Istanbul's Other Important Greek Orthodox Sites
Church of the Zoodochos Peghe (“Life-giving Spring”)
One of the most renowned sanctuaries and popular shrines in Istanbul is the monastery and church of the Zoodochos Peghe (“life-giving spring”), located close to the Theodosian walls, at the city’s western edge, some 220 meters from Silivri Kapısı (Gate of the Springs), in the area known today as Balıklı (or Baloukli). During Byzantine times, the monastery assumed its name from the many natural springs in this region. It is one the most ancient shrines of Christianity and has attracted pilgrims for over fifteen centuries.
Two versions of a very old tradition provide information about the origins of this venerated pilgrimage. According to the first, related by the sixth-century historian Procopius, while the emperor Justinian I (r. 527-65) was hunting in a lush region outside the city walls, planted with trees and replete with water, he saw a vision of a small chapel with a large congregation and a priest before a natural spring. This was the spring of miracles, as he was told, whereupon he built a monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mother on the site, employing surplus materials from the church of Haghia Sophia. Twelfth-century Byzantine historian Georgios Cedrenos records that the monastery was built before 560.
The second version, narrated much later, in the fourteenth century, by chronicler Nicephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos, records that the emperor Leo I (r. 457-74), at the time a simple soldier, was approached by a blind man asking for water. As he searched around for water, a voice directed him to the spring, enjoining him to build a church on the site when he would become emperor. However, Kallistos’ detailed description of the church coincides more with the church built by Justinian. It appears, then, that Justinian first founded this popular shrine. Nicephoros Kallistos, who also composed a service for the monastery feast, cites a total of sixty-three miracles at the site, of which fifteen occurred in his own time.
Balıklı, the contemporary name of the shrine as well as the surrounding neighborhood, originated from a later legend. At the end of the siege of Constantinople by Mehmed II in 1453, a monk frying fish near the spring, among the ruins of the monastery, refused to believe that the city had fallen into Ottoman hands unless the fried fish returned to their native element and were restored to life. At once, the fish jumped from his pan into the nearby pool, where they swam about. From this miraculous tale—accepted by Christians and Muslims alike—emerged the Turkish appellation Balıklı, or “the place of the fishes.” In the traditional, icon of “the Life-Giving Spring,” fishes are often included.
Box 5 Historical Events Associated with Baloukli
The Church and Monastery Today
The compound at Balıklı today consists of a monastery, large church, an underground shrine with the holy spring, and the cemetery of patriarchs. The church iconostasis includes a large, traditional icon of the Zoodochos Peghe, showing the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) with a spring in front of her and pilgrims gathering water from it. The depiction derives from an epithet for the Holy Theotokos who is considered a sacred spring inasmuch as she gave birth to Jesus Christ. As a result of the monastery’s prominence and influence, the epithet and icon soon became very popular and spread throughout the Orthodox world, particularly in places where a natural spring existed. In the ninth century, Joseph the Hymnographer (one of the foremost liturgical poets in the Orthodox Church), authored the first hymn to Zoodochos Peghe.
The ground of the monastery entrance is covered with old tombstones, many of which are inscribed with Karamanlika (Karamanlıca), essentially Turkish written in Greek, which enjoyed a rich publishing tradition in the nineteenth century. Karamanlika was a dialect spoken by the Karamanlides, or Turkish-speaking Orthodox Christians native to the Karaman and Cappadocia regions of central Anatolia, during the Ottoman era up to the early twentieth century. The Karamanlides were the direct descendants of Greek-speaking Byzantines.
Adjacent to the church is an underground marble shrine of the Zoodochos Peghe, built over the holy spring, where pilgrims may say prayers and receive holy water throughout the year. The feast of the monastery and church is celebrated on Bright Friday (the Friday after Easter). Since 1835, a patriarchal and synodal liturgy is celebrated each year on Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women (the second Sunday after Easter).
