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The Greeks remaining in Constantinople are few but there are plenty of Greek Orthodox churches. Even if all of the Orthodox population went to church every day, some of them would be empty. But that does not stop the Greeks from finding ways to liven up the churches and prevent them becoming decorated. Every Good Friday they worship the Seven Epitaphs , ensuring that all processions have a small number of attendees. Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras used to say: "We the Greeks of Constantinople are few, but countless".
The opportunity arose for us to take part in the pilgrimage of the seven epitaphs at the Metropolis of Chalcedon, on the Asian district of Constantinople. The pilgrimage was organized by the graduates of the Zografion High School of Constantinople. On the morning of Good Friday we gathered in front of Taksim Opera and started our long journey along historical byzantine paths.
The thousands of Greeks who visit Constantinople have much to gain from a visit to the historical churches, but they often forsake to do so. Constantinople's Greek character is so evident that gives Greek visitors a reason to feel more like pilgrims rather than tourists.
Saint Panteleimon of Kuzguncuk
Saint Panteleimon is a beautiful basilica style church. It has an impressive interior and exterior but also a beautiful garden. The temple suffered a fire in 1872 and was then restored by benefactor sponsorships.
The beautiful bell tower was constructed by Michael Heliou in 1911. The bells ringed mournfully during the Epitaph procession and they echoed deep into our souls. The bells did not ring at any other of the six churches we visited.
The Epitaph process took place inside the temple and not outside, as custom holds. Only a boy went out for a moment to light the censer and quickly returned inside the temple. After the service we walked to the Greek community hall, where we enjoyed coffee and the parish ladies treated us traditional fasting cookies.
Saint Euphemia of Chalcedon
The temple of Saint Euphemia is very close to the beach and inside the old market of Chalcedon. This suburb of the eastern bank of Bosporus was first inhabited by the Megareans during the antiquity. We were thrilled to worship the temple's Epitaph, which was embroidered 270 years ago. How would the Greek girls who made it imagine that after many centuries their embroidery would become a historical orthodox jewel?
The church has suffered a lot, as has Saint Euphemia who was buried here. The church has an unusual shape because according to some sources it was built by Saint Euphemia herself, during the Christians’ persecutions by the Romans, and she purposefully intended it to look like baths rather than a church. Later on, Constantine the Great built a new church into the old one, which was destroyed around 1555.
The temple was rebuilt in 1694 and reconstructed in 1832, while it was recently renovated by Socrates Kokkalis. Around the church lie the graves of the Sakharov family and in the yard Saint Paraskevi's holy water, above which an enormous and impressive picture of the Fourth Ecumenical Council is hangs.
Saint John of Kalamisi
The temple of Saint John can hardly be seen among the tall and luxurious buildings of the rich suburb of Fenerbahce. The region that was once full of Greeks was called Fanaraki and Fener by the Turks. Thousands of Greeks used to worship the Epitaph back then but today, only the inhabitants of Zografio High School and very few other people do.
This temple was possibly built on the ruins of some ancient byzantine temple as well, which was in the area until 1555. That year no Greek church was spared. In its current form Saint John's church was constructed in 1876 and was inaugurated a year later. In its narthex lies the Saint's stoup with which is impressively decorated
Saint Ignatius of Chalcedon
Saint Ignatius church, which is in Chalcedon's Greek cemetery, was unlike the other churches. That night it was full of Greeks who had gone there to visit family graves, as it is customary on Good Friday. Among the pilgrims there were many people of Constantinopolitan descent, who had come from Greece and other places to light a candle on their parents' grave.
Many of the pilgrims were in tears as they stood around the Epitaph, because for them, this wasn’t just a service. An old lady from Constantinople who now lives in Athens, told us: "I've asked my children to take me from Greece and bury me here. I have some money in the bank for this purpose, because I don't want to burden them. All of my relatives who have returned in Greece are being buried in this sacred soil". Her words moved us and helped us understand the true meaning of the day. A joyful group of students from Zografio High School walked beside us to suddenly change the mood. These children are the Greek community's new blood and they are optimistic about their future in Constantinople, declaring that they'll never abandon it.
Like all the Greek cemeteries of diaspora Chalcedon seems like a museum of marble sculptures. The horse trailed hearse, on which the Greeks used to be carried to their last residence is an authentic work of art.
The inscriptions carved on the tombs are also very interesting. An example of one is: "Oftentimes I have sinned as man does, and depressed some other mortal's heart, I therefore ask forgiveness from the bottom of my heart. This was written on a plate, while another one cynically encapsulated the meaning of life: "I came, I saw and went away".
Prophet Elias of Chrysoupolis
Prophet Elias was found cited in the year 950. It is assumed that it was built in 1585 by sultan Murat III's mother, who was Greek. I was reconstructed twice in 1804 and 1851. It is a luxurious marble temple with huge chandeliers, which attest to the prosperity of the Greeks who used to live in this area.
The Epitaph of Prophet Elias is a real work of art and is similar to a miniature of a renaissance-style temple. The very few Greeks who now live in this historical suburb had simply decorated it with few, but very carefully chosen flowers.
Looking at the building we remembered Greece. The impressive neoclassical building used to house the Skoutari School, but today operates as a Turkish conservatory. Chrysoupolis is also called Skoutari, a word referring to the guard of a neighbouring palace owned by Comnenus dynasty. These guards used to bear a kind of buckler that was called "skoutarin".
Saint George of Cengelkoy
This very old historical church was almost empty before the arrival of Zografio's pilgrims. But these few Greeks elaborately decorated the Epitaph and almost covered it with flowers. If I had an an award to give to the best Epitaph of the eastern side of Constantinople I would award it to Saint George for sure.
The shape of the temple complex is maze-like and follows the early Christian style. It has narrow hallways, byzantine symbols, Hellenistic reliefs and Roman inscriptions. This is where the temple of the Mother of God of the Repentants Abbey, which was probably built by Justinian on the ruins of an ancient Greek temple.
Even Mehmed the Conqueror who visited Constantinople's suburbs after the Fall of Constantinople was impressed by the golden tiles that covered Saint George's church and called the region "ceyar karyesi" which means “golden-green village". The suburb's current name Cengelkoy, probably comes from a paraphrase of the term "ceyar se cengel".
Metamorphosis of Kandylli
Kandylli is an amazing suburb of eastern Constantinople. It is full of pine and mastic trees and arbutuses and it was strongly loved by the Byzantines for its pleasant atmosphere.
The Metamorphosis Church was built on a hill in 1850 and burned down by a fire in 1905, as was the school in its precinct. In 1909 the church was rebuilt with the sponsorship of Douvantzoglou brothers while the school was rebuilt in 1911 with a donation by Efstathios Eugenides.
Before entering the Metamorphosis Church we stood on the cobbled road and listened to a concise account of the temple's story by the director of Zografio High School. When we went inside we only saw three people, the priest, the verger and the chanter. Not a single person attended the service. The Zografio students livened the place up and the service was not completely unattended. The chanting resembled the sound of bees around a beehive, but we gathered around the gilded and engraved Epitaph.
The luxurious pews and the high-quality marbles covering the whole church reminded us of past glory, when the Greek community was still populous and prosperous.
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS