In the 21st century, even 90 years after the establishment of the Turkish Republic in pursuit of a secular modernization, religion continues to be the primary element of cultural identity for a great majority of the population of Istanbul. Moreover, religion constitutes the essential boundary line between selfhood and otherness: In the post-1923 Turkish society, non-Muslims were recognized by an international treaty (Lausanne Treaty, July 24, 1923, articles 37-44).

That the peoples of Turkey and of the other countries of the region (the Balkans, the Middle East) have regarded religious belonging as well as language and historical memory as one primary element of identity specification is not suprising. The central role of the factor of belief in this sense hinges on the multi-secular legacy of this territory. From the beginning of the conquest of Istanbul to the collapse of the empire, the subjects of the sultan had been divided into two as Muslims and non-Muslims. Previously, in the Byzantine period, the East Roman emperors had based their authority upon belief in Jesus (i.e. Christianity) for a more solid political power.

The Greeks (Grecs) have existed on the coasts of the Bosporus and Marmara since the antiquity. Their history witnessed a quite dramatic past hovering between numerous victories and catastrophes. In this period, Christianity was a real mortar for cultural protection rather than the central element of unity. In this multi-secular historical journey, this study focuses specifically on the very last period from the Tanzimat, the beginning of the Ottoman reforms until today. In the pages below, essentially the 19th-century Ottoman period and the early republican period succeeding it are discussed.


1. Patriarchate

At the beginning of the reign of Sultan Mahmud II (1808-1839), when some essential changes began to be made in the structure of the Ottoman state and its army, the Istanbul Patriarchate as the oldest institution of the empire had already been subjected to radical changes for a half century, at least in terms of the governing structure.

According to an imperial edict from 1741, the election of the patriarch –which had been exclusively subjected to the sultan’s will until this date- was subjected to the sanction of the five bishops who were geographically closest to the throne and were assigned as administrators (γέροντες; gérontes; ihtiyar; alderman).1 As another attempt to restrict the authority of the patriarchate, the seal of the patriarch was divided into four by command of the sultan as from the year 1763. From this date forward, the decisions and the deeds of the ecclesiarch had to be jointly signed by three bishops. By means of this precaution, the Ottoman state –indirectly- recognized the legal entity of the High Council of Religion ( the Holy Synod) in line with the church tradition and order. The attendance of the secular citizens to the elections of the patriarch also became official during the same years.

1- Sultan Selim III’s edict not to collect illegal tax from Greek and Armenians living in Istanbul and surroundings and getting ready to marry and to protectthe poor people (BOA, MF, no. 529)

Since the conquest of Istanbul, lay people had existed in the life of the patriarchate and had had a somewhat influence over it. Yet they had no institutional role except for lobbying. They only gradually began to come to light in the second half of the 18th century until the 1860s. Furthermore, historically, this occurred in parallel with the increase of the value of the Fener Patriarchate.

2- Greek Orthodox Priest (<em>Costumes l’Empire Turc</em>, 1821)

Fener residents who took their name from the fact that they were the grandchildren of island tradesmen who had settled in the Fener District, the centre of the patriarchate in 1601, took office in sensitive positions in the political life of the empire between the mid-seventeenth and the early nineteenth century as the members of approximately fifty Orthodox families. The most outstanding positions were those of translators and interpreters, Danubian princes, senior executives and ministers of the Sublime Porte. These people played an intermediary role between the Ottoman government and the patriarchate by remaining very close to the Church institution. This situation went on like this until the spring of 1821. However, the uprising of the Greeks in the Morea tolled the death knell for those Fener residents who openly supported this liberation movement. Some of them were executed, while some were able to escape. In this specific context which can be likened to that of the Armenian amiras,2 the history witnesses very strong connections with the patriarchate. Those connections were further strengthened with continuous and complex economic dependencies besides other reasons.

The years between 1830-1860 was a transition period in many respects. The Fener residents were no longer in their district. The tumultuous 1820s and the establishment of the Greek Kingdom shook the confidence between the Church and Bâbıâli. Furthermore, the reconstruction was actualized by reform. The period was suitable for such a reform. In 1847, because of the pressure of the lay people who wanted to cause a bedlam about monetary affairs at the top of the Ottoman Orthodoxy and partly by force because of the Hatt-ı Sharif (edict) of Gülhane (1839), the sultan of the period asked the Patriarch Anthimos VI and the High Council of Religious Affairs (the Holy Synod) to put the affairs relating to the supervision of the clergy in order. What was at stake here were the matters relating to the election of the patriarch and the bishops, the organization of the High Council of Religious Affairs and the settlement of “public funds” issues. The result of this regulative operations provided the first materials for the members of the provisional National Council who would prepare the General Rules (Γενικοί Κανονισμοί: Genikoi Kanonismoi) after ten years, between the years 1858 and 1860.

According to these texts which would constitute the basic law of the Orthodox people until the year 1923, the government of the imperial Greeks was formally handed over to the clergy (the Holy Synod) and the lay people (Combined Permanent National Council). The first undertook the spiritual affairs, while the latter took charge of the schools and hospitals, and was entrusted with authority in the fields of family and inheritance law. At this point, as is understood by its name, the National Council was a combined one, meaning that one third of it consisted of church members.

What can we learn from this period of reconstruction? In the first place, we should underline that Fener went on its way with a great internal instability: Between the years 1830 and 1860 twelve patriarchs took office. The space left vacant by the Fener residents was filled by a wealthy and/or educated secular social layer; these were mostly people coming from the business world and were called the “New Fener residents.”

The abolition of the rule of the bishops (gerontism) and the officialization of the role of the seculars amplified the authority of the patriarch whose role as the head of the people was emphasized. Centralization –which was the overall tendency of the Tanzimat era- did not hinder democratization. As from the year 1862 the religious leader of the Ottoman Greeks was assigned by an election held with the broad participation of delegates elected by the church of Istanbul: The participation of the seculars to the patriarch elections resulted in the leaving aside of the small circle consisted of several luminaries (πρόκριτοι: prokritoi).

The new regulative picture displays a certain continuity, showing that the status quo was maintained through the framing of the previously settled practices. In this context, both the Ottoman state proceeded especially to westernization keeping their distance both from Russia and the European powers. This was the extension of the drivers of change that was not a concern only to the Greeks but also to the whole empire. In the same period, similar developments could be observed in the Jewish and Armenian communities. Again, in these societies, the religious leaders amplified their authority, centralization was provided and the power of the lay people were recognized in their new status.

Nevertheless, in this new context the Greek patriarch managed to defend the interests of his institution and to provide the visibility of the clergy more effectively than his Jewish and Armenian counterparts could. The constitutional contracts of these three important nations bore many resemblances and were shaped around the same important ideas: centralization and secularization. Compared to those of others, the constitutional contract of the Greeks was relatively more conservative, for it was not less disconnected to the codes settled by the church, therefore it contributed greatly to the amplification of the church’s authority in a general atmosphere of secularization. In fact, this took place in line with the progressive spirit of the Tanzimat.

Consequently, despite the secularization moment, the Greek nation was represented by the religious leader as the sole interlocutor in the face of the Ottoman authorities. Societies and religious communities –with their general assemblies, committees and commissions, bureaus and various services- did not have a legal entity. The need for centralization forced the patriarch to become the exterior face of the enlarging governmental iceberg. For instance, issues relating to the identity documents of individuals (marital status, identity cards, passports, etc.) were essentially prepared by the offices of the community church, which gathered the necessary information, but the ultimate official document was given by the ecclesiastical association (by the patriarchs in Istanbul and by eparchies in other regions).

3- Greek Aristocrat (<em>Costumes l’Empire Turc</em>, 1821)

In other words, the only responsible figure in the face of the Ottoman government was the head of the church administration. In fact, the inauguration of each new patriarch was accompanied with a warrant (the imperial letter including privileges) which demarcated the authority of the person who took over the position. Beginning from the 1860s, the sultan resent the same text without making any changes on it. But why was the same gesture repeated although no change was made in the content of the Office? This was practically for the designation of the real person representing the Office. The rights stated in the warrant document were valid only during the term of Office and were needed to be renewed (or even repeated) for each patriarchal change.