After the martyrdom of Patriarch Gregory V on Easter Day 1821, the cemetery of patriarchs was created. Today, fourteen ecumenical patriarchs are buried on the monastery grounds. They include:
- Anthimos V (1841-2)
- Germanos IV (1842-5, 1852-5)
- Meletios III (1845)
- Joachim II (1860-3, 1873-8)
- Dionysios V (1887-91)
- Anthimos VII (1895-7)
- Joachim III (1878-84, 1901-12)
- Gregory VII (1923-4)
- Basil III (1925-9)
- Photius II (1929-35)
- Benjamin (1936-46)
- Maximos V (1946-8)
- Athenagoras (1948-72)
- Demetrios (1972-91)
Moreover, from 1891, a number of abbots and benefactors of the monastery have also been buried on the grounds. (Nearby stands one of the largest cemeteries in Istanbul, where numerous Greeks lay buried.) Many of the graves at the church cemetery were destroyed during the Istanbul pogrom directed primarily against the city’s Greek minority, known as the “September Events,” of 1955, but today the monastery is a place of serenity and tranquility.
The Church of Panaghia Vlachernai
Situated in what is known today as the Fatih district of Istanbul (in the neighborhood of Avansaray, in the northwest corner of the old city), the most celebrated shrine dedicated to the Theotokos (Mother of God) in Constantinople was undoubtedly the large basilica church of Panaghia Vlachernai (also transcribed Blachernae). From early historians such as Procopius and later scholars such as Skarlatos Byzantios, we learn that it is believed to have been built by the empress Pulcheria (398-453) around 450, near the shore of the Golden Horn, just three years prior to her death; it was completed by her husband, Emperor Marcian (r. 450-7) . Very soon afterward, Leo I added a circular reliquary chapel called Haghia Soros (Holy Reliquary) to house the mantle and belt of the Virgin Mary, which had been brought from Palestine. Justin I (r. 518-27) later renovated the church in the early sixth century.
The history of this sanctuary, the fame and popularity of which had spread throughout Christendom, extends over the entire Byzantine era, while the great events associated with it are directly linked with the history of the city. For centuries, each Friday, an all-night vigil was devoted to the miraculous icon of the Theotokos, known as the Panaghia Vlachernitissa, or Vlacherniotissa, which was ultimately destroyed by the iconoclasts in the ninth century. The name Vlachernai probably designates a natural spring of water in the area. The water was quickly regarded as holy and labeled haghiasma, while a separate building was constructed by Leo I and named haghion lousma (sacred bath).
The best-known and most significant historic event at the sanctuary occurred in 626, when Constantinople was besieged by the Avars (from the northern area of the Caucasus) and Persians (from Western Asia) while Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-41) and his troops campaigned against the Persians in Asia Minor. The icon of Panaghia Vlachernitissa was carried in procession along the battlements, led by the son of the absent emperor together with Ecumenical Patriarch Sergius (610-38). The sparing of the city—with the dispersing of the enemy fleet as a result of a hurricane—was attributed to the immediate intervention of the Mother of God. The entire population of Constantinople gathered inside and outside the church and, standing in all-night vigil, chanted the Akathist Hymn (meaning “without being seated”) in honor of the Virgin Mary Vlachernitissa, protector of the city. One year later, in 627, Heraclius extended the city walls to enclose the church. The miraculous event is recorded by Anna Comnena in her Alexiad (Book XIII, 2).
In 834, the iconoclast movement collapsed and the “triumph of Orthodoxy,” commemorating the restoration of sacred icons, was celebrated for the first time at the church of Panaghia Vlachernai. Tradition has it that, in 944, the image of Christ known as the holy mandylion (the image of Christ “not made by human hands”) and the letter of King Abgar (r. 4BC-AD7 and AD13-50) were brought from Edessa (present-day Urfa, in southeastern Turkey) and placed in a chapel inside this church.
The church was burned and destroyed in 1070, but quickly rebuilt and restored. After the Fourth Crusade, in 1204, the shrine passed into the hands of the Latin Catholics, until John III Doukas Vatatzes (1222-54), emperor of Nicaea (known as the merciful restorer and saintly king), repurchased the church of Panaghia Vlachernai along with other monasteries of Constantinople. In 1348, Genoese pirates damaged the shrine.
