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We arrived at the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae on Easter Eve, right before the beginning of the Mass and our glance fell on the marble plate, where the Akathyst Hymn, a hymn of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, was engraved.
The bell didn’t toll
The faithful were no more than 40-50 people, barely taking all the available seats. Until the 1960s, when the Greek element flourished in Constantinople, the church could not accommodate the crowds of the people that on Easter Eve filled the gardens of the monastery and the surrounding streets.
A few minutes before midnight the priests and the people came out to the precinct of the church for a while to chant the Paschal troparion (Christos Anesti) and then hastily reentered the church. Even the bell didn’t toll during chanting, so the neighbors wouldn't be disturbed. For the Turkish families of the surrounding houses, that particular night was nothing more than an ordinary Saturday night, but for the few Greeks inside the church it was the most important moment of the year.
The faithful had taken their children with them and they were running back and forth inside the church during the Mass. The Greek children’s voices in the churches of Constantinople are the most pleasant commotion anyone can hear. May Greek children live in Constantinople and run around the churches. These children will give an extension to the presence of Hellenism, threatened with extinction.
It is not unlikely that someday one of these small Greek children running back and forth will eventually become a Patriarch. As the selection is made only among Greeks with Turkish citizenship and taking into account that the theological school of Halki remains close down, the aspirant future patriarchs are hopelessly diminished.
On Easter Eve, many Orthodox Antiochians attended the Mass at the Church of St. Mary of Blachernae, who have been registered in Turkey along with the Rum Orthodox and have found refuge in the Greek community. Their children go to the Greek schools in Constantinople and have assimilated the Greek character and lifestyle.
Chicken-soup and grilled fish
After the end of the Mass on Easter Eve we were surrounded by many local Greeks and started chatting. We asked them if they have the same Easter customs with us or if they are different. They told us that on Easter Sunday they don’t roast their lamb on a spit like we do in Greece. They cook a piece of lamb in the oven or fish on the grill and this is considered their tradition. On Easter Eve they don’t eat magiritsa, the traditional Easter soup made with lamb offal but instead they enjoy a chicken soup. They also dye eggs and bake tsoureki, the traditional sweet bread, which makes their homes smell wonderfully. In the old days, when the Greek community flourished, entire villages were filled with the smell of these sweet breads.
The mother was kneading in a trough and the children were standing close by, waiting for the dough to rise. Another Greek from Megalo Revma (Arnavutköy) at the coast of Bosporus, invited us next year to his village to spend Easter with his family. When asked if they are many Greek still living in Megalo Revma, he replied: “In the past there used to be 6.000 Greeks, now we are only 60. Until 1992 we used to pass the Epitaph around the church, today this is not happening anymore”.
When we asked him which fasting is the most difficult, the Christians’ Lent or the Muslims’ Ramadan, the Greek replied: “They are both extremely difficult. However, during the Muslim Ramadan, we do not eat delicious food in public. We’ve lived our entire lives with them and we have got to show some respect”.
The invasion of Yunan
Leaving the Monastery of Blacharnea and walking in the dark alleys of Fatih, the most religious Muslim neighborhood of Constantinople, we felt a little insecure. Further down, the policemen of a police car that was parked at the side of the road with its light on greeted us politely and told us to enjoy our stay in Istanbul. They were probably there to protect the monastery.
Getting off the Golden Horn highway to find a taxi, we got into a major traffic jam. “There are thousands of Yunan (Greeks) that went to the Patriarchate tonight, a few kilometers away and the road has been jammed by the buses. We are not bothered at all, as this is happening only once every year. Besides, they leave their money in Istanbul” the taxi-driver told us.
At the Ecumenical Patriarchate crowds of Greeks were walking by the shores of the Golden Horn with the lighted candles in their hands. They were looking for a taxi or for their bus to get them back to their hotel. Alexandroupolis, Thessaloniki, Veria, Ioannina, Athens, Kalamata, Heraklion, were some of the signs on the countless Greek buses.
When we arrived at the hotel almost at dawn on Easter Sunday we heard the high-pitched and dignified voice of the imam from a nearby mosque calling the faithful Muslims to their morning prayer. For the Turks this was an ordinary Sunday and Easter didn’t mean anything special.
The Church of St. Mary of Blachernae is located next to the palace of the Byzantine emperors at the Golden Horn. During the Byzantine era it was one of the most famous churches of Virgin Mary, since it was the place where the Akathyst Hymn was chanted for the first time in 626. It was right after the termination of the siege by the Avars, a fact that was attributed to the procession of the icon of Virgin Mary at the walls of Constantinople by Patriarch Sergius.
This is the church where they also celebrated the feast of Orthodoxy after the end of the Byzantine Iconoclasm in 843. In the grounds of the monastery they also built the chapel of Hagia Soros in order to host the scapular and the robe of Virgin Mary brought from Palestine to Constantinople in 473.
It was such a significant monastery during the Byzantine years that in the church itself 74 people served with faithfulness: 12 presbyters, 18 deacons, 6 deaconesses, 8 subdeacons, 20 lectors, 4 vicar-chorals and 6 janitors.
TEXT-PHOTOS: GEORGE ZAFEIROPOULOS