4- A Greek woman (Gouffier)

2. Church Communities (Parishes)

Whereas Fener represented the head of the Ottoman Orthodoxy, the religious communities constituted the smallest units of the religious organization for the church administration. In the last quarter of the 19th century, forty two of these communities were affiliated not to the patriarchate but to the Istanbul Archiepiscopate. Others were affiliated to the border episcopates in Derkos, Kadıköy and the Princes’ Islands. In total, the Greeks living in Istanbul and its vicinity (the Larger Istanbul) had about seventy religious communities.

Community (in Greek ενορία: enoria) refers to the believers who live in a specific area and are organized around a church. The area factor is important for defining the community and its members. Among the Muslim society the structure most similar to this was probably that of the neighbourhood, though the structure of neighbourhood is rarely related to the place of worship.

5- A Greek woman in her indoor clothes (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library)

The information and documents at hand show that the Orthodox communities had functioned around more or less the same principles throughout the history until the 1860’s.

Objectively speaking, the communities attended to the maintenance of the church and probably to the education of Orthodox children of the region within the bounds of financial possibilities. In full conformity with the model that settled in time with the traditions, the communities had autonomy of themselves; they even had the right to make decision by themselves. The governmental structuring, which was made with the concern for centralization and the general regulations of 1862 could not remove the old habits. The said regulations provided an institutional frame; thereby the formal unity functioned as a warrant for transparency.

As from the year 1860, the church and the school constituted the fundamental field of action of the church community. All the members of these two institutions that undertook the supervision of the very field of action were elected by the general assembly consisting of the committee (επιτροπή: epitropi) and the team-in-charge (εφορία: eforia). Furthermore, this resulted in the amplification of power of the committee and the team-in-charge. Their term of office was generally short (one or two years) and in practice elections were made by frequent intervals.

 6- The waterside mansion of a Greek man of the cloth near Yeniköy (Allom)

In contrast, the high ranks of the clergy where Orthodoxy was guarded against the effects of reforms by its acquisitions being preserved among the communities, the authority and prestige of the clergymen weakened to a great extent. Among the communities the lay people held the power by giving the churchmen secondary roles and taking hold of the leadership did not require that much effort.

The secular administrators who were generally from the business world had more economic power than the clergy, for the church did not pay salary to its employees at the time. The needs of the church employees were met by the donations given by its believers; they were at the same time dependent on the infrastructure services of the community (free boarding and free education for their children). The clergymen who tried to maintain their crowded families and focused on their spiritual duties towards the believers could not participate in financial management and joint projects for this reason. More strikingly, they could not participate in discussions about education, which were very heated during the second half of the nineteenth century.

7- The Greek of Istanbul (Preziosi)

The lay people had not only a financial strength also an intellectual superiority over the clergy, for the clergy did not have the intellectual capacity to counter the lay people. The clergymen of the Orthodox communities of Istanbul had a low level of education. Few priests had university education on theology. According to the majority of the Greek population in Istanbul, the community priests were people coming from other places. These clergymen who generally came from rural areas had their own local traditions which were at times very different from those of the Greek communities of Istanbul. Therefore, these clergymen in many respects reflected the rich cultural diversity of the large family of Ottoman Orthodoxy. Since they were not educated, the community clergymen were closer to common people. They tried to fulfill their duty of spiritual guidance by referring to values such as love, mercy and compassion rather than resorting to knowledge. This social and cultural closeness was best seen in confession practices. Such that among the central communities of the city (e.g. in Beyoğlu communities), it was obligatory for the priests who practiced confession to know Turkish language until the end of the Ottoman period. On the other hand, Turkish language did not have such a place in the formation of the priests who had theology degree in the university.

The community priest who had special information about individual cases had executive powers as well. The formal designation of the needs of the believers who wanted to be recognized as “poor/incomeless” was the duty of these priests. They were also responsible for the documenting of the cases that constituted an impediment for marriage (πιστοποιητικό ελευθερογαμίας: pistopoiytiko eleftherogamias).

For the community functioned as a bridge between its own members (especially those who were Ottoman citizens) and the patriarchate or the Ottoman authorities. This held good especially when affairs about the marital status of individuals were at stake. As stated above, the documentation offices of the church community constituted the primary source of information production. These offices or bureaus gave the certificates (about baptism, inheritance, death, marriage, etc.) required for issuing other formal documents after the necessary inquiry was done. Before applying to the authorized office of the patriarchate, which received the applications and took the necessary steps in the Ottoman line of administration when needed, the community members would first apply to the authorized body closest to their society.

Despite all these field studies, neither the church community nor the other bodies of the church had a legal entity. Only the real persons had the right to represent their fellow believers (and to use their seals for this) in the face of the Ottoman authorities. This real person was the community mukhtar/headman elected by the general assembly. This position was valid only among the Istanbul communities and should not be confused with the position of the village headman.

The part of the community, which was under the influence of the seculars, was also under the intense influence of religion. Charities, education, even the cultural activities were the fields where religious belonging was most prominent. Since this was a situation held good for the high ranks of Orthodoxy (in Fener) and for other non-Muslim societies of the same period, religion itself provided a legitimizing frame for the social and political works of those who were not from the clergy.

3. The Turkish Orthodox Church

In the context of the Ottoman Empire, from the beginning of the conquest to the collapse of the empire the denomination Greek (Rum) and Greek Orthodox referred to the Byzantine mode (rite) of Orthodox Christianity. In other words, it referred to the East Romans. Until the nineteenth century, those who revealed themselves as Orthodox Christians within the territory of the sultan were deemed under the same religious sect. The Slavic speaking Christians of the South Balkan region; the Albanian speaking Christians of Ioannina; the Arabic speaking Christians of the Orient and Maghreb and the Turkish speaking ones of Anatolia were all part of the Greek nation under the chairmanship of the Istanbul patriarch without any distinction.

In the nineteenth century, following the edict of Gülhane of 1856 and just before the enforcement of the laws relating to the concept of nation, differentiations multiplied by government approval. This differentiation manifested itself first in judicial documents (decisions given by the qadis), and then more formally emerged in the population censuses. The separation of the Greek nation and the formation of new nations by its former components was generally a result of the process of the nascence of nations. Compared to the past, modern nations came to be more complexly defined in this period.

Religion ceased to be the sole identity of belonging. Language, traditions and common historical memory came to be defined as the components of identity formation as well. Moreover, concerning the Greek nation, most separations occurred with an aim to establish a nation-state. The separations of the Greeks, the Bulgarians and the Albanians were such cases. The Turkish-speaking Greek Orthodox of Cappadocia was an exception in this case. Since the majority of them were those coming from the Karaman province –located between Cilicia and Lycia on the South of Cappadocia- they were known as Karamanid people.3

8 Balıklı Greek Church (Allom)

The people of Karaman did not develop in themselves any separatist aspiration and did not think of establishing a nation-state in the heart of Anatolia. As a result of their multi-secular cultural legacy, they did not identify themselves with any nation models that sprang after the Tanzimat and therefore were exposed to extinction. These Turkish speaking Christians of Cappadocia are not included in this brief study. Nevertheless, to the extent that the ambiguity of their cultural identity manifested itself as a factor defining their status in the post-1923 Greece and Turkey, it is important to be reminded of their cultural characteristics and the historical phases that they underwent.

The people of Karaman had lived in Anatolia for long centuries without being ascribed any ethnic origin. They were Orthodox Christians, therefore a part of the Greek nation. They used Turkish not only as spoken language but also as the language of religion. Their texts most of which were religious books were Turkish written in Greek letters.

Synthesis was rare but not exceptional. Within the imperial territory there were similar cases which were exact opposite in the age of nationalisms. Here it will be enough to mention the example of “the Muslims of Ioannina” (Tουρκογιαννώτες) who were named as the Turks of Ioannina such a case. This Greek speaking group wrote Greek with Arabic letters. These combinations were remarkable rather as the product of a particular effort. It was probably related to the holiness ascribed to Greek and Arabic letters in the religion of the related societies.

The discovery of several Greek speaking villages near Niğde in the early nineteenth century revived the discussions about the origin of the Karamanids. This question has been tried to be solved especially with the researches made in Greece and Turkey. However, in historiography studies from both sides of the Aegean region, the ambiguity of the Karamanids’ ethnic identity has almost been accepted as a case related to the pluralist context of the empire.

