The success of Pope Benedict XVI's first trip to a Muslim country can be summed up in a single image: the white-robed pontiff and the turbaned figure of the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Mustafa Cagrici, standing side by side, at prayer, in the Blue Mosque.
It was Benedict's first such visit, and only the second time ever that a pope had ever entered a mosque. What made it stunning, however, is the fact that it came barely three months after parts of the Muslim world exploded in outrage over remarks by Benedict that many construed as an insult to the Prophet Mohamed.
For reporters for whom papal events, even historic ones, are not something about which to become over-wrought, it was one of those times when one was deeply grateful to have been chosen to be part of the limited press pool allowed in.
The pope had been invited by the Grand Mufti, who acted as tour guide. The mufti explained the five basic conditions of Islam, then invited Benedict to join him in prayer. As the two stood side by side facing in the direction of Mecca, as Muslims must do when they pray, the pope closed his eyes, and his lips seemed to move ever so slightly. He stayed that way for a good half a minute after the mufti had finished his own brief devotions.
The press then had to go through its usual round of asking each other "did-he-didn't-he," agree that he did — and then wait for confirmation from the Vatican spokesman, who more or less confirmed that the pope had indeed prayed, in a manner of speaking.
Turkish TV, which carried the event live, had no doubts — and was almost universally breathless in its coverage. "We are shocked ... it is fabulous … fantastic ... they pray together ... pope and mufti pray together ... historical ..." were among the comments.
They even noted that the Pope had, like everyone else, taken off his shoes, as is required in a mosque. But not for him the feel of soft, rich carpet under his socks. Benedict appeared to be wearing white slippers.
When the media pool set out for the mosque, we were issued makeshift plastic covers for our shoes, to be held on with elastic bands, so we would not waste time looking for our shoes outside, since we had to run to make it to the next stop ahead of the papal entourage. But we had been warned that Vatican press rules did not necessarily apply — and indeed, the plastic bags did not suit one of the mosque officials, who insisted we all go back outside and take our shoes off. As we trooped out to do so, he smiled gently and kept saying, "sorry, sorry."
No need. No one minded, the carpets felt wonderful and we did get our shoes in time, and the quick walk to the bus that took us on to the next place was a lot easier than the 500- or 600-yard run in the dark over cobbles and down a lane that we had to make to get to the mosque in the first place.
Benedict's first stop had been Hagia Sophia. Built in the sixth century and in its time the largest church in the world, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque in the 15th century by the conquering Ottoman Turks. The Blue Mosque was deliberately sited to face Hagia Sophia to demonstrate that Ottoman and Islamic architects and builders could rival anything their Christian predecessors had created. It got its popular name because of the coloring of may of the tiles.
It was converted into a museum by Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, when he declared the country a secular republic.
Prayer, or any sign of religious devotion inside the stunningly beautiful edifice is strictly forbidden, so naturally all eyes were on Benedict's hands to see if he made the sign of the cross. Both there and in the Blue Mosque, however he kept his hands either clasped in front of him, straight at his sides, or his arms folded.
Unfortunately, a non-provocative sight we had hoped to see didn't appear, either. During the hour-long wait for the papal entourage to show up, a ginger cat had been prowling the area near the huge alcove where the pope was to stop and gaze up at a mosaic of the Virgin Mary, and tiled words in Arabic reading "in the name of God and his prophet Mohammed."
Benedict is known to be a cat lover, so the cheeky little feline stood a fair to good chance of provoking some form of papal blessing. But the presence of dozens of black-suited security men, some inexplicably carrying folded umbrellas, seemed to put him off seeking attention, papal or otherwise.
Turkish TV missed the cat, being even more obsessed than the papal press corps with whether or not Benedict would do the unthinkable.
Almost all the channels carried the same report: "It is big relief that he did not pray and kneel down in Hagia Sophia."
The thought should not even have crossed our minds. Benedict was not about to ruin what has to be the biggest diplomatic coup of his papacy by making that kind of basic error.