The Eastern Mediterranean is the birthplace for the monotheistic religions of the world
I’m on vacation. No husband, no kids, and a fabulous view of the Pacific Ocean, courtesy of a very good friend’s palatial home in Malibu. Every busy woman’s dream vacation, right? One of the most interesting observations I have picked up on is how quiet it is in Malibu! And it’s not just Malibu. It’s also in my small town in Virginia, where I grew up. And in my sister’s home in suburban Dallas-Ft Worth. And on my brother’s deck in his suburb home of Washington DC. It’s a quiet pandemic that stretches across most of America. Sure, if you live in a city, the whizzing of cars, the screeches of sirens, or loud ramblings of late nighters can hit you anytime of the day. But if you live outside of downtown any large metropolis, I think America is rather silent.
In Cyprus, I lived in a coastal town with a population of less than 35,000. Despite its size, there was always a lively buzz about the town. By dawn, roosters squawk at the overhanging sun. By early morning, merchants set up their fruit and vegetable stands for the day ahead. Zealous homemakers and housekeepers begin the unending (and thankless) job of forever-sweeping the front stoops of shops and homes. Old school buses zigzag across narrow streets to pick up weary children, blowing out dirty exhaust and wheezing to make its way up hilly roads. Self-proclaimed businessmen honk their shiny, loud Mercedes at pedestrians, seemingly in such a hurry to drive about 15 minutes to their offices. In the night, Algerian men call out to strolling lovers and tourists in broken Greek, enticing them to dine at their fish restaurants.
Any variation of this happens on any given day in any given country in the Mediterranean: these same bustling sounds of those trying to make a buck (or euro). But in the backdrop is the ever-present reminder of the call of God. Church bells ring out on the hour, imams are calling the faithful to pray 5 times per day, and (if you are in parts of Cyprus) Sunday mornings the entire service is broadcast from the speakers outside of church.
Orthodox service usually lasts around THREE HOURS. That’s a lot of prayer airing from the outdoor mics on a Sunday morning (which is a reminder to carefully select your next home in the Med)!
Unlike in neighboring European countries, people take their religion seriously in the eastern Mediterranean waters and in the Middle East. If not screaming from a tower, the daily reminders of God may also be subtle. In office buildings, a picture of a patron saint is plastered behind the receptionist. On a little girl’s necklace, a small star of David hangs solemnly. Tattoos of Christ dying on the cross curls to the sky on a young man’s bicep. Muslim women cover their hair modesty; while Muslim men play wordlessly with their prayer beads. Jewish men sport black woolen coat and pants in the dead summer heat. Christian women kiss the cross hanging from their necks when a wish is uttered. Religion is everywhere.
In sincerity, this outward, open focus on religion was one of the hardest parts for me (an open, easy-going American with ethnic roots) to get comfortable with. Like nails screeching on a blackboard, whenever I heard the Islamic call to prayer, I inwardly (and, if caught in the right mood, outwardly) cringed. Church bells always made me smile, but seeing a tattoo of an Orthodox cross on a woman’s wrist made me stare in awe.
I spoke to a number of friends regarding the broadcast Orthodox service, the bearded Jewish men who refused to look (forget about shake) women’s hands, and the covered women darting across busy streets. While the vast majority of my Cypriot friends are educated, worldly, and well-traveled, many could understand, even empathize with, not their particular religion per-se (although some do). But rather the peace that religion can (or should) spark. Instead of dividing people across ethnic or religions lines, many believed the sounds of religion was an ever-present reminder of God in our daily lives.
As I sit writing this post, I revel in the absolute quiet of the countrysides of America. But, if I am a teeny bit honest with myself, I kind of miss the explosive sounds of a rooster crowing in the morning, urging me to wake up from my comfy bed. Even though roosters crow at sun-up (around 6 AM, in the summertime in Cyprus), it seems much more peaceful than the electronic chime of my phone alarm at 7 AM. And though it has been many years since I have been allowed to hear it in my beloved country of separation of Church and State, I do miss the sounds of church bells chiming on Sunday mornings.