Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Epiphany on the Golden Horn

The bell began ringing out at 12:30 pm sharp, its sound carrying to the water's edge from an unseen church somewhere behind a cacophony of buildings in various states of (dis)repair. No gentle tinkle but an effortful pealing, it continued for a full five minutes as the assembled crowd shuffled a bit impatiently. As its clanking ebbed away, voices murmuring in both Turkish and Greek came to the fore and police swept the spectators to the sidelines. The Patriarch was arriving.

Every year on 6 January, Istanbul's small remaining Greek Orthodox community celebrates Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus – a day they call Theophany – at the Church of St. George in the Fener neighborhood along the Golden Horn. Following what I'm told is always a lengthy mass, the congregation processed to the nearby waterfront, where they joined the awaiting press cadre, at least one Turkish tour group, and assorted other bystanders as a drone circled overhead and small idling boats churned up the waters.

On a pier across a short stretch of water, two men in swimming briefs paced, stretched, and swung their arms. All the while they each kept a keen eye on His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, as the elderly archbishop slowly ascended a platform set up for the occasion, topped with a scroll on a stand.

My position in the crowd meant I couldn't see the movement of the Patriarch's hand, so before I knew it, the two men were in the water, racing to be the first to retrieve the wooden cross that His Holiness had tossed in as per tradition. Pointing my camera in their general direction, I clicked as fast as I could until after one had reached the cross, kissed it, and held it triumphantly aloft. It was all over so quickly; as a woman next to me laughed to her friend afterwards, "I don't even know what I took pictures of!" 

Similar ceremonies were prevented in Greece this year due to the coronavirus pandemic – in Thessaloniki, police and coast guard patrolled the waterfront to prevent them, according to the Associated Press – and both the crowds and the number of participants in Istanbul were much diminished. (Last year's event drew some 30 swimmers on a frigid day, many of whom had traveled from Greece or other Orthodox countries.) But I was pleased to have finally (after all these years!) witnessed this distinctive event, getting my renewed vows to Try More New ThingsTM (2021-Style, i.e. locally) and resurrect this long-moribund blog off to a good start, at least for now...