A taste of Byzantium…
Note: This post was written on Sunday, May 29.
Late last night, my cousin Lisa informed me, via Skype from New York, that Bishop Savas Zembellis would be in Istanbul, leading a pilgrimage of Americans from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. She forwarded his contact information, and I sent him an email to inquire about when he would arrive and where exactly the group would be. This morning, I awoke at 8am to an email response. The group was to attend liturgy at Agia Triada, a church in Taksim Square. This must have been one of the churches Itir referred to yesterday. I did some brief research online, but to no avail. I quickly showered, dressed, and hopped in a cab outside of the hotel. “Taksim Square,” I said. The driver nodded, and I was on my way. I traveled for about 25 minutes, and arrived in Taksim Square with no inclination of the church’s actual location. I wandered around the cobble pathways, asking people for directions here and there along the way. No one really knew what I was asking for, so I stopped at looked around. In the distance, beyond what seemed to be a few blocks and above a row or two of buildings in the skyline, I spotted a cross atop a domed structure. That had to be it. I began, once again, to navigate the twisted passageways, turning corners into alleys as I followed the cross. I lost sight of it, and backtracked. A cafe owner must have recognized the confusion that covered my face, and offered assistance. I pointed at the cross, which was only barely popping out over the towering buildings around us, now, and asked him to direct me to the church.
After a mostly non-verbal conversation, with a lot of pointing and hand gestures signaling left and right turns, I headed in what I hoped was the right direction. Within 5 minutes, I arrived at the concrete wall and iron gates of Agia Triada, a magnificent, majestic structure composed of marble and charcoal stone. I entered through the heavy, towering black doors into a bright room, where the sunlight pouring through the windows reflected off of the white marble floor and white walls. I lit a candle and proceeded through a second set of doors into the church.
The magnificent, grand mosaic churches here in Istanbul- formerly Byzantium- have an old-world feel to them, which I love. Not only do they bring me back to Cyprus and the Greek isles, but also to Amman, where the Byzantine Empire’s sphere of power and influence stretched over for a time. The sites we visited in Jordan, particularly Mount Nebo and Madaba, were filled with ancient Greek Orthodox churches and Byzantine sites, and I have found that here in Istanbul as well.
The whole liturgy at Agia Triada was in Greek, which was very welcoming, and comforting. Thus far, I have not understood much of anything in this city. Bareley anyone has spoken English, and I certainly do not understand Turkish, which I also find to be a very harsh, ugly language. Hearing the soothing chants and beautiful prayers in Greek made me feel that maybe there’s in fact something here for me in Istanbul. The Greek liturgy and prayers were a nice contrast to the English and Greek hybrid liturgies back home in New York, and even at the Annunciation Cathedral in Boston. This trip, while through Northeastern University and during which I am reporting and exploring new cultures, has also taken on a different sort of meaning for me. A hybrid journey, perhaps, partly educational and partly spiritual. I took some videos during the liturgy, one of which you can view below.
After the service, I ran into Bishop Savas Zembillas, who is the Bishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and was in Constantinople, as he still affectionately calls it, on a pilgrimage with a group of 24 Greek Americans. Three of the 24 looked familiar to me, perhaps I met them many years ago through
GOYA, a church youth group. It was strange to see familiar faces here besides those peers from Northeastern University.
I spent the rest of the afternoon with them, visiting Hagia Sophia on the 554th anniversary of its fall to the Turks as well as Chora, an ancient monastery about 20 minutes away from Hagia Sophia. This monastery was also converted to a mosque, but was quickly turned into a museum and there are many more preserved mosaics than there are at Hagia Sophia. All of the mosaic artwork at Chora was a bit untraditional, as many depictions were of the parables and proverbs instead of the scriptures. As Bishop Savas explained, this artwork was extremely progressive for the Byzantine culture at the time, and it was also stifled when the city fell. Click the images below to enlarge.
While Byzantine culture and art forms flourished in what was formerly Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, it also ended prematurely here when the city was conquered. All of the intricate mosaic tiles were covered with plaster and some Arabic phrases from the Quran. This brings me to another similarity I have discovered between Jordan and Turkey, which is the coexistence of Christians and Muslims. While most Greek Orthodox Christians have left this city since its fall to the Ottoman
Empire in 1453 and as part of the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is still based here, and I hope to visit before I leave Istanbul. I was a bit surprised by this, given the rocky history between the two cultures and religions in this country. While Turkey has far fewer Christians than Jordan does, they still share this city peacefully.