Looking for spiritual light on the Golden Horn

Looking for spiritual light on the Golden Horn

This year’s Orthodox Christmas and New Year celebrations, a 12-day long religious event, Dec. 31 with the church mass in honor of Saint John the Baptist, the last Prophet honored by both Christianity and Islam. And once again the center of Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, became a site of pilgrimage for thousands of Orthodox Christians who flocked to the city to attend the spectacular ceremonies taking place at St. George’s Church; the old church standing in the ancient neighborhood of Fener since the 1600s.

As every year, this religious calendar with its tight schedule -- exhausting for both the clergy and the flock -- was observed with characteristic discipline; as it has happened for centuries. Yet, if one examines this mystical web of ecclesiastical procedures one would observe the fine differences between each year. 

The blessing of the waters on the Golden Horn has been one of the highlights of Istanbul’s spiritual and cultural life for a very long time. On the seventh day of January, after completing the morning mass in the church of St. George, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch walks down a few hundred meters to the shore the Golden Horn, blesses the water and throws a cross in the sea in the memory of Jesus Christ’s baptism by St John the Baptist in the Jordan River. 

According to the tradition, as soon as the cross is thrown into the water, anyone with enough faith and determination can dive into the water and try to find the cross. Whoever catches it first is the lucky person of the year. He receives a special blessing from the Patriarch and a special gift. Although this ritual also takes place in a few other sites around Istanbul, it is the event on the Golden Horn which attracts most attention both by Orthodox Christians but also by Turks, as this particular ceremony remains an important part of the Istanbulites’ cultural tradition. 

I happened to attend Friday’s blessing of the waters of the Golden Horn under my guise as a television reporter. I reported on the rows of buses who brought hundreds of Greeks from the mainland to observe this year’s ceremony and then had to stay on the frozen shore of the Golden Horn under the drizzle, together with some three thousand people waiting for the Patriarch Bartholomeos to do his customary walk through the cobble-stoned narrow street, which links the Patriarchate with the shore. Outside, satellite broadcasting units were lined across the site waiting to transmit the ceremony live to the rest of the world; an event which usually does not last more than two hours. Yet, these are unusual times and even the strictest procedures may be disrupted. An exceptionally large number of Orthodox Greeks had decided to take the Holy Communion this year from the hands of Patriarch Bartholomeos, hence the whole event had to be delayed.

This unusually long ceremony also affected the volunteer divers who were waiting eagerly in small boats for the moment for the cross to be thrown into the water as waiting for longer meant freezing for longer in their swimming costumes. 

The actual dive lasts only a few minutes and I had the chance to interview this year’s winner, a young man from Drama, Northern Greece, who has been coming to Istanbul every year for the last four years in order to catch the cross. This year it was different, he told me. “It was different for all the Greeks, I had to do it: it was a promise to me; a personal target. One has to believe in something. You know, things are very bad.”

The unusually long line of Greek Orthodox people, who delayed this year’s ceremony in order to receive consolation from their Patriarch, was in complete conflict with the atmosphere of social tension and disrespect shown during similar celebrations taking place on the same day in Greece. The country’s president was openly booed and insulted by Greek “indignati” during the blessing of the waters in the provincial city of Chalkida, while several politicians received similar treatment by citizens in other cities. 

As the New Year starts in earnest from today, Greece is entering another period of extreme financial and political uncertainty with a society desperately looking for credible alternatives. And during this period of histolysis and histogenesis for the Greeks, their supreme religious leader still remains a strong point of reference.