As I shook Ahmed’s hand and begin to walk away I could still here him pleading after me “Two, no! Just one gram!” Interactions in places like the Grand Bazaar make it easy to note the differences that exist between life in the US and in Istanbul. After a week in and a half in Turkey, noticing change and cultural differences is, of course, normal. However, sometimes I find myself stopped, scared even, when I find myself facing alien aspects of my own heritage; links of my culture stuck in amongst so much that I cannot recognize. Sometimes I find myself unable to truly interpret what it all means to me.
On Sunday, a group of us went to the Chora Museum/Church/Mosque (it all depends on who you ask). To explain what I saw would be to say that there were some beautiful mosaics that depicted with great detail scenes from the New Testament. To explain what was there is far more difficult. Now, anyone could go on about the cultural, ethnic, and religious conflict between the Turks and the Greeks which makes it so difficult to even name the building I was in. The history and reality of this conflict surrounds anyone who stands in Chora or walks through the streets of Istanbul. However, I came to Chora not with the eyes of a Greek or a Turk or a Muslim or an Orthodox Christian, but with the religious education of a Presbyterian (of all things). And however I tried, I could not decide what anything I saw meant to me. Here was some of the most beautiful artwork I had ever seen, depicting stories that I had been taught since my childhood, this should have been both a deeply moving experience for me as well as something that I could have easily related to. However, try as I might, I could not say for the life of me what any of those mosaics depicted or who any of those people were.
The Orthodox Church, as I have learned, has a veritable language in pictures and icons, which while seemingly obvious to anyone with some background in Orthodox Christianity, are indecipherable without being given a kind of key of the clues to look for. Instead of the mosaics depicting familiar stories, they were as alien to me as the rest of Istanbul and the complex culture that fills the city. The question of what historical culture means to me has followed me from the Archbasilica of Rome to here in Istanbul. Cross Cultural Communication 101 will nicely explain all this. All cultures have symbols and outsiders have to learn to read them to understand them. The roots of our culture, which run through so many western societies, do not connect us as much as we like to think. However, there is a deeper issue at work here. I am not merely talking about misunderstanding cultural symbols, but also a part of my own heritage and culture. The history of Istanbul is perhaps more complicated than any other city in Europe, even Rome, but the root heritage of Chora is the same as all Christian faiths, so in a way part of my heritage, oddly enough, seems to be plastered onto those walls as well.
While some voices in development call for greater understanding and respect of local cultures, we find ourselves faced with unanswerable questions. Chora was built by a merchant who has long since died, by an empire that was destroyed, by people who (sorta, it’s complicated) no longer live there, and by a culture which no longer holds sway in the immediate region. Yet why does this place still mean more than just its art? Adding the fact that the building was later used as a Mosque only complicates the matter.
There are few cultures that do not bear the marks of another culture, and, in essence, there is no way for a nation to become developed without opening itself up to outside cultures and straining its own. How do we address these complexities? Do we address these complexities? As we see nations develop and they resolve the issues of historical burdens, it seems that we may occasionally see bits and pieces of our own pasts appear before us. Some parts of cultures are transnational and perhaps allow us to relate to issues of developing nations. Interpreting these bits and pieces of our own culture may be impossible, but recognizing their value, I think, is essential to placing value on local cultures and their heritage as nations drive towards development and the world as a whole drives towards a more developed outlook.