After all, during the whole 19th century a large number of Karamanids immigrated mostly to Istanbul. Before their collective identity strengthened and the peaking up of nationalism as from the 1890’s, the migration of Karamanids was mainly related to their economic condition. Cappadocia was gradually discharged of its Christian population. In the same period, this Christian population that settled in the capital city or in villages were subjected to an intense process of Hellenization by the central education institutions of the Greek nation. Especially the Istanbul Greek Society (Syllogue littéraire grec de Constantinople) established many schools in Kayseri region towards the late nineteenth century. The primary objective of this scientific society was to solve the reading and writing problem of those who lived in rural areas. By means of schools, they were aiming at gathering the yet unidentified groups (as the Karamanids) under the single roof of Greek identity, which took on a new shape with the establishment of the Greek Kingdom.

In Istanbul, the Christians who emigrated from Cappadocia were affiliated to the communities and societies of the Orthodox Greeks. This affiliation was “natural” to the extent that they were a part of the Greek nation, for the whole Ottoman society, identity belonging was primarily defined around religion. However, in the 19th century the Istanbul Orthodox spoke Greek language in all their institutions of education, culture and charity.

The Anatolian Christians lived in a relatively peaceful atmosphere towards the end of the 1910’s. Yet the Turkish War of Independence brings with it much turbulence for the Karamanid people as it did for others. In the heart of this turbulence lied the well-known Pope Efthimis event.

This pope of Pontus-origin, who drew advantage from the turbulent atmosphere of Anatolia in those years set out to separate the episcopates of Cappadocia from Fener and to establish an autonomous Turkish-Orthodox church. Apparently, he took the support of the Kemalists and allied with them at the beginning. However, soon after, tides turned against him and his project lost its essence in a short time. After he announced the establishment of his church in the fall of 1922, following the Turkish victory gained over the Greeks, he turned out to be a shepherd without a flock. According to the Lausanne population Exchange treaty signed between Greece and Turkey in January 1923, the Turkish speaking Greeks would be included in the exchange as well. The Turkish-Orthodox Church in the Kayseri region was now “like an unused shirt.” The transfer of the center of the church to Istanbul became obligatory from that moment on.

During the year of 1923, Pope Efthimis tried to bring the chaotic developments in Fener under control and even went so far as to attend the physical shows of force against the patriarch. In February, 1924 he took over the Galata Panagia Kafatiani Church and established the Turkish Orthodox Patriarchate there. Despite his aggressive separatist attitudes, he was not excommunicated until 1926. His excommunication occurred four years after the first Congress of the Turkish Orthodox held in Kayseri.

In the republican period, the wealthy Galata Patriarchate continued its existence depending on the support of the authorities. In the early 21st century, the patriarchate was faced with the threat of discharge since it was charged with secretly collaborating with extreme rightist groups.

Did Pope Efthimis know that he would not find more believers than he had in Cappadocia when he packed his things to go to Istanbul? The Greeks who had settled in the coasts of Bosphorus before 1918 were excluded from the scope of the population exchange. Among them, there were many Karamanids from second and third generation. They were probably those who still spoke Turkish outside the borders of their family life. However, culturally, they were wholly assimilated among the Greek speaking Greeks who overwhelmed the Istanbul Orthodoxy. These Christians of Cappadocia origin, who began to settle in Istanbul beginning from the 19th century did not follow Pope Efthimis in his journey. This result was not only about their being estranged to the Anatolian Turkish traditions in time, but also (and especially) about their unwillingness about becoming a means for political manipulation. They could conceivably clearly observe the various power struggles in context of the total redrawing of maps. Since they kept their religious life entirely away from the influence of polarization, the Karamanids in Istanbul must have regarded the attempt of Pope Efthimis as some kind of bait.

Moreover, from the viewpoint of the Kemalist authorities, after the population exchange including the Turkish speaking communities of Anatolia all of these discussions lost their meaning. In fact, even before it came to light in the eye of Ankara, the patriarchate of Pope Efthimis had already become meaningless.

4. Patriarchate after 1923

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire resulted in a sheer break in every sense. Turkish War of Independence constitutes the beginning of a new period. For the Greeks, the war ended with a defeat defined as Katastrofi, the wounds of which have remained open even today. For the Turks, this defeat proved to be the source for recovering a lost honour, and it legitimized the collapse of the empire and the establishment of a new nation-state.

However, the human problem of war wearies would have to be resolved first, before the states designated their post-war situation and sat down at the negotiation table. This was the first issue to be handled in the Peace Conference that began in Lousanne from the fall of 1922. The population exchange between Greece and Turkey turned out to be obligatory and included the whole population. The exchange was decided to be made not according to the spoken language of the peoples but their religious belonging. Thus the Cappadocia Orthodox including those who spoke Turkish and similarly, the Greek speaking Muslims of Crete Island had to leave the places they were born in and in the consequence of blood-and-guts arguments, two parties agreed upon an exception. The Thracian Muslims living on the west of the Maritza –which began to be called the West Thrace-, were allowed to stay in their place and the Greeks living in Imbros and Tenedos and the Greek Orthodox who had settled in Istanbul before 1918 were held exempted from the population exchange. The two groups that were the exceptions –The Muslims of Greece and the Greek Orthodox of Turkey- had the same population (120.000 for each side) during the treaty signed in January 1923.

9- Fener Greek Patriarchate

After about a century, towards the hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Turkish Republic, the Greek population on the coasts of Bosphorus dropped off to a few hundreds, the majority consisting of old people. It seems hard for this population loss to recover in the near future.

The collapse had well-known reasons. Soon after the Turkish War of Indepence, the antagonism towards the minorities, especially anti-Greek movement rapidly spread. Had the arrival of the allied forces to Istanbul not pleased the Greeks who were held exempted from the population exchange? Had they not supported the Greek armies that attempted to conquer Anatolia in their own way? Under the particular conditions of the period, neither the common citizen nor the high state officials needed to conceal their sense of distrust towards those who betrayed the Ottoman land.

In fact, the Greeks had begun to leave Istanbul long before the Great War. Beginning from the mid-19th century, those who immigrated from the provinces to the capital city sought better life conditions in Greece, Europe and the New World. In the early 20th century, according to the 1906/1907 dated Ottoman population census, the number of the Greek Orthodox Ottoman citizens living in and around Istanbul were 160.000. This number dropped off to 10.000 in 1923.

After a short-winded period of peace (1923-1940), the Property Tax was arbitrarily and even mercilessly put into practice in November 1942; the possessions and houses of the Greeks were violently plundered on the night of September 6-7, 1955 and 10.000 citizens of Greek origin were deported in 1964. All these developments further enhanced the sense of distrust towards the Greek citizens, ending up in the decrease of the Greek Orthodox population in Istanbul.

Those who had to leave the country were not limited to the Greeks. After the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, a large number of Istanbul Jews also left the coasts of the Bosporus. After the World War II, the reconstruction of Europe which was devastated in the war led many Levantines to leave their country unhesitatingly.

In the 1970’s, due to the great distrust running rampant in Istanbul streets, the political chaos in the country and the Turkish military intervention in Cyprus (1974), the Greeks of Turkey again had to leave for fear of a blowback. Moreover, the economic development perspective coming to the fore with the reconciliation of democracy after the seven-year Colonels’ Junta in Greece in 1974 and the joining of Greece in the Common Market in 1981 led more Greeks to Greece.

During the early republican period, the status of minorities was contradictory. This uncertainty about their status originated from the troubled relation of Turkey to its own past. On the one hand, there was the desire to break away from that past: The Caliphate was abolished in 1924 in line with that desire. However, on the other hand, as is known, to get rid of the multi-secular legacy in one night was not that easy.

As the extension of the Ottoman tradition, the Greek society in Turkey was represented by the patriarchate. In the eyes of the Turkish government, the patriarchate was certainly an out-dated institution, for its legal power was limited both regionally (including Istanbul, Imbros and Tenedos) and numerically (including only 120.000 people). However, even though it was not recognized much in the Lousanne Treaty despite the open secular tendency of the Kemalist regime, the patriarchate continued to be the main interlocutor for Ankara as to the minority affairs. Fener was in the heart of events but it was not legally recognized. In this respect, the Turkish government wanted to maintain the status quo in line with the Ottoman tradition. Just as was in the period of sultans, the patriarch had rights and duties not as an institution but as a real person. Lacking any legal entity, the patriarchate had no right of contract.

The period from 1923 to the end of the World War II witnessed the continuity of the Ottoman spirit. The span of authority of the patriarchs who had shorter term of office was relatively limited and they played a role similar to that of their counterparts who lived during the period of sultans. Between the years 1923-1946 five patriarchs successively came to the Fener authority. Among the important events that defined the state of affairs of these two decades, the bestowal of the right of self-government to the churches of Albania (1937) and Bulgaria (1945) should be remembered. It should also be noted that the 1928 Code signed with the church of Greece put all the previous Ottoman regions (known as the “New Countries” Νέες Χώρες: Nees Hores), which were previously under the tutelage of Fener, were annexed to Greece afterwards under the administrative management of these churches. Obviously, the authority of the church of Istanbul continued to shrink in the early republican period. This was a period of introversion and contortion.

Soon after the introduction of the new regime, the relations between Fener and Ankara would obviously take on a political form. This is true in the case of Patriarch Constantine VI, in what may be seen as the uncompromising attitude of the Turkish authorities. He was elected and came to the authority of Fener in November 17, 1924, but was deported in January 30, 1925. What was the reason for his deportation? For as a Sigi-born person (this place near Mudanya on the Marmara Sea is known as Kumyaka today) Constantine VI was subject to the population exchange and had to leave the Turkish territories. By not having bestowed the patriarch extension of time, the Kemalist government revealed that it did not attach importance to the patriarchate. The message was obvious. Although after leaving Turkey Constantine VI took steps –before various international organizations- to return to Istanbul and resume his duty, his efforts proved of no avail. So he resigned in May 22, 1925.

Constantine VI was not the only patriarch who had to resign in this period of transition. Twenty three years later (1948), Maximus V also had to lay down his office.

10- The letter of gratitude sent by Istanbul and Jerusalem Patriarchs and other prominent members of Greek community to Sultan Abdülmecid for the concessions he bestowed to Greek community (BOA, İ.HR, no. 99/4835)

11- Patriarch’s visit to Şeyhülislam

With that last case, the patriarchate which had been concerned with the religious life of the believers living in Istanbul until that day found itself at the scene of international politics which it would not escape for a long time. Shortly after his accession the patriarch began to show signs of nervous breakdown. This was an opportunity for some political figures. So showing his worsening depression as reason, the Greek diplomats plotted the patriarch’s dismissal from the throne by the consent of the Turkish authorities. The real reason behind this intervention to the affairs of Fener was not Maximus’ illness, but his favour for Russia. Indeed, right after the World War II both Greece and Turkey determined their part in the Cold War which gradually began to emerge.

The 62-year-old Ioannina-born Athenagoras who was popular among the Greek society that immigrated to the USA and who had held the office of American patriarchate since 1932 was unanimously elected as patriarch. As the new patriarch, he was brought to Istanbul by the personal airplane of President Truman in November, 1948. He was given Turkish citizenship which was deemed obligatory by the Ankara government for the high-ranking clergymen of the Orthodox Church and particularly for the patriarch.

The patriarchate of Athenagoras lasted almost a quarter of a century (1948-1972) and opened new doors for Fener. Relations with the West (the USA and Europe) tightened. The mission of the institution extended beyond the borders of Turkey. The intimacy with the Roman See was revealed at an official level. In January 1964, Pope Paul IV and Patriarch Athenagoras came together in Jerusalem: The previous meeting of the clergymen of the Roman and Istanbul churches went back to the Council of Florence in 1439! One year after that, in 1965, these two clergymen laid the groundwork for the unity of Christian churches in a spirit of intercultural dialogue and peace, by declaring the mutual problematic issues of the separations dating to 1054 null and void. In the eyes of the diplomats and politicians, the steps taken in the relations between Catholicism and Orthodoxy was a sign of the attachment of the Istanbul Patriarchate to the Western “camp.” These developments particularly reflected that the institution began to acquire an international characteristic.

Dimitrios (1972-1991) and Bartholomeos I (1991- ) were the followers of Athenagoras in the way charted out. In a very turbulent period of both the Turkish political life and of the region in general, Dimitrios who was at the head of Fener endeavoured to consolidate the acquisitions of Athenagoras. Furthermore, during the patriarchate of Bartholomeos I, the transformation that the patriarchate underwent during the period of Athenagoras was confirmed.

Bartholomeos I, the secretary and the person who was always keeping on the right side of Dimitrios, came to the seat of patriarchate in a time the outlines of the known world were radically being changed. The end of the Cold War, the downfall of the USSR, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the opening of the iron wall… In many respects, this new and young patriarch (he was 51 in 1991) had a free hand to reclaim the prestige of the Church of Istanbul. Fener was on the way to become a modern institution in pursuit of an organization concordant with today’s world.

During the patriarchate of Bartholomeos, issues of environmental control and dialogue among civilizations –which were discussed in many congresses and other facilities-, were given special attention. Compared to his predecessors, Bartholomeos had a more continuous relation with the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs which organizes all the Islamic religious affairs in Turkey at a formal level.

Fener had acquired an international status mostly in the time of Bartholomeos. However, rather than being a voluntary choice, this was an obligatory situation which became inevitable and easier with local conditions the regional geopolitical conjuncture brought with it. In the early 1990’s, there remained almost no Greek citizens in Turkey. There were neither a church community. For this reason, the patriarchate had to assume a role in another field in order to sustain the church in Istanbul.

In the early 21st century, the patriarchate had a two-sided position: On the one hand, it represented the continuity of the Ottoman tradition and on the other hand, it was an actor in the arena of international diplomacy.

In the period of sultans, the patriarchate was an important part of the governmental structure which was divided as Muslims and non-Muslims. In the republican Turkey, although it has no certain legal status, it went on to occupy a similar place. Though it has not been legally recognized by the Ankara government, the patriarchate continued its existence in the Turkish territory thanks to the international status it acquired at that time. All the patriarchs after the year 1923 came from either the Ottoman or the Turkish society. Even Athenagoras who was brought from the USA had been born and had grown up in Ioannina.

What does the future promise for this multi-secular institution? What will its status be in the mid-21st century? The demographic nonentity of the Orthodox Greek society and the fact that the Halki Seminary has been closed since 1971 (for 42 years) may paradoxically empower its status as an international religious institution. But as long as local vitality is provided and the patriarchate has to be renewed by the support of the clergymen who are educated abroad, Ankara may have a reduced right of intervention into Fener’s affairs.


1. Important Moments in the Lives of Individuals

Before defining the society and its constitutive groups, it is important to note that Religion accompanies these from the cradle to the grave.

For the Orthodox Greeks, faith and initiation to the community of Jesus Christ begins with baptism. Accepted as a religious ritual (sacrament), baptism represents being present at the death and the resurrection of Christ. It is not considered as a simple ritual of transition: The real transformation is accepted to occur when the body is submerged into the water and is sanctified in the name of “the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit.” As a principle, baptism is executed by a priest in the church baptistery. The neophyte individual’s godfather and godmother who function as spiritual parents also attend the ritual.

12- Sultan Abdülhamid II’swarrant about appointing Reverend Deponsiyos to Greek Patriarchate

13- Greek Orthodox Church built by Sultan Abdülhamid II in Darülaceze

Baptism is generally executed two or three months after the birth. But as an exception, if the child is at the risk of death, it can be done earlier in order to bestow the child a Christian identity before s/he dies. In such emergency baptisms done without water (which are called aero-baptism in the air or provisory baptism, αεροβάπτισμα) the attendance of a priest is not needed. It can be executed by any person.

The children were named by their godfathers/mothers. However, there were few choices of names. In order to endure the continuity and the memory of the generations, the Greeks gave their children the names of their own mothers and fathers. The names of the parents of the husband had priority in this sense. Thus the elder son took the name of his paternal grandfather, while the second son took his maternal grandfather’s name. The same was true for daughters. The godfather/mother probably had an opportunity to give a name only after the fifth child. It is probably because of the fact that even in last period of the Ottoman Empire, the child mortality rate was high despite the developments in medicine. Therefore, the fifth or sixth child sometimes got the name of his/her deceased sibling. So what were the most commonly used nineteenth century names among the Greeks of Istanbul in most cases? It seems there were very few cases that were exception to this traditional code in the Greek society.

The baptism records kept by church communities partly allows us to answer this question. In fact, documents belonging to the previous dates than the late eighteenth century are very rare. Similarly, there are few catalogues that form continuity. For this reason, the material at hand calls for a careful interpretation.

