Christmas carols in Greek in Beyoğlu

Christmas carols in Greek in Beyoğlu

We all remember that day: Saturday, March 19, at 10:55 in the morning. The center of Istanbul was shaken by a horrific bomb blast in the most popular and busy cosmopolitan area of Beyoğlu, formerly known as Pera. The bomb attacker, identified as a Turkish citizen and member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), detonated the bomb at the corner of İstiklal Avenue (formerly Grand Rue de Pera) and Balo Street. It caused the deaths of four people and injured a further 36. Among the victims were foreigners. 

It was the second terrorist attack in Istanbul since the beginning of the year. Another similar suicide bomber exploded himself in the historic center of Sultanahmet, killing 13 people, all foreigners. Again the attacker was a member of ISIL. Eventually, Istanbul experienced five terrorist attacks this year, either by ISIL or the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It paid a high toll in human lives and suffering. And for its millions of citizens, the possibility of a deadly incident happening at any time, at any place, became a way of life.

For the small community of the Istanbul Greek Orthodox Rums who still live in their old neighborhood of Pera, that Saturday was a horrific experience. A major part of their heritage and institutions are in that neighborhood: the bomb exploded meters away from their Sismanoglu Megaro, belonging to the General Consulate of Greece, a major cultural and educational institution housed in a magnificent building that was once the residence of a wealthy Greek merchant. On nearby Turnacıbaşı Sokak, there is the actual Greek consulate. Numerous historical Greek Orthodox churches are scattered around the area, and several historical buildings serve as cultural and educational foundations for the community. Most of all, this is the area where two of the three major schools of the Istanbul Rums operate today, the Zappeion School and the Zografeion Lyceum, both donations by wealthy Greeks of the 19th century.     

Christmas is the only feast that all Christians celebrate on the same date. And on the eve of that day, Orthodox Christians continue an ancient tradition of singing their Christmas carols, the “kalanta” from door to door. It is a tradition that the Greek Orthodox residents of Pera used to keep with great diligence, until unfortunate circumstances in the middle of last century, forced them to stop. With the improvement of relations between Turkey and Greece as well as their position as an ethnic-religious community within Turkey, the tradition was revived. For the last seven years, the Zografeion Lyceum took up the initiative to continue the tradition of “Kalanta in Pera” whereby the school’s children, as well as their parents and other members of the community, walk around Pera, singing their traditional Christmas carols.

The attacks in January and March did not change their program this year either. I happened to be there on Saturday, watching about 100 children, teachers, parents and friends coming out from the magnificent entrance of the school on the ancient narrow Turnacıbaşı Sokak, wearing their Santa Claus hats and singing the “kalanta” accompanied by their accordion-playing headmaster. A girl told me that she hoped next year would not be “as bad as this year.” 

But there was a change in this year program. The kalanta parade did not walk on İstiklal to be met by the Greek consuls at the Sismanoglu Megaro. Instead, they chose, to head a few hundred meters down from their school on the same Turnacıbaşı Sokak, to be welcomed inside the building of the Greek General Consulate. 

Fear never goes away easily.