Epiphany in Istanbul: a cold swim for the cross

Epiphany in Istanbul: a cold swim for the cross

Joshua Bruce Allen
January 06, 2016

If you had been on Fener pier on January 6 last year, you would have seen an unusual sight: men wearing only swimming trunks as they waited in small boats on the Golden Horn. While the whole city was wrapped up in coats and scarves, these men seemed to be untouched by the cold. Perhaps the centuries of tradition managed 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 filled the air. Patriarch Bartholomew I, recognized as the head-among-heads of all Orthodox churches, walked to the pier with a retinue of candle-bearing priests. The clergy mounted a small platform with the patriarch, where they offered a polyphonic prayer. Meanwhile, the impervious men were still waiting in their swimming shorts on the boats. A babble of Turkish, Greek, and English came from the spectators on the shore.

Finally the patriarch tossed the wooden cross outwards and the men dove off the boats into the icy water. The race was short but hard. A hand burst from the depths, holding the cross aloft like a dwarf Excalibur: this year's winner 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 2016, Epiphany will be celebrated on January 6 this year in the time-honored way. The question on our minds is, which young racer can dethrone the valiant Solis in 2017?