Male names come mostly from the names of famous and successful figures in the history of Christianity: Georgios, Ioannis, Nikolas, Dimitrios, Konstantinos, Andonios, Vasileios… Beginning with the 1840’s, a new tendency emerged to expand throughout the years. Since a certain bond and continuity was intended to be established between the Greek Independence War and the Ancient Greece, mythological and classical names began to be used as sign of prestige, though the church pronounce those names in a different way: Themistoklis, Dimosthenis, Ksenofon, Hippokratis, Leonidas, Aristotelis, etc…

Name choices for female children were more based on natural and less political elements. Female names, which had more variety, were less related to religion: Eleni, Maria (and its other versions with diminutive suffixes), Aikaterini (and its local variant Katina), Sofia, Anna… Many female names either came from those of flowers or had no certain historical reference: Lemonia (lemon seller), Garoufalia (rose or carnation), Mirsinia (myritus), Akrivi (expensive/valuable), Anatoli (West Anatolia), Disevreti (rare), Plousia (wealthy), etc.

In addition, the typical characteristic of the names used by the Greek Orthodox of Istanbul until late periods was probably the influence of Latin. Especially among the Greek speaking Catholic societies, whose italianized names were a reminder of the close bonds related the new Rome to the ancient Rome, were frequently used when needed. This indicates that while names like Tzannis, Frantzeskos, Lorentzos, Tzortzis, and Frangoulis lost their popularity in time, a Greek national identity defined around Orthodoxy gained popularity.

Baptism is a way of being initiated into the community of believers. At the same time, it establishes familial bonds and makes them stronger. It also affects the relation between the godparents and the parents of the baptized child. The newly-established spiritual bond creates economic bonds as well. The godfather or godmother not only contributes to the baptism expenses, but also to the education expenses of the child for many years.

The strength of the bonds established with the godfather status manifests itself also during marriage. The son of the godfather becomes the groomsman (κουμπάρος: kaumparos) of the groom, becoming a spiritual sibling for both spouses.

Marriage among the Orthodox Greeks had a holy character, so it is executed to the accompaniment of a priest in the church. The transition from bachelorhood to marriage life by the establishment of a family is intermediated by the church. Religion, at least in juridical level, controls the relation between the spouses from the beginning to the end of the marriage.

The Church of Istanbul has recognized and regulated divorce since the Byzantine period. Until the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the ecclesiastical courts that were bestowed juridical power in affairs regarding family and inheritance law executed all over the empire the Heksabiblos law which is a compilation of laws prepared by Constantine Armenopoulos (b. 1320-d. 1385) and dates back to the laws of Justinian (6th century).

It should be underlined that the senior authorities of Orthodox religion closely and carefully followed marital affairs. The basic concern in marital matters was the possible threat that monogamy or any other reason might pose a danger for familial unity. But how could the church ensure that a woman who wants to get married in Istanbul had not married before in a faraway region or did not have a blood tie with the person s/he wanted to marry? Of course, in an empire as big as that of the sultans, centralization as the motto of the Tanzimat needed a great effort that would last for decades. But this did not pose an obstacle, because cases of deceit or fallacies regarding marriage were quite important for the patriarchate. As the constitutive stage of the family and an important part of the life of the Greek society, marriage should not be taken as an ordinary event that merely changed the civil status of the related persons.

Lastly, death is a period of time in the human life when religious belonging was most strongly felt. Besides, this sensibility about death was not only limited to the Greeks but was valid for the whole Ottoman society. We all belong to the society in whose graveyard we are buried. Indeed, in the Ottoman period, even in the early republican period, the variety of cemeteries always reflected the variety of faiths, which constituted the mosaic of Istanbul. But this was a situation unique to the 19th century. In reality, special reservation for the dead in cemeteries was a practice particular to the Tanzimat period. In older times, the dead would be buried at the gardens of their houses, at mosques courtyards or in churchyards on condition that they did not disturb the daily lives of people living in those areas.

With urbanization reforms and especially the tightening of public health measures, those who live in this world and the other world were completely disconnected. In this context, the Greeks possessed many cemeteries. These cemeteries were mostly lands assigned by the sultan’s edict to be used exclusively for this purpose. In the early 21st century, although the Greek population dramatically decreased (160.000 in 1906 and 2.000 in 2006), there were still twenty Greek cemeteries which were actively used.

Funeral ceremonies were usually held in church cemeteries, since the existence and prayers of a priest was obligatory. After the ritual, the coffin was buried. The burial place of the coffin was a sign of social class. In the Greek cemeteries of Istanbul, there were four or five “classes” of cemetery until the end of the Ottoman period.

The corpses of very poor people who were buried with the help of the church community were circumstantially kept in their graves for three to five years. After this period, their remains would be taken out of their graves to be buried into the bones cemetery. As for the wealthiest class, they had their own family cemeteries and marble monuments. Their corpses could remain there for good since they would often purchase their land of burial.

The distance of a grave from the churchyard was also a strong sign of social class. At the Şişli Orthodox Cemetery, which still maintains the most recent collective memory of Istanbul Orthodoxy, the elites of the community were buried around the church named the Metamorphosis of the Savior (Christ) (Μεταμόρφωσις του Σωτήρος: Metamorfosis tou Sotiros). The corpses of the common people, the poor and of the women who broke away from their origins by marrying non-Orthodox (and generally Muslim-Turk) men were buried at the furthest part of the cemeteries.

After the funeral ceremony and the burial, the duty of cherishing the fragile memory of the deceased would begin. This was performed by various funeral rites.

Although these rites were expensive for they necessitated the attendance of a priest, short rites (τρισάγιο, μνημόσυνο) were organized as well. In these rites, upon the request of the relatives of the deceased, the priest would say a few prayers upon his/her grave in memory of him/her. This was followed by a short standing in silence. These rites could be repeated many times at the relatives’ will.

Although the rites were attended by priests, the cherishing of the memory of the deceased ones was a private matter. In this respect, the cemetery is a piece of land belonging to private life.

2. Neighborhood Church

Till the end of the Ottoman period, for most Ottoman Greeks the neighbourhood church was an important part of daily life. The neighbourhood church represented the place in which the most important events of their lives were taken place.

In general, the Greek elementary school of each region was built next to the chapel. This adjacency dated at least back to the 18th century when the influence of religion over education was especially strong. Indeed, the first textbooks were published only after the 1850’s. Before that, reading and writing education was essentially done by prayer books. Moreover, in a society that was not very interested in reading and writing, the duty of introducing children to the world of reading was undertaken by more or less educated priests. Rumour has it that in the 18th century, there were many community churches that provided basic training in Istanbul: Eğrikapı, Arnavutköy, Ayvansaray and Edirnekapı.

In the nineteenth century, within the frame of a social policy that aimed at the extension of schools to all layers of the society, the order of schools significantly progressed. According to a report published in the journal of the Istanbul Greek Literary Society, at the end of the year 1870 there were about 20.000 students enrolled in the Greek Church schools of Istanbul. However, there were many inconsistencies in the field of education. Despite all efforts in this aspect, the education of female students was still optional. Each school generally has only one teacher: The same teacher sometimes went to the neighbourhoods of the old city (for example Balat, Eğrikapı, Langa, and Fener) and even to districts of Bosporus and to the Princes’ Islands. On the other hand, the schools in the wealthy and more densely populated districts as Pera, Tatavla (today’s Kurtuluş), Galata, Evangelistria and Feriköy were in better condition. The economic condition of neighbourhood communities is an important issue, for most expenses of the schools were met by the church (with the support of church members). Donations gathered at the exhibitions opened during the rituals were usually used to meet the needs of the schools. Personal donations, the income obtained from shops or tombola plays, grants of the pilgrims and the rental income of the building belonging to the church communities were the main sources of income for church schools. But amounts of income varied by neighbourhood.

It should be noted that there was a great difference between the number of enrolled students and that of those who regularly went to schools. Absenteeism was very frequent especially during the Great War. In that period, schools were almost empty owing to the bad life conditions in Istanbul.

According to another report of the Istanbul Greek Literary Society held a few years after on the situation of Greek education in the capital city, education conditions especially at the level of secondary school were considerably bettered. Meanwhile, in parallel with church schools (which presumably had about 20.000 students in 1914), many private education institutions began to be established. However, the community schools appealing to the common people of the society remained affiliated to the neighbourhood churches up until today.

In the Ottoman context, non-Muslim societies found the opportunity to work in the fields of charity and health as well as that of education. They organized these facilities mostly around the chapels. From 1761 to 1839, the mentally ill were kept under observation in the cells at the yard of the Panayia Suda Church in Eğrikapı. Another example from the same church-region was the Ayos-Vasilios Charitable Society that economically supported the needy people of the neighborhood by distributing coal, etc. During its establishment in 1883 the Society chose the Panayia Balino Church as its site for it was affiliated to the church. Similarly, the Ayos-Minos Society, particularly known for distributing daily food to the students of the Pera Greek schools at the turn of the 20th century was situated in the yard of the Hagia Triada Church in Taksim.

