The Greek government restricted its Orthodox population from celebrating the Epiphany. In Turkey, Istanbul’s Greeks marked it with a famous ceremony of the blessing of the waters.
The Epiphany on January 6, one of Christianity’s important celebrations, is being seen in contrast this year between neighbours Turkey, a Muslim-majority country, and Greece, a Christian-majority country.
In Greece, some priests have been arrested on the grounds that they did not abide by Covid-19 restrictions allowing people to attend mass celebrating the Epiphany, the second most important event for Orthodox Christians, which makes up over 90 percent of the Greek population.
Turkey allowed its Christian community to partake in its popular ritual, the blessing of the waters, in which a number of swimmers jump in the cold waters of Golden Horn, a part of Istanbul’s famous Bosphorus, to bring back a cross thrown into the water by a priest.
This year Greece banned the ritual, angering many of the faithful. Even in Thessaloniki, a northern Greek city, coast guard and police have been dispatched to prevent people from fulfilling the event. According to media reports, at least three Greeks have been detained because of their attempts to perform the rituals as members of the Orthodox church openly defied the Greek government’s restrictions.
Omer Faruk Deliktas, a 27-year-old researcher and professional guide, was there to observe one of Istanbul’s oldest traditions and to get a real understanding of the city’s diverse spiritual experiences.
Around ten in the morning, attendees were in the Fener Greek Patriarchate in Balat to observe the ritual, Deliktas tells TRT World. “It was a very long ritual, ending about 12:30 noon,” the Turkish guide says. The ritual is known as one of the oldest worship rituals across Christianity.
“Following the mass, Patriarch Bartholomew I and other priests got out of the Fener Greek Patriarchate and walked towards the Golden Horn in a cortege as they were uttering prayers loudly accompanied by simultaneously ringing church bells,“ Deliktas observed.
There was a booth built next to the Fener dock for the occasion of the blessing of the waters, which has long been part of the Epiphany or Theophany in Eastern Christian understanding, which means revelation.
Orthodox Christians commemorate the day as the Baptism of Jesus Christ while Western Christians believe that God incarnated as Jesus Christ on this day, says Ebru Gokteke, an experienced professional guide and a researcher.
As a result, the blessing of the waters has been long identified with the Baptism of Christ, Gokteke tells TRT World.
“They prayed there [in the Fener dock in the Golden Horn] reading verses from the New Testament. The priests also practiced their blessings there,” Deliktas recounts.
Two swimmers jumped into the Bosphorus’ calm waters to retrieve a cross for their religious leader, Patriarch Bartholomew I, who threw it into the sea, overseeing the ceremony from the shore in the presence of other worshippers and priests, he says.
One of the swimmers caught the cross in the waters of the Golden Horn, bringing it back to the Patriarch, rewarded by His Holiness’ blessing in return for his effort on a winter day, Deliktas says.
“Istanbul’s Greeks are obviously very old here. It was a beautiful feeling to witness one of their traditions here in Istanbul. The ritual and the way people participate in it show how religions play a crucial role in human life,” Deliktas feels.
“Blacks were there. You could see all kinds of people over there. I have also seen some Russians,” the Turkish guide says. The Russians are the biggest Orthodox population in the world. “The Moscow Church used to operate under Istanbul's Greek Patriarchate,” Deliktas informs.
“The Epiphany event has been loved by many people,” says Gokteke, the 49-year-old guide, who has guided tourists across Istanbul and Turkey since 2002. “I have seen a lot of young Greeks coming into Istanbul to commemorate the event,” she says.
“They drink alcohol, which they call medicine, to have courage to jump into the cold water [to reach the cross],” she adds.