Under the Turkish Guns, the Christians Roar

Under the Turkish Guns, the Christians Roar

It is the peculiar genius of Byzantine history that its glory reached its apogee in the era known to the West as the Dark Ages. It has no great literary heritage – a half-millenium of Muslim domination ensured the annihilation from memory of its major works beyond the Alexiad of Anna Comnena, the anonymous epic of Digenes Akritis, and various religious texts. The latter survived because the Church survived, even as the Empire did not. Chief among them are the great liturgies, and chief among the great liturgies is the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. It is the queen of liturgies: a Greek epic of its own, also of the Western Dark Ages, emphatic and deliberate in its insistent worship of Christ. The liturgy has a heavenly glory in its song and prayer. It also has a mundane length to it. Properly done, it lasts hours. Yesterday, it lasted five hours, from 8am to 1pm. It’s a feat of endurance for the best Christian – particularly as the great majority of it has one standing. I am not among the best Christians. But yesterday, I did it.
Yesterday, I was in the Church of St George at the compound of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Fener district of Istanbul. Across from me sat the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, holder of the last office of the Eastern Empire, and spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christians of the world. Mere feet away, within arm’s reach, sat Pope Benedict XVI.
The Patriarchal compound is a small place, kept deliberately so by the Turkish authorities who object to the claim of an ecumenical title by the Patriarch. No matter that the Patriarchate in Constantinople has been the Ecumenical Patriarchate since nearly eight hundred years before the Turkish seizure of this city, and no matter that even the Ottoman Sultans acknowledged this fact: the modern Turkish state believes the Patriarch to be merely the religious leader of the Orthodox Christians of Turkey – reduced from a thriving community of millions to a mere two thousand in Istanbul proper in the 20th century – and nothing more. So vehemently do they deny any greater role for the successor to St Andrew, that in this very week, they sent police personnel to tear down English-language banners with the phrase “Archon Pilgrimage to the Ecumenical Patriarchate” on it. The Archons are properly the Order of St Andrew, and they are a collection of lay worthies of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. They also had passes allowing them entry into the Patriarchate for this Liturgy with the Pope, and to the previous night’s Doxology; but because it too mentioned an “Ecumenical Patriarchate,” they were made to put them away before the Turkish police would allow them entry into the Patriarchal compound. They complied – what else could they do? – and in a nice irony, were issued badges by the Turks which read, “Istanbul Rum Patrikhanesi.” The Patriachate of the Romans of Istanbul. Even now, five hundred fifty-three years after the conquest, Turkish idiom acknowledges what the Great Church and its people once were.
The Church of St George, sole church in the Patriarchal compound, acknowledges it as well. Embedded in its walls, and strewn about its tiny grounds, are fragments from the hundreds of churches of old Constantinople that were demolished in the centuries of Muslim rule. Here there is a frieze of Christ. Here there is an Apostle. Here there is a slab of marble in which a scarred IC XC is inscribed. And here there is an imperial double-headed eagle, symbol of the Eastern Imperium. It is a bit of symbology that has been inherited by several nations of the old Byzantine commonwealth, among them Russia and, improbably, Albania. The Patriarchal compound is strewn with them, giving truth to the phrase Istanbul Rum Patrikhanesi. For a moment, one may lose oneself in the fantasy that it is all still real, and all still alive – but then you look up, and see the mosque that the Turks have built athwart the compound on the overlooking hillside. The minarets peer down in the very courtyard of St George’s itself, and the message is clear: five times a day, every day of every year, the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Christians of the world must hear the muzzein at close quarters. The temporal victors are deeply unsure, even now, of their victory.
On this day, the minaret and all the surrounding rooftops are occupied by Turkish soldiers. They look down upon us in the courtyard and glare. There is security and insecurity in their presence: they will assuredly protect us from any Islamist who would seek to wreak mayhem – though none, not even unfriendly crowds, are in evidence – and they are assuredly not our friends. The Patriarch himself, Bartholomew I, once served in the Turkish Army, in keeping with the Turkish state’s stricture that the occupant of that office must hold Turkish citizenship. I looked up at the soldiery, and reflected on the pity of this state, which he served, that is now bent upon squeezing his ancient office out of existence.
Inside the chapel all is gilt and gold, a nineteenth-century version of Orthodox splendor, and it is possible to forget the scene outdoors. The place is suffused with holy relics: among them, the remains of Ss John Chrysostom, whose liturgy we celebrate, and Gregory the Theologian – both recently returned by the Vatican. Across the chapel, a supposed piece of the True Cross, and the purported pillar upon which Christ was scourged. There are sarcophagi in which various saints rest, and niches in which holy icons are venerated. It is a wonderland for the faithful. But not only the faithful are there: there is also the media of the world, armed with telephoto lenses and cameras, and looking shabby in the way that media typically do. It does not occur to them to dress appropriately – one may wish, after all, to look presentable before the putative Vicar of Christ on Earth – but then, it wouldn’t. They crowd onto platforms along the periphery of the chapel, and wait.
Patriarch Bartholomew I arrives, decked in brilliant finery and surrounded by black-clad deacons and Metropolitans. Pope Benedict XVI arrives, dressed in thick red robes, and accompanied by bright red-and-purple Cardinals. The Liturgy, which has already been underway for an hour, assumes a new pitch. The lights brighten. The gold upon the icons flare. We pray. We worship for another four hours, with varying levels of comprehension of the thousand-year-old Greek of the Liturgy. I scurry about from point to point, taking photographs and looking on in awe.
Finally, it comes time for Communion. My father asks me if I will go, and I reply that I probably should not. He urges me to, and I give in. Now, we file forward, toward the Ecumenical Patriarch His All-Holiness Bartholomew I, holder of the last office of the Eastern Empire, who gives us the Body of Christ. Mere feet away, Benedict XVI sits on the Papal throne, looking down upon us supplicants. I am overcome and cannot glance toward him. Behind me, others have more courage: they break from the line, rush forward, and kiss Benedict’s hand. He is calm and gentle. He smiles and clasps their hands, saying a few words in German and English, before urging them to go receive the Eucharist. It is profoundly moving too see these devout Orthodox who have come to pay homage to the bishop of the New Roman, and who are so overwhelmed with the presence and love of the bishop of the Rome that they must give him the same. The small space encompasses a universe, and we are at its center.
Bartholomew ascends to the iconostasis and welcomes Benedict in Greek. Benedict, aware of the cameras surrounding him, replies in English. We must, he says, recall Europe to its Christian heritage before it is too late – and we must do it together. Then they emerge into the cold sunlight of a cold day. They ascend to a balcony overlooking the courtyard where we gather in expectation. They speak briefly. And then, they clasp hands, Pope and Patriarch, smile and raise their arms together. Tears come to my eyes, and I am shocked to see several media personnel crying openly. For an instant, the Church is one. For a shadow of a second, the dreams of Christendom are again real.

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