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The Eternal Bridge: Turkey

by Mary Ann McDonnell

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Just about forty years ago, a Syrian merchant riding a train between Tripoli and Istanbul made an apparently-unimportant observation to the man sitting in the opposite seat. Referring to Istanbul, the late Turkish capital city, he said: “Nature has made it the bridge between East and West.”

The British gentleman seated across from him found the comment noteworthy, though. He was researching the travels of a very famous Turk, and so, the Syrian’s carelessly-tossed line during a routine train trip was immortalized in H. V. Morton’s In the Steps of St. Paul.

There’s little wonder why Morton found the comment so important. The description fits not only the city of Istanbul, but also the country of which Istanbul is part – Turkey.

In ten words, the Syrian had summarized the geography, history and religious past of Turkey. With one sentence, he had captured the essence of a vast and varied country.

Turkey’s geography seems to have fostered its development as a link between Orient and Occident. Actually, as well as symbolically, the rectangular-shaped nation forms a bridge between Europe and Asia, separating the Black Sea in the north from the Mediterranean Sea in the south. Having a total area of 300,000 square miles, Turkey is divided into two regions: Eastern Thrace, or “Trakya,” in its northwestern corner, and the high plateau of Anatolia lying in Asia Minor.

As might be expected in a country of Turkey’s size and geographic location, the Turkish people are of mixed backgrounds. It is believed that the name “Turk,” once probably the Turkish term for “people,” was given by the Arabs in the Middle Ages to anyone speaking the Turkish language. By this definition, Turks include both Mongoloid and Caucasoid physical types, urban dwellers and nomads, professional people and peasants, to name just a few. This last group – peasants – make up 70% of the country’s population, which now numbers about 40 million.

Examining the fabric of Turkish society, one recognizes eastern tradition and religions intermingled with modern western civilization. This duality – belonging to two worlds – has been a characteristic of Turkey throughout its long history, and is an important consideration in the study of Christianity in the country. For it was in such a mixed soil that the early Christian movement took root, under the guidance of the native Turk, St. Paul. It was such a culture which prompted St. Paul to bring together Jew and Gentile in Christianity.

H.V. Morton, the gentleman riding that Istanbul-bound train so long ago, underscored this characteristic double nature in writing about Paul of Tarsus: “There is a certain inevitability in the fact that the man who was chosen to interpret Christianity to the West should have come from a city which, above all others in the Hellenistic world, was a perfect amalgamation of Orient and Occident.”

The role of Turkey in the early Christian Church was as distinctive as that of the native Turk himself. Christianity was introduced during the Roman rule. The first Christian groups assembled in houses and it is believed that a cave outside of Antioch may have been the locus of the first Church. This is today the site of the Grotto Church of St. Peter.

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Tags: Christianity Cultural Identity Turkey Historical site/city