ISTANBUL - Faced with a world filled with disunity, a group of musicians are attempting to translate the tolerance of their religiously diverse homeland of Antioch into song.
Violins and cellos string alongside Baglamas (traditional Turkish Bandolins), as wooden Meys (flutes) and stable Kanuns (harps) pluck the time alongside ancient and modern drums. Above the din, the easily recognizable sounds of Hallelujah, Hava Nagila and Dertli-Dertli can be discerned. Overall a potentially confusing arrangement, were it not for the harmony and enthusiasm of the singers.
The Antakya Chorus of Civilizations is not an embarrassing accident of conference planning, but a refreshingly hopeful and purposeful organization. Caroling only religious songs, the group is composed of representatives of the sacred city’s six main religions and aims to show that they can Ğ international stereotypes to the contrary Ğ live, and prosper, alongside one another. The three Abrahamic faiths are further divided along regional cultural and historic lines: Islam splits into Alevi and Sunni, while Christianity fragments into Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox and Armenian, divisions largely invisible during their energetic performance at the Emitt tourism fair Thursday in Istanbul.
The variety of the choir catches the eye. Longhaired youths who would look more at home in the vestments of heavy metal idolatry belt alongside perky grandmothers who smile sweetly as if teaching you to pray. The choir is formed just as much by the priests, rabbis and imams who lead their communities as by the teachers, students and jewelers who chose to incorporate religion into their personal lives to vastly differing degrees.
Founded two years ago as a social experiment, director Yılmaz Özfırat was eager to see what he describe’s as his city’s tolerant, inclusive attitude projected onto the world. The idea is to translate Antioch’s century-old way of life and show the world that "peace not politics" is the bridge of difference and that fruitful co-habitation does not, in fact, lay at an insurmountable distance.
The simple, honest philosophy is much lacking in the world today. "We are of different religions, but of only one God Ğ the one who created music," smiles Özfırat optimistically. Theology aside, the initiative springs from a solid historical foundation. Antioch is steeped in religious significance, the perfect Ğ perhaps indeed the only authentic Ğ place from which such a choir could emerge. Their long tradition of religious tolerance dates back to when Pagan followers of Hellenic gods lived peacefully alongside the new followers of Jesus Christ, referred to as Christians in Antioch for the first time. Jews were given full status as equal citizens from the very beginning of the Hellenistic age and the ancient city is still an official seat of the patriarchate of the Orthodox church, as well as a long-time stronghold of Alevi culture.
There has been no shortage of conquest throughout the long and often violent history of what was once referred to as "The city of God." The Armenians, the Turks, the Arabs, the Crusaders and the Greeks all sought Ğ or succeeded Ğ to gain control of the strategically located mountain enclave. Their descendants, however, live among each other in relative harmony today, an all too rare example of leaving the past in the past and learning to move forward.
Choir with a mission
Though a fine example of religious music, the chorus is a much finer example of a functioning ideology and this is the appeal for many of the musicians as well as the audience. Cihan Yilmaz is the group’s drummer and, despite playing percussion since near infancy, it was not the music that attracted the jumpy, blue-eyed player to the initiative, but its mission. "We are trying to show how we live," he said.
True to the mission of a choir that does not seek to identify by religious differences but work with them, Yilmaz, a practicing Alevi who claims his faith has only deepened working alongside other religions, says "when I play with the choir, I do not play with my religious identity but, simply, as a human." The world would do well to sing to the same tune.