April 23rd is a holiday in Turkey. They call it Children’s Day, dedicating the hopeful future of the nation to the children of the republic. People dress-up, flags are strung, and picnics are spread out on every green surface available in order to glorify this commemorative festival.
However, outside of the city, April 23rd takes on a more subdued mentality.
Every year on this same date, 50,000 pilgrims of all faiths crowd Buyukada -what I’ve come to call one of Turkey’s “getaway” islands- for a soul searching pilgrimage to St. George’s monastery. Known as “Aya Yorg,” this historic orthodox church peacefully sits atop Buyukada’s highest peak, looking over the turquoise seas of Marmara.
Ever since I heard about this event from a stranger in a coffee shop, it immediately caught my interest as well as my curiosity. A Muslim nation making a prayer pilgrimage to a Christian monastery?
As the date neared, some friends and I decided to ‘participate’ in the pilgrimage. We brought along a guitar.
The hike wasn’t easy- it was about an hour and a half going uphill. Trail-side venders seemed to be making a killing on fruit and water…
As part of the spiritual ritual, many people were unwinding spools of thread, twirling it around the trees and fences from the bottom of the hill all the way up to the monastery. It’s said that if their spool lasts the whole way, they have found favor in the heavens…
The roadsides quickly began to layer with the tangled thread in every color, like a brightly-woven chaotic river.
It was an epic day for the church in Turkey; people came on this pilgrimage with hopes and prayers, so the church made itself useful. Prayer stops were spaciously stationed along the trail. The voices of believers and nonbelievers blended in requests for various needs, searching for answers, seeking out truth.
We paused once we reached the top of the mountain to take-in the breathtaking view. But my gaze was quickly reverted to the monastery. Outside the exit, the pilgrims were writing their hopes on paper and tying it to the branches of trees.
Prayers were being written with chalk on the rocks nearby.
An array of candles lined the rock wall, wax melting into a colorful stream.
Their focus was on ritual. On outward action.
We took out the guitar and for the next four hours, every pilgrim who exited the monastery was washed with melodies of praise resounding from the Hope living in us.
Hope that is Alive. Hope that’s Real.
Piercing the air with song, we breathed out worship to our God. Sometimes in Turkish. Sometimes in English. It didn’t matter.
What did matter is that we weren’t just singing; we were full-on fighting.
This was no ordinary mountaintop experience.