Being forced under the water by a middle-aged Greek man in pursuit of a sacred crucifix was not how I had originally envisioned myself starting off the new year.
In retrospect, I should have known what I was getting into when I spontaneously hailed a taxi destined for Istanbul’s historic Fener district to witness the Blessing of the Waters. The event is one of the city’s oldest traditions and is a reminder that a large Greek community once inhabited Istanbul.
Every year on Epiphany, Orthodox communities across the world celebrate with a dip in the water, often with a priest throwing in a crucifix for the faithful to retrieve. Istanbul’s rendition of this event occurs on the shores of the Golden Horn, a (rather polluted) body of water just outside the church of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Having read about the tradition on the BBC in years past, I figured that it would be a unique cultural experience, and on the day of, was convinced by the abnormally sunny weather that Saturday morning in January.
The night before the event a crazy idea popped into my head. Google searches revealed that, in theory at least, the event was open to pilgrims across the world. I may not be Greek, or Orthodox, but under a loose interpretation of the word, I figured I would qualify. Right before I left to go the next morning, I decided to grab my suit and test my luck. That decision led to an awkward conversation.
Talking to the men taking the swimmers to the Golden Horn seemed to be the most logical way to get involved, so I nervously asked them if they’d take an American. Though I soon confirmed their suspicions that I indeed was not Greek and had no Greek ancestry (in their words, “Not even a little bit?”), they generously decided to let me on after learning that I was from Boston (a city with, “A lot of Greeks, you know that?”) I jumped on the boat approximately five seconds before it left the dock, silently thanking Boston’s Greek-American community.
Having earlier passed around a bottle of liquor to fight the cold, everyone else was already in their swimsuits. I took the cue and stripped down to my swimsuit and waited for the Epiphany service to finish so that the patriarch could throw the crucifix. Apparently, I was not the only impatient one—ferries that brought visitors to watch were honking to in an attempt to force the patriarch to finish his prayers.
Tradition dictates that whoever reaches the crucifix first should then let the others kiss it. The reality is that it’s an all-out battle to kiss the cross first.
After 40 minutes of shivering, small talk, and anticipation, the patriarch finally threw the crucifix into the water. As the newbie, I somehow ended up being one of the last ones to dive into the water. Not to worry—I saved my pride by quickly racing and making it mid-pack to the crucifix itself.
Tradition dictates that whoever reaches the crucifix first should then let the others kiss it. The reality is that it’s an all-out battle to kiss the cross first. The elation of finally reaching the cross was crushed —literally—as I was pushed under the water by the others. But within two arm strokes, I was back to breathing the salty air of Istanbul.
The best part was getting to meet the Patriarch. “Meet” may be a bit of a generous term, but regardless, being within feet of one of the world’s most powerful religious leaders was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After releasing several doves, the Patriarch then handed out small medals to all of the swimmer-pilgrims.
And that was that—I dried off, changed, and thanked the men who had let me on the boat before heading off to explore the rest of the Fener neighbourhood. Traditions like this one, monuments including the nearby Byzantine church of St. Mary of the Mongols, and the Ecumenical patriarchy itself are reminders of the vast amount of history and the diverse communities that once tread the ground of Istanbul.
Practical Information: The Blessing of the Waters occurs every year on January 6, just outside of the Cathedral of St. George in Fener. Before the swim there is a church service led by the Patriarch, starting at 10:00 AM. The swim occurs around 12:30 depending on the length of the service. Most people watch from the shore, but there are also ferries that take visitors to watch from the water.