Church of St. George – Constantinople: 52 Churches

(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.

From Wikipedia:

“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.[4] 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.”

The Service

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.

In 1100, the Byzantine Emperor Michael Comenus established a feast to be observed every January 30 to honor three extremely influential early Christian Theologians who were active around the late 300s — just after Constantine made his conversion and moved Rome to Byzantium. The three were Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom.  Basil’s brother was St. Gregory of Nyssa (fans of this pedantic series may remember your humble narrator having dance dance fever in San Francisco over the Christmas holidays at the church of the same name). Anyway — around 1000 the citizens and clergy of Constantinople started bickering about who was more of a bad-ass. Like baseball fans going at it over Babe Ruth vs. Barry Bonds vs Joe DiMaggio. It got pretty contentious until St. John Mauropous had a dream where the three appeared and essentially told him it was a draw: “”There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.””

Still with me? Okay, so Paul tells me that things start around 8:30 with the morning service — Orthros — (or as they would say in France, matins) and the Patriarch Bartholomew would make his appearance around 9:30, with the service for the Feast concluding around 11:30. Oh, and I was welcome to attend.

Cool. I did a little homework. Set the alarm, and at 8 am this morning hopped in a cab and asked to go to the Rum Patrikhanesi: 15 minutes later and I am standing outside of a guard shack in the old city asking the guard if he speaks English. Indignant, he says, “Greek” — so I say the Greek word-of-the-day:  Orthros and he decided I was not a mad bomber (I had on a Hermes bowtie and definitely stuck out from whatever norm the guard was accustomed to). He pointed up some steps, and off I went, right into the porch of the Church of St. George.

I was early but there was activity. As I stepped into the narthex I heard chanting. The place was dark, cool, and smelled like a nice old lady. I felt seriously in awe, and felt like I was sneaking into the church.

It was dark but dazzling. Two sets of red upholstered chairs fenced off with red and gold silk ropes, some strange side seats with rails that I think are called stacidia, a wide aisle, and above a long barrel vault with a picture of the Pantocrator in the center. Huge chandeliers hung low over the aisle — only the ones near the two choir stands were lit. At the end of the nave was a large gilded wall covered with icons — the iconstasis — and in this wall were three doors. A center one known as the Beautiful Gates, and two flanking called “deacon doors” marked with images of the Angels Michael and Gabriel. Being terrified of giving offense, I read that non-baptized worshippers are to stand in back, in the narthex, so I continued to stand behind the seats. There were no pews, and apparently seating was considered rude as the faithful were expected to stand throughout the service.

On both sides at the front of the nave were stations surrounded by six men of all ages, including young boys: so twelve in all. One side would sing, then the other would sing. While one sang the other sort of hummed this eerie drone. Sometimes they sang together. The right, or starboard side, had a chanter with the most beautiful voice in the world. Seriously. There is no hyperbole in that last statement. This man sang for three hours, nearly non-stop, and had a set of lungs that have to been heard to be believed. The sweetness of his voice, the ululations of his cries …. there is no instrumental accompaniment, just voices, and the choir at St. George’s was the real thing, twelve priests doing a pre-Gregorian series of hymns an dchants that reached back into Jerusalem, that were so ancient that they felt genetically coded into my head.

For an hour I stood in the back of the chairs and listened to this amazing singing by myself. Two sets of priests, dressed in black, each group gathered around a lectern, singing God knows what in Greek.

Right off, I broke the first rule of 52 Churches — I took out the camera. I was sneaky. I concealed it. But I couldn’t not capture what I saw this morning. As the service went on I realized I was not alone. There was a film crew there filming the Patriarch and several parishioners were snapping away — with flashes for crying out loud. By the end of the three hours I was a little more relaxed about the camera, but very nervous about bringing it out.

Orthros  blended into the Feast of the Three Hierarchs fairly seamlessly. For an hour it was me and a lady who made the sign of the Cross four times per minute (4 spm). A deacon arrived, inspected me because I was seriously out of place, and then seemed to hassle me, but in truth he was giving me a prime seat right up front, three rows back. He unhooked the silk rope and let me in, right next to the Stacidia.

There was some bustling in the narthex. The Feast was about to begin. A procession of somber senior priests — perhaps Bishops or Metropolitans — filed down the aisle and then took their places in the Stacidia next to me. Then the Patriarch Bartholomew followed, his robe held up by a retinue of helpers. He carried a staff with a silver figure on the top. He turned right before the Psalteria, where the choir was chanting, and climbed some steps to the Thronos. His helpers adjusted his vestments and made him comfortable. I was impressed, his Holiness had presence, and I realized I was suddenly in a crowded church of worshippers, mostly older men in their Sunday best  (some of whom wore red ribbons around their neck, like the Knights of Columbus) and women turned out in fur coats.

Genuflection was the order of the day and I realized I don’t really know the appropriate protocol. From what I observed, it is threeo fingers starting at the forehead, then down in a straight line to the netherlands, then back up right to left with a finish consisting of an open hand move over the heart. There are Sign of the Cross Triggers in whatever the choir was singing, when the Beautiful Gates opened up and one of the Priests In Gold (no acronym needed) made an appearance, or whenever the genuflecter sort of feels like it. I was getting a serious going over by a stern looking “helper” priest who stood next to the Patriarch in his thronos. This priest was the enforcer, and when it was time to stand he made an impatient “up-up” gesture with his hand, and the converse when it was time to sit.  Since I was a) 33% taller than anyone in the church b) obviously clueless about the meaning of the liturgy and c) acting furtive with my camera, I came under high scrutiny; especially when I did or didn’t cross myself correctly.

There was one strange man, perhaps 35 years old, obviously well muscled underneath his suit, with two embroidered crosses for epaulets. He did nothing the entire service except stand near the Patriarch. I am convinced he was a bodyguard, which made me a little sad that a man like Patriarch Bartholomew who looks like Santa Claus needs security. We live in bad times, especially when it comes to religious violence. The Pope was knocked down by a loon on Christmas Eve.

The two hour service was truthfully very captivating. There was no audience participation, meaning not even an “amen” or credo or Lord’s Prayer. The Metropolitans standing right beside me would sing along with the hymns from time to time, and the gentleman sitting in the row with me also hummed when there was time to make the droning sound that pervaded the service (one time the drone was so intense I thought an old airplane was flying overhead). Here are some of the service highlights:

  • The procession of course
  • The strange sequence of hats-off, hats-on prayer. When the Patriarch and the Metropolitans were bare-headed they all had serious hat-head lines in their hair and skull. Sometimes they wore the hat — basically a black fez with a flange on the top and no tassle. Other times they drapped a black shroud over the hat that flowed down their backs. Think of Paul Atreides sister Alia in David Lynch’s Dune. Orthodox vestments are very awesome.
  • One of the Priests in Gold ascended the steps of the thronos, held up a very amazing bejeweled Bible for the Pattiarch’s kiss, then disappeared only to reappear way up on the side of a colum in a little pulpit reached by a long tiny staircase. I only figured this out when the stern Patriarch-helper guy made a “turn around” gesture at me  with his index finger and I had to turn 90 degrees and look wayyy up.
  • The happenings behind the Gold Wall — the Iconstasis — in the Sanctuary: talk about sanctum sanctorum.  The Altar and Table of Presentation are back there. Censers get filled and ignited. Sacraments are blessed. All sorts of stuff happened back there. In Greek. That I could see through the Beautiful Gates. It was a mystery. It was Byzantine.
  • The censers were awesome. Smells and bells is an understatement. Good trivia: this church is where the Patriarch used to bless all the chrism, or myrrh, the sacred oil used for baptisms through the Orthodox Church. The church is thus known as the Patriarchal Church of the Great Myrrh. (in case you find yourself on Jeopardy)
  • Around the mid-point of the service a lot of young people — high school age. Girls in uniform (black and white checked skirts) guys in sweater vests and grey pants — crowded into the nave right across from the thronos. They may have been students, acolytes, but they were very patient, even sang a hymn and took part in some of the rites.
  • There was a long sermon in Greek. I confess I started to nod off. One of the Metropolitans sitting next to me checked his watch. No lie.
  • The Host was brought down the aisle in a procession of its own. There were three, or were there four processions.
  • There was no collect — no money was exhanged.
  • I took communion. Hey — second Churbuckian rule of #52Churches broken, but hey, this was a Feast and you have to eat at a Feast. I kissed the Patriarch’s ring and took a piece of bread. Then I filed out the front by the icons. He washed his hands with a Handi-Nap before the hand kissing commenced. I appreciate that in a Patriarch. He is, by the way, known as the “Green Patriarch” because he is active in environmental issues.
  • There was no wine at communion.
  • In the narthex some ladies were scooping a super bizarre smelling trail mix into white envelopes. This, I assume, is the Feast. It is very good: consisting of  nuts, raisins, and mystery spices. Think of  really cool cookie dough.

So, to summarize the Service portion of this post: it was Greek, it was sung, it was very complicated and very subtle. This was exactly what I expect from a “Mother Church” experience. Keep in mind, as Wikipedia points out, change is not a good thing in Orthodox religion and the service is meant to be very true to its roots:

“…the Divine Liturgy is seen as transcending time, and the world. All believers are believed to be united in worship in the Kingdom of God along with departed Saints and the celestial Angels. To this end, everything in the Liturgy is seen as symbolic, yet also not just merely symbolic, but making the unseen reality manifest. According to Eastern tradition and belief, the Liturgy’s roots go back to Jewish worship and the adaptation of Jewish worship by Early Christians.

Random Observations

  • Parishioner demographic — mostly older Greek expats, some younger people too, and the aforementioned uniformed youth.
  • Very happy vibe, but there were times the singing was so sad and dolorous that I felt I was at a funeral
  • The Middle-Eastern ululation — the modulation of the voice — is common to the Muezzin’s call to prayer, the chanter, and the Jewish cantor. The priest with the astonishing voice moved his hands constantly while he sang, like  a conductor, and shook his head to make some vibrato.
  • I understood the following words: “hallelujah” and  “kyrie elieson” (Lord, Have Mercy) and that’s it. Everything else was Greek to Me.
  • The smoke from the censers was very thick and I had massive contact lens malfunction.
  • The Patriarch has a cough.
  • There were no cars for the usual automotive/demographic observation as there was no parking lot. I see the Patriarch behind the wheel of a black Checker.
  • Imagine how cool it would have been to see this in the Hagia Sofia? If this was the service they did in the old days, and in that church ….. This was serious awe, pomp. and ritual in a small church.
  • Camera use is pretty wide open. No deacons telling people to knock it off. Guy in front of me was banging off his flash right in the Patriarch’s face.
  • The icon collection made me think of the awesome Andrei Tarkovsky movie, Andrei Rublev, about the greatest icon artist of all time. Seek this out, bear with it, and wait for the bell scene at the end. Trust me.
  • Kissing the icons is okay. I did not.
  • Iconoclast” — e.g. he-who-marches-to-his-own-drum — is actually grounded in the big controversy over banning icons by Emperor Leo III’s decision to remove an image of Christ from a Gate. Islam prohibits imagery as well (as the Danish cartoonists have learned), so this was a big deal at the time.
  • I stand corrected on calling the men sitting to my right “Metropolitans” — I have no idea what they were. Metropolitans (I like the word) wear white hats.
  • I put Constantinople in the title as the Patriarchate refers to itself as being based on Constantinople. Paul Theroux, in Pillars of Hercules, made jest of this affectation.
  • Will I go to hell for thinking of the Feast of the Three Stooges during the part of the service where the icon of the Three Hierarchs was displayed?

Video to follow once YouTube digests it. Here is a slideshow of my Flickr photos from the service.

Next: In which I try to visit a Mosque. And fail. And fail again. And succeed. But sort of.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

9 thoughts on “Church of St. George – Constantinople: 52 Churches”

  1. Contact malfunction is standard procedure during services at St. George (Aya Yorgi). They clearly were not developed in a country with largely Orthodox parishioners. Thanks for sharing such wonderful observations of the service.

  2. Aya Yorgi – both empty and when breathing people – is one of my favorite places of worship in Istanbul. You described it beautifully, and your observations were astute. Pictures never adequately capture the magnificence of what is a rather small church, but it is worth returning on a non-rainy day for the image of Sunday morning light filtering the smoke of incense (through malfunctioning contacts).

  3. Hello- A couple corrections:

    1. Genuflection is a Roman Catholic term for kneeling on one knee before the tabernacle witch contains their sacrament. What you describe in the article is simply called the sign of the cross.

    2. You didn’t receive communion you received antidoron which is blessed bread but not the most blessed body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. It was originally intended for Orthodox Christians who were not receiving the Mysteries but desired a blessing. In the past, non-Orthodox were not allowed to eat the antidoron but this tradition is largely ignored by most mainstream Orthodox jurisdictions.

    This has been a fun blog to read.

    – an Orthodox Christian

  4. Thanks Andrew — yes, I have figured out the genuflection/sign of the cross difference.

    Antidoron? Awesome, a new obscure religious word to flex in my next scrabble game. Churches have THE best vocabulary of any specialty I think. What pray tell is are the “Mysteries?”


  5. Hi David,

    This is a terrific post–really, I’m not just saying that! My daughter and I are visiting Istanbul over Easter and we would very much like to go to this church for Easter services. The website lists a service schedule (although not for Easter yet), so I’m assuming that anyone can go. Do you think we need to contact someone before going, like you did?
    Thanks, Marisa

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