Reflections from the Silk Route

by Jean Mayland

from Signs of the Times, No. 30 - Jul 2008

In April I went on a holiday of a life time. With a group of Oxford and Cambridge alumni and a distinguished professor of Islamic architecture I completed a 3 week journey along part of the ancient Silk Route. We visited wonderful cities such as Samarkand, Bakhara, the ruined Merv and Persepolis and the beautiful Shiraz and Isfahan. We gazed in wonder at the fantastic blue and turquoise tiles of the mosques and the carvings on ruined walls at Persepolis. We learnt all about squinches and lost count of the mosques and madrasas in Bakhara. Along with some Moslem schoolgirls we stood in awe by the tomb of Cyrus rising steeply out of the desert.

As we traced the Silk Route through Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Iran we also traced the outward appearance of Islam. In none of those countries did we ever hear a call to prayer from the top of a minaret nor did we see a woman with her face covered. We traced the hardening of Islam by the dresses of the schoolgirls. In Uzbekistan they wore short blue or green dresses and in Turkmenistan they wore long ones. Their heads were not covered. In Iran from the age of 11 upwards they were completely shrouded in black with long clothes and chador looking like old-fashioned nuns without the white wimple. Just a few daring ones had red or green peeping out around the face. Everywhere school children wanted to talk about England and have their photos taken with us. They wanted to be friends. The young women in Iran told us wistfully of their hopes and dreams. The young men wanted to know what we thought of George Bush!

There are many things in Iran which disturb and the recent history of Christianity there is one of oppression. The only Christian place of worship I was allowed to visit was an Armenian one. Yet in all three countries I was tremendously impressed by the way people flocked to Moslem shrines and the large Friday Mosques. They met and talked and enjoyed the sites, which seemed to be real community centres. Some individuals prayed while at the Friday mosques acres of carpets were spread out for the mid day prayers. In Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan families wandered around the courts of the mosques in a relaxed way. In the holy city of Mashad, the shrine of the holy man Imam Rez with its courtyard after courtyard, was packed with people. That was the only place we western women had to wear a chador as well as burkhas or long skirts. My burkha was bought in the 'Gates of Islam' in Attercliffe (Sheffield) and was reversible-(peach coloured one side and cream the other!)

The only thing I have seen to resemble in any way the relaxed yet respectful crowds in holy places, was York Minster in the 80's and early 90's when my husband was Canon Treasurer. People flocked in - especially when it was wet! My husband always said it was the cheapest umbrella in York. It was, however, a happy bustling place like the mosques and people halted for prayers 'on the hour' or sought a quiet chapel. They loved lighting candles - which were very profitable! Now, as in many of our cathedrals, one has to pay to enter and families cannot afford. It has become a historic monument with guided tours. In this setting it is much more difficult for tourists to become pilgrims

On my holiday my companions were fun and intelligent. Almost all had absolutely no time for the church, which they saw as an anachronistic, fundamentalist sect divorced from the reality of life and torn by issues of women and sexuality which to them were non-issues. Most of them had never heard of liberal theology.

One did admit to me that once in Durham Cathedral she had suddenly had an experience of holiness, which stopped her in her tracks and moved her to tears. At least she might still get that in Durham; but when will our Church realise that it is failing in its mission, and when will our cathedrals learn that they are on the front line of mission and open their doors to all? In the mosques the money flowed in. Maybe it could here if our buildings were regarded as places of community, fun and prayer and not as businesses.

Jean Mayland is a retired priest. Until recently she was Co-ordinating Secretary and Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.