Religion in Istanbul: Mosques, Churches, Cemeteries, Cats

In the comments section of my post on the Georgian Catholic church in Istanbul, a reader requested “a series of posts on some of the odder churches of Istanbul“. As far as I know, the Georgian church I wrote about is the only one in Istanbul, and so a whole series of posts about Istanbul churches would be too far afield from the main focus of this blog. But one post about churches in Istanbul is still somewhat related to Georgia, and so that’s what this post is. Of course, a post about churches in Istanbul would not be even remotely similar to a post about religion in Istanbul, since the modern city is overwhelmingly Islamic. So in the interest of comprehensiveness, this post will also cover some mosques of interest.  Religious life also deals with cemeteries, so I’ve included those too.

Still, as a post dealing with the general topic of “Religion in Istanbul”, this discussion will be woefully incomplete. For one thing, I won’t talk about big, flashy tourist spots like the Hagia Sophia or the New Mosque. There’s plenty of information and pictures of that stuff out there already, and the world really doesn’t need any more. For another thing, in several cases I wasn’t able to enter the church or cemetery or whatever, and even if I could, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. So this post will be more uneven than I would have liked. On the other hand, there will be a lot of nice pictures (all taken by me).

This post is really long, so for your convenience, here’s a clickable table of contents (seriously, click the links to go straight to what interests you the most!):

Again, this is a long post. But the photos really are cool, so I recommend taking some time to look at them. Maybe look at the different sections over the course of a few days.

And as a special treat for my loyal readers…cat pictures!

istanbul mosque cat

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Corn Island (2014 Georgian film)

Corn Island (Georgian: სიმინდის კუნძული, Simindis Kundzuli) is a 2014 Georgian film directed by George Ovashvili. It depicts a summer in the lives of two Abkhazian peasants who grow corn on a small seasonally-formed island in the middle of the river that separates Georgia and Abkhazia. It was the Georgian submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2015 Academy Awards.

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The Georgian Alphabet and the Arabic Alphabet

The Arabic alphabet is a script used as the basis for the writing systems of many languages, including Arabic, Persian, and, up until the 1920s, Turkish. Given that peoples speaking these languages have conquered various parts of Georgia many times, it’s somewhat surprising that the Arabic alphabet has never been used systematically to write the Georgian language. I would have thought that at least the Muslim Adjarans would have written Georgian in Arabic letters, but as far as I can tell, this has never been widely done.

So I considered this problem: how would I write Georgian using the Arabic alphabet? Here’s what I came up with:

georgian arabic alphabet transliteration

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A Georgian Catholic Church in Istanbul

Notre Dame de Lourdes (known in Turkish as the Bomonti Gürcü Katolik Kilisesi) is a Georgian Catholic church in the Feriköy neighborhood of Istanbul. Most Georgians being Orthodox Christians, there are not many Georgian Catholic churches in the world. Further, there were never many Georgians in Istanbul, and there are very few today. Thus the very existence of this church is twice surprising. Its continued use is also surprising. Most sources report that the congregation today is largely made up of Turks, though when I went to see the church I found an amicable group of Georgians inside.

The church was built in 1861 and extensively renovated in 1901. For further details on the church, as well as its place within the history of Georgian Catholicism, see this recent paper by Natia Natsvlishvili. It’s a very nice essay, and I don’t have much to add to it, so this post will contain mostly pictures of the church along with some comments.

georgian catholic church istanbul gate

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Turkish Phonology: Vowel Harmony

Turkish — more specifically, the standard Turkish dialect of Istanbulis a very boring-sounding language, at least superficially. What I mean by this is that it has no distinct, uniquely-identifying sounds. For example:

  • even if you don’t know any Russian, you can tell if people are speaking Russian because of its rampant palatalization (that is, its many y sounds, as in nyet);
  • Arabic is easily identifiable by its baffling array of throat sounds; and
  • Georgian (along with other Caucasian languages) is distinguished by its varieties of consonants and its many consonant clusters.

Turkish has nothing like this. It’s a very generic blend of Southern European and Middle Eastern sounds, shorn of anything remarkable. The first time I went to Turkey, I was shocked by how uninteresting the language sounded.

I still feel that way to a great extent, but it turns out that there’s a little more to the sound of Turkish than can be heard by a casual listener, namely vowel harmony, a process whereby the vowels within a word match each other in certain qualities.

turkish vowel harmony

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Mashtots and Me

The Armenian alphabet, legend has it, was invented by a monk named Mesrop Mashtots (Մեսրոպ Մաշտոց, მესროპ მაშტოც). Legend also has it that Mesrop Mashtots invented the Georgian alphabet and the Caucasian Albanian alphabet as well. I don’t believe that second part of the legend, and even the details of the first part are iffy. But regardless of the particulars, the Caucasus is a grammatological wonder, and Mesrop Mashtots stands as an avatar for its diversity of scripts. So if you love different alphabets — and I do — you have to love Mesrop Mashtots. With this in mind, I made it a goal on my recent trip to Armenia to take pictures with as many statues of Mesrop Mashtots as I could. I didn’t get all of them, but I got a few. Here they are. [Note: Not long ago I started using an image-editing program. I may have gone past the bounds of good taste in some places.]

The most dramatic of all Mesrop Mashtots statues is the one in front of the Matenadaran, a.k.a. the Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts in Yerevan. Around five meters tall (15-20 ft.), it shows Mesrop sitting stately with Koriun, his loving student and biographer, kneeling by his side.

mesrop mashtots matenadaran statue

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Svan Songs

Svan Songs is the first solo album by Georgian musician Irakli Charkviani. The album, the subtitle of which is Music from Kaukasus, was recorded in Cologne, Germany and released in 1993.That’s pretty much all I know about it in the way of background, since little has been written on it in Georgian and even less in English. Knowing nothing else extrinsic to the music, I’ll settle here for going through the album track by track and giving lyrics, comments, and discussion questions.

charkviani svan songs cover

As far as I can tell, Svan Songs was only ever released (not including best-ofs or other compilations) on cassette tape. That tape is apparently quite rare. I’ve only been able to find pictures of it on this blog, and that blog has added an unpleasant watermark to all of them. I removed it from this picture.

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