(Brace yourself church fans; this is going to be a long one I think)
First the context. Then the church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian denomination in the world (after Roman Catholicism) and is the prevalent Christian denomination in Greece, the Balkans, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia. It is Greek in origin and traces its history directly back to Christ’s Apostles, emphasizing in its beliefs its unchanged connection directly back to the foundation of Christianity.
It was the religion of the Byzantine Empire, which followed the Roman Empire and peaked in its power and extent in the middle of the sixth century but survived until 1453 in its capitol of Constantinople until the city was sacked by the Muslim Turks. The Patriarchate is the spiritual capitol of the faith, yet care must be taken not to assume that the Patriarchate is the “Vatican” of the Orthodox faith, or the Patriarch is tantamount to the Pope. He is, like the Pope, considered “first among equals,” and he is viewed as the leader of the Orthodox faith. Historically the position of Patriarch wielded immense power and in some regards was as powerful as the Byzantine Emperor. The piety of the Byzantine court cannot be underestimated, and the synods or early religious councils that were convened in the early centuries such as the Council of Nicea are fundamental to the history of all Christian denominations.
This is the religion of icons, of priests in black cylindrical hats and flowing robes, of smoking censers filled with frankincense. If you’ve seen Deer Hunter and recall the Orthodox wedding, then you’ve seen some Orthodox liturgy.
After the sack of Constantinople the Byzantine church limped around Istanbul, getting kicked out of one church after another as the Sultan converted Hagia Sofia — The Church of Holy Wisdom — into a mosque and commanded that no Christian church exceed a mosque in size or grandeur. Today the church is the small but elegant Church of St. George on the shores of the Golden Horn in Phanar (Fener), where it has resided since 1600.
“Since the fall of the Ottomans and the rise of modern Turkish nationalism most of the Greek Orthodox population of Istanbul has emigrated, leaving the Patriarch in the anomalous position of a leader without a flock, at least locally. Today the Church of St George serves mainly as the symbolic centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and as a centre of pilgrimage for Orthodox Christians. The church is financially supported by donations from Orthodox communities in other countries.
On 3 December 1997, a bomb attack seriously injured a deacon and damaged the Patriarchal Cathedral. This was one of the many terrorist attacks against the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its churches and cemeteries in Istanbul in recent years.The efforts to bring the terrorists to justice are continuing.”
Before travelling to Turkey I wrote an email to the secretary of the church seeking some information about services, but I never received a reply, which is not surprising given the incongruity of communicating with an ancient church through a digital pipe. Friday afternoon I used Skype to phone the Patriarchate’s press office where I explained my mission to visit interesting sacred places over the course of a year. I was referred to an American expatriate affiliated with the church, and one minute later had an encouraging discussion with a gentleman named Paul Gigos who told me my timing could not be better as one of the more significant Feasts of the ecumenical calendar was taking place the following morning, Saturday: the Feast of the Three Hierarchs.