Istanbul Journal – Holy Saturday

26 April, Holy Saturday

Shannon came over and we walked toward the Topkapi Palace complex whose many buildings fill the eastern heights of the old city just beyond Hagia Sophia, all within its own set of ancient walls. Before entering the gate we walked along the outside of the wall where we noticed a promising café that doubles as a school of traditional crafts — a place to come back to on another day.

Then we walked down a hill along an appealing narrow street and came upon a small gift shop that was remarkable for the simple fact that the owner didn’t hound us. He quietly read his newspaper, leaving us to gaze in the window. His passivity was so refreshing that we went inside to browse. Nancy ended up buying a scarf and a striped cotton shirt. The owner turned out to be Iranian.

We then walked back along the Topkapi wall past a row of well restored Ottoman wooden houses painted in soft colors, then entered the Topkapi gate.

Just inside the entrance is a large park and just to the left stands Hagia Eirene Church, the same age as Hagia Sophia — sixth century. Both the earlier Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene were destroyed by fire during the Nika Revolt in 532, and both rebuilt at the orders of Justinian. Hagia Eirene — reconsecrated in 537 — means Holy Peace, but it may be that the name of the church refers to one of the saints of the same name, possibly St. Eirene the Great Martyr, executed in Thessalonika in the early fourth century. We have been told that it’s the one ancient church in Istanbul that was never made into a mosque. After the conquest of 1453 the church was placed behind the wall enclosing Topkapi and was turned into an armory.

Now used occasionally as a concert hall, it is otherwise closed, but our guardian angel came to the rescue. We found the custodian and, in exchange for five million lira (about three euros), we were allowed to enter. For at least an hour we had the vast church to ourselves! In a gallery upstairs we recited some prayers for Holy Saturday and read aloud from the Gospel of Matthew. The church’s main surviving decoration is a large mosaic cross in the apse. The original mosaic icons were destroyed not by Moslems but by Christians in the era of iconoclasm. Below the apse, in what would have been the sanctuary, is a synthronon — several tiers of seats in a half circle around the periphery of the apse. The altar is no more, though one can see stones that once served as the altar’s foundation.

Once outside in the park and on our way to the admission gate, we passed one of the many groups of school children waiting to enter the museum. Throughout our time in Istanbul, we passed such groups, many of them in neat school uniforms, who liked to practice their limited English with us. This group was no different. They called out, “Hello!” and Shannon, ever the school teacher, decided to respond. She stood in front of them and said, “What is your name?” That floored them, but one little boy was able to tell her the answer. She talked with them a bit, and then said, “Now I want you to sing me a song,” so they sang a Turkish song for her.

Near the admission gate, we were accosted by a man who wanted to be our guide. Jim engaged him, but soon after entering we realized this was a mistake. The man talked too fast for us to absorb what he was saying, and we could not walk through the exhibit at our own unhurried pace. A lesson learned. If we are to hire a guide again, it will only be after making sure his pace matches ours. After one part of the exhibit — a collection of ornate carriages used by sultans in days gone by and an exhibition of porcelain — Jim released and paid him, and he went off to find other customers. On our own, we paid a second entrance for the harem quarters and joined a group to see this maze of tiled rooms and pavilions, fountains and ponds, where the sultan and his many women, waited upon by slave eunuchs both black and white, once lived a life one can barely imagine.

We had lunch at the little restaurant on a terrace at the far end of the Topkapi grounds, giving us a broad view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Mamara Sea, then left, but not before visiting several more buildings along the way, including one that contains relics of Mohammed, and the Treasury with case after case of diamond and ruby-encrusted objects, among which is the dagger that was the thieves’ goal in the film “Topkapi” and the 86 carat “Spoonmaker’s Diamond” (found uncut in a rubbish heap in the 17th century and traded for three spoons before making its way to the sultan’s hands). None of these famous objects stopped us in our tracks; rather, they made us feel relief not to be drawn to such things. But then in one room we came upon a display case like all the rest except the treasures in this case weren’t gems but relics of John the Baptist’s skull and arm, one of the few major relics in Constantinople that escaped removal by the Crusaders but at last found their way to the sultan. We were staggered. Though taking photos in the Treasury is prohibited, Shannon managed to get a photo of the relics with her digital camera. All of us prayed.

We walked back to the hotel by way of the “White Moustache Street” where a young Kurd named Ozgur, who works at the Time Out Restaurant, invited us in to have tea. Something about his shy manner and quiet eyes made us say yes. We had a long talk with him on the rooftop terrace area of the restaurant. When we left, we promised to come back for a meal after Pascha.

Then we walked back to the hotel (and Shannon to her hostel) and took a nap in preparation for the all-night service. We were awakened at 7:30 by Ali, who had decided to take us to dinner at a restaurant near an ancient aqueduct, to the northwest of the Grand Bazaar, in what was a Moslem medreses — a religious school — founded in the 16th century. Much like a cloister, the rooms surround a paved square with a fountain in the center. We hadn’t planned on an evening meal on Holy Saturday but could not say no. It was a wonderful dinner where we sat on cushions on the floor in a small former classroom, leaving our shoes in a box at the doorway. Ali ordered the food, carefully choosing vegetarian dishes. It was all splendid. Our drink is ayran: salted yoghurt thinned with water. As it was a chilly evening, the waiter lit a fire in a little fireplace. Very cozy.

Before coming to Istanbul we had assumed we would attend the All Night Service at St. George Cathedral, but the crowds last night made us instead opt for a service in a parish church, Holy Archangels, in the more “European” part of the city on the other side of the Golden Horn, the parish of an American couple, David and Margo, with whom we have had contact via e-mail, thanks to a mutual friend. They have also invited us for a Paschal meal at their home Sunday afternoon.

Ali drove us to Margo and David’s apartment, and from there, with their three-year-old son, Diedrich, we drove on to Holy Archangels Church, which we found under police guard. The building wasn’t crowded when we arrived, about 10:30, but by 11 it was packed. At the moment of the Paschal proclamation an hour later we were startled by bomb-like explosions in the upper part of the church. It was ear-splitting and disturbing — we thought the church was under attack, but David assured us this was only a Greek custom. A little later we noticed a couple of young men trailing the smell of gunpowder coming downstairs with big smiles on their faces. We stayed for the liturgy, but not many others did. Where there had been two or three hundred people there were perhaps 20 left in the church. One of them, a young woman, seemed to spend most of the liturgy focused on her mobile phone, either exchanging messages or busy with games. Having received a blessing before the service, we were able to receive Communion. Margo told us the local priests do not encourage frequent Communion — normally only four times a year.

It was an interesting experience, but we did not have the great jubilant sense of Pascha that we have in our own parish in Amsterdam. There were no repeated shouts of “Christ is risen,” no repeated singing of the Paschal hymn, no red eggs, no carefully arranged flower decorations. However, when the priest read St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal sermon, we knew what it was even though it was being read in Greek, the language St. John himself would have spoken, and that was very moving indeed.

Finally, at about 2 in the morning, we took a taxi back to the Sultanahmet and got to bed by about 3:00.

Christos anesti! Christ is risen!