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Alexander van Millingen’s definitive text on Byzantine churches in Istanbul was published in 1912. Since then, several churches that he described have disappeared. Strangely, more have reappeared. The building boom of the 20th century followed by the excavations for the Istanbul Metro have revealed traces of buildings that had passed out of memory. New bits of masonry are being exposed all the time.

The question of what constitutes a Byzantine church is one that I shall duck. Like a broom that has had the head and the handle replaced several times, a church may have been in use constantly in the same place but not be what it once was. Devastating fires have been a frequent instrument of urban renewal in Constantinople and the Byzantine edifice that one sees now may have little of the actual matter that was there in the fifteenth century.

The survey commissioned by Mehmet II immediately after his 1453 conquest of Constantinople conquest listed more than twenty monasteries, all with churches, attendant buildings and communities associated with them. About a century later, Gyllius noted: The Greeks… have lost their six hundred churches except the church belonging to the monastery where their Patriarch dwells. The rest are either ruined or prostituted to Mahometan worship. Historical records of the churches are sketchy at best and the manner in which existing bits of stone correspond to which past Byzantine glories is a matter for enjoyable debate and very little that can be verified by empirical evidence. Hence, what I have written about the Byzantine churches of Constantinople is little more than exhaustively-researched nonsense.

Perhaps of equal interest to the churches of the Byzantine Empire is the story (and the physical remnants) of the Orthodox Patriarchate. Demoted from the glory of Aya Sofya by the Ottoman conquest of 1453, the Patriarchate moved through a series of steadily less prestigious headquarters until it came to reside in the current location. Here it has been since 1601 but the Patriarchate has not remained stable.

The Constantinople Patriarch was once the undisputed head of Orthodoxy. Nationalism, doctrinal squabbles and good old power struggles have given rise to a series of schisms and secessions. A series of exarchates was the result, with the Greek Patriarchate refusing to recognise some of the rebels for centuries. Realising that the alternative was to relinquish all influence over the upstart churches, the Patriarchate has granted official recognition to the more powerful offshoots, now being labelled as autocephalous (self-headed) churches. The Greek Patriarch in Constantinople retains the position of ‘first among equals’ in Ecumenical Councils. The current Patriarch, Bartholomew, is a man of such gentleness, reason and political astuteness that compared to him, the Dalai Lama appears impetuous and strident. These personal qualities have enabled the Greek Patriarchate to maintain its nominal top-of-the-heap status in the world of Orthodoxy. However, the Russian Orthodox Church has recovered from the temporary setback of Communism and is beginning to insist that the numerical superiority of its followers should propel it to a position of primacy.

A footnote to Turkish nationalist history is the sad tale of the Turkish Orthodox Church. This is an entity initiated by a self-proclaimed patriarch who managed in the 1920s to hitch himself to the unstoppable wagon of republican fervour and carve himself out a sorry little empire of appropriated churches. To say that the Türk Ortodoks Church has no congregation is an injustice: if required to demonstrate the fervour of the populace for this non-church, a couple of the more pliable members of the patriarch’s family – the Erenerols – might bestir themselves to simulate piety once a decade or so.

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One Response to “Istanbul: Byzantine Churches and the Fragmenting Patriarchate”

  1. Enormousfish | Istanbul: Byzantine Churches and the Fragmenting Patriarchate | Adam Kaya Heskith | Author and Writer | Enormousfish Says:
    June 6th, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    […] is the explanation and introduction (with […]

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