First thing’s first: I AM DONE WITH GRAD SCHOOL! I have turned in all my papers, finished all my classes, passed comps, and completed all my presentations. It feels great to come home at night and not have schoolwork to think about. About two months ago, my cousin Cara and I were talking about her upcoming trip to Istanbul. She told me about her great set up and it sounded like it would be a great way to celebrate the completion of my Masters degree. So I bought my ticket for the day after my last class.
After two months of craziness involving much more than just school and work, I am now on the other side and looking at job searching, apartment searching, and just figuring out the next general steps for life. I am so excited to see what unfolds. Since there is very little certainty in my life, it’s probably best I just stick to writing about what I know, and that is mainly what has already happened. So I will do my best to recount the events of my recent trip to Istanbul and include pictures and video where appropriate.
The night before I left, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with some of my favorite William and Mary alumnae (Latin scholars… that means they were all girls!) who came out to celebrate the end of grad school with me. Mer even came from Colorado. Dedication! We danced and kicked back the cocktails to the sounds of the Bandylions, my friend Matt’s cover band. I am a borderline groupie, especially now that they play in Arlington more and not just Adams Morgan. It was a great end to my grad school classes and I felt very privileged to have so many fantastic people around to help celebrate.
I left for Istanbul the next evening. My flight wasn’t until 11pm that night and being Good Friday, I had just enough time to fit in the service at The Falls Church before I left. It was a beautiful Tenebrae service and a reverent send off for the flight. I flew direct to Istanbul. Aside from a very garish color choice for upholstery, the flight was great. I had most of the row to myself and so was able to stretch out across some seats and actually slept which is a major feat for me. I arrived around 4:30pm, got my visa and got on the Havas (pronounced HA-wash) bus to the heart of New Istanbul and the site of my hotel – Taksim Square. Driving from the airport to Taksim, you go under a 4th century aqueduct put in by Justinian. Justinian was apparently a fan of public water works because he is also responsible for the Basilica Cistern, which I will come to later. But then you arrive in this very modern, European square that is crowded, noisy and full of bright video billboards. This is the first very apparent contrast in Istanbul- old and new. You are confronted with it visually first, and the more time you spend in the city the depth of the roots of this contrast become more apparent. Over the course of my trip, I noticed several of these contrasts or clashes that I kept coming back to when I would reflect on the day: dirty vs. beautiful, Islam vs. Christianity, East vs. West, and, as I mentioned, old vs. new. I will touch on all of these in the context of the site which embodies it best in my mind.
After wandering around the square for a bit, then finally asking a parking attendant, I found the hotel and then I found Cara. I will take a moment to say that this trip would not have happened without my awesome cousin Cara, who offered to let me stay with her while she was in the city for work. We had a lovely view of the Asian side of the Bosphorus Strait from the room. After I set my stuff down and got cleaned up, we dove into the urban crush of Istiklal Street on a Saturday night to find some dinner. Istiklal is a pedestrian street lined with shopping and dining options that is right off Taksim Square. It’s almost assured you will end up there at some point on any trip to Istanbul. It’s also assured that you will mispronounce its name a LOT before you finally get it down. Cara made the mistake of telling a funny story about a guy she knows who calls it Icicle Street either because he literally can’t say the right way, or doesn’t care to change. From then on, I could not say the name of it correctly. I kept thinking icicle, icicle, icicle.
Turkey is almost 99% Muslim and so the fact that it was Holy Saturday didn’t change the pace of the evening at all. Cara and I between us had been researching where to attend Easter services the next morning. While we did get some good recommendations, the one I really wanted to go to was Aya Yorgi (Church of St. George) which is the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox church. You have probably come across Patriarch Bartholomew at some point. He’s a pretty cool guy as Patriarchs and my limited experience with them go... He’s into environmentalism and an inter-religious dialogue, also social justice. He’s a hero for the marginalized Eastern Orthodox Church in Istanbul, and rocks a totally sweet beard.
So after Cara went several rounds with a very unhelpful and often misinformed concierge desk at our hotel, I e-mailed the Patriarchate itself. A very nice man, the Rev. Dn. Nephon Tsimalis, wrote me back the following e-mail:
Dearly beloved in the Lord:
I pray my email finds you well and I wish you a spiritually uplifting Holy Week. I always recommend visitors in our City to attend Divine Services at the Ecumenical Patriarchate during this most holy time of year. Of course, the experience at this venerable See is very moving and promises to be memorable. It's an experience of a lifetime. Please attached the schedule of services.
Wishing you the very best, I remain...
And then he signed his name. Who wouldn’t want to spend Easter with a church after that? So Cara and I decided we would try for Aya Yorgi. We had a very yummy dinner of kofte (meatballs) and eggplant kebab, then we caught a cab to the western suburbs of the sprawling metropolis. Our cab driver sort of knew where the church was. He had to stop and ask for directions twice however. We got there a little over an hour before the service was supposed to start. We walked into a small stone courtyard and into a complex of buildings. We followed the stream of people going into the Church. We noticed everyone buying candles and kissing an icon. Cara and I decided we needed to get candles, so we did. The icon kissing we skipped but I did find out later that it was part of the ritual of this particular service. In waiting for the service to begin, we did meet a Greek couple on vacation and they helped us through some of the service when we asked what was happening since it was all in Greek. They were orthodox as well and congratulated us on our participation in such a sacred feast at such a sacred place.
To describe the service would be confusing, because even being there and seeing it all take place, we were a little lost. There was a lot of chanting, two processions, a large gathering out in the courtyard, Patriarch Bartholomew had his candle lit and spread the flame through the entire congregation, and then we all yelled “Christos Anesthi!” and then it was sort of over. The best I could find for an explanation was at this website: That link gives a little more context about the service itself.
Aside from being a little lost in the actual liturgy of the service, we understood a lot of the symbolic elements of it, like the changing from the Lenten purple robes to white, and the passing of the Eternal flame was explained to us by our Greek friends. It is a tradition that originated at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (which Cara had just visited!). Apparently, in Greece, on Holy Saturday, the Eternal Flame is brought by military jet, and is distributed to waiting Priests who carry it to their local churches. The event is always televised and if there's a threat of bad weather or a delay, the entire country agonizes until the flame arrives safely.
One thing Cara and I did notice during dinner and in our hotel was the chocolate stores and gift shops having chocolate bunnies and Easter baskets everywhere. Again, I will reference Turkey’s almost total Muslim population. Is American culture so prevalent that even in a place where Easter means nothing to the vast majority of the population, it’s still important enough to have the chocolate bunnies everywhere? I found that very strange and asked Cara what she had seen around Valentine’s Day (another mostly commercial holiday, in my opinion) when she was in Syria. She said they took it very seriously. I not a big fan of Valentine’s Day, but this Easter bunny stuff in a Muslim country does not make sense to me. Also, I have wondered why a bunny for the harbinger? Wikipedia’s answer doesn’t convince me.
So after the service at around 2am Cara and I went to Istiklal again to try and find ice cream. The street was no less busy than it had been hours earlier. When you walk down Istiklal at any given time it’s like playing a game of frogger to keep from slamming into people, especially when you want to get to a store on the other side of the street. We did find ice cream, and the ice cream scoopers liked us, and we’re pretty sure they gave us free scoops. So with our Easter celebrations behind us, and the whole week in Istanbul in front of me, Cara and I headed back to the hotel and finally went to bed around 3am with big plans for a Bosphorus cruise the next day.
Sidenote - if you are interested in the differences between the Orthodox church and some other Christ-centered religions, here’s a quick comparison chart: