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I arrived a few minutes early to Cuma Namaz (Friday Prayers) at the Alaettin Cami (Alaettin Mosque).
There were already around sixty men gathered to worship.
I was tempted to take out my notebook and begin jotting down a few notes regarding the eight century old building in which I was sitting. But remembering it was the midway point in their Ramazan fasting I decided to forego journaling and just watch and pray.
I sat patiently in the back of the mosque as Yunus Hoca prayerfully made his way to the top of the minber (an ornately carved wooden staircase) in order to deliver the hutba (official sermon or message), given by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
Yunus Torun is a dashing thirty-three year old whom I met within the first weeks of our arriving in Avanos. He was one of the few men among the sea of women who dropped his child off for the first day of school. His daughter and my son were in the same first grade class and to avoid the incredible awkwardness I was feeling being “culturally challenged”, I gravitated toward him like a magnet.
Yunus’s charm is matched only by his professionalism. Seeing how young he is it’s hard to believe he has been a Hoca (religious teacher) for nine years.
Yunus explained to me what his qualifications were for becoming a Hoca:
* Began studying the Qur’an in elementary school,
* Memorized the Qur’an between ages eleven and fourteen (600 pages),
* Three years of religious studies in middle-school,
* Graduate of religious high school, and
* Passed the exam for becoming an official public servant as a Hoca.
He had been serving in nearby Gülşehir before being transferred to Avanos a year and a half ago.
Yunus here for a year and a half; me here for a year; the two of us in our newness surrounded by 800 years of history. This is where the story gets interesting.
As I am outside waiting for Yunus to complete his prayers, an elderly gentlemen struck up a conversation with me. “Where are you from?” he asked. I told him I was from America. “Islam is beautiful, you should turn to Islam,” he declared. I appreciated his unapologetic love for his faith even if it was a bit socially awkward.
Yunus appeared on the scene and after exchanging pleasantries he introduced me to this grandfather figure with whom I had been talking. “Do you know who this is? This is one of the greatest men in Avanos,” Yunus explained. I told him I had not met him and asked for his story.
It turns out the man I was talking with was Mr. Abdullah Bilginç. And through the laughter and the joking what I could get out of him for an occupation was some sort of shepherd/farmer. This man was 86 years old and clearly had the respect of the five of us who had gathered literally at his feet (he sat on a bench with us encircled below).
He recounted the history of the cami at Yunus’s request. The Selçuks built the domed worship hall in 1202. This one room facility accommodated close to sixty people. 250-300 years later (nobody knew the exact date), after the Ottomans conquered the Byzantines, an additional worship space for two hundred people was added. In 1936, when Mr. Bilginç was ten years old, he remembers the two prayer rooms that were added by the new Cumhuriyet (Republic). Mr. Bilginç told the story of the builder who worked on a house in his neighborhood, who would finish his work on the house and then head down to the cami to build a prayer room for women, and a prayer room for men, adjoining the Byzantine renovation. Finally Mr. Bilginç remembered that the minaret was added in 1950.
It was truly an honor and a privilege to meet with these men. As we parted I thanked them all for their hospitality to which Yunus replied “Yaratılanı severiz Yaratandan ötürü.” Which means, “We love the Creator, because He created.” I sincerely hope on your journey to Cappadocia, you will stop by and see this cultural wonder and the people of…Alaettin Cami.
How many of you who have been to Avanos/Cappadocia knew there was a 800 year old mosque in the town?
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