Following a destructive fire in 1434 and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, nothing remained from the once rich and renowned shrine except for the site of the sacred spring. The property passed into Ottoman hands until 1867, when it was purchased by the guild of Greek Orthodox furriers, who built a small church around the sanctuary. Over time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate made certain additions, and the ancient sacred shrine received its present appearance, although much of the church was destroyed during the riots of 1955. While nothing remains of the original church, or the reliquary chapel of Leo I (Haghia Soros), the later church and surrounding buildings were restored by Patriarchate Athenagoras. Future excavations in the wider area of Panaghia Vlachernai may lead to the discovery of the ruins of the original Byzantine church.
Worship at Panaghia Vlachernai, Past and Present
Around the year 500, a palace (also named Vlachernai) was erected on the slope above the shrine, while a special gate and a series of stairways connected it directly with the church below. Starting in the eleventh century, under the ruling house of the Komnenoi and, later, the Palaiologoi, this palace became the customary residence of the Byzantine emperors. Emperors often attended services at the Panaghia Vlachernai, manifesting their support and respect for the shrine in manifold ways. Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos offers a detailed description in his Book of Ceremonies of the procession, procedure, and protocol surrounding imperial visits to the historic church and sacred bathhouse. Campaigning emperors are also known to have carried with them an icon of the Panaghia Vlachernai, as well as a number of imperial seals bearing the image of the Vlachernitissa.
A litany celebrated every Friday at the church of Panaghia in the Chalkoprateia (the name signifies the “copper market” where today the remains of fifth-century, Aya Maria Chalkoprateia, just west of Haghia Sophia still stand) bearing the icon of the Panaghia Vlachernitissa in procession, had been established since the time of the Patriarch Timothy I (511-8). Other feast days were also commemorated with special pomp at the church of Vlachernai, such as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple (February 2), the Sunday of Orthodoxy (first Sunday of Lent), Good Friday, Easter Tuesday, the feast of the Virgin’s Veil (July 2), the consecration of the church (July 31), the saving of the city from the Avars and the Persians (August 7), the Dormition of the Theotokos (August 15), and the commemoration of the terrible earthquake of 740 (October 26).
Several icons of the Virgin Mary are known to have existed in the church of Vlachernai, and the important historical source Life of Stephen the Younger describes a miraculous icon in the eighth century. While most icons labeled Vlachernitissa depict the Virgin Mother holding Christ the child, the original image—perhaps a figure in the apse of the church—was probably a Virgin orans (a posture with extended arms in prayer) without Christ.
Today, in the small church, the four wall paintings by Eirenarchos Covas (1964) above the altar are reminders of great military triumphs of Byzantium associated with Vlachernai. A bathhouse located beside the church and flowing with the spring water is today found within the existing church. Christians and Muslims alike frequently visit to light candles at this sacred site on a daily basis.
Holy Trinity Church in Taksim Square
From the center of today’s bustling Taksim Square, the Holy Trinity church and community center are clearly visible. However, early historical sources recount a very different environment, describing this place as the “plains” or “great graves,” the latter referring to the large cemetery established in the picturesque meadows. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the open countryside around Taksim was known as the “Great Fields of the Dead” and was filled with graveyards for many of Istanbul’s diverse communities, both Christian and Muslim. It was a frequent site for promenades and picnics by residents of the Beyoğlu district, situated on the European side of Istanbul, north of the Golden Horn (also known as Pera, or as Stavrodromion to the Greeks). Beyoğlu was a prosperous quarter, the site of splendid mansions, grand estates, and palatial embassies. Today, two surviving historical schools in this neighborhood—the Zographeion and the Zappeion—are still attended by the Greek youth of Istanbul, attesting to the economic and cultural vitality of the community in former times. There was also a hospital in the area, the Beyoğlu Ospitali (Beyoğlu Hospital), or Stavrodromi Veba Hastahanesi (Stavrodromi Plague Hospital), which was founded and funded by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the mid-eighteenth century. It functioned until the mid-nineteenth century, when it was destroyed by fire and the hospital at Baloukli was erected.
