Religious Tourism Potential in Turkey

Religions affected the development of cultural heritage in Anatolia and involved the construction of impressive buildings and monuments such as temples, chapels, tombs, and sculptures. These monuments, which were used for religious reasons for hundreds of years, are also fascinating for their historical, aesthetic, and architectural importance (Okuyucu and Somuncu 2013). Churches, mosques, temples, synagogues, sacred mountains, and caves are an integral part of the cultural heritage of Turkey. In addition, the country’s worship and religious ceremonies augment this heritage. Traveling to religious sites is driven by more than religious motives and is linked with other types of tourism, especially cultural tourism.

Turkey has great potential for the development of religious tourism. As a contrast to Anatolia’s known history, recent archeological excavations (for example, discoveries in Gobeklitepe, Urfa) show that its history goes back more than

  • 10.000 years. The excavation of massive carved stones crafted by prehistoric people and believed by the German archeologist Klaus Schmidt to be the ruins of the world’s oldest temple may prove that human civilization in Anatolia is at least
  • 11.000 years old (National Geographic 2011).

Anatolia, which is one of the world’s oldest civilizations, is a religious center where the three great religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism) developed and from where they spread to other lands. Turkey is one of a few countries in which all three of these Abrahamic faiths have coexisted amicably for centuries (COE 2013). Followers of these religions have a specific connection with the region, and Anatolia is rich in cultural and religious artifacts that attract millions of people every year. As an integral part of Anatolian culture, religious buildings, monasteries, chapels, mosques, synagogues, religious rituals, and religious ceremonies are the main tourist attractions.

Turkey, where people with different beliefs have been living in tolerance and understanding for centuries, is one of the most attractive countries for tourists in the world (Serpek 2011). The tolerance, love, and brotherhood of religions can be understood from a poem by Mevlana Celaleddin-i Rumi, who was a great thirteenth-century religious man and philosopher from Anatolia:

Come, come again! Whoever you are, Come

Infidel, or fire worshipper or pagan, Come!

Our door is not the door of despair

Even if you break your repentance hundred times, Come!

Distribution of the most important religious resources in Anatolia by major religions. Source Okuyucu and Somuncu (2013)

Fig. 10.1 Distribution of the most important religious resources in Anatolia by major religions. Source Okuyucu and Somuncu (2013): 633

As part of the 1993 Faith Tourism Project, the MoCT (2015) identified 316 religious structures, sites, and monuments related to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism that are important for religious tourism. Of these, 167 are identified as belong to Islam, 129 to Christianity, and 20 to Judaism. In Turkey, mosques and churches (especially historical ones) are generally considered to be the most important sites for religious tourists. Figure 10.1 shows the distribution of these resources.

Mosques, mausoleums, madrasas, and tombs are the main tourist attractions for Muslims. Sacred places in Turkey for the Muslim world include Mount Ararat, Urfa province, where the Prophet Abraham lived; relics in the Topkapi Museum; Eyfip district in Istanbul, where the tomb of Khalid BinZeyd, the flag bearer of the Prophet Muhammad, is located; and Konya, where the tomb of Mevlana is situated. The most important Islamic structures in terms of religious tourism are located in Istanbul, Bursa, and Edirne provinces, which were the capital cities of the Ottoman Empire (Okuyucu and Somuncu 2013).

Turkey is next to Israel in terms of the biblical sites offered to Christian pilgrims. Anatolia is the land where St Paul was born, “Santa Claus” (St Nicholas) lived, the apostle John lived in his later life, and Jesus’ mother was buried. Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), which is a 1460-year-old religious site, is in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople). The seven churches of Revelation (Pergamum, Thyatira, Philadelphia, Sardis, Hierapolis, Ephesus, and Smyrna) are in western Anatolia and also constitute major sites for religious tourism. Noah’s Ark was grounded in Mount Agri (Ararat) in the east of Turkey. According to the MoCT (2015), there are 1173 officially registered churches in Turkey.

Christian religious tourism can be divided into two main groups: Catholics and Protestants. Catholics are mainly interested in visiting churches and cathedrals, while Protestants seek out biblical scenery. According to Papathanassis, Catholics are mostly interested in places where events from the Bible took place. It is interesting to note that travels by Orthodox visitors in the context of religious tourism are very seldom mentioned in the literature (Nieminen 2012).

According to the MoCT (2015), the nine most important centers for Christianity are as follows:

  • • Hatay: St Peter’s Cave Church
  • • Mersin-Tarsus: St Paul’s Museum
  • • Izmir-Selpuk: House of the Virgin Mary
  • • Antalya-Demre: St Nicolas Church
  • • Bursa-iznik: Hagia Sophia Church
  • • Manisa-Sard: Sard Sinagogue
  • • Manisa-Ala^ehir: Ala^ehir Church
  • • Manisa-Akhisar: Akhisar Church
  • • Isparta-Yalvap: Antioch of Pisidia
  • • Nev^ehir-Derinkuyu: Orthodox Church
  • • Denizli-Pamukkale: Laodicea

Many of the places mentioned in the Old Testament are now located within the borders of Turkey (Serpek 2011). For example, the areas in which the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are located are the Promised Land, which consists the area from the river of Nile to the Euphrates by the God. Harran, where the Prophet Abraham lived, is also an important area according to the Old Testament (Usta 2005). Another holy place in Judaism is Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark was grounded. In addition, the MoCT (2015) identifies 16 synagogues in Turkey in the context of the Faith Tourism Project, of which eight are in Istanbul, three in Bursa, and one in each of the following cities: of Izmir, Ankara, Bursa, and Edirne.

Anatolian history has been characterized by many civilizations. From the Stone Age until the appearance of the first monotheistic religions, paganism prevailed. The artifacts of pagan belief constitute an important part of Anatolian cultural heritage. During the Stone Age, people worshipped the Mother Goddess, an important deity who was the symbol of the fertility. The Hittites had many gods and goddesses, but the main god was Teshub, the god of weather. His son, Telipinu, was the god of agriculture. Kubaba, who was later adopted by the Phrygians as Cybele, was the chief goddess, seen as the Mother Earth and worshipped as having the power to create life. She was also, according to the Phrygians, symbolic of the art of agriculture and cultivated the vine. According to Greek mythology, Cybele was the mother of all gods on Olympus. Zeus, the father of the gods; Poseidon, the god of oceans; Apollo, the god of light and agriculture; and Dionysus, the god of wine, all appeared in this land. Ruins of temples dedicated to these gods and goddesses can still be seen in Turkey (Edmonds 1998).

According to Turkish Travel Agencies Association (TURSAB 2013), 200 travel agencies specialize in religious tourism in Turkey. These agencies offer biblical tour packages consisting of the most important sacred sites, especially for Christians. The religious resources of Turkey can be categorized as follows:

  • 1. Sacred places for Christianity;
  • 2. Sacred places for Islam;
  • 3. Sacred places for Judaism.
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