Istanbul Turkey, is frequently included in the journeys that we take to that part of the world. It is a modern and beautiful city with a lot of important features of interest..

Question:Why go to Turkey on a Holy Land Tour as we often do and will do on the 2014 departures? Good question.

In the early centuries after the birth of Jesus and the establishment of the Christian Church, this area was a vital part of the Roman Empire.

What we now call Turkey was then the Roman provinces of Asia Minor and Cappadocia and Galatia.
This area became the center of world Christianity for over 400 years.

That gradual transformation began with the 3 missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul as described in the New Testament Book of Acts.

Over the approaching centuries the influence of Christianity intensified there to the point that a Roman Emperor, Constantine, finally declared himself a “Christian” (how deep that conversion actually went is up to question) in the 4th century AD and, as a result, the Roman Empire became an officially “Christian” Empire.

Preceding Constantine as Emperor was Diocletian who split the Roman Empire into 4 sections administratively with, what we might describe as, Assistant Emperors in charge of each segment.
The father of Constantine then became an Emperor, and his son, Constantine, gradually assumed primacy and, in the process, relocated his capital to Byzantium which he then humbly renamed after himself as Constantinople.

Same city: three names: Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul. During this time the capital of the Western part of the Empire remained in Rome and the capital and now becoming more dominant Eastern part of the Empire, was centered in Constantinople.

Important early church councils like the famous Council of Nicaea were held here near Istanbul and were instrumental in defining what are the most important doctrines of Christianity and settling the matter of what books would be included in the Bible we now read.

All of this important Christian history, occurred in what is today Muslim Turkey.

Among the places you will see if you go to Istanbul (Both of our 2014 journeys will touch there briefly ) is the huge, formerly Christian Church, Hagia Sophia, built by the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD.



It is enormous and breathtaking in its immensity even by today’s standards and was at that time the most important Christian church in the world. This was 1000 years before St Peters Cathedral was built in Rome.

For many that have traveled or will travel with us, Istanbul may be their first experience in what is a Muslim world.

That takes some adjustment, experiencing the feeling of being a minority in a large population. It comes as a shock to some to discover that the rest of the world does not operate like the way theirs does back home. That is one of the learning values of a great Bible Lands journey such as we offer, learning how to understand and deal with that fact.

Hagia Sophia (means holy wisdom) became the mother church of all of the branches of Eastern Orthodoxy until Constantinople was conquered in 1453 by the Muslims. Hagia Sophia, Orthodoxy’s mother church, was then changed into the Muslim museum which it remains to this day. As now Turkey moves more and more away from its tolerant attitude of the past there is now talk of making this church a mosque.

In the mid 1500s AD, an important character emerged in Constantinople named Suleiman the Magnificent.

He is important to our travel in the Holy Land because he rebuilt much of what we will see when we go to Jerusalem.

When we look at the gates and walls of the famous Old City of Jerusalem we will see that the stones used to build them are not all of the same size and shape. The bottom stones of the city walls and particularly the “wailing wall’ (more on this later) are immense and they were placed there at the time of Jesus by their builder Herod the Great, the same one who tried to kill the infant Christ child.

But as our eyes scan up the walls we will see that the topmost stones are smaller and cruder. These are part of the restoration of Jerusalem done by this famous guy from Constantinople, Suleiman the Magnificent.

The impact of Islam on the Middle East was and is profound and most American Christians have little understanding of Islam or its history so here is a brief primer to get you started.

In this day of the so called “Arab Spring” and the turmoil into which we have been sucked ,it would be well to have some basic understanding of Islam. (This ferment in Islam is quite recent and actually began only about 35 years ago with the overthrowing of the Shah of Iran and the arrival in Teheran from French exile of the Ayatollah Khomeini.)

Mohammed came out of the desert with his monotheistic vision and his new book/revelation, the Quran, in the early 600s AD. He lived from 570 to 632.

