Throughout history, people from different ethnicities such as Greeks, Jews, Armenians,Persians, Bulgarians, and Albanians contributed their diverse cultural traditions to the social fabric of Istanbul. To this day, the Greek-Rum community holds special events to celebrate religious holidays and to share its cultural heritage with the city.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, the year begins with an unorthodox splash. January 6 is commemorated as Epiphany, also known as Blessing of the Waters Day. In cities around the world, the priests lead congregations to local rivers which they bless as a symbolic gesture to celebrate Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. In Istanbul, the patriarch of the church recites a prayer, then throws a cross into the frigid waters of the Bosphorus, Golden Horn, or the Marmara Sea. The brave diver who retrieves it first is bestowed with extra blessings for the coming year.
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.
“Come to the churches, whether for a liturgy or to learn about the saints and history,” invited Andrea Özgüneş, a member of the Aya Panagia Greek Orthodox Church. “Learn about our stories and you will feel the joy of this community.”
The celebration of the Epiphany is an ideal time to get to know the Greek-Rum community, a term for the Turkish community of Greek descent. Much like misafirperverlik, or Turkish hospitality, the kind embrace one receives from the Greek-Rum community is warm and accepting. “Once you enter through the doors of our community you are a welcomed guest,” Anastasia Kapudağ, a founding member of the Rumvader Foundation, a Greek-Rum community association, told The Guide Istanbul. The community prides itself on its openness and diversity, for instance by reading prayer verses in different languages, and serves the wider community through charity works in neighborhoods around Taksim and Dolapdere.
The festive, welcoming spirit is evident not only in churches but also in schools. Though few in number, Greek schools in Istanbul are strong in upholding cultural traditions. During the Christmas season, students at Zografion High School in Beyoğlu go carolling around the neighborhood on Christmas Eve, passing through the Greek consulate and cultural center, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and elderly residents’ houses. Yannis Demircioğlu, the principal of the school, told The Guide Istanbul these festive traditions raise awareness about the rich history of the community, which is small in size yet powerful in promoting cultural diversity throughout the city.
Tracing the past through architecture
In addition to seasonal celebrations, one can discover traces of the community’s past in by walking through neighborhoods of present-day Istanbul with strong Greek histories. One such neighborhood is Fener, a neighborhood with a name derived from phanar, the Greek word for lantern. During the Byzantine period, a lantern was perched atop a column monument in the district. In 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, the neighborhood became home for most of the Greeks who chose to stay and in 1599, the Ecumenical Patriarchate moved to the area, where it is located to this day. Just as the Vatican is used as a reference point for the Roman Catholic Church, so is Fener for the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church.
The most distinct Greek institutions in Fener are the Cathedral of Saint George and the Phanar Greek Orthodox College. Upon entering the main sanctuary and pulpit area of the cathedral, visitors can see holy relics such as a Patriarch throne from the fifth century and objects that belonged to Saint Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom, who were considered the hierarchs of learning in eleventh-century Greece. Alongside these sacred artifacts, the Phanar Greek Orthodox College, which is nicknamed “the red castle,” is an architectural wonder that was constructed by Ottoman Greek architect Konstantinos Dimadis in 1454. It has served as the learning grounds for many Ottoman ministers and Wallachian and Moldavian princes; today, it is a school for about 50 Rum-Greek students. The large dome atop the building houses a large antique telescope and it is used as an observatory for astronomy classes.
Greek-Rum people’s impact on Istanbul is not only in the past. Their contributions continue to add layers of culture to contemporary Istanbul, giving new colors to a city that has played host to many ethnic groups with distinct languages and religions. While in the past, Turkish-Greek relations have been strained, in recent years an improved relationship has caused more than 800 Greek expatriates to settle in Istanbul, the city of their ancestors.
One such individual is Giorgos Kevrekidis, a visual artist and instructor who came to Istanbul in order to feel closer to his roots. He remembers seeing his elderly relatives’ photographs of the Bosphorus and Istanbul’s historical sites. “Now that I am living on these same grounds, I am oftentimes overwhelmed with a feeling of nostalgia,” he told The Guide Istanbul.
Cultural similarities ease the transition between Greece and Turkey, according to Christos Psomiades, who travels between the two countries on a weekly basis to teach music. “The people, cuisine, and culture are quite similar and all carry a light-hearted joviality with them,” Christos explained.
In addition to cultural similarities, a tightknit local Greek community also helps recently relocated expats feel at home. According to Mario Karachalios, the strong connections newly arrived Greeks are able to make with the wider Greek community makes Istanbul feel like home, even from the first day. Mario first came to Istanbul on an Erasmus scholarship to improve his ability to play the kanun, a string instrument played for centuries in the Middle East, West Africa, Central Asia, and Southeastern Europe. By the time his studies finished, he decided that living in Istanbul would be beneficial for him in more ways than one. “Turkish and Greek cultures are very close and music education is very good in Istanbul,” he explained. For the past two years, he has been actively involved in the Greek community in Istanbul, teaching music at a Greek school, improving his own musical skills, and serving as his church chanter, reading the praises aloud during the service.
The shared cultural characteristics between Turks and Greeks, including enthusiasm for holidays, an overlapping history, and similar food and music, combined with a curiosity to learn about differing attributes is enough to set the scene for meaningful cultural exchange.
Want to learn more? Cultural institutions throughout the city can help those interested get a better understanding of Greek-Rum traditions year-round.
-Istos Publishing House in Beyoğlu publishes Turkish and Greek books about Istanbul’s Rum community and its cultural heritage. It has recently opened a cafe, Dose & Istos Cafe, where visitors can browse and buy selected publications. The cafe is open daily from 10:30am-8pm and is located on Tosbağa Sokak No.11 in Beyoğlu.
-On İstiklal Caddesi, the Sismanoglio Megaro, operated and run by the Greek Consulate of Istanbul, is a cultural center that hosts Greek lessons, art exhibitions, film screenings, and talks for the public. This place is open Monday-Friday from11am-3pm and is located on İstiklal Caddesi No.60 in Beyoğlu.
-In Fener, the Greek Ecumenical Patriarchate has a public library with many books about important saints and figures in Greek Orthodox history. The library is open Monday-Friday from 9am-4:30pm and is located on Dr. Sadık Ahmet Caddesi No.44 in Fener.
-Rumvader, the Association for the Support of Greek Community Foundations in Turkey, aims to represent Greek-Rum institutions in Istanbul such as churches, schools, and hospitals.
-Hava Baba is a nonprofit group that aims to help Greek migrants with the integration process through logistical advice and the provision of a support network. You can visit the organization’s Facebook page, havababacommunity, for more information.