak and dizzy from the Ramadan fast — Aytaş invited me to the evening iftar on the porch of her hotel.
     Over dinner, we talked about the population exchange, the demolition of mosques and churches, Macedonian beliefs in fairies, and the Muslim practice of taking babies to Christian cemeteries for healing. After a dessert of flaky, honey-soaked baklava, I noticed groups of women passing beneath the stone bridge. I asked Aytaş if evening strolls were part of the Ramadan tradition.
     “No,” she said. “They’re on their way to teravi. Ramadan prayers."
     Knowing how rare it was for women to attend mosque , I wanted to join and asked Aytaş if she would accompany me to the service. Although a practicing Muslim (albeit one who drinks wine), Aytaş said she preferred to pray at home but offered to escort me to the mosque. As soon as I had covered my head with a pashmina scarf — a transformation that provoked laughter and jokes about my having joined Turkey’s Islamist party — we climbed a cobblestone street to a tiny, mid-nineteenth-century stone mosque with a separate women’s section. Aytaş opened the door, leaned inside, and told the ladies present (all of whom were dressed in country shalwar trousers, long knitted vests, and white cotton headscarves) that I was a Christian interested in observing an Islamic prayer service. They nodded and waved me inside.
     I removed my shoes and took my place beside the women sitting Indian-style at the edges of the room. A few fingered amber tespih beads with closed eyes, murmuring prayers. The rest, paying no attention to the sermon buzzing from a wall-mounted speaker, gathered around me.
     “Are you going to become a Muslim?" asked a toothless grandma.
     “No, but I’m interested in learning more about Islam.”
     “Have you read the Koran?”
     “Aaah,” said a portly auntie knowingly. “If you’ve read the Koran, then you’re already considered a Muslim.”
     Before I could voice my inner protest of not exactly, the toothless grandma handed me a tespih and showed me how to pray, sliding my fingers over the beads and repeating the word Allah. In Orthodox Christianity, we also use prayer ropes. And all Eastern Christians, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, use the word Allah when speaking of God in Turkish, Arabic, or Farsi. So I prayed along with my company until the sermon ended.
     Then the women took their positions for the formal prayer. I had intended to watch from a cozy corner, but the portly auntie herded me into the middle of the room and instructed me in the namaz. This put me out of my comfort zone for a moment. Then I remembered Christian friends in Istanbul, many of whom had prayed in mosques while doing their military service in Turkish border towns without churches. What harm could there be in following the movements? It wasn’t very different from meditative yoga, anyway. So I bowed, knelt, prostrated, and turned my head left and right, bidding peace to my angels. By the conclusion, I felt in communion with my company. The ladies smiled and walked me back to my pension. There were no more questions about conversion. Perhaps they already considered me one of their own.
     A few months later, while reading an anthropological study about Turkish villages, I learned that the center of the mosque, where the women had insisted I pray, is an honorary position. In accepting their invitation to prayer regardless of my initial discomfort, I’d unconsciously done what the poet Rumi ordered in his poem Flightpaths: “Put your head under your feet. That way you rise through the stars and see a hundred other ways to be with me.”
     Although the population exchange brought the symbiosis of Sinasitite Muslims and Christians to an end almost a century ago, the harmonious spirit of the village endures. The municipality of Mustafapaşa is even funding the restoration of churches and chapels.
     Some cynics dismiss these efforts as tourism cash grabs, which can’t be denied or avoided, whether it’sintentional or not. Nonetheless, the village is reconnecting with its multi-religious heritage. Mustafapaşa even invites Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to celebrate liturgy once per year, on the feast day of the central church, Saints Constantine and Helen. This small Cappadocia village once again shines as an example of religious coexistence, like the candles held by the Muslims who used to watch the midnight Easter liturgy from the surrounding tufa hills. Muslim or Christian, people can put their heads beneath their feet and rise above their difference to see their neighbors.

Nektaria Petrou has an MA in Modern Greek Studies, a Postgraduate Diploma in Byzantine Studies, and a BA in Honors English Literature and Classics. Nektaria recently completed a novel set in Istanbul, where she lives and works.