How to Visit Religious Sites
Turkey is covered with grand mosques, tombs, churches, monasteries, and temples built by the cultures of the past and present. If you’re planning on coming to Turkey you’re bound to visit one (if not dozens) of these amazing places, but will you know how to act? We don’t mean how to take part in an Aramaic church service, or how to join in the Friday prayers at the mosque, but how to be a good guest. How will you be a good visitor at these deeply meaningful and spiritual places that make this country so amazing.
Before going into it any further the two most important things are: be respectful and be quiet. If you’re respectful and quiet, you’ll do just fine. People are forgiving of honest mistakes when it’s obvious you’re trying to be respectful.
One of the country’s most popular sites are the numerous mosques such as Istanbul’s Blue Mosque or Edirne’s Selimiye Mosque. But while some of these mosques are set up for non-Muslim visitors most aren’t. That doesn’t mean you cannot visit the ones that have no “Visitor’s Section” but it does mean you need to be extra aware of how you behave.
First of all, wear appropriate clothes. Women must cover their heads and long pants or skirts must be worn. No shorts for men either. And using the provided headscarves as a sarong is just weird. I’ve seen lots of Turkish memes making fun of Westerners wearing headscarves around their waist.
Before entering the mosque take off your shoes. Taking shoes off can be a bit of a dance as your shoes shouldn’t even touch the platform outside the door. When you go in, put your shoes on the shelf at the back, don’t walk around with them. The exception to this is the more touristic mosques where they may have plastic bags provided to carry them in. Often there will be a sign saying to put your shoes in, not on top of the shelf. I have no idea why this is but that’s usually what the sign says.
If there’s a Visitor’s Section stay in it. If there isn’t a Visitor’s Section you can feel free to wander around, but be aware that when there is no visitors section there is a degree of gender segregation and you need to stay in the areas open to you. The women’s section is usually in the back behind a screen and sometimes on the upper balconies. Look for the words ‘Bay’ for man and ‘Bayan’ for woman to be sure. Women, make sure to take advantage of the often much better view from above.
Remember that an active mosque does not exist for the purpose of your visit. A mosque will be used for prayers at set times throughout the day at which point they will be closed to visitors. Make sure you respect this and if you see lots of people gathering its probably because prayers are about to begin so either wait, come back later, or ask if someone.
The main service of the week happens on Friday afternoon at which time the mosque will be busiest and worshippers will be there for a longer time. If you’re planning to visit an active mosque it’s better to try to visit anytime other than Friday afternoon.
Taking pictures in a mosque is something of a gray zone. It depends on what sort of mosque you’re at, what time it is, how busy it is, and how discreet you are. Taking pictures in the courtyard is totally fine and, as long as you’re discreet and respectful, taking pictures in the mosque itself is usually OK too. That being said, I wouldn’t do it in every mosque that I’ve been in. You’ll have to use your own discretion on when it’s OK and when it’s not. When in doubt show respect by asking first.
Finally, there will usually be a bathroom on the mosque compound. Generally you can feel free to use these. In small towns they will be free, in touristic places they will usually charge a small fee.
Religious Mausoleums (Türbe)
A Türbe is something of a Mausoleum and a shrine mixed together. These are usually domed buildings (Seljuk era ones will usually have a tall pointed roof of stone) with an oversized coffin inside. Often the coffin will have a giant turban on it. Although the main purpose of these buildings is as a mausoleum, many people will visit these to pray and ask the deceased to help with something. The combination of grave and shrine makes for a somewhat somber atmosphere, but people are fairly relaxed in regard to foreigners visiting and taking pictures. The first time I went into one I was wondering if would be OK to take a picture only to have an old Turkish man give me his phone so he could have his picture taken next to the coffin. Another time I was in the crowded Türbe of Eyüp with a local imam where loads of people pray to this important Muslim saint. I did not at all feel comfortable taking pictures in this setting, but the imam really wanted me to, so I did.
While visiting a Türbe is totally fine, just remember to be respectful to those who are there praying.
Churches are complicated. Visiting churches can range from places like Istanbul’s Iron Church, where the atmosphere is more museum and the majority of the building is open to visitors at any time, to smaller churches that are closed to visitors completely. Some churches will let you in during rare visiting hours, some let you take pictures, some don’t, sometimes flash is OK, sometimes it’s not. In all orthodox churches, there is a section that is off limits to everyone but the clergy of that particular church. It is usually easily recognizable by one or more of three characteristics: a raised platform, an iconostasis (the wall of icons and precious metal at the front of the church), or velvet ropes. Even if there is a much better shot behind these areas, don’t try to get into them.
If you’re really looking to dig deeper and visit some interesting churches, you can try your luck with the doorbell. A warden may let you in and show you around. In this case be willing to give a tip.
Make sure to be respectful whether you can get in or not and respect any rules for visitors.
While synagogues are rarer in Turkey, there are some and they are well worth visiting. In many ways synagogues are like the churches of Turkey where some (like the Grand Synagogue of Edirne) are more like a museum than a place of regular worship, and others are totally closed to the public. Again, you can try the doorbell and see where that gets you. And like always, respect the answer you get.
Turkey is home to many ancient monasteries, most of which are abandoned, in ruins, or museums. However, it’s still possible that you’ll come across one of the remaining active ones, especially if you’re planning on visiting Mardin.
Some monasteries are simply closed to the public while others have tours, cafes, and gift shops for visitors. Just because these places are set up for visitors doesn’t mean that the monastery isn’t still home to priests and monks so don’t be surprised if you can’t watch a church service, see the monk’s cell, or get into a bishop’s bedroom. Be respectful, ask questions, and enjoy getting a glimpse into what is normally a very private world.
Visiting a graveyard is, in general, OK. The grave stones of the Ottoman period in particular are ornate and full of fascinating symbols and meaning. While people will go to visit the graves of loved ones or relatives (especially for holidays), they will also go in the same way that they will visit the above mentioned Türbes. The historic graveyards by Fatih Mosque and Eyüp Sultan Mosque are especially popular for those coming to pray by the graves of history’s great men and women. If the graveyard is newer, keep in mind that people may be mourning, in which case give them space. Finally, don’t step on the graves.
Throughout Turkey you will see long-abandoned mosques, churches, and monasteries in various stages of ruin. Even though these places aren’t active, it would be best to treat them with a little bit of extra respect. Go ahead and explore a ruined monastery in the forest but I wouldn’t recommend using one as a bathroom.