Which Direction is Mecca?

The Somali woman knelt on a shawl in the corner of my classroom and touched her hijab-covered head to the floor. Her muttered prayers were brief. Within minutes, the midmorning break ended and I resumed our English class.

During the break each day, I visited other classes to observe other Somali students at their prayer ritual. All faced the same direction – north.

Puzzled, I questioned one of my Somali students, a man named Mohammed. He spoke a little more English than the other students. “Why do you bow that way to pray, Mohammed?” I asked, pointing north.

“Mecca,” he said. “That way – Mecca.”

“Maybe in Somalia Mecca is that way – north.” I shook my head. “But here, in the middle of North America,  that way is the direction of the North Pole. Here, Mecca is that way.” I pointed to the southeast.

Mohammed didn’t believe me. So I got out a world map. He acted as if he had never seen a map before. I tried to show him the direction to Mecca on a globe. He either didn’t understand or didn’t want to believe me.

It took several years, but finally our Somali immigrants changed the direction of their prayer prostrations.

As a writer of historical fiction, I research not only history, but also culture and religion. The storyline of my novel Lavash is told through two fourteen-year-old girlsone Armenian and one Turkish. In one scene, I describe Nazli, the Turk, and her Aunt Hatije kneeling on a dual-niche prayer kilim or rug.

When I received the critique from my cultural advisor on that section of my manuscript, my critiquer informed me that I had Nazli and Aunt Hatije bowing in the wrong direction. Since I had set the story in a town in central Turkey, Muslim adherents there would have been bowing to the southeast in 1915. I rewrote the scene.

Christians, on the other hand, believe that God is not only omniscient (all knowing), but also omnipresent (all-present, boundless). Christians aren’t tied to bowing toward Jerusalem or any other specific location. As Christians, Armenians and I can bow our heads to our Creator in any direction because God is everywhere.

Armenian vs. Ottoman Turkish Scripts

One pebble on the beach of history that begs examination might be labeled ‘the advantage of a written language.’

When the Seljuk Turks began their invasion of Armenia, the Armenians had been using their alphabet, had their sacred book the Bible translated into their heart language, and had developed literature in their mother tongue – at least five centuries earlier. The Turks, however, arrived on Armenia’s borders with a spoken language and a borrowed script that didn’t fit Turkish. The Ottoman Turks were hampered in their cultural development and the political organization of their empire by their lack of a written language.

Unfortunately, Arabic was the only script with which the Turks were familiar. Mohammed’s prohibition of the translation of the Muslims’ sacred book the Koran meant that Arabic script and vocabulary became the framework for the written language of the Ottoman Turks. During the Ottoman Empire, Turkish was written in Arabic script, with consonant sounds spelt as they would be in Persian or Arabic and usually with the vowels missing. This system of writing was prohibitively difficult to read.

Most schooling for children during the Ottoman Empire consisted of learning to do sums and memorizing passages of the Koran in Arabic. Verification of a student’s comprehension of the regurgitated phrases was not a priority.

Both the governmental oversight of the wide variety of ethnicities in the Empire and the education of its young proved torturous under the Ottoman Turks’ inadequate script.

The disadvantage of a cumbersome form of written communication continued to plague the Turks for an additional decade beyond the 1915 elimination of Ottoman Turkey’s Armenians – along with their advantage of a written language.

Syncretized Islam

Instead of giving accurate description in their discussion of the conversion of the Seljuk Turks to Islam, historical accounts muddied the waters. Some books said the Seljuks welcomed Muslim Arab traders into their territory between the seventh and the tenth centuries. Other books didn’t specify, simply saying that by the time the Turks invaded Armenian territory the Seljuks had become Muslims.

The historical accounts that described the initial contacts of Seljuk Turks with Muslim Arabs as a benign exchange glossed over the latter’s tendency to demand religious conversion at the point of a scimitar.

