Religion & Beliefs

When Is A Mosque Just A Mosque?

I’ve been in Israel for a couple of weeks on a fellowship (more on that to come), and before coming back home to New York I decided to do a quick three day stopover in Istanbul. While friends in Tel … Read More

By / July 3, 2009

I’ve been in Israel for a couple of weeks on a fellowship (more on that to come), and before coming back home to New York I decided to do a quick three day stopover in Istanbul. While friends in Tel Aviv told me Istanbul was a great getaway for a long weekend and the airfare was pretty cheap, I still had some reservations about journeying to a Muslim country. Yes, I’m well aware that Turkey is a pretty secular country, but the reality of being a white Western woman traveling alone makes me a little bit more anxious about any destination. (Note: I am meeting up with a friend here, but I had the first 24 hours to myself. You can stop worrying, Mom.)

After a whole day in Istanbul, I can definitely say it’s a beautiful city with helpful people and good food. (You know how pretty much every culture has a food that is potatoes, cheese, and/or meat stuffed inside fried dough? The Turkish one is called a burekha, and it is rad.) I’m staying in a pretty touristy neighborhood, so there are always lots of people walking around on the street and I feel very safe coming and going on my own. I have definitely had to get stern with a couple of men who didn’t take the hint that their advances weren’t welcome, but this is far from the only country where that’s happened. This morning, I got up, caught a bus, and headed over to the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, arguably Turkey’s two most famous sites.

So, if lots of the women dress in Western style and people speak English with you, what’s the problem with being an American here? The issue, of course, is that I’m not only an American – I’m also a Jew. And, as a Jew, is it right or proper for me to descend eagerly into a mosque, wearing a scarf on my head and snapping photos? As a person who writes often on the subject of religion, it seems logical that I’d want to visit important religious sites all over the world – after all, in Jerusalem I went not only to the Kotel but to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple Mount. Is there anything odd about wanting to see in person the famous Hagia Sophia art and architecture that I studied in college? Shouldn’t I, as a person of the Book, believe in expanding my knowledge? And does wearing a scarf over my head mean I’m trying to look like a Muslim or that I’m just being respectful of local rules and customs?

At what point, I wondered to myself, does a mosque stop being an art museum or a tourist attraction and start becoming a place of Muslim worship?  As I walked out of the Blue Mosque, I noticed that the guards at the front were not allowing any more tourists to come in. By the time the midday call to prayer began, I was already in a tram, heading back across town.