One of my favorite places to visit in Istanbul is the Church of St. George (Aya Yorgi in Turkish). It’s located on Büyükada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands. It’s a peaceful place at the top of the highest hill on the island. It isn’t usually a priority for tourists, but it’s a unique place to visit.
Once the ferry arrives at Büyükada, I take a fayton or rent a bike and head to Birlik Meydanı. Here, there ares several faytons parked waiting to take customers back to town. There are also lots of small stalls selling religious trinkets next to a café.
Then I start the long, steep walk up the hill. Without stopping, it takes about 10-15 minutes. There are benches along the way to sit, rest, and enjoy the views. There are also a few springs to get a drink of water. It can be a tough walk, especially on a hot day, but also an enjoyable one.
At the very top is the small Greek Orthodox Church of St. George. There has been a monastery on the same spot since 963, when the Byzantines ruled the city. A sign in front of the door reminds visitors to dress appropriately and be silent.
The inside of the church is adorned with marble floors and beautiful old icons.
One icon in particular will catch your attention – that of St. George. It’s said to have healing powers for those who visit the church. You’ll see crutches, canes, and flowers propped up against the icon. The inside of the icon case is filled with watches, small plates with parts of the body, and sometimes photos. These are all offerings of thanks for healing and answering of prayers.
From my description, it all seems like an ordinary Orthodox church. But look closely at the visitors around you – the people coming up and down the hill, those lighting candles, and those asking for blessings from the priest. Not everybody is Greek. Not everybody is Christian. And that’s what’s so special about this church. Turks and Muslims join Greeks and Christians every day of the year to come pray at the church. It’s really something unexpected and wonderful to see.
The feast day of St. George is especially crowded. Every April 23rd, hundreds of pilgrims, regardless of religious denomination, climb the steep hill silently to honor the saint. Some even tie a string to a bush and unravel it all the way up to the top for good luck or for their wishes to come true.
Given a history together that’s had many turbulent periods, it may sound strange for people of these two religions and two ethnicities to pray together in one place peacefully. To me, it’s simple. It shows me that ordinary people are the same and can get along just fine.
Maybe that’s why Birlik Meydanı is named as such. It translates to “Unity Square”.
If the church is not enough to convince you to visit, there’s a great restaurant run by a local Turkish family next to it. It has some of the best kebabs and meze plates you can find in Istanbul. You order at the window and take a tray to one of the many picnic tables on the property. In addition to the delicious food, the view is amazing from up there.