Lale Sürmen Aran
Christmas in Istanbul, Part II

The Epiphany in the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate and the Blessing of the Waters

Dear Readers,

Istanbul is a very colorful mosaic, while majority of the population define themselves as Muslims, there are also followers of many different denominations of Christianity.

Last group celebrating the Christmas are the Apostolic Armenians, A.K.A. Gregorian Armenians. They still celebrate the Christmas on January 6 as it was in the early years of Christianity, before the 3rd century.

On the morning of January 06, my first destination was the Turkish Armenian Patriarchal Church in the Old Town. This church is also know as the Church of Mother of God Virgin Mary or Holy Mother of God, depending on who is translating. Armenians of Istanbul simply call it the Church of Mother Mary.

Armenian Patriarchate in Kumkapi

It is interesting to know that the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul was established in 1461 by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II. It is known that there had been a small Armenian population in Constantinople since the 5th century onwards. Though under the Byzantines, they were never allowed to have their own church, because both denominations considered the other heretical.

Plaque on the wall of the Patriarchate

According to a story, Hovakim I, the Armenian Metropolitan of city of Bursa, then the capital city of the Ottomans, prophesied that Mehmet II would conquer Constantinople. When Mehmet II really conquered the city, the Metropolitan was invited to live in Constantinople as the Patriarch of the Ottoman Armenians. From a political point, relocation of Armenians of Anatolia in the city was an act to balance the Greek Orthodox population.
Hovakim I was recognized as the religious and secular leader of all the Armenians in the empire, and was titled as “milletbaşı” or ethnarch as well as a patriarch.

When I got off the taxi on the shores of the Sea of Marmara, before walking to the church I made a brief stop to check the daily catch in the water front sea food market of Kumkapi. Although it was a cold morning with some snow, the market was busily getting ready for the day. I watched the fishermen proudly lay the “kalkan” on their counters. Kalkan or turbot in English is a delicacy loved by Istanbulites, it is most delicious in winter months.
Than walking thru the Kumkapi district famous with it’s sea food restaurants and gypsy musicians, I reached the Church of Mother Mary.

Interior of the church and mass in Armenian

Street the Patriarchate located felt somewhat gloomy, melancholic. I couldn’t decide if it was the grey sky and sprinkling snow or the emptiness. I was expecting to see a rush of people, but it was just a handful of people. Then, I recalled what my Armenian friend had told me, he had told me that they would walk in the church, say a short personal prayer and then leave but not attend the whole mass. It was just as he said. Church was empty. Clergy carried on the mass in an almost empty building, I think all of them resided in the premises. They all had robes, signifying of their status and had slippers on their feet.
I stayed about an hour. Before I left, I said a little prayer and lit a candle for my personal Armenian ancestors, for Turkey and for people who lost their lives in tragic events of 1915.

Interior of the church

Following destination was sure to be more festive. It was the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. The Greek Orthodox, such as the other Eastern Churches celebrate Epiphany on January 06 to commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.
When I arrived at the historic district of Phanar on the Golden Horn, I had to meander thru the chauffeured black Mercedes Benz cars crowding the narrow street where Patriarchal Church of St. Gregory located. This was because there were many Metropolitans, officials and heads of state arrived at the church. It makes sense as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople / Istanbul is the center for the Greek Orthodox world and it is titled as “Ecumenical”, universal. It is the Greek Orthodox counterpart to Vatican.

Cars of dignitaries and blocks of marble paving stapled together as in ancient cities

When I walked into the courtyard, I first noticed how well people were dressed and the big Christmas tree which everyone was competing to get a photo with. Behind the tree there was a huge copper pot with taps on. This was for the holy water, visitors were given small plastic bottles to collect the water to take home. The pot was hosed to the source of water for a continuous flow. I filled two bottles for my Cypriot friends, how I would get the bottles to them, I would figure out later…

Church of St. Gergory

Christmas Tree

Holy water

The church was very crowded, I walked up the narrow staircase for the galleries. I finally found empty space in the second gallery and started observing the mass and the people. I spoke to some Greeks who told me they came from Greece for the event. When I wanted to look down to the nave, they moved a side and made way for me. In the nave, before the Iconastasis, with the clergy, there were dignitaries all dressed in formal suits.

Courtyard before the church


Mass in Greek and the Patriarch on his throne

Mass in the nave looked formal, but not as much in the gallery I was. Considering the length of the mass (few hours), one can understand why people feel like moving around, up and down the galleries. There was a constant motion and a silent humming, but no loud voice or other noise, everyone was respectful.

2nd gallery

Because I had started the day very early and felt rather cold in the Armenian Church, I took of my coat and laid it on the bench, sat on it and leaned back in the comfort of cozy warmth.  Lady next to me, laying her head on her companions shoulder looked at me, pointed my scarf and nodded she liked it. I nodded back and told her that I liked her sweater, we both smiled. She closed her eyes, so did I to listen the church and the mass.

About an hour later, I slowly slipped out so I could find a good spot on the water front to watch the Patriarch Bless the Waters. I had realized I left too soon. So, I headed to the  very tiny informal restaurant in the corner to have some coffee and food. I had a fun chat with the owner of the restaurant. Clearly he did not had much formal education but he fluently raved his food and restaurant in Greek to the passing by visitors. Meanwhile, a younger man in a black suit entered and started bargaining for chicken sandwiches, thru the conversations I learnt he was in the group driving for the President of Togo and his entourage. After we exchanged few words I found out that he and people he knew regularly served officials from Togo and he mentioned how generous the President was and the huge tips he left. I had a bitter smile when I learnt of the tip drivers receive may equal to the monthly salary of a very high level official in Togo! Images of the newly built presidential palace in Ankara crossed my mind.

Patriarch and procession or clergy walking to the wharf

I headed to the water front on the Golden Horn when it was time for the Patriarch, the Metropolitans and Bishops to start their procession. They arrived at the wharf saying prayers. Then the Patriarch Bartholomew threw a cross into the very cold water. Several men and one women waiting in the wooden dinghies dove in the water, with quick strokes they competed to catch the cross. One proud man got it, and held it high. Ashore, the Patriarch said a prayer for him and he was awarded.
Everyone went their own way…

Happy Travels!