The culture in which he lived was heavily animistic and polytheistic, and his movement caught fire and quickly swept across the Mediterranean world in a wildfire of military conquest. This brought him into conflict with so called “Christian Europe” and particularly sparked tension over control of the sites in the Holy Land considered sacred to European Christian pilgrims. The Muslims, when they controlled those sites, often prevented Christian pilgrims from visiting.

This state of tension reached its high point around 1000 AD when the first of several “crusades” was launched from Europe with the stated purpose of assisting European Christians to visit Jerusalem and the other sites sacred to Christians.

These crusades occurred over a period of about 300 years from the late 990s to the early 1300s AD.

Ruined Crusader castles can be found all over the Middle East dating back to those days. The word “Crusade” carries an ominous ring to Muslim ears still to this day.

The so called “Crusaders” were a mixed lot. Some were genuine in their quest to provide safe passage for Christian travelers and to free the Christian sites from pagan control and were motivated by religious fervor.

Many had less pure motives and were drawn by the opportunity to plunder, to steal, to escape debt back home, and to have a great adventure under the guise of a religious mission. Some of them were brutes and scum who wore the label “Christian” badly. Muslims looked at them with some puzzlement and their behavior affected the way Muslims, then and even now, view “Christians”.

Contrary to what many in America think, Islam is a not a monolith. That is one of the reasons for so much Muslim on Muslim violence and political tension in the Middle East.

Islam spit into 2 competing parts after the death of Mohammed.

The precipitating cause of that rift was the acrimonious debate over who would succeed Mohammed after his death and what criteria would be applied to select future leaders of the faith.

Two competing, irreconcilable camps, the Sunnis and the Shia, emerged from this struggle and they remain distinct today and are the source for ongoing turmoil within the Muslim world and this inevitably spills over into the larger world….our world.

They went to war against each other following the death of the prophet over the question of succession in 655 AD at the famous battle of Karbala which saw the defeat of the Shia by the Sunni and the beginning of them feeling a sense of martyrdom and of being the oppressed ones.

That enmity remains to this day.The Sunnis are by far the dominant camp making up about 85% of the world’s Muslims, with the Shia representing the remaining 15%.

Where in the Muslim world do they live?

The Shia minority (15%) lives primarily in Iran and with a large population in Iraq. and minority in Syria. They have spinoff proxy groups they support like the terrorist group Hezbollah. Often they are the ruling party in countries with Sunni majorities.

The rest of the Muslim world is Sunni (85%) and these two branches of Islam really don’t much like each other.

Sunni Muslim countries include: Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Jordan, the bulk of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Emirates, etc. most of the Muslim world.

Let’s Learn about the Shia branch of Islam.

The Shia (15%) were convinced that an inherited line of succession was to be the standard. Upon the death of Muhammad, they rallied in support of Mohammad’s son in law, Ali.

The Shia believe that Mohammad had chosen Ali as his successor and that, as each future leader (they call them Imam) died, the supreme leadership position in Islam must be passed on to another in the family line of the prophet.

(BTW This will help you understand the dominant thought in Iran today.)

This resulted in religious primacy, in the Shia world being vested in a series of 12 Imams, all of whom claimed family succession back to the prophet.

These Imams were imbued with the power to authoritatively speak in some way as a pope and as inspired by God, and their words, are viewed by Shia Muslims, to have the authority of holy scripture.

Tragically the Shia line of inherited succession was abruptly interrupted when the, soon to be recognized as the 12th Imam, 4 year old son of the 11th Imam, mysteriously disappeared in 873 AD.

He was never found and Shia Muslims still today look forward to him reemerging in our time. They grieve for the lost Imam and yearn for his return. This missing or anticipated, soon to return 12th Imam, is regarded by Shia Islam today (read Iran primarily) as the “hidden Imam”.

