From bustling bazaars by the Bosphorus, to following in the footsteps of The Fisherman, Eoin Edwards gained a once-in-a-lifetime experience when he undertook a tour of Istanbul and the Holy Land.
A verse from ‘The Bright Blue Rose’, by singer/songwriter Jimmy MacCarthy — an invocation of spiritual perfection through Christ — written when he was very ill, came to mind as I sat on the bus which carried me to Dublin Airport.
I was to join a group on an educational tour of Istanbul and the Holy Land and some very good friends and extended family members who are going through a tough time, were on my mind too...
And it is a holy thing
And it is a precious time
And it is the only way
Forget-me-nots among the snow
It’s always been and so it goes
To ponder his death and his life eternally
One bright blue rose outlives all those
Two thousand years and still it goes
To ponder his death and his life eternally
Like many others in this country these days, my faith in the Catholic Church has been wavering. But I suppose I do have a belief in the whole Christian ethic and it was this belief that would keep rising to the surface, sometimes despite my best efforts, during this journey.
As I initially briefly ventured into the Muslim world in Istanbul, where I followed the footsteps of thousands as they were called to prayer, before once again becoming a follower of Christ as I traced his footsteps in Cana, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem, the Garden of Gethsemane and finally Jerusalem.
It was a spiritual journey for some on the trip — historical and educational for others — and for me in the end it proved to be a combination of the above — but also one of laughter and quiet tears (not at the Wailing Wall I might add), with the chorus of Jimmy’s song always lingering in my head…
For all of you who must discover
For all who seek to understand
For having left the path of others
You’ll find a very special hand
It seems everything happens for a reason and this opportunity, courtesy of Marian Pilgrimages and Turkish Airlines must have been heaven sent.
Almost in my mid-50s, there’s a lot of reflection going on right now for this Christian— work, sickness, life and death are all in the mix. A two-night stopover in Istanbul, which is fast becoming a global transport hub, I suppose, is as good a way as any to start a journey into the unknown.
With a population of 16 million people, most of them Muslim, it’s an amazing city, a lovely starter, to be followed sometime in the future, perhaps, by the main course of a very long weekend, maybe taking in a Galatasaray soccer game.
The name Galatasaray comes from that of Galatasaray High School, originally founded in 1481, and which in turn took its name from the nearby medieval Genoise citadel of Galata in the Pera district of Istanbul, where many traders settled because of the geographical importance of the city at the time.
In some locations around this part of the world it is not unusual for football players to stop in the middle of the game for prayer (a bit like the Angelus), and men still walk hand in hand to the mosque, some of which hold up to 10,000 people.
This city’s importance in the business of global trade is being enhanced by organisations like the very driven Turkish Airlines. A huge new airport is being built on the outskirts of the city, one that will dwarf Heathrow, with a 150 million passanger capacity, making Istanbul once again a gateway to anywhere the world. It will be completed in 2017.
This is an amazing city, modern, yet a historical gem. There is no end to its sights and sounds, with top night life locations like Reina, overlooking the famous Galata Bridge, which connects two continents and which is home-from-home for hundreds of fishermen, day and night.
Reina is right by the bridge, on the doorstep of the Bosphorus sea, which splits Istanbul in two and separates Europe from Asia while connecting the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara.
It is one of the busiest waterways in the world and some of the wooden-panelled shoreline homes known as yalis along its shores are valued at upwards of $50 million.
You can feel the history of the place, uniquely a capital city for 1,800 years, with its Roman, Bysantine and Ottoman empire influences, the latter under Suleiman the Magnificent.
Restaurants like Istanbul 360 and Chilai Bebek will delight the taste buds, and mosques, monuments and museums aside, wandering the bustling boulevards, streets and alleyways of this remarkable multi-cultural metropolis is an experience which has to be felt to be believed.
I found the city very safe to walk and visited the dining halls of some of the city’s finest hotels. Anyone thinking of getting married should check out the honeymoon suite at the Park Bosphorus Hotel, with its stunning balcony and views across the bay. Romeo and Juliet anyone?
I couldn’t recommend it highly enough and the prices will amaze you. Ask for Aysel. (The hotel was built for Turkish lira 350m in cash by its mining company owner.)
Some of the city’s highlights included Hagia Sophia museum, one of the greatest in the world; Topkapi Palace, which housed the Sultan’s Harem (out of reach to anyone but his mother, wives and concubines); and other hot treasures, such as the Kasikci diamond, fourth largest in the world.
At Hagia Sofia, a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum, with its massive central dome, one of the biggest in the world, one can feel a real sense of unification, the former church and mosque is now a reflection of one God.
The Blue Mosque is home to one of the biggest prayer carpets I’ve every seen. Someone must have a full-time job hoovering the place. The basilica was built between 1609 and 1616 on the orders of Sultan Ahmet I, the mosque gets its “blue” tag from the 21,000 Iznik tiles that adorn the walls.
The Grand Bazaar is a tourist trap but has to be experienced. But go armed with a map or guide before entering the enormous indoor labyrinth of more than 4,000 shops lining 18 narrow streets or you’ll end up hopelessly lost.
And be prepared for a relentless assault on the senses with treats, like Turkish Delight, offered by shopkeepers as you do the rounds. The city’s sultans were suckers for sweets as I am for a nice cuppa.
And there is none better to be found anywhere than at the tiny teahouses jotted all over the bazaar, where one of the hundreds of tea house owners told me he serves up 5,000 teas a day, at one lira a pop, mostly to those working at the bazaar.
In one bazaar alone there are 21 gates, 17 inns, 66 streets, 4,000 shops and 30,000 employed. Now that’s commerce. Built between 1455 and 1461 and rebuilt and repaired several times since, following earthquakes, the Grand Bazaar is the place to go for silk scarves, amber jewellery, kilim rugs, spices and more.
The nearby Spice Bazaar is the hot spot where the locals go to stock up their kitchens. Getting to the city centre from the airport is very easy via metro and tram. It costs €2 to €3 per person.
Getting in and out of Tel Aviv, Israel,is a somewhat more difficult task, normally — however, with expert help at hand via Marian Pilgrimages, it was a doddle.
A relative, once removed, often quoted the expression ‘presumption is worse than consumption’ and I must say prior to arriving in the Holy Land/ Israel/Palestine I suffered a bit from the former.
Okay, it is a hot part of the world, for all the wrong reasons but hand on heart, there was never a problem — Israel is probably the safest place to be, such is the military strength and security checks.
Marian Pilgrimages brings groups from all over Ireland and also from UK and USA to the Holy Land. There were people on this trip from Wyoming, Boston, New York, Offaly, Limerick, Sligo, Meath, Cork and further afield.
Charles Kiely, Director of Pastoral Planning in the diocese of Cork and Ross, who regularly plans pilgrimages for small groups of 50, and may undertake one in 2016, was one of the three priests in a group of mostly saints, but with a few sinners thrown in for balance.
We all know sport is like a religion to the Irish and one of the first acts we undertook was to head to a pub, joined by some of the Americans, to watch Ireland whip England in the Six Nations.
There was a welcome and plenty of room at the local inn in Tiberius, a Jewish orthodox city north east of the country and our base for two nights, where we later slept under the mediterranean, as Tiberius is considerably below sea level.
There were many highlights in the following days and nights, including Cana, site of Jesus’ first miracle, where married couples on the trip, including Richard and Ellen Kearney from Cork, renewed their vows; the Golan Heights, 60kms from the hills of Lebanon; Nazareth, where we visited the cave home of the holy family; Joseph’s workshop; Mary’s Well; Mount Tabor, site of the Transfiguration; the Sea of Galilee, where we had a short prayer service on the lake, before launching into a sing-song on the boat in the middle of the sea.
The Mount of Beatitudes, the site of the multiplication of the loaves and fish at Tabgha was also on the itinerary.
One of the highlights for me was being asked to sing the Peadar Ó Riada version of Ár nAthair at a mass, celebrated by Fr Kiely, in a cave church beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine where St Jerome spent 30 years translating the Hebrew bible into Greek and Latin.
The site is considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth.
After driving along the Jordan Valley to Jericho, our well-informed guide took us to see the Mount of Temptation, the sycamore tree of Zacchaeus, before continuing onto the Dead Sea, near Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
You haven’t lived until you’ve floated in this sea, it’s really more like a lake. It’s a wonderful sensation — it’s healing powers are immense. I was surprised the area is so underdeveloped for tourism with basic communal changing facilities.
The journey to Bethlehem brought us through Jerusalem with its tight security and high wall built by the Americans at a cost of $1m per mile.
While in Israel I did all the ‘touristy things’, was in more churches in one week than I’ve been in all year, visited shops like ‘Heaven’s Gate’, saw the cemetery in Jerusalem’s old city where Jews believe the Messiah will come, and where graves/tombs cost €60,000 a plot.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is as complex as Israel, and is run by three religions, the Orthodox Christians occupying the slab on which Jesus’ body was washed, the Catholics control the crucifixion site and the Armenians the tomb where the body was laid.
However when one strips all the crass tourism in the temples away and looks at the topography and historical sites, it is easy to picture the story of the Bible, and see it all come to life.
Just like in Jesus’ time the poverty in Palestine is palpable, as is the pressure Christians are under, surrounded as they are by Jews and Muslims.
“In 1975 there were 75% of us, now there are only 7%”, one Christian shop employee told me.
Therein lies the shame because this is a area of the world, with so many historical sites and tourism potential.
Whether you’re a Christian, Jew or Muslim, one thing came home very strongly to me on this trip, we’re all God’s, or whatever higher power you believe in, children.
This is a trip everyone should undertake at least once.
Eoin Edwards travelled to the Holy land with Marian Pilgrimages, 01 8788159 www.marian.ie
Flights were hosted by Turkish Airlines who operate out of Dublin.
Istanbul has excellent transport facilities and access to the city from the airport is cheap and easy. Be careful when taking taxis though, drivers have a bad reputation for overcharging. If you are in the city for a few days it might be a good idea to join one of the city tours, this makes life a lot easier.
We had a large group in the Holy Land and had a guide and bus at our disposal. It would be impossible to see everything on your list otherwise. The guides are excellent. It’s a good idea to get phone numbers for guides.Some of the sites can get very busy and you can easily get separated from your group.
The standard of hotels are excellent in Istanbul, the Holy Land can be a bit different, with what we regard as three star being the norm.
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