14- Orthodox churches are architecturally formed from three sections. Entrance (narthex), middle section (nave), and ieron which is the section only clergy may enter. The restoration inscription dated 1835 above the central gate which provides entrance from the narthex of Aya Yorgi (Ayios Yeorgios) Patriarchate Church to middle section where the congregation stand. (Yorgo Benlisoy)

The field of charity (and more generally, doing favour to the needy) was under the tutelage of the church. In fact, in the Ottoman context, practices of charity responded to another need: Charity was a means of binding the believers to religious institutions and of keeping hold of the less faithful individuals who might have been under the risk to convert to other religions. The widows and orphans were the leading individuals among the “fragile” groups. Orphanages, which were not neglected by any of the main religious groups in Istanbul (Muslims, Jews, and Armenians) witnessed each group’s aspiration for maintaining their youth in good conditions, both in terms of education and morality.

In a society divided into groups on the basis of religious differences, the neighbourhood churches as an important part of social life were places of sharing and gathering for all community members. This ownership was expressed by the bestowal of the seats in the church to the community members either by purchase or rental.

In the early 21st century, in some churches of Istanbul it is still possible to see the labels bearing the name of the owners on certain seats. These traces of the past when the Greek Orthodox population was intense in Istanbul have been gradually erased since the 1990’s with the restoration works in the churches of the city.

We need hardly mention that especially among influential communities, high social status brought social prestige with it. The wealthiest families, persons or the most prestigious individuals made an appearance in their seats especially during the holydays when churches were filled with people. In this context, it should be remembered that the Greek Orthodox community in Istanbul had an intense population until the end of the Ottoman period. The population which was around 160.000 according to the 1906/1907 population census went on to be reduced increasingly after 1923.

The prices of the church seats (στασίδια: stasidia) which were either purchased or rented on an annual basis varied according to their location in the church. Those situated at the centre of the church were more expensive and were usually used by the notables of the community. There was a similar classification for the upstairs part reserved for women. Again, sitting at the center was a sign of prestige and fame for the women sitting there. Although the income obtained by the purchase or rental of the seats seemed among the basic financial source for the community, in total, this income was not as much as it seemed.

15- The view of Iconostasis from the middle section. Iconostasis separates the third section where only clergy may enter and the middle section. Iconostasis is adorned by icons. (Yorgo Benlisoy)

In some churches, the purchase and rental of the seats were recorded for long periods of time. These records give a clear idea about the social population. For example, the sort order of the seats allocated for rituals reveals this social population. These seats which were either purchased or rented are also the indications of the changing power struggles among community members. These records document the social and hierarchical importance of the distribution of the church seats.

Those who owned the church through the seats and those who donated to the churches were mistaken for the other patrons of the churches and chapels. In fact, just throwing a short glance at the churches of Istanbul is enough to see how frequently they have undergone restoration for the last two centuries. In many cases, restoration works would only be possible thanks to a few wealthy members of the community who did not forget to inscribe their sense of generosity on marble.

Those who visit the Orthodox Churches and Chapels in Istanbul today can easily notice the “traces” of a vivid and dynamic existence that was there until quite recently. Most icons and the most important worship objects of the Orthodox religious practice are all pieces donated by community members. These are mostly the works of local artists who wrote the life stories of the saints.

3. Religious Festivals

It is not an exaggeration to say that religious festivals largely regulated the daily life of the Greeks in Istanbul. The Orthodox had a very intense schedule in this sense.

These festivals should be classified in two categories. Those in the first category are festivals related to the important events in the life of Jesus: Christmas, January 6 Feast, and Easter.

In a similar vein with other religions such as Islam and Judaism, the important festivals of Christianity represent holidays that obviously interrupt daily routine; holidays are extraordinary periods when people quit working. Within this span of time, the rules of celebration were put into practice. The cyclical character of festivals contributes to the crystallization of traditions which are an effective means to maintain identity belonging. When examined from the Epicurean point of view, festivals constituting an interruption of the routine provide a more tolerable daily life for a great majority of people. Lastly, festivals create stronger socialization by maintaining the social bonds among the church members.

Festivals especially changed two aspects of daily life. Firstly, the nutritional habits and secondly, to the places people lived in. The influence of festivals on these two aspects has survived until today without any change. Besides, these forms of celebration resemble so much to those observed among the rest of the Greek Orthodox world.

The new year’s eve is at the same time the eve of the festival known as Saint Basileios of Caesarea (βασιλόπιτα: vasilopita), the symbol of which is a traditional cake or dried fruits. Shortly before midnight, the new-year is welcomed around the cake the head of the family shared out to family members. In this sharing ceremony, those who are not there at the time are also honoured; the ceremony begins with Jesus (the first slice is always spared for him) and St. Basileios. For St. Basileios is thought to come to the house before sunrise to eat and rest, so his share is reserved in a plate.

Who will find the piece of gold (φλουρί: flouri) in the cake and be lucky throughout the year? A coin (which is rarely gold) is put in the cake before it is baked and finding it was a great joy for the youth of the household. This coin, which is a source of attraction for the entire household, is put under a pillow at the first night of the year and is believed to reveal many future events, including the future spouses.

There were also nutritional changes during Easter. These changes are more apparently observed in the forty-day-long period which begins with the end of the carnival and ends on the Easter Sunday.

Fasting means keeping completely away from meat and all dairy products (as the word “carnival” suggests, the Italian word “carnelevare” is the combination of the words carne (meat) and levare (removal) meaning the removal of meat). In the period of fasting, people feed on bread, vegetables and fruits. Furthermore, more pious people do not even eat food cooked with vegetable oil, though it is allowed on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Till the end of the 19th century, the beginning of the Orthodox fasting made itself felt at the streets and bazaars in various ways. For the complete removal of ingredients of animal origin, first the kitchen tools and cupboards were cleaned on Monday. This was called the “clean Monday” (καθαρή Δευτέρα: kathari deftera). The idea was to keep all animal ingredients away from home. In the meantime, the gypsies visited the Greek neighbourhood with white tin-pots in their hands to gather edible remains. In the streets, chickpea balls (rounded chickpea paste with dried grapes and various spices) would take the place of boureks with minced meat and with cheese. The counters full of fish eggs, mussels, octopuses and squids were a sign of the coming of the Orthodox Easter.

The Istanbul Greeks’ eating customs peculiar to the Easter were the same as those of other Christian communities of the region. Roasted lamb, red coloured eggs and muffins were again at the heart of the Easter preparations among those communities. Nevertheless, in the urban environment of Istanbul lamb meat was not spitted, contrary to the eating habits of the Greeks living in rural areas. At Saturday night, after the resurrection ritual, the Istanbul Greeks had their dinner with a simple extract of meat, for lamb meat was rarely sold bodily and offal soup consumed by the Greeks of Greece even today were almost unknown on the coasts of the Bosporus.

Like many other symbolic elements of the Easter (lamb meat, muffins, etc.) red coloured eggs has also a rooted symbolism in the culture of Christianity as in that of the pagan culture. These eggs witness not only the arrival of spring but also the sacrifice of Christ (red symbolizes blood). Red egg symbolism began to completely slide to the field of sanctification as from the year 1879. According to the new “tradition,” which began to be practiced in 1879 (and has continued up till today) the members of the church of the patriarch took a red egg from the hand of the patriarch. Having thereby acquired a holy meaning, the egg was withdrawn from the field of consumption and took its place on the shelf where the other holy objects were put around a candle at home to remain there until the next Easter.

The Karamanids who were famous for their piety would roll the eggs given by the patriarch in cotton and put it in a small box to be sent to their hometown. However, these eggs would not be kept in Cappadocia but were sent to the capital city after the announcement that the preparations of the unction started. The unction given during baptism was largely used in the Orthodox churches. It had been produced merely by the Patriarchate of Istanbul since the early eighteenth century. Between the eighteenth century (which was a turbulent period for the patriarchate) and the late 16th century, unction was produced at intervals in certain small churches in Iznik and around Istanbul. In the year 1601, the privilege of unction production was bestowed on the St. George Church in Fener. Today, unction preparation ceremony is conducted decennially in the week before the Easter. The unction is prepared in large boilers under the supervision of nine pharmacists as a mixture of many herbal oils. The fire on which the mixture is boiled is fed with broken icons among other things. At the turn of the 20th century, the holy eggs of the Karamanids were among the materials used to feed the unction fire.