There appears to be a mystical and deep emotional attachment to this figure that defies logic and borders on fanaticism.  The 12th or “hidden Imam’s” reappearance, some 1300 years after his disappearance, is highly anticipated by the Shia Muslims particularly in Iran much as Christians look forward to the return of Jesus in the second coming.

In Shia tradition there is a strong emotional longing for the reappearance of the “hidden Imam” who is anticipated by some Iranians today to soon reappear, perhaps coming out of a well in Iran just before the last judgment of God. He will then, they expect, lead Islam to world dominance and usher in a time of “peace” ie Muslim dominance, with all of the frightening implications that this holds for non Muslims.

In the meantime, while awaiting the reemergence of the “hidden Imam”, Shia Muslims look to a series of powerful and authoritative religious leaders called Ayatollahs, who they believe can speak for God to their generation until the “hidden Imam” finally appears.

Following the ouster of the Shah in Iran 33+ years ago, we witnessed the arrival from French exile, of the Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, who ushered in the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979.


And now we have the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who holds sway with, until recently, his fanatical underling Ahmadinejad, both eagerly looking forward to the soon arrival of the 12th Imam, who they believe will lead Iran and the Shia world, to total power and dominance.

It appears, in their frame of reference, that if this revelation requires sparking a nuclear war with the West to speed that “wonderful day”, then so be it.

Apparently that would be a good thing according to the Shia branch of Islam.

So good luck negotiating with such.

They embrace death.

Saddam Hussein was a Sunni as were the thugs from his village of Tikrit who ruled Iraq under him.

A majority of the population in Iraq under Saddam however were Shia. Easy to see why the seething religiously engendered conflict that existed there below the surface,required a violent heavy hand like his to control it.

Similarly Syria is a majority Sunni country (85%) but ruled by an Alawite/Shia dynasty of the Assad family for the past 50 years.

The ruling Shi’ites of Syria are about 15% of the population. Again the conflicting Islamic traditions play a key role in the unrest in that country

Such inbred conflicts contribute to much of the unrest in the Middle East as seen in the current conflict in Syria and the ongoing undercurrents in Iraq.

The Week publication May 24, 2013 reported concerning Syria :

A shocking video of a Syrian rebel fighter cutting out a dead soldier’s heart and taking a bite out of it has horrified human-rights groups around the world. ’Slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them’ the man (Sunni) says. Human Rights watch identified the (Sunni) man as Abu Saakar leader of a rebel brigade and the Syrian opposition coalition said it would put him on trial.”

It was a struggle between these 2 branches of Islam that contributed to the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1970s.

Now you can understand better the continuing sectarian unrest in Iraq post American heavy involvement there, and why Shia Iran has such great influence there, and the important influence in Iraq of the Iran backed rag tag Mahdi Army of Shi’ite Muqtada al Sadr who does Iran’s bidding and foments unrest in Iraq.

An important contrast.

No such power struggle for succession occurred within the Christian camp after the death and resurrection of Jesus, because Jesus was always recognized as the unique incarnation of God: more than a prophet, and so nobody could possibly fill his shoes.  Nobody.  Splits occurred in the Christian camp over the centuries but they were over matters of doctrinal distinctions and political considerations, not succession.

Let’s Learn about the Sunni branch of Islam

The more dominant branch of Islam, the Sunnis, decided that the issue of succession following the death of Mohammad, should be based upon merit and ability rather than through direct connection to the family of the Prophet.

They are strong literalist interpreters of the Koran and do not accept the idea of Imams being empowered to speak as from God, as do the Shi’ites.

In addition to the Koran they also accept the Hadith (a collection of sayings of the Prophet) and claim to value a “harmonious community” approach to life.

The Sunnis reject the Ayatollahs of Iran and the myth of the soon arrival of the hidden 12th imam.

The Sunnis have no clergy and each Sunni male is considered able to lead prayers. They do look to religious scholars to interpret the Koran. When you boil it all down, it appears that one of the chief fundamental differences between the 2 Islamic camps, is to be found in their view of the final authority of their scriptures, the Koran.

