We were having lunch in a small open-air café on the Asian side of Istanbul when the call to prayer rang out from a nearby minaret. The high-pitched, amplified voice of the muezzin triggered a chorus of barking dogs and a mixed reaction from the crowd. Most of the people on the street paused and turned to face Mecca. Some bowed their heads and went through the ritual prayer while standing, others knelt, but a surprising number lay prostrate, side-by-side, on the sidewalk or on the steps of their shops. Later that same day as we were leaving the Spice Market near Eminou, a busy transportation hub and up-scale shopping district on the European side of the Bosphorus, the call to evening prayer was scarcely acknowledged. In Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country with a strong secular constitution, religion is a matter of personal choice and many Turks have a pretty relaxed approached to its rituals.
The muezzin, who recites the ezan in its original Arabic, no longer needs to climb a narrow stairway to the top of a minaret. But his message, broadcast from hundreds of loudspeakers on hundreds of minarets across the city, has not changed for centuries.
Allah is Most Great, Allah is Most Great.
I testify that there is no god but Allah.
I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.
Come to prayer! Come to prayer!
The daily ritual is one of the five pillars of Islam and requires devout Muslims to turn away from the concerns of the day and face Mecca for a few moments of remembrance and surrender to Allah. The obligatory ritual, repeated five times a day, need not be performed in a mosque. According to the Prophet Mohammed, "The whole earth is a mosque," and practicing Muslims can respond wherever they happen to be when the voice of the muezzin calls for the daily prayer. Or, if you are a Muslim living in Istanbul, you may not choose to respond at all.
The present arms-length relationship between state and church began in 1923 when Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) proclaimed the Turkish Republic and adopted a strict secular constitution. But in the centuries leading up to the Republic religion was a driving force in the lives of the people, their leaders, and the architects of their city. The history of Istanbul is interwoven with the history of religion and in many ways the face of modern Istanbul is defined by its Christian and Islamic heritage.
The city began its rise to world prominence in AD330 when Constantine the Great moved the capital of his empire from Rome to the site of ancient Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople. As the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine made himself supreme arbiter of church affairs and embraced his new religion with a passion. Under his rule Constantinople became both capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and the seat of Christianity. For more than a thousand years, long after the western part of the Roman Empire had ceased to exist, the vast Byzantine Empire continued to flourish until the Ottoman Turks finally conquered Constantinople in 1453. They changed the city's name to Istanbul (city of Islam), the Christian Byzantine Empire became the Muslim Ottoman Empire, a Sultan replaced the Emperor and, for the next 470 years, Islam replaced Christianity as the state religion.