Thursday, November 21, 2013

Windows Into History

Crosses outside of an
Orthodox church in
Bucharest, Romania
Wednesday's post was a pictorial of some of the European churches we have visited.  It was only while looking at my pictures from the past two years that I realized just how many churches we have visited.  I've lost track of the exact number we've toured but I feel confident in saying that we've toured at least one, and likely more, in each city and country we've traveled to.  Its almost ironic that visiting churches has become the highlight of so many of our travels.  Despite Glenn's being a graduate of Catholic school and my being a religion minor in college, neither one of us is what you could consider religious and unless we are visiting family, we do not attend church services.  But drop us into a foreign city and we are quick to visit the local cathedral, lesser known churches, and mosques as well. Even Sidney knows the routine and removes his hat and speaks in a whisper when we approach any church.  Perhaps it is because of our secular view on life that we can really appreciate these centers of religious life for their sheer beauty, architectural magnificence and historical significance.  Whether the churches are Muslim mosques, Roman Catholic cathedrals, or Orthodox Christian monasteries, each one is unique in its own way and provides visitors with a brief peak into a community's heritage and silently speaks to the rich and diverse history of Europe.

There are are two things that I'm discovering with the more time I spend overseas. First, despite its (comparatively) small size, Europe is culturally diverse and as such, has a diverse religious heritage meaning churches are every where.  And I do mean every where.  In many cities it is possible to visit churches of differing faiths all within a block of one another.  The second thing I've come to realize is that Europe is old. I mean really old and not the "new" old of the United States.  Stepping foot into a church dating back many hundreds, if not thousands, of years is much more common than visiting one built during our lifetime.  And these churches speak directly to the times during which they were constructed.  Ornate or stark, gilded, stone or wooden, all are important houses of worship for their followers.

Paris' Notre Dame Cathedral was impressive but I liked the
neighboring Sainte Chapelle better
Prior to coming to Albania I had heard the call to prayer but never stepped foot inside of a mosque.  My first of many mosque visits was to the world famous Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey and I was immediately struck by its grand size and ornate blue tiles.  Its opulence rivaled that of the grandest of gilded Catholic cathedrals.  Other smaller mosques in the city were almost but not quite as grand as well.  The Catholic churches of western Europe are some of the most ornate and lavishly decorated buildings I have ever encountered.  In many of them, even the "lesser" churches everything appears to be gilded in gold.  I expected as much when visiting the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica, but had expectations of seeing fewer jewels and gold in other churches.  I quickly found that this wasn't necessarily the case.  It continues to boggle my mind when I think about the sheer net worth of these churches where the walls and ceilings alone probably cost more than the annual budget of a small country.  At the same time, I've learned that these cathedrals weren't built overnight, often taking centuries to complete.  From a historical perspective, it is easy to understand that during the darker periods in history, where religion played such a large role in everyday life, even the most common  of people would give their money to "the Church" with the hope of achieving happiness and enlightenment in their after life.  But then again, not all Catholic churches are gilded in gold.  Traveling through the countries encompassing the former Austro-Hungarian empires, many of the churches are sparsely decorated stone sanctuaries where the sound of a pin dropping would be sure to echo.  Again, this speaks to the times
Inside St. Mary's Basilica in Krakow, Poland
and places where these churches were built.  
Many of the Orthodox churches I've visited have tended to be dark and solemn, smelling heavily of incense. This was particularly the case during our travels through Romania and Bulgaria where the churches we visited may have had ornate carvings and frescoes that rivaled those found in Catholic churches but were much darker and more somber than the gold gilded insides of their Catholic contemporaries.  From the narrow seats that serve as pews to the somber faced icons on the walls, these churches leave me with the feeling that life, and the church itself, is a punishment and mental, if not physical, torture.  But their darkness has its own form of beauty and to me at least, speaks volumes about the history and times of the church.  
Frescoes in Voskopoja

And then you have Albanian churches.  During the Communist era, all forms of religion were outlawed and Albania was officially designated as a secular state.  Many, but not all, of the churches and religious icons were destroyed and religion of any kind was not practiced publicly.  (Fortunately, some of the more historically valuable icons were spared destruction and are now housed in a museum in the city of Korce).  Today, Albania is a religiously tolerant country that on paper is predominently Muslim but it has its share of Catholic and Orthodox churches as well.  Old churches and monasteries exist in various states of (dis)repair but for the most part they lack the ornate trappings found in so many other churches.  In some churches you can see remnants of frescoes and other religious icons but in others you encounter nothing but barren stone walls.  The hilltop town of Voskopoja, once a thriving commercial hub in the Balkans but now a small village with numerous churches in various conditions, is undergoing a renaissance of sorts where her ancient churches are being painstakingly restored.  Many of them exist as piles of rubble or nothing but shells of their former selves.  New religious buildings of all faiths are being erected throughout Albania as well.  These contemporary structures may lack the grandness of older churches, but regardless of the trappings, they serve their religious purpose.  I've learned that visiting an Albanian church, regardless of its denomination, is a solemn affair but then again, this speaks directly to the history and culture of the country. 

But the message I get from visiting an Albanian church is no different than visiting one in nearby Greece or Macedonia or France or Sweden.  The religious beliefs practiced inside the walls may differ and some may be more ornate than others but all are symbolic of their people and the times in which they were built.  For me, walking into any church is like stepping back into history.   And houses of worship are an vital part of Europe's long and storied history.

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