If you are on the Fener pier on January 6 at around noon, you may see an unusual sight: men wearing only swimming trunks as they wait in small boats on the Golden Horn. While the whole city is wrapped up in coats and scarves, these men seem to be untouched by the cold. Perhaps the centuries of tradition manage to shield them from the weather, as this is how Epiphany is celebrated in Istanbul.
After a prayer at the nearby Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, the sound of church bells fills the air. Patriarch Bartholomew I, recognized as the head-among-heads of all Orthodox churches, walks to the pier with a retinue of candle-bearing priests. The clergy mounts a small platform with the patriarch, where they offer a polyphonic prayer. Meanwhile, the impervious men are still waiting in their swimming shorts on the boats. A babble of Turkish, Greek, and English comes from the spectators on the shore.
Finally the patriarch tosses the wooden cross outwards and the men dive off the boats into the icy water. The race is short but hard. A hand bursts from the depths, holding the cross aloft like a dwarf Excalibur.
The winner from 2016, 2017, and 2018 is Nikos Solis, a personal trainer from Greece.
After putting the cross to his lips he offered it for the other swimmers to do the same. When he emerged dripping onto the shore, the patriarch blessed his head and put a golden cross around his neck. Speaking after the race, Solis said, “I wish happy and bright days to everyone, Muslims and Orthodox.” Despite Solis’ statement that the water was not too cold, the only female swimmer in the race had a different opinion. Fotini Nikoltsoudi, who had been participating in the race for five years, said the Golden Horn was “very cold.” But for her, being blessed by the holy water was more important than a little shivering.
Epiphany is originally a celebration of four events: the baptism of Jesus, the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine, the birth of Jesus, and the visitation of the magi. Greek Orthodox Christians emphasize the baptism in their Epiphany celebration, which explains the spectacle in the Golden Horn. People familiar with other Orthodox churches might be confused by the date. The Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Epiphany on January 18, as does the Serbian Orthodox Church. The reason for this is some Orthodox churches’ adoption of the Gregorian calendar while other branches stayed with the older Julian calendar. The Greek Orthodox Church uses the Gregorian calendar, meaning that its Christmas is on December 25.
For those who missed it in past years, Epiphany will be celebrated on January 6 this year in the time-honored way. On this special day, everyone can witness Epiphany celebrations at various Greek Orthodox churches around the city, including Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Ayios Fokas church in Ortaköy, Aya Yorgi church in Çengelköy, Aya Nikola church on Heybeliada, and Aya Konstantinos church in Samatya. Attending this event to hear the prayer at noon, cheering on the divers, and socializing with fellow onlookers is just one way of celebrating diversity in Istanbul.