Why is the probable scenario coercion? Forcing a people to change religions usually alters their practices (what they do in worship), but does little to give them a different world view (how they think about or see the world). Nor does the coercion change the hearts of the coerced.

A case in point was the pervading belief among Ottoman Turks in the ‘Evil Eye.’ If the Seljuk Turks didn’t destroy a Christian church in Armenia, at the very least the Turks painted over any eyes in interior decorations/murals or scratched out eyes on carved-stone, religious statues  in the churches. During the time of the Ottoman Empire, color had special significance. Muslim women and girls wore blue. And buildings were covered with blue tiles – to ward off the ‘Evil Eye.’

Kurds of the Ottoman Empire were a nomadic people who had also likely converted at the points of scimitars to Islam. They, too, exhibited beliefs and customs from their pre-Islamic days. Talismans and amulets were treasured and worn,  indicating their pagan beliefs were still intact. In addition, the Kurds’ tribal custom of bride stealing didn’t change after they became Muslims. They exercised their pre-Islamic habit most frequently against Armenian villages on the Anatolian plateau, killing the male relatives who dared to object to a girl’s kidnapping.

Coerced conversions of entire people groups resulted in syncretized Islam. Layering on legalistic, religious rituals did little to improve the actual culture of the ‘converts-by-coercion.’

Ancient Land, No Natural Boundaries

In the 1980s, when I taught English night classes for new immigrant adults in Pasadena, California, two-thirds of my students were Armenians. Yet none of them listed their country of origin as Armenia. Rather, they declared that they came from Cyprus, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt.  Hmmm. Now that’s a head scratcher.

One young woman in the class told me she spoke Turkish, as well as several other languages. She also said she had no idea why because she had never lived in Turkey. The only reason that she spoke the language of a country in which she had never lived, I guessed, must have been due to her parents and perhaps her grandparents. They must have used Turkish in their daily life when the young woman was a girl. At least several of the older members of her family must have lived in Turkey originally and left the country.

The Armenian students of the class were in fact en diaspora. Ground zero must have been Turkey. But why? What happened to the original country of origin?

Once more, turning over some pebbles on the beach of history yielded some interesting scenarios.

Tradition among Armenians links them through Haig [Haik] to Japheth, a son of Noah, the man of antiquity who landed the ark on Mt. Ararat. Centuries later, an Indo-European group called Armen joined the descendants of Noah on the high plateau around that twin-peaked volcano. This combination of people groups gave the Armenians their spoken language and pre-Christian culture.

In the century prior to Jesus’ birth, an Armenian king extended the borders of his country from the Caspian Sea to Phoenicia on the Mediterranean Sea and from the Black Sea to the plains north of Iraq. So, at one point in its three-thousand year history, Armenia was a large country. 

As nations around the Armenians grew in size and strength, Armenia’s lack of natural boundaries made it easy to invade.

Zoroastrian Persians and Muslim Arabs were among those nations who did – after the Armenians had already adopted Christianity. Neither invader, however, was successful in converting most Armenians to a different belief system.

In the tenth century, Seljuk Turks pushed out of what is now Turkmenistan east of the Caspian Sea and invaded lands south and southwest of that sea. In 1071 A.D., the Turks defeated the Byzantines on the eastern edge of their empire at the Battle of Manzikert [Malagzirt] near Armenia’s Lake Van. This defeat opened up the Anatolian Plateau (and Armenia) for invasion by the Seljuk Turks. Within four hundred years, the Turks had taken all of Anatolia, the Byzantine city of Constantinople, and established the Ottoman Empire.

Wars over and around Armenia’s plateau homeland and invasions by other groups such as Tartars and Kurds continued. Armenians were forced to share their homeland with people of many languages, cultures, and religious creeds. In the end, Russia, Persia (Iran), and the Ottoman Turks chopped up Armenia’s territory between them, but the largest number of the Armenian people were concentrated in six eastern provinces of Turkey. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, approximately three million Armenians lived under Turkish rule.

In 1915, all that changed.