Antakya is rather unique among the cities of Turkey. The population that makes up this neglected backwater is strangely cosmopolitan.
The city consists of a mixture of Sunni Turks, Alevi Arabs, Kurds, Greek Orthodox Christians, a minute Jewish population, oh, and now a disproportionate number of Syrian refugee Sunni Arabs. Additionally, the imprint and influence of the time when this area was part of the French Mandate are still discernible.
For a cheap and cheerful explanation of the various religious divisions in Turkey, please refer to this blog: The Religious Make-up of Turkey
Now in this region there is a preponderance of small – about 36 – 96 square feet – white-washed, often domed, structures. You will see them decorating hill tops, positioned by streams, found in lonely fields, situated by roads, and they are even liberally scattered throughout the old section of Antakya city.
I noted one such white-washed structure that is situated on an isolated patch on the banks of the Asi River – known in ancient times as the Orontes River.
In time, the ‘powers that be’ decided to cast a bridge over the river right at that point.
However, this small structure, white-washed with green highlights, capped with a small dome, was positioned right at the planned bridgehead.
“What was to be done?” I wondered to myself.
“Would they knock the structure down or shift it somewhere else?” I pondered and watched as the project advanced.
In time, the bridge was thrown across the river and the wee structure continued to defiantly stand where it has historically stood. The four lane approach road was built on the opposite shore.
Then, when the time came to build the approach road on the side with the structure, they built one half of the road on the right side of the structure, and the other on the left side – the structure, untouched, unmoved, unfazed and somewhat marooned, now in the middle of the four lane road – remained exactly where it always has been.
It seems it was too important, or too sacred, to be demolished or even removed to a nearby location. Those who wish to visit this structure will need to negotiate at least two lanes of flowing traffic to gain access.
It was long after this incident that I noticed that this structure has a strange and unique feature. It seems that there was a tree growing in that place and when the structure was constructed the tree, the living tree, was simply incorporated into the building; it continues to this day to grow in, through and out of the building.
These wee white-washed structures, scattered all over this region, are small Alevi shrines.
These buildings have been built over time and have been constructed over the graves of various ‘saints’. These saints can be a ‘holy man’ a ‘sheikh’, ‘a teacher’ or even a ‘Christian saint’ of old.
These structures are almost invariably painted white and most frequently boast a small dome.
Inside the shrines there is a large raised coffin-like structure. This internal feature is plastered over and painted white. It is believed that it has been constructed over the physical grave of the honoured individual. This sarcophagus-like structure is often draped with cloth, green blankets, normal Turkish flags, Green flags or other fabric. The floors are often covered in carpets. The whitewashed walls can be decorated with posters, pictures of Ali, Koranic verses and other writings both in Turkish (Latin) script and Arabic script. These structures are considered ‘holy spaces’. Shoes are strictly left outside.
Within the shrines copies of the Koran and other religious books, teachings, commentaries, and even, occasionally, a New Testament can be found. Local tradition declares that anything left in a Shrine should not be removed.
More often than not, it is the local people who maintain the Shrine – those living nearby or have a special connection with the shrine. Indeed, the structures have initially been built by local people at their own expense – these buildings are outside of the remit of the Religion Department of the government. It is the local people who ensure it is painted, maintained, cleaned and cared for. The door, usually a stout, strong steel door, is closed and locked but opened up on Fridays and other special days and times as according to the Alevi calendar and local tradition. Some can be open on multiple days, but always under the watchful eye of the key holder and self-appointed caretaker of the shrine.
To my limited knowledge no services or other events are planned or executed there – these locales are for individual acts of worship as people reach out to find help in their time of need.
Sometimes you will stumble on a Shrine which is just the grave of the ‘saint’ which has been surrounded by a high wall – but even these, over time, become enclosed and covered.
What do people do at a Shrine?
To the best of my knowledge, you will find no reference whatsoever to shrines within the Koran – these are extra-Koranic structures, functions and activities. They are an expression of Alevi belief and a desire to engage with God.
At these shrines, people will come to pray. Some will come and make a vow to God. Others will make a sacrifice of a chicken, sheep or something else. Others will burn incense. Still others will read the books held within. (For one account of such an individual who read a New Testament in a Shrine – can be read here.)
It is a place to try and make a connection with God, to find solace, to lay out your petition, to seek for assistance, to seek redress for a wrong that has been done to you, to pour out your heart, to find help when you need it most.
