Thursday, April 19, 2012

'Glorious Urfa'

If you ask people familiar with the Middle East to list the towns with the best souqs, bazaars, and old medieval quarters, you’d find yourself - more or less - confronted with the same gang of seven places, being: the old city of Damascus; Fatimid and Islamic Cairo; the Grand bazaar in Istanbul; the Medina of Fez; old Sana’a in Yemen; the souq in Aleppo; and of course, the old city of Jerusalem.

These spots, which constitute a sort of A-list of living-breathing antiquity, are some of the most evoking in the region. Anyone who spends enough time in the Middle East will often have a favourite among them. But a recent trip to a little-known city in southeastern Turkey left me with the impression that one site has been improperly left out of the mix.

About an hour’s drive north of the Syrian-Turkish border is the ancient city of Şanliurfa. Located on the cusp of Mesopotamia, it’s one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world (a title claimed by both Damascus and Erbil, in Iraq). Şanliurfa, still known today by its old name of “Urfa”, is so ancient that the legendary Biblical figures Abraham and Job - archetypal characters residing in the deepest collective memory – are said to have come from there.

It’s not surprising therefore that the city has a first-class labyrinthine old town and bazaar, that is largely unknown and only visited by a smattering of Muslims who come from abroad on pilgrimage to visit sites tied to the Biblical patriarch.

Part of what makes the place so special is its hybrid feel. Although mostly inhabited by Kurds and Turks, Urfa has a very Arab character. Like its nearby sister cities of Antakya (formerly Antioch), Gaziantep (formerly Antep), and Mardin, Urfa was once a bastion of Middle East multiculturalism that blended not only Kurds and Turks but also Armenians, Syriacs, Syrian Arabs, Bedouin, Greeks, Jews, Turcomen and Assyrians. In 1984, Turkey’s parliament officially changed Urfa’s name to Şanliurfa (meaning “Urfa the Glorious”) in order to commemorate the fighting prowess of its residents during the country’s war of independence.

Travel a short distance south of the city and you’ll also encounter tiny agricultural villages whose ways of life have not diverged an iota from the time of ancient Mesopotamia. Near to these cluster of settlements is the famous ancient mud village of Harran and the recently discovered 12,000 year-old archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe – one of the oldest and most important ancient sites in the world.

Below are some more images taken in Urfa’s old city:

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Politics of Dance

Yasser Arafat takes to the dance floor amid his cronies in Beirut prior to the Israeli invasion in 1982.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review: 'A Rebirth for Christianity'

All over the world today, Christians will mark the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was a man and a prophet who grew up in the Middle East, spoke a very Middle Eastern language, Aramaic, and had a very Middle Eastern name, Jesus, which comes from Yeshua, short for Yehoshua (or Joshua in other parts of the Bible).

Two thousand years after his reported time on Earth, his story from birth to crucifixion is one of the most well-known in the globe, and is the basis of worship for over 2 billion people. It may now be time for his story to experience a 'resurrection', an act that Alvin Boyd Kuhn sets out to do in his book 'A Rebirth for Christianity'.

With daring and conviction, Kuhn puts forward a message that is certainly controversial but worthwhile for any one interested in understanding their own purpose more deeply. The author argues that ancient texts were not written as historical chronologies but as an attempt to understand the meaning of events, a form of writing we now call myths.

The key to understanding these myths is to accept they are allegories - symbols that need to be interpreted - and are not in any way literal depictions. Kuhn applies this paradigm to the Gospels, and explains that the Christ of the New Testament is first and foremost an allegory for the development of any individual's spiritual consciousness (with great similarities to other such myths, especially those from Egypt). It is not therefore the history of a life of a man as most Christians understand it. For example, crucifixion is an allegory for the soul's tribulations as it suffers under the "wild instincts" of the flesh; resurrection, its rise to freedom from the shackles of its material prison.

This, he says, is the original message of Christianity: a Christian is not more nor less than someone who brings his spiritual potential to light. He or she utilizes intellect, reason, self-discipline and good judgment to discover his spiritual core, the "Christos" within - that divine potential within all of us that can make us "co-workers with God". This is no mean act, difficult to achieve and yet within it is the kernel of an unusual truth: in the grand scheme, God needs man as much as man needs God.

It may be more appealing, and easier, to think that there has only been one Christ, the man known as Jesus. But Kuhn argues that this view diminishes us by making us impotent to pursue our own salvation. If we project our spiritual power onto an outside figure, like Jesus, the essential power within us is denied. No amount of ritual, blind faith, recitation or automated acts can take the place of personal responsibility in this quest. It also means that all humans have the ability to pursue this goal, in all eras.

Furthermore, it is important to remember, in the Middle East and elsewhere, that it is rather a wrong turn, even a tragedy, for any people or nation to claim any monopoly on this universal mission. In our day, many have also forgotten that much of our religious heritage is allegorical, and requires interpretation not literal application. "The same myth in cruel hands becomes a goad to fanaticism", says Kuhn.

This approach to understanding the Christ did not penetrate sufficiently over the last two millennia, and it is necessary to try again to resurrect this work and reach beyond the literal story to allegory, and from there to the deepest truths about ourselves. Indeed, allegories, myths and stories are crucial for the eternal to reach the human mind; mistaking these symbols for direct truths is, sadly, a kind of idolatry.

As people celebrate Easter today, they may once again encounter one of the thousand ways that Jesus has been depicted since his time on earth. His many faces blur together, an image of humanity, a reflection of us all and our calling to seek the spiritual state within called Christ, Christos, Horus, Buddha, Krishna - a beckoning to a new kind of Easter.

"Though Christ a thousand times in Bethlehem be born
But not within thyself, thy soul will be forlorn;
The cross on Golgotha thou lookest to in vain
Unless within thyself it be set up again". (1)

(1) Angelus Silesius, Polish mystic and poet, 17th century