“Keep looking and see if you see anything.”
I did as I was told.
As we walked the silent streets of the town in eastern Turkey, I squinted down the side roads, looking for anything.
I didn’t really know what that “anything” was going to look like.
Blood running in the streets? Families gathered around some sort of ornate, golden altar? Dance rituals?
I had no idea.
Animal sacrifice has always been foreign to me, so antiquated that I might as well have been looking for a woolly mammoth or a fully functional Noah’s ark docked in the lake. Hard for me to imagine how any of those would look in contemporary life.
But where I was that day, it was just me who felt that way.
In Turkey, the animal sacrifices of the Kurban holiday (in Arabic, Eid Al-Adha) are as common as Christmas or Easter services in the West — and have been common in Muslim contexts for centuries. And, as holidays go, Kurban is just as organized. You buy your sheep or bull — there are herds for sale in the streets — and then you take it to an easily cleanable location designated for sacrificing.
Like a car wash.
That’s where we ended up, a car wash just across the street from one of the local mosques. When we got there, no animals were there yet, but two butchers were white-aproned and ready, hosing off the already clean concrete and arranging different kinds of knives and axes neatly on top of a white tarp.
A group of men and young boys stood around talking and joking, their breath visible in the freezing cold. They offered us candy and chocolate bought to celebrate Kurban. Muslims are wonderfully hospitable, and many take the opportunity to use Kurban as a way to share about their culture.
We chatted. And everyone waited.
After a little while, a small pickup truck pulled up with two big rams huddled in the back. As the men lifted them out of the bed of the truck — feet bound with rope — and carried them over to the concrete slab, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
I come from a long line of hunters. I’ve seen plenty of dead animals. And I grew up on a pig farm, so I learned early on that I shouldn’t let myself get too emotional about that which was meant to be food soon.
But I’ve never watched something have the life drained out of it before.
The Kurban holiday is held each year to celebrate the fact that Abraham was obedient when he was commanded to sacrifice his son but was provided a ram to kill instead. (Muslims believe the son in that story was Ishmael; Christians believe it was Isaac.) Those who celebrate Kurban don’t believe the sacrifice is any sort of atonement for sin — it is a commemoration of Abraham’s obedience, and the meat is given away to the poor.
But as I watched the sheep lay there without struggle as the butcher positioned to kill him, I couldn’t help but think about atonement — the kind of animal sacrifice that atoned for sin in the Old Testament, the kind that ended with Jesus’ final shed blood.
This may not be what this sacrifice is all about, but it definitely looked like this nonetheless.
I made myself not turn away.
On the butcher’s cue, everyone standing around sang “Allahu akbar” (“God is the greatest”) and he put his knife to the sheep’s throat. The sheep didn’t fight. Blood spilled over the clean, white concrete.
I’ll never forget what that looked like.
“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” Isaiah 53:7