I was very lucky to be able to spend Orthodox Holy Week and Easter in Istanbul in two different years. It’s a very beautiful time of year no matter where I am, but it had special meaning being in the city that’s home of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the spiritual leader of the Orthodox Christian world.
In Istanbul, many Orthodox churches are typically closed on most days, including Sundays. But during Holy Week, some of them come back to life and are beautifully decorated.
On Good Friday 2013, I visited Agios Dimitrios in Kurtuluş and Agia Efimia in Kadıköy. Agios Dimitrios is often open while Agia Efimia is rarely used. I was very happy to have the opportunity to see the inside of Agia Efimia for the first time.
I’ve attended Good Friday services at Agia Triada at Taksim Square and Agia Triada in Moda. There weren’t many differences between the services at either church, but Agia Triada Taksim was jam packed with tourists from Greece and other Orthodox countries while Agia Triada in Moda was a lot less crowded. It was still full of worshippers, but mainly locals and their relatives who traveled from Greece.
It was much of the same for Resurrection services. At Agia Triada Taksim in April 2011, it was nearly impossible to even enter the church unless you went very early or stayed well past midnight. People packed into the church and the crowd overflowed onto the lawn and outside the gates. After midnight, it was incredible to see the people walking around İstiklal Caddesi after the service with their candles lit.
I was finally able to enter the church about a half hour after midnight. I was able to join the congregation in singing Χριστός Ανέστη (Christ has Risen) and attend the rest of the service. Surprisingly, many curious Turks wandered inside to watch. Because of the animosity between the two communities over the past 500 years, violence and discrimination towards the Greek minority, and the forced deportation of many minority Greeks from their homes in Istanbul, I wasn’t expecting to see any Turks in the church at all. It was nice to see them and it reinforced my beliefs and observations that most people don’t want to see hate between the two communities.
At a few restaurants nearby Agia Triada Taksim, I was able to find magiritsa (μαγειρίτσα), a traditional soup served to break the fast after the Resurrection.
The Resurrection service at Agia Triada in Moda in May 2013 was much less crowded and less stressful than at Taksim. I was able to attend the entire service inside the church. Unlike at Taksim, most people stayed after midnight, but there were no crowds of people on the street with candles after the service. It was much more low-key.
Even though I was far away from my family, spending Easter in Istanbul was a memorable experience. I’m sure it was very different and much more festive when there were more than 100,000 Greeks in the city, but it’s still a very special place to celebrate this important holiday. I can see why it’s becoming more and more popular for Greeks from Greece and other Orthodox Christians to travel to Istanbul for Holy Week and Easter.