After my roommates surprised me with a birthday cake at my favorite cafe in Istanbul, my roommate Nazli and I were off to meet up with her Greek friends who were in town. Although we found ourselves in Asmalimescit post-dinner, we made a point to make it to church to take part in the Easter celebrations. First, we stopped in at Saint Antoine‘s Catholic church, Istiklal’s most famous church, and found it was extremely busy. Plenty of people were attending the service and others like ourselves were stopping by to see what was going on.
Around 11:15 p.m. we decided it was time to head over to the Beyoğlu Panagia Rum Ortodoks Kilisesi, a Greek Orthodox church nestled behind J’adore, a little cafe famous for its hot chocolate. I had always wanted to visit this church but had never seen the gates open, and as many Istanbulites know, it’s hard to get into religious institutions in Turkey if you aren’t a member of the congregation. Earlier this year, I had attended a wedding at the Neve Shalom synagogue in Galata. Security had shut down the entire street and wedding guests had to show a special invitation card to the guards in order to enter. A couple of American tourists had sauntered down the street, and when they were unable to speak in Hebrew, they weren’t allowed inside. At the time, I didn’t know that this particular synagogue had been the target of terrorist attacks so I had found the heightened security excessive, but plaques inside detailed the synagogue’s unfortunate history. In 2010, I attended a concert to commemorate Gomidas, his life and music, at the Armenian church tucked away in the fish bazaar right off of Istiklal. People packed in to see the rendition of Gomidas’ liturgical music, and the concert had been such a milestone for the community that more than a few looked on through tears.
This Easter eve, the Greek Orthodox Church had its gates open and by the time we got there, it was nearly full although not as packed as Saint Antoine’s. The church was breathtakingly beautiful and ornate, and the crowd was fairly diverse with Greeks, Russians, and Georgians among others. Lucky for Nazli and I, we had her Greek friends to show us the ropes. We picked up some candles at the door and found some seats close to where the hymns were being read. Once the reading was done, the lights were turned off and everyone went to the front of the church to light their candle from the priest’s flame. Then everyone followed the priest into the courtyard to commemorate the moment of resurrection. The church bells rung loud and people enjoying their drinks up and down Istiklal were probably wondering what was going on at the church at midnight. Many people returned for the the rest of the service, but we were tired and headed home so we could get up to dye Easter eggs the following morning. Nazli and I also said a silent hallelujah that this Easter service was much more pleasant and welcoming than our last one together at the local Protestant Church in Bursa, a story for another time.