The small, modest complex of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Οικουμενικό Πατριαρχείο Κωνσταντινουπόλεως) is widely regarded as the spiritual headquarters of the world’s Orthodox Christians. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has no jurisdiction over the other several autocephalous Orthodox Churches, but he is, however, the head of the church in the Americas, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and some parts of Greece. In a historical context, he’s considered “first among equals” when there is a council involving other Orthodox primates and bishops.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople can trace its roots back to St. Andrew the Apostle, the founder of the See of Byzantium. It’s not the oldest of the sees, but it was elevated in importance when Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium (renamed Constantinople, now Istanbul) in 330 AD. It survived the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and played a significant role in Ottoman politics (although a number of Patriarchs were executed by the Sultan).
The Patriarchal church complex is located in the Fener neighborhood. It sits behind a large stone wall with an entrance guarded by a security booth. Visitors are approached by a security guard before being allowed to enter. The church is open daily. To get there, take the 55T bus from Taksim and get off at the Fener stop.
You might notice there are two doors in the walls of the complex, but only one of them functions. The door directly in front was welded shut after Patriarch Gregory V was hung from it after celebrating the liturgy on Easter Sunday in 1821. The execution was ordered by Ottoman Sultan Mahmut II in response to the start of the Greek Revolution. His body was given to the city’s Jews to be dragged through the streets, which created further tension between the Jewish and Greek minorities. They eventually threw his body into the Golden Horn where it was recovered by Greek sailors and taken to Odessa. Gregory V is interred in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens.
Once through the doors, visitors find themselves in the courtyard. Directly in front is the church and to the right is the Patriarchal complex. In these buildings are the offices of the Ecumenical Patriarch, living quarters for clergy, the Patriarchal Library, and a dining hall. I worked at the office for a short time and was able to see many of the rooms, including a private audience with Patriarch Bartholomew I.
Inside the main entrance to the offices, there’s a mosaic featuring Mehmet the Conqueror and Patriarch Gennadios II. It was placed there as an example to the modern Turkish government of the historic cooperation (although turbulent at times) between the Ottoman government and Orthodox Church. I won’t get into the complicated politics of the modern Turkish government, who see the Patriarch as merely a local priest in charge of the dwindling Greek Orthodox minority in Turkey.
The Church of St. George (Καθεδρικός ναός του Αγίου Γεωργίου / Aya Yorgi Kilisesi) has been the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate since about 1600. It has been destroyed by fire several times, most recently in 1941, and almost no structural feature of the original church exists. The church as seen today dates back mostly to a reconstruction in 1797. Other churches to serve as the Patriarchal Church are Hagia Eirini, Megali Ekklisia, Hagia Sophia, Hagia Sophia in Nicaea (İznik), Church of the Holy Apostles, the Pammakaristos Church, the Church of St. Dimitrios Xyloportas, and the Church of Virgin Paramythia.
Inside the entrance is the narthex. There are marble floors, an intricately carved entrance to the church, and a place to light candles.
Once inside the dimly-lit church, the grandeur associated with Orthodox churches is more evident as compared to the exterior. It’s still quite modest for such an important place of worship.
Some of the interesting features are the Patriarchal Throne, the pulpit, the finely carved wooden seats, and the historic icons.
Also located in the church are the relics of several saints. On the left side are the relics of St. Gregory the Theologian, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Basil the Great. On the right side are the relics of St. Euphemia, St. Theophano, and St. Solomoni. On September 15, 2011, I was at the church for a service on the feast day of St. Euphemia. Her coffin was in front of the altar and open for pilgrims to venerate her relics.
On Sundays and major holidays, the church is jam-packed with Orthodox Christian worshippers from all over the world. It’s quite a scene to see the Patriarch alongside many metropolitans and bishops officiating a service. I was able to take a not-so-clear video on my old iPhone 3GS on November 28, 2010.