Interestingly, burning incense plays a prominent part in the lives and devotion of the local Alevi community.
Confession time: I am not aware of the significance that the Alevi community put on the burning of incense, nor which type of incense is burned, nor when it is burned, nor for how long, nor why and with what meaning.
In an evening in the summer, it is not unheard of to have the heady scent of burning incense to be carried on the breeze and onto our terrace.
In the course of my daily constitutional, I have noted a local florist who perpetually burns incense outside his shop whenever he is open. I do not know how much it is costing him, but there is always a censer piled high with burning incense in the front of his shop, pouring forth its pungent scent and wafted along by the breeze.
It is my observation that people in Turkey are very industrious, innovative and hard working. If they can not find a job, they will seek employment wherever and however they can – creating a job where needed, or meeting a need in society. To explore this aspect of Turkish society, you can read this blog here.
For instance, if there is a road where traffic is routinely queued up, during the hot summer months, individuals will walk amongst the waiting traffic selling cold bottled water.
When there is a sudden downpour in the city, catching all unawares, diligent individuals will be out on the streets selling brollies.
Have you ever been caught without a tissue? There will be someone offering small packages of tissues for sale.
As you go about your business, maybe, just maybe, you may wonder how much you weigh… well there is a chap, with his scale on the side of the road ready to answer that question.
If you live in a city and you have a carpet with a frayed edge – never fear, for before long a lorry will slowly come down your street offering to collect your carpet, stich it up with the machine mounted on the back of the lorry and return it to you immediately.
This is the same for the knife sharpener. He has his sharping wheel mounted in a wooden stand which he rolls down the street offering to sharpen all your knives.
Do you need a photocopy? Or do you require some document to be laminated? A man pushing a small cart or converted pram, with a small electricity generator will come by, offering on-the-spot photocopy and lamination services.
Fresh milk and I mean really fresh, unpasteurised milk, plastic kitchenware, fruit and vegetables, these all will make their appearance in your street, as will a man pushing a wheel barrow full of fresh mint and parsley. If you desire to buy bulk onions, the onion seller will sell you a great bag of onions, weighing them with the scales on the back of his vehicle. Clothes, carpets, blankets, shoes, cloth, fruit, vegetables, water melon, well, just about everything will sooner or later go past your door. And for your cast offs, the rag-and-bones man will also pass by your door announcing his services.
And here in Antakya, in this community with a large Alevi population, an enterprising individual takes a hand-held censer with the fragrant, burning incense producing copious amounts of potent smoke flowing along behind him as he walks the street. If you are feeling the need to be blessed, he will stop and wave it before you, the sweet smell flowing over you, and you will give him a wee bit of money for his service. He goes down the street and various business will call him to come and bless their shop, the incense wafting in, and he will also receive a small remuneration for his efforts. You can see him at a distance, the great cloud of incense billowing out behind him declaring his presence as he searches those who desire his services.
It appears that someone will endeavour to try and meet even your spiritual needs on the streets of Antakya.
Nevertheless that void, that longing, that desire to ‘know’ God continues unabated, unrequited and untouched by the fragment smell of incense.
The answer to the longing in the heart of man is not found in shrines, full of dead men’s bones, nor in sacrifice – the blood of chickens or sheep, nor in the making and keeping of vows, nor in tying of votive offerings on special trees or special places, nor in inhaling or bathing in the heady scent of incense. It is not within these activities, as well-meaning as they may be performed, that intimacy with God can be found.
This natural, human, inner longing for intimacy with God is attainable, but like so much in life, it is not on our terms or according to what we desire or what we, in our wisdom, have decided is the Way to attain intimacy with God.
True intimacy is a two way street, it does not occur in a vacuum, nor in a void, nor it is imposed from one side on another. Both parties come together in a mutually acceptable manner.
God, Himself, has intervened in human history; the Almighty has physically entered human history and laid out His Way for mankind to know Him and experience intimacy with the Divine.
This is the Way that He Himself has initiated, and He deals with our weaknesses, our errors and mistakes and, let’s be blunt, our ‘sins’ …and takes care of this otherwise insurmountable impediment to intimacy with Pure, Holy, Righteous God. It is in walking in His way that we can actually ‘taste and see that God is good’, that we can personally know Him and know His power and experience His Love in our lives. That we can know and receive and revel in the Love of God.