Major religious festivals changed the organization and rhythm of family life to a great extent. Celebrations could easily be observed from outside and were presented to the attention of people (Muslims, Jews and those from other sects) in spiritual and material ways.

16- Above the gate on the right side passing from narthex (the entrance) to the middle section. The depiction of the story about Abraham being visited by three angels. Those who sit by the table are three angels and the ones who serve them are Abraham and his wife Sarah (Yorgo Benlisoy)

In Christmas and during the New Year’s Eve groups of children or school choruses would go from house to house to sing hymns at each door. The lyrics of these hymns consisted of good wishes of wealth and health for the head of the family or other family members. In return for these good wishes, children were given dried fruits, biscuits, cakes and sometimes money. The money gathered by children was donated to the church.

A few days later, January 6, Epiphany/Feast Day which is the biggest festival of Christianity was celebrated and its ceremonies of cross-throwing to the sea and the consecration of the water was known by everybody either Orthodox or not. The baptism of Christ in Jordan was being celebrated every year at different parts of the Bosporus and on the coasts of the Marmara and of the Golden Horn. The priest responsible for the ceremony would throw a cross to the sea from a pier or a boat, then the young men of the church community would dive to find the thrown cross. The winner who was proud of his success would take the bestowal of God from the hand of the priest. Cross-throwing is a very old ritual having many important symbolic meanings. The Ecumenical patriarch Meletius IV who was conscious of the power of this religious festival and worried about the possibility of being misunderstood temporarily and exceptionally suspended the practice in 1923.4

17- Yenikapı Agios Theodoros Church in Istanbul

Carnivals are naturally much more apparent and polyphonic events. During the three weeks before the Lent, the Greeks had fun by organizing masquerades and celebrations in taverns/pothouses, coffee houses or more easily, at the streets. Carnivals were closely related to the church schedule even if it did not have the characteristic of a religious festival. For this reason, in the Ottoman capital city carnivals the organization of carnivals in places open to the public were allowed by the government. Nevertheless, permission had to be obtained from the police in advance. After all, because these were public festivals attended by Muslims as well, the use of green costumes was officially prohibited lest it could hurt the religious feelings of the Muslims. Joking in Turkish was prohibited as well. Furthermore, as from the year 1873, to make fun of the costumes of imams, rabbis and priests was banned.

The Orthodox Carnival proved its dynamism and creative potential in Tatavla neighbourhood (Kurtuluş). In this region of Istanbul where the Greek population was intense there was not the risk of disturbing the Muslims, so the festival was being celebrated in a peaceful and independent atmosphere. Compared with those held in Tatavla, the ceremonies held in Beyoğlu streets were not that fun, though conscript boys, clowns, knights and Anatolian figures roamed around.

Until the last decade of the Ottoman Empire, the holy Friday night also was a moment when the religious festival went beyond the bounds of the church and flooded the streets. In the neighbourhoods where the Greek population was intense, tables on which there were Messiah and Virgin Mary icons surrounded with burning candles and incenses were put before the open doors of houses. The entrances of the houses around Fener patriarchate turned out to be places of iconization/iconostasis. The believers would gather to attend the tombstone/epithafios (επιτάφιος) ceremony. The quadruped rectangular catafalque foiled with a wooden dome which symbolized the coffin of the Messiah was named as such. This light structure decorated with fresh flowers included the icon that represented the casting down of Christ from the cross. Even today at the holy Friday evening ritual, the priests, deacons and the carriers of ritual materials go out of the church accompanied by the community with the epithafios in their hand.

18- Kumkapı Panayia Elpida Greek Orthodox Church

One and a half century before, the customs of the women of Fener and Balat were to sit by their windows and wait for the patriarch and his subordinates to pour rosewater on their heads.

In the last periods of the empire, the Muslim component was still overwhelming despite the proclamation of the 1856 Hatt-i Sharif (edict) of Gülhane which bestowed equal rights to non-Muslims. This edict was quite clear about equal rights: Christians and Jews were free to practice their religious rituals as long as they did not disturb the Muslim community. Nevertheless, the edict also imposed some restrictions on non-Muslims. In the daily life of the sultan’s subjects, the decrease in the European population and the waning of state power brought certain tolerance with it towards the collective practices and traditions of non-Muslim groups. It is clearly understood from many patriarchate documents and the formal documents kept in Ottoman archives that in the early 20th century the Greeks of Istanbul welcomed the resurrection of Christ by gunshots! More importantly, epithaphios, central church communities and those living in the vicinity would leave the church environs to gather in crowds either in faraway regions or at the centre of the bazaar for gunshots! According to an April 1911 dated memorandum, Patriarch Ioachim III asked the people to stop these religious parades that were righteously condemned by the general public. Greek spiritual leaders even submitted a petition to the imperial government to bring those fanatic believers to reason and to make sure that religious festivals be celebrated in a proper way.5

Lastly, one of the most lasting traces of Orthodox festivals is probably the black cross drawn on the entrance doors of the Greek houses. After the resurrection ritual, at the Saturday night preceding the Easter, the believers would bring a flaming candle to their home, which was believed to come from the grave of Christ in the Church of Resurrection in Palestine. On the threshold of their houses they would draw a crucifix with the smoke of the candle on the entrance door. This ritual was repeated every year and is widely practiced also in Greece today.

4. Living with Saints

The major Christian festivals cover only a limited time span of the year. Even if these festivals were ostentatiously celebrated, they were not enough to satisfy the pious Istanbulites, for they had exceptional moments. In daily life, common people who lived in the cities went to the saints for consolation.

The Virgin Mary, the protector of the city has been the most esteemed figure from early Christianity and is kept far away from the city center. Yet there are tens of places allocated to her in residential areas. Among these, one which is known for its resistance to time is worth remembering.

The very place is the Blakhernai (The Virgin Mary) Greek Church in the Ayvansaray neighbourhood near the Golden Horn. The church is a modest structure which has no particular architectural specificity and it has almost got lost among the surrounding buildings in the early 21st century. However, this place known to all Orthodox is older than almost fifteen centuries. The construction of the chapel dates back to 430 A.D. In that chapel, there is a marble sculpture of the Virgin Mary from the hand of which water flows. Towards the same period, a bath was constructed at the foot of this spring, which hosted the imperial couple and their subordinates every Friday evening for centuries. Soon afterwards, Leo I (457-474) had another church built in Jerusalem, where the veil of Mary was put in. The Byzantine empires would carry this veil with them as a flag when they went on campaigns. During the reign of Leo I, the Blakhernai Church won the belt of Mary. Four centuries later, the wife of the philosopher Leo, Empress Zoe who went mad, got well when she touched this object. Since then this miracle has been commemorated by the Orthodox Church in every August 31.

This millennial practice has a rooted place in the collective memory of the Greeks. They also do not ever forget one holy intervention of Mary in the Blakhernai Church which occurred during the siege of Constantinople by the Avars - in those days, the emperor Heraclius was far away from the city on a campaign against Persians. In the days of the siege, Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in the battlefield with her shield on in order to support the Byzantine soldiers and to save the city from the enemies. Later, the community gathered in this church singing the Akathistos Hymn which is a religious melody, a hymn devoted to Mary and which became an integral part of feasting ceremonies in time. Even today, despite the demographic feebleness of the Greek community, in the Saturday morning of the fifth week of karem/feasting, this chapel overflows with believers who come here to celebrate the said miracle.

The Blakhernai Church which got damaged and reconstructed many times in the Byzantine period passed on to the Latins in 1204. The invaluable holy relics in this church, particularly the arm of St. Georgios and the body of St. Lucy were removed from their place to be sent to Venice during the same period. Having fallen to pieces in a fire in 1434, the church was a pile of debris when it passed on to the Ottomans twenty years later with the conquest of Istanbul. In the nineteenth century, this place was purchased by a fur-producer Greek group so a mere chapel could be built in its place in 1866. The present building of the chapel was constructed in 1960.

