At the bottom of the hill where we live, a most important site resides quietly behind an unadorned stone wall: the Greek Patriarchate, the Vatican of the Greek Orthodox Church. The Patriarch himself resides and presides here, not exactly the ultimate leader like the Roman Catholic Pope, but “the first among equals.”
It is impossible to write about the Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul without the feeling of a long-standing siege creeping into the description. Our neighborhood, Fener, used to be almost entirely Greek. Today the Greek population is nearly non-existent. The reasons for this are Middle-East-complicated. There have been official population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, as well as governmental policies aimed at driving the population out. Talk about Greek and Turkish relations to anyone of Greek descent and it isn’t long before six hundred plus years are being recounted. The bad feelings run deep, and the whole of the history seems incredibly complex and politically spun on both sides. In the midst of the land that witnessed all this conflict, the Patriarchate still calmly resides in this city, as has been the tradition since Istanbul was Constantinople.
Two days ago, we went to the Patriarchate for an Epiphany service with our friends Kate and George, and their daughter Ella. They are visiting us this week from Philadelphia. George was raised in the Greek Orthodox Church, and it was really special to go to the service together and see the Patriarchate through his eyes. While the Patriarchate is a major pilgrimage site for Greek tourists, there are long stretches of time each day when it is empty of people. The building itself isn’t considered terribly architecturally or visually important. However, the first time we stepped inside we felt awash in the warm sensation of the familiar. While we are here to study Islamic art and architecture, the pull of our own upbringing in Christianity is undeniable. Even though our backgrounds are far removed from Greek Orthodox traditions, there is a visual kinship that we understand without having to think about it. How strange, in an Orthodox church unlike any church either of us had ever seen in our youths, and on another continent altogether, that the continuity of visual imagery alone could produce this sensation of home.
The Patriarchate was very crowded for Epiphany, with masses of people spilling out into the street that leads from the walled complex across a park and down to the edge of the Halic. The smell of incense and beeswax enveloped us as we followed the circulating crowds into the golden light of the sanctuary. The crowds shuffled in loops up and down the side aisles, stopping to touch icons housed in lip-printed glass cases. Two groups of cantors volleyed the song of the service back and forth, the clear winners being the group of black-curled younger men with strong, deep voices that drowned out a huddled group of older clerics. The Patriarch himself was often out of view, behind the archway in the golden screen at the front of the church. He emerged for brief moments, like Punxsutawney Phil, producing a hail of flash bulbs. We got a much better view of the man called the Green Patriarch (for his focus on the environment) when he passed just beside us in the procession to the Golden Horn. We never understood all the details of the tradition that came next: a crucifix was thrown from a boat into the icy water and a dozen men dove to retrieve it. They emerged pink and happy to an adoring crowd, the cross-bearing winner encircled by tv cameras.
The Patriarch distributing communion
In the courtyard outside the church
From the balcony
Detail of hand painted interior
At the Halic with the divers
Making sure there are no international incidents
The outside of the Patriarchate on a normal day