Thursday, January 22, 2015

Galata, Sema, and the Jewish Museum

It is hard to believe that we are now in our last few days in Turkey! This has been an incredible trip for everyone, filled with so many new experiences, cultural and otherwise. We are all getting better at saying, "no" to pushy shopkeepers and are working on our bartering skills!

Today we enjoyed a traditional Turkish ceremony--a whirling dervish. After another late start and amazing breakfast, we all piled into the bus to drive to Galata Melivi Tekkesi Museum that houses the history of the whirling dervish and its connections to Islam. Our guide Saba laughed when he told us that "whirling dervish" is no where near the translation for what the Turkish call their tradition. To them it is, "sema," meaning "sky." This practice started in Turkey and moved to other Muslim counties in the Middle East. The whirlers enter a meditative state of praying, which is how they are able to keep spinning for long periods of time. They are able to turn for 2-3 hours if they are focused enough, which is incredible considering most people would fall down after 30 seconds! In the museum we saw examples of traditional garb and headpieces warn by the practicers, as well as a brief history. In an attempt to secularize Turkey, Atatürk banned religious practices like the whirling dervish in 1925, so it was practiced in secret until it was legalized again in the 1950's.

After the museum we walked through the streets and landed in the old Jewish neighborhood of Istanbul. This area also happens to be home to the Galata Tower, built in 1348 by the Byzantines as a watch tower. It was the tallest building in the city when it was built, and it still continues to cast a shadow on a good portion of the New European side of Istanbul. Because of this, visitors get a beautiful 360 degree view of the city, including the Asian side and the Old European side it was neat to be able to point out the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque from across the Golden Horn, as that it where we stayed in the city our first week here. It's incredible to be able to say we can find our way around a big, foreign city! The views were absolutely stunning.

When in the neighborhood we discussed our reading from the night before, which was about minorities in Turkey. Jews, like the Greeks, Armenians, and others, were way more heavily taxed by the government on a wartime property tax. This caused many minorities to sell their property because and move because they could no longer afford to live in their homes where their families had been living for generations. 97% of the properties sold at this time were owned by non-Muslims. Turkey is officially Turkish and Muslim in ethnicity, and these minorities don't fit into those categories.

A quick walk from the Galata Tower put us in the 500 Years Museum of Jewish history. The building used to the a synagogue but was turned into a museum in 1992 because there were not enough people to keep it running. 1992 is the 500th anniversary of the Jews being expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella during the Spanish Inquisition. The biggest fact I learned at this museum is that there has not always been strife between the Jews and Muslims--that is only recent in the Israel/Palestine fighting. The Ottomans actually sent their navy to Spain to pick up the Jews that refused to convert to Catholicism, and offered them refuge in their empire, which is a major reason why there used to be so many Jews in Istanbul.

Following the museum, we took a walk around the New European side of Istanbul so we could get a better feel for the area. After a week on the old side we were able to get around with relative ease, so we would like the same thing to happen with this side of the city too. We ended up at one of the best baklava places in the city, where our professors treated us to some baklava that dripped with honey; it was indescribably delicious. After crossing the bride over the Golden Horn that connects the two European sides, we were set free in the Spice Market for some shopping and dinner before the whirling dervish performance. Following this free time we walked to the performance space to watch 5 men perform this incredible tradition of spinning in circles to the beat of traditional music. There is naturally an entire ceremony that goes along with he whirling, as it is an 800 year old tradition. After praying and bowing, they spun in circles for minutes at a time: it is incredibly astounding, and a treat to see an old Turkish cultural custom. So now we head back to the hotel for sleep to get ready for our second-to-last full day in Turkey!

~Sarah Allen

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