The Blakhernai Church celebrates the memory of the return of Mary’s veil to its place in 473 A.D. in July 2 according to the Orthodox calendar. In July 26 every year a ceremony is held in memory of those members of the fur producing group. In these two ceremonies, the chapel gets crowded with believers. As the carrier of miracles, the Blakhernai Church is not only a mere pilgrims’ place, but also a place of attraction for the Muslims who come from distant places to fill their jugs with holy water.

In addition to the memories of Christ’s mother, popular practices of the Orthodox culture developed around the celebrated figures of the Eastern Church. One of the most significant among these are long esteemed saints such as St. Georgios, St. Paraskevi, and St. Panteleimon. These practices have the function of gathering the other Christian denominations as well as Muslims together.

19- Aya Kiryaki Church

Some of the churches in the city, which are devoted to St. Georgios date back to the Byzantine period. There were eleven of them before the conquest of Istanbul by the Ottomans. In the late seventeenth century, the number of the churches devoted to St. Georgios increased to seventeen. One of them is the church of patriarchate which has been located in Fener since 1601.

In order to reminisce about how a great hope this extraordinary figure of the history of Christianity is, it is adequate to examine the hymns written in his memory: Among the Muslims as well as in the Orthodox world, St. Georgios was referred to as “the saviour of slaves, the defender of the poor, the doctor of the suffering” and owes his great reputation to his power of crushing the many evils of the human soul.

In sultans’ Istanbul, every year on the day of St. Georgios in April 23 a large number of Muslims as well as Christians would rush into the chapels. Until the late twentieth century, the Orthodox rituals devoted to St. Georgios had hosted pilgrim groups coming mostly from distant places around Istanbul for 48 hours. Around the rich tables set at the church exits, the Greek, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Armenian and Turkish people would present their offerings to this Saint who represents the beginning of summer and the revival of nature, accompanied by prayers, melodies and dances.

At the end of the Ottoman period, one of the most popular pilgrim places was the St. Georgios Byzantine Monastery in Prinkipo, which was known as the “bells monastery” (“Koudounas” in Greek). In the eve of the pilgrimage believers from the distant villages in the vicinity of Marmara came to the monastery to spend the night there. As in other places, the spiritual master of holy places in Prinkipo is a multidimensional figure. St. Georgios Koudounas was known in the whole region as the healer of mental illnesses. Until the late 19th century, the monastery church was used as a lunatic asylum. Until recent times, before the building largely lost its historical characteristic with restoration works in the 90’s, there were large rings on the iconostasis to which the “haunted” patients were tied. The Koudounas Monastery which was also a place of healing for infertility and gynaecological diseases was a place of asylum for women of all ages and religious beliefs.

The residents of the island remember climbing the Hagia Yorgi of in the evening of the eve of April 23. Although the silent walk of the groups reminds of a religious ceremony, the old claims that this crowded walk arises out of the joy of welcoming the coming spring, which is associated with the memory of this Saint. Orthodox generations have faithfully performed this transition ceremony that they added to their religious traditions.

Another pilgrimage held in the area again continued to be one of the most important moments of the Orthodox schedule until the late 1950’s. Every year in September 24, during the two festivals called St. Thekla and Panayia Mirtidiotissa (Virgin Mary on the mrytle), the gardeners and farmers living in and around Istanbul would walk toward the Hagia Yorgi Monastery. They were also the believers of St. Trifon and were under his spiritual protection. Yet the September 24 pilgrimage coinciding with the fall equinox represented the mid-season which was deemed very important for harvest.

Today there are not many Greeks left in Istanbul: The April 22 processions and the pilgrimage of gardeners in September 24 are over. Yet the place is far from being desolate during these two dates. The destination is now secured by groups of Muslim pilgrims. Some observers state that these pilgrim Muslim groups consist of Alevis coming here for the fulfilment of their wishes. Since the early 2000’s, several priests of the Athos Mountain claim that in April 23 every year, more than 40.000 people climb to the Hagia Yorgi to grovel to the icon of the Saint and to take water from the spring next to the church. The majority of these pilgrims are women. Many women walk barefoot the way up to the hill, releasing the balls of string in their hands. Oils, notions, offerings, icons of the saints, pocket bibles in Turkish are offered as bestowal; the pilgrimage equipment have largely changed since the feminization and Islamization of the climb to the Hagia Yorgi. But one component of this ritual has been kept out of trade: the wish-handkerchiefs hung on shrubs. In order to see how the expectations of believers from Koudounas have increased in time, it is enough to take a glance at the memos written on these handkerchiefs. The place ceased to be one resorted to merely for the treatment of mental illnesses or of infertility. The majority of the women who flock into the place have simple wishes such as a wealthy husband, a job for the father or a computer for the son.

Besides St. Georgios, there are many healer saints in the multi-secular history of Istanbul, who have the specialty and power of healing all sufferings diachronically. Saint Paraskevi and St. Panteleimon were among the most popular in the last two centuries.

According to the Orthodox schedule, Saint Paraskevi cult is celebrated in July 26 every year. The saint whose name means “preparation” for the Sabbath in Greek is believed to heal eye diseases and protect believers from the evil eye. There are tens of holy places devoted to this saint: There are still four active churches of Roman origin in Hasköy, Tarabya, Büyükdere and Beykoz and almost seventy holy springs in the vicinity of Istanbul. The cult of Saint Paraskevi on the coasts of Hasköy, which dates back to the Byzantine period, became known in the Bosporus villages (Tarabya, Büyükdere and Beykoz) in the nineteenth century along with the construction of Christian churches and chapels. These holy places built in a convenient period for non-Muslims again witnessed the emergence of many consecrations for the saints. Moreover, the cult of saints is an issue which is worthy of note. The most significant (and the oldest) church devoted to St. Paraskevi is situated in Hasköy, which has a homogenous population, and in the midst of Christian, Jewish and Muslim cemeteries. According to the hearsays of the period, until the end of the nineteenth century a crowded group of believers came here from all sides of Istanbul every July 26 to attend the ceremony and take holy water from the adjacent spring.

Today, the churches devoted to the name of St. Paraskevi are only opened at intervals. Most of the holy places frequently visited in the past have become vacant places, for they were mostly situated in privately owned areas, making entrance unavailable.

Another healer saint figure is St. Panteleimon, which dates back to the early Byzantine period. This Izmit-born saint was deemed holy especially by the Turkish speaking Orthodox of Cappadocia. Twelve holy springs around the region, which are devoted to him are mostly located in the residential areas surrounding the old eponymous Byzantine monasteries in Hasköy, Çengelköy and Bakırköy. These springs are nearly two millennia old. Although these springs are more or less accessible, there is only one church with his name throughout Istanbul, and it is located in Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosporus. The church was built in the place of a Byzantine structure devastated during a fire in the early 1870’s. In line with the architectural traditions of the period, the construction of it was financed by donations of the believers. The charitable contribution of a few local esteemed figures proves the importance given to the maintenance of a holy place devoted to the name of St. Panteleimon by the Istanbul Orthodox of the period.

Even today, despite the demographic feebleness of the Greek population, the St. Panteleimon Church maintains its characteristic as the pilgrimage place for a large number of Christians who visit the church in July 27 every year. Entrance into the church is usually not allowed. Many people stay in the large and bloomy yard where chairs are put out for the old. The majority of those who attend the July 27 ceremony are the Greeks of the old Istanbul, who left the city after the 1950’s to settle in other places. They come to their birthplace for a short visit during the period. In every July 27, the yard of the St. Panteleimon Church becomes a special meeting place for these people, where they can see their old school friends, neighbours and acquaintances. The holy spring next to the church is an attraction place especially for women. These visits are so crowded that not even a slight risk is taken: A cloaked priest who stands before the water fountains welcomes the visitants and states that the miraculous water cannot be drunk but can be used for ritual washing.


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1 These five bishops as the bishops of Ereğli, Erdek, İznik, İzmit and Kadıköy constituted a permanent high council of religion (sinod). The system is known by the name γεροντισμός/gerontisme (gerontism).

2 The name given to the Armenians who worked for the Ottoman government – t.n.

3 With the semantic expansion occurred in time, the concept of Karamanid gradually came to refer to all the Turkish speaking Orthodox of Anatolia.

4 The Patriarchate Viceroy’s (Protosyngelos), Panteleimon, January 3, 1923 dated memorandum.

5 The April 9, 1911 dated letter presented by Ioachim III to the central administration of Stavrodromi/Beyoğlu Greek Orthodox community.

This article was originally written in French for History of Istanbul, translated into English and published in a digitalized form in 2019; and its Turkish translation was published in 2015.