Memories of a Young Adult Pilgrimage to Byzantium
By Marika Pappas
In late 2009, I, along with 12 million other Americans watched Ecumenical Bartholomew speak on 60 Minutes about the religious persecution of Christians in Turkey. He spoke of the recent sufferings the Church has endured, including the closure of the Halki Seminary and the government’s refusal to allow non-Turkish citizens to become candidates for Ecumenical Patriarch. There began my intrigue with this land of Christian persecution, felt today, nearly two thousand years after Christianity first spread to the region. From May 27 to June 5, 21 Greek Orthodox faithful went on the National Young Adult Pilgrimage to Constantinople, Cappadocia, and Smyrna, led by Bishop Savas of Troas and Fr. Bill Gikas.
We were quickly immersed in our Turkish surroundings, landing in Constantinople early Saturday morning and driving to the Yedikule Fortress to orient ourselves with the immense city. All around us were layers of history, with each piece of architecture and each layer of the city telling a story of those that conquered, lived, and perhaps perished on the land we were standing on. At our next stop, the Zoodochos Pigi Church at the Balukli Monastery, we honored the graves of the fallen patriarchs in a peaceful cemetery. As I look back at our group singing Xristos Anesti in the church, I realize that Turkey would not be remembered solely as a place of suffering, but more importantly as a place of the resurrection, of miracles, and of hope.
The next day, on the anniversary of the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire nearly 560 years ago, we attended liturgy at the Holy Trinity Church in Taksim Square. The foreign city was still bustling on a Sunday, but once inside of the security gates at the church, I was home. It never ceases to amaze me that I could be 6,000 miles from home but still feel the comfort of Christ inside of the church. We made our way to the Church of Chora, named for its location just outside of the old city walls where those from the countryside would come to worship in the early 5th century. The most moving piece of iconography was the depiction of Christ with the words “The Land of the Living,” where once again we would feel the grace of the resurrection and life in Christ, even in what is today considered a museum.
Our next stop for the day took us to Aghia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, the highlight of the Constantinople skyline and the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years. Visiting on the day that the city fell to the Ottoman empire and imagining the horrors that took place for three days as Sultan Mehmet’s troops pillaged the city was a difficult experience. The beauty of God’s house and knowing that the priests continued to perform the liturgy until they were stopped by the invaders gave us hope that while the church was taken and we were unable to do our cross or say a prayer while inside, our faith was not. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”(Matthew 18:20)
We ended our day with a brief visit to the Blue Mosque and the remaining pieces of the Hippodrome, both located a short walk from Aghia Sophia. On Monday, we were able to visit the famed Grand Bazaar, a whirling maze of trinkets, tea, and trading. Afterwards, we were blessed to have an audience with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar. It was a surreal experience to walk in from the poor streets of Constantinople with the sounds of daily prayer ringing out and into the serene area of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. During our visit, Deacon Nephon Tsimalis gave us a tour of the Church of St. George, including the recently returned relics of St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Theologian.
Bishop Savas took the time to learn each of our occupations and an interesting fact to introduce each of us to the Ecumenical Patriarch. In turn, we heard about the struggles of the Church in Constantinople and around the world, and were given words of wisdom around “being the present and the future” of the Church and being ambassadors of Orthodox Christianity wherever we are. Our final visit for the day was at the Church of Vlaherna, which venerates the Virgin Mary. While a simple church, this was the site where the emperor’s son in 629 A.D. sang Ti Ypermaho with the other parishioners in an all-night vigil as the city was invaded by the Avars. Needless to say, Constantinople was saved. Our group felt it would be moving to also sing the hymn while we were there, to pray for the city of Constantinople today and her challenges.
That evening we took a one-hour flight to Kayseri, the main city in the Cappadocia region of the country where we would spend the next two days visiting the ancient cities of the first Christians in this region, and Greek villages abandoned since the early 20th century. On Tuesday, we spent the day exploring the Göreme National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where the earliest Christians built nearly 30 churches from the 9th century in hidden caves. Most amazing to me was the pristine condition most of the icons were still in today and how consistent they were with the iconography from the parishes I’ve attended. I was completely moved by the consistency and tradition that the Orthodox Church has upheld for over 2,000 years. Not only was my faith reaffirmed, but my desire to ensure that future generations could experience the faith increased as well.
Some of the group finished the day by attending a “Whirling Dervish Ceremony.” This was an interesting opportunity to watch the Mevlevi Order (an order of Sufi Muslims) perform a symbolic routine known as the Sema. During this whirling dance, the dervishes enter a trance-like meditation in order to reach religious fervor.
On our final day in Cappadocia, we tested our enclosed spaces’ tolerance by visiting the one of the famous underground cities of Kaymakli. Amazingly, the entire group was able to make it through the seven levels of this intricate ancient city, where communities hid from conquering groups. We also visited several old Greek villages that have since been abandoned during the removal of the Greek population in the early 20th century. It was particularly close to heart for me as my paternal grandmother’s family hailed from this region. I could imagine what a beautiful life they may have had prior to escaping to the United States.
Our final destination, Smyrna, was just an hour-long flight westward toward the Mediterranean Sea. We arrived early Thursday morning and briefly toured the city before having some time to ourselves. The city was surprisingly new, with most of the buildings constructed in the 1950s and 1960s. It lacked a certain sense of character and soul, as Bishop Savas remarked, most likely due to the unfortunate fires and destruction of the city by the Turks in 1922, as the Greek population was forced to leave the country. Many of us explored the city, caught up on our journals, and enjoyed chatting over dinner at the hotel.
Friday brought a road trip to the ancient city of Ephesus, originally built in the 10th century B.C. as an Ionian colony, and was transformed into a Christian settlement in 395 A.D. As one who has been to numerous Greek ruins, this area was awe-inspiring! From air conditioning, to public restrooms, to a massive library, Ephesus was a clearly a powerful and well-planned city beyond its time. We also visited the home of the Virgin Mary, where she was brought for protective reasons after Christ’s death and resurrection. Her simple home was just a short drive from the bustling city of Ephesus, but clearly a tranquil retreat for the Theotokos. Our final day in Turkey was a day of rest. A 90-minute bus drive brought us to the beach city of Cesme. It was enjoyable to spend our final day in such beautiful scenery with our new life-long friends.
While Turkey may not be the most hospitable place for Orthodox Christians over the past 500 years, this pilgrimage induced a sense of hope and strength for our faith in the future. The situation our faithful and the Ecumenical Patriarchate must endure today is just another layer of history in this holy area that will hopefully be restored to its rightful position in God’s glory in the near future. As humble as the church has been made by Ottoman and Turkish authorities over the past 600 years, faith still exists and thrives among these weeds. I began my journey fearing for the continuation of the Church in its birthplace of Constantinople, but left believing in the words Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said in his response to Charlie Rose’s question about him worrying for the future of the church, “Not really. We’ve survived. We do believe in miracles. We prefer to stay here, crucified sometimes because in the Gospel it was written and that was given to us, not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for Christ.” Suffering, unfortunately, is something that the Church here in Constantinople knows all too well. But, with suffering and crucifixion comes the resurrection. And with that, the group sang our final “Xristos Anesti- Christ is Risen.”
Marika Pappas lives in Chicago where she works as a treasury manager for an independent consulting firm. A native of Littleton, Colo., Marika graduated with her BSBA and International MBA from the University of Denver in 2008.