The large cemetery created in the region during the seventeenth century was owned by the Greek Orthodox Church and contained burial sites of local Greek residents, as well as Russians, Serbs, and Bulgarian Orthodox. Its size was severely reduced as the surrounding region became more populated. Nonetheless, even in 1857, the cemetery was still an open space, without any walls. As the neighborhood expanded, the Ecumenical Patriarchate negotiated with the grand vizier for the protection and enclosure of the cemetery, which was achieved in 1861. In general, however, by the early twentieth century, the memorable tranquility and natural charm of the fields filled with cypress forests had been radically transformed—replaced by the congestion of numerous small shops and places of entertainment, as well as the din of horse carriages, beggars, peddlers, and small merchants.
Building a Church in Taksim
The efforts of the local Greek community to preserve the serenity and silence of their cemetery led to the creation of an association in 1860, which sought to construct a place of worship on the site. Two of the most influential members of the wider Greek community were Efstathios and Demosthenes Evgenidis. A small wooden chapel was erected in 1862, dedicated to St. George the Great Martyr, together with a temporary residence for a priest, the cemetery caretaker, and a guard. The architect was Menandros Potessaros (a renowned designer of significant churches in Athens).
The ultimate goal was to erect an imposing and inspiring church in place of the chapel. With a decree from the sultan in 1865, permission was granted for the construction of a magnificent stone church within the grounds of the cemetery, in the name of the Holy Trinity. After a delay of two years, owing to complications resulting from the destruction of the cemetery walls, Patriarch Gregory VI officially broke the ground for the church building on Sunday, August 13, 1867. While the original designer was Menandros Potessaros, the architect that brought the work to completion was Vasilakis Ioannidis, and the stonecutter was Alexander Krikelis. Lack of financial resources caused further delay, which was finally overcome through the creation of a permanent fundraising committee (1874), as well as the generous support of community benefactors, including Georgios Zarifis (d. 1884), Periklis Zarifis (d. 1927), and Nikolaos Zarifis. After a lucrative lottery and a number of substantial interest-free loans, the consecration of the splendid church of the Holy Trinity took place on Sunday, September 14, 1880, led by Patriarch Joachim III, in the presence of some 4,000-5,000 faithful congregated inside and outside the church. This historic event is commemorated on the stone tablets above the windows at the entrance to the church.
The church interior is spacious, filled with light, and distinguished by the perfect symmetry and harmony of its architectural lines. The ambo (pulpit) is made of pure white marble, with icons of Christ and the four evangelists. The hierarchal throne is fashioned from marble and alabaster, while the iconostasis displays a finely rendered classical style, picturing scenes of the Last Supper and Golgotha. In the southern part of the narthex, there is a sacred haghiasma (spring) dedicated to St. George, with a marble basin fed by three spouts.
The Church Today
The annual feast of the church of the Holy Trinity is celebrated on Monday of the Holy Spirit, the day after Pentecost Sunday. Among the church’s many milestones was the attendance of Prince Milan of Serbia (d. 1901) at the Easter Sunday service in 1889, and of Princess Ileana of Romania (d. 1991) on Easter Sunday of 1928. The princess became an Orthodox nun for the last two decades of her life.
In the pogrom of 1955, the church was plundered and severely damaged. However, Patriarch Bartholomew initiated its complete restoration in 2000, with a generous financial donation from Panagiotis Angelopoulos. The church of the Holy Trinity reopened officially on March 23, 2003.
The Holy Shrine of the Virgin Vefa
Tucked away near the Golden Horn, in Istanbul’s Unkapanı district, at Vefa neighborhood (named after the distinguished Turkish poet and musician Şeyh Ebul Vefa), lies an underground Byzantine chapel (haghiasma) dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos (Virgin Mother), known as the Holy Shrine of the Virgin Vefa. The church on the site has also acquired the popular Turkish name Ayın Biri Kilisesi (First-Day-of-the-Month Church) because of the crowds—Christian and Muslim alike—which frequent the shrine on ayin biri, or the “first day of the month.”
