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Prologue: Moses’ staff, Obama’s cat and everything in between

January 22, 2011

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    Senior Writer Roger Burks on top of Istanbul's Galata Tower with the city all around. Photo:
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    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Inside Hagia Sophia. Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps
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    Roger Burks/Mercy Corps  </span>
    The cat that President Obama and I both petted (at completely different times). Photo: Roger Burks/Mercy Corps

There’s a place on earth where you can stand in Europe and gaze across a strait of water at Asia, or vice-versa. It’s dramatic to view, especially since everything you can see of those two continents, across the narrow yet deep Bosporus Strait, is situated in just one city: Istanbul, Turkey.

And of course Istanbul’s history runs back and forth across that strait, between continents and amidst cultures. This is a city that has changed names — and hands — multiple times over the centuries. It was christened Byzantium by the Greeks, recast as Constantinople by the Romans and then titled Istanbul by the Ottoman Empire.

Here was the crux of both conflict and interaction between East and West, as well as between Christianity and Islam. It has always been a fascinating place in my mind’s eye, and I was glad to have the chance to visit for a day on the way to northern Iraq for a Mercy Corps field assignment.

So I tried to take in as many of the historic sites as I could possibly get to in the space of a few hours: places like the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, the Basilica Cistern and the Galata Tower. But two places captured my imagination most: the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.

Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s oldest places; now a museum, it has been a place of worship for both Islam and Christianity. It served as a church for more than 1,000 years before the fall of Constantinople, when it was converted into a mosque for the next 500 years. Today, both traditions are displayed and embraced.

I met a cat in Hagia Sophia, a very curious cat. I knelt down to pet it when an older Turkish man approached me.

“Your President Obama liked that cat when he visited,” the man said. “Now I think he likes you, too.”

"You mean the cat, right?" I asked. He laughed.

So, within the walls of a place that’s seen centuries of conflict and change, I hung out with the cat that Obama petted and talked a lot more with the man about history, religion and Iraq — Turkey’s neighbor to the south.

“If you’re interested in history and religion,” the man told me, “you should go just over there, to Topkapi Palace — where the Ottoman Emperors ruled.” And so I did.

There, in a room filled with dozens of people speaking dozens of different languages, I saw a boggling collection of religious icons. Many objects were attributed to Muhammad, some to Abraham and Joseph. And then there was Moses’ staff. I can’t speak to the veracity of any of these things, but the mere possibility made me think about how such things can both unify and divide us.

My very brief time in Istanbul was spent drinking apple tea with carpet sellers and talking history while haggling; having rambling conversations with a wide variety of people who were as eager to share their city as I was to explore it; an examination of objects that carry world-changing implications; and, of course, a sit-down with an elderly Turkish man and a cat that also spent time with President Obama.

But I’ll probably define my time there more by that sight of Asia from Europe, of everything that exists between those two places, then and now. From that vantage point, the two places seemed so close, and yet so far.