There is an odd and certainly not precise parallel in the Christian world, when contrasting the views of the Church of Rome with the rest of the Christian world.

The Catholic Church teaches that, in addition to relying on the inspired word of God, the Bible, the Pope is also able to speak ex cathedra, authoritatively, on matters of faith and so provide additional faith information to Roman Catholic Christians as from God.  

So too, the Shia branch of Islam, accepts the Koran as the inspired word of Allah but they also believe that Allah gives them the Imams and Ayatollahs to fill in the religious information gaps for them as needed.

By contrast the Sunnis reject any such additional source of religious instructions.


Sunnis dominate the population of most of the Middle Eastern oil kingdoms and also the radical Taliban of Afghanistan.

These Sunni states all fear a nuclear Shi’ite Iran, as well they should.

An important aside: There may be serious cause for concern over the spread of Islam of both brands into the West.

Many years ago, long before a resurgent Islam became the subject dominating the evening news and before the Islamic revolution in Iran, I read an article that warned that the next great threat to world peace would be the emerging of radical Islam.  At that time I thought this to be foolish as when I thought of Islam and Muslim, an image of my Arab taxi driver friend Ali from Jerusalem, came to mind, and it seemed inconceivable to me that the Ali’s of the world could in any way be a threat to the secular, liberal democracies of the West.  How blind I was then it seems.  My little, now elderly, taxi driving friend Ali, is clearly not a threat, but an energized militant Islam certainly is.

It is not unthinkable that Islam could become a controlling influence in most Western European countries and also perhaps even the US, by the mid to late 21st century.

This is due to heavy immigration into the West from Muslim countries, resistance to assimilation and the exceptionally high birth rates of Muslim families, when compared to the replacement rates of non Muslim families in every part of the West.

Major European cities like Paris and London and Brussels and Amsterdam already have to deal with a resurgent, militant, non assimilating Islamic minority that has taken over control of areas within these cities and injected Sharia law into local regulations. And the increased secularization of the West is creating a spiritual vacuum that will be filled by something and, if not by Christ and His followers, then by whom?

It is really a matter of math: It takes 2.1 kids on average per family to preserve a culture. Most Western countries are already losing the population battle by default and are averaging about 1.5 or 1.6 kids per family and so are not even replacing their losses by death.

These cultures are in the process of disappearing while their Muslim immigrants are raising huge families. A matter of time?

The Washington Times Newspaper, October 4, 2010, reported the following,

“Islamists say the Koran is destined to rule America. In fact the Muslim takeover of the White House is not just an unfolding action plan but a directive from Muhammad himself.”

In an interview Sunday on ABC’s ‘The Week’, British radical Muslim activist Anjem Choundary made it clear what he and his Islamist brothers have planned for the West.

“We believe, us Muslims, the East and the West will one day be governed by the Shariah’, he said. ‘Indeed we believe that one day the flag of Islam will fly over the White House’. He then quoted a hadith, or saying of Muhammad, as related by 10th century Muslim scholar Al Tabatabi, that ‘the final hour will not come until Muslims conquer the White House’. Another version of the saying goes ‘A small portion of Muslims will rise and conquer the White House’.”

Many Americans believe this conquest is well underway if not already secretly completed. President Obama was concerned enough about perceptions of his faith, to address the question at one of his recent ‘backyard discussions’ in New Mexico. Mr. Obama said that he is ‘a Christian by choice’ which may or may not assuage the concerns of those who believe he is a Muslim by birth”

This is all very interesting background information to keep in mind as you visit countries that are majority Muslim such as Turkey, Jordan and Egypt with the “Holy Land Guru”. If you ha ve not already traveled to the Holy land should you be considering doing so on one of our personally escorted tours in 2014? Please also consider liking my  page where you will find all of my many original articles designed to keep my friends up to speed on all things Holy Land related

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