The shrine is the site of an ancient spring that flows beneath the chapel, whose waters are reputed to have miraculous and spiritual powers, which are restorative and healing. In Byzantine times, this location was known as the Sphorakia, based on the legend that it was constructed over the ruins of the fifth-century church of Sphorakios the Patrician, which had existed during the reigns of the emperors Arcadius (r. 395-408), Theodosius II, and Marcian. Subsequent excavations at this site have revealed Byzantine reliefs and column bases, as well as the portico of an underground cistern.
A medieval folk legend recounts that the last reigning emperor of Byzantium, Constantine XI Palaeologos (1404-53), is anonymously and insignificantly buried in the area of present-day Vefa neighborhood. Soon after his death (May 29, 1453), which marked the end of the Roman (and Byzantine) Empire, the existing church at Vefa was demolished, and its raw materials were used for the construction of neighboring mosques. The building was replaced by a garden, known as Karagöz Bostan, tended by Christians and later owned by a Greek clergyman. In 1750, the land was purchased by a Christian from Epirus in Greece, who had immigrated to Istanbul in search of a better life. Reportedly, after his daughter dreamed that the garden was in fact the site of a holy shrine, the property was excavated in 1755, revealing the passageway and reservoir, as well as a marble icon dated 1080. The local Turks renamed the site Ayazmalı Bostan, or “the garden with a spring.” Following the death of the Epirote, his daughter became a nun and dedicated the rest of her life to preserving the shrine.
After the nun’s death, her children inherited the property and sold it partially in 1855 to the local parish priest, a certain Fr. George, who in turn sold his share in 1875 to the local Greek architect, Michael Papadopoulos. Eventually, the entire property, including the portion belonging to the nun’s children, was bequeathed to the Macedonian Educational Brotherhood of Constantinople, which carried out extensive repairs, alterations, and additions during the last three decades of the nineteenth century.
The shrine survived two major fires in 1896 and 1918, but was vandalized in the tragic events of September 6, 1955. Nonetheless, it was reconstructed in 1956 and today constitutes one of Istanbul’s most popular, albeit lesser-known historic sites.
The Shrine Today
Presently, the church of the Virgin Vefa is a patriarchal and stavropegic shrine. Twelve steps lead from the modest nineteenth-century chapel to the haghiasma. Apparently, the original marble icon, fragmented but silver-plated, is preserved inside a bronze casket. Above the spring, there is a copper monument with a palindromic inscription created after the 1956 restoration. The letters—ΝΙΨΟΝ ΑΝΟΜΗΜΑΤΑ ΜΗ ΜΟΝΑΝ ΟΨΙΝ (which may also be read in reverse)—translate as “Wash away your sins and not only your face.”
There is also a popular icon dedicated to St. Marina (the patron saint of the Macedonian Educational Brotherhood of Constantinople), probably dating back to 1877, and another dedicated to St. Spyridon, dating to 1892. The icon screen was built in 1931 and most likely restored in 1966. It contains an icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos, dating back to 1956. Besides the commemoration of its feast day on August 15, the day of the Dormition of the Theotokos, the shrine has celebrations on June 17 (in honor of St. Marina), December 12 (in honor of St. Spyridon), and on the second and third Sundays of Great Lent.
Many visitors and pilgrims, both Christians and Muslims, come to the church, especially on the first day of the month, and patiently wait in line to gather holy water, with which they sprinkle their homes and work places. (Muslims, too, revere the Virgin Mary as the mother of Jesus, the “Masih,” or Messiah, whom they consider a prophet.) Worshippers drink from and wash in the pool, and carry away bottles as a blessing or souvenir. Occasionally, such as on New Year’s Eve, the queue stretches over a kilometer.
The shrine of the Virgin Vefa attracts countless worshippers of all religions and curious travelers from all nations, assembling them around the universal ideals of faith and love. The pilgrimage is also the center of profound personal devotion and fervent superstitious belief, which has been commercialized by local merchants, who sell charms and keys outside the church (representing individual wishes and favors) that symbolically unlock glass cases with religious images. If a person’s wish materializes, the key is returned to the church.
Still, the shrine and spring remain a powerful testimony to people’s prayers and hopes interacting and intermingling as they rise toward heaven. It is also a remarkable example of the many instances of Christian-Muslim symbiosis throughout the Middle East and a powerful witness that civilizations do not inevitably clash.