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Turkey – Home To Some of the World’s Holiest Sites

Throughout its long history as a nurturing homeland to Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Turkey has embraced their diverse beliefs and preserved their holy sites.  For more than a millennium, Turkey has been at the crossroads of civilization, a melting pot of eastern and western traditions and a place where faiths converge.  Today, Christian and Jewish visitors can appreciate such seminal sites as Mount Agri, where the Old Testament indicates Noah's Ark came to rest.  They can compare the marvels of nature’s temples with those of ancient man-made shrines, while exploring some of their faiths’ most historic sites.  


Since the apostles began their mission, Turkey has played an important role in the growth of Christianity.  Today, there are over twenty different Christian denominations that flourish in Turkey.  From the last home of the Virgin Mary to the first cathedral, Turkey affords visitors almost boundless inspirational opportunities throughout the country. 
Izmir, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Leodicea and Ephesus  - the Seven Churches of Asia Minor - are located near the Aegean coast.  Ephesus, perhaps the most prominent of the Seven Churches, is where St. John the Evangelist brought the Virgin Mary to spend her last years.  She lived in a small house named Meryemana Evi, built for her on Bulbuldagi (Mt. Koressos).  Now a popular place of pilgrimage, the house has received the official sanction of the Vatican and a commemoration ceremony is held every year on August 15th.  Just outside Ephesus, in Selcuk, is the Basilica of St. John, where St. John preached and is most likely buried.
On Turkey's Eastern Mediterranean, the biblical Antioch, now called Antakya, is where Jesus's followers were first labeled "Christians.”   St. Peter spread the gospel from a cave known as St. Peter’s Grotto, which, in 1963, the papacy recognized as the world’s first cathedral.  A special service, attended by an international legion of Christians, celebrates that designation annually on June 29.
Near Turkey’s Southwestern coast is Demre (Myra), the birthplace of St. Nicholas, the
genesis of today’s cherished Santa Claus.  The village boasts the famous Church of St. Nicholas, where St. Nicholas is thought to be entombed. 
Istanbul, the only city in the world that straddles two continents, is the site of one of the largest church in Christendom, the Basilica of Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), dedicated by Emperor Justinian in 536 AD.  It has also been the home of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch for nearly 550 years.   The seat of the church, The Fener Patriarchate, is located in Fener on the upper reaches of the Golden Horn and boasts close to five thousand members.  In addition, the Kariye Museum, the site of the first Chora church, and the Pammakaristos Church are both significant homes to beautiful mosaics and frescoes depicting Mary, Jesus and their ancestors.
Located near the Black Sea in Trabzon, the stunning Monastery of the Virgin Mary (Sumela Monastery) is a well-known center dating to the 4th century. Built on the edge of a l,200-foot cliff and accessible only by foot, it housed some of the Orthodox Church's greatest thinkers.
The Anatolian Region also offers a wealth of attractions to the Christian traveler.  According to the Bible, there were seven Ecumenical Councils, where the entire existing leadership of the Church gathered in order to affirm the doctrine of the Church against unorthodox teachings.  All seven Ecumenical Councils were held in Western Anatolia.  Furthermore, visitors to the biblical area of Cappadocia, located in Central Anatolia, can explore more than 200 carved rock churches beautifully decorated with frescoes depicting early Christian motifs, and a seven-story underground city where Christians took refuge from their persecutors.


Judaism has had a continuous presence in Turkey since ancient times and many Jewish communities still thrive there today.  Signs written in Hebrew and menorahs carved into stone at historical sites such as Ephesus, Kusadasi, Priene, Hierapolis, and Pamukkale attest to the long, peaceful history of Judaism in Turkey.
Istanbul is of particular significance to Jewish visitors. In the city's old Jewish Quarter are the 19th century Neve Shalom Synagogue, the Zulfaris Jewish Museum and nearby, the 15th century Ahrida Synagogue.  Jewish immigrants settled mostly near the Balat quarter on the western bank of the Golden Horn, where a Jewish community has existed since Byzantine times.
Several other cities and towns host historic synagogues, which are open for worship, such as the Gerus Synagogue in Bursa, a short drive from Istanbul.  It was built at the end of the 15th century by Jews who settled in the city after the Spanish Inquisition.  In Izmir, located on the Aegean coast,
there were once nine synagogues along Havra Sokak (Synagogue Street) in the bazaar; three are still in service, including Beth Israel Synagogue; Bikour Holim Synagogue and Giveret Synagogue, the latter of which was rebuilt after an 1841 fire.   Just 60 miles away in Sardis, the remains of the largest ancient synagogue in existence date to the 3rd century AD.  Its frescoes and mosaics suggest a large, well-established and successful Jewish community in Sardis. 
Southeastern Turkey’s Sanli Urfa, better known as the City of Prophets, was the birthplace of the term and the birthplace of the prophet Abraham.  Here, the Halil Rahman Mosque now surrounds the cave that is thought to be his birthplace.  Located 30 miles south of Sanli Urfa, the city of Harran (Altinbasak) was Abraham's home when he heard God's call.  Also south of Sanli Urfa, in the district of Eyyubiye, the Prophet Job, so famed for his patience, is believed to have spent seven years in a cave recovering from illness.
Turkey remains a safe and inspirational home to some of world’s holiest sites of Christianity and Judaism.  Of course, the sites of Islam also continue to inspire.   Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is filled with the relics of the Prophet Mohammed.   Framed inscriptions from the Koran decorate the room that displays ancient relics, including his bamboo bow and the swords of the first four Caliphs.  As demonstrated throughout Turkey’s rich history, the Ottoman Sultans realized the importance of these sacred relics and considered it a duty to the Islamic world to preserve and protect them. 
Turkey, the site of two wonders of the ancient world, is a present-day marvel - the cradle of civilization, the very center of world history and a modern Westward-looking republic. It is a country of fascinating contrasts, where antiquity is juxtaposed with the contemporary, the familiar with the exotic; where sun-swept beaches beckon less than an hour away from snow-capped mountains and everywhere visitors are treated to the extraordinary warmth of the Turkish people.


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July 2021

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