Turkey is known for its vast array of minarets among its majestic landscape. However, within the highly populated Muslim country exists a little known piece of history that lives on to this day. Seated in the heart of Istanbul is the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Archbishop Bartholomew, whose importance is equivalent to that of the Vatican. In Turkish, he is called Rum Ortodoks Patrikhanesi, representing not only the Greek Orthodox Christian community in Turkey, but also the entire Orthodox Christian world. Located on the Golden Horn, Archbishop Bartholomew acts as the head representative of the church, whose title that traditionally goes back to fifth century Byzantium. (But to note a difference between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, the Patriarch is not considered an infallible-pope as is seen in the West.)
I had the honor and privilege of briefly meeting the Patriarch in Izmir, during his tour of the old churches of Asia Minor. He often visits the old Christian monuments on an annual basis, which date back to Byzantine and Ottoman times, maintaining the cultural and historical ties to these spiritual houses. For the Orthodox community, the churches not only represent the once thriving Christian communities, but also important biblical significance as well.
A Turkish citizen and patriot, Patriarch Bartholomew was born in the Turkish town of Zeytinli Koyu on the island of Imbros, now called Gokçeada. Today, he lives in Istanbul, where he resides at the Patriarchate Church of Aya Yorgi in the Fener district. From there, he has held numerous interfaith dialogues and events, bridging the divide between the Christian and Muslim world. Visitors include President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Pope Benedict XVI. Al Gore has also labeled him the “Green Patriarch”, as the archbishop has dedicated a large portion of his life to working on environmental issues.
Having all this said, I was very eager to meet him when I learned of his coming to Izmir. The Greek church of Aghia Fotini in Alsancak held a special Sunday service, conducted by the Patriarch himself. With a vibrant community of roughly 200 Greeks from Izmir, as well as Greeks whose ancestry is from Turkey, the church was filled with worshippers, leaving little room for prayer. Many people, including myself, stepped outside for a breathe of fresh air, as well as small conversation.
The community consisted of mainly retirees who frequently visit Izmir. Speaking with several people, they each explained to me their family backgrounds, and how their parents or grandparents came from Asia Minor. Asking me if I spoke Turkish, I replied “yes”, to which they would quickly reminisce about their parent’s fluency in the language, and how they wished they had learned it too.
Soon after, church service ended, and I dashed over to meet the Patriarch. Like white on rice, everyone surrounded him, trying to greet him and kiss his hand (a sign of respect that is found both in Greek and Turkish culture). Bodyguards and secret service included, I found it nearly impossible to approach, until I finally found the opportunity to step in and greet him. I quickly explained (in Greek) that I was a Greek American from New York City, to which he replied in English “Welcome! Where from exactly?” With a few more exchanged words, he asked me with a very kind and enthusiastic demeanor, if I would reside in Istanbul or Izmir. I quickly responded “Izmir”, to which he replied with a warm smile “Welcome!”
Then off he was, escorted by a swarm of bodyguards. I guess I would have liked more of a chance to speak with him, but who’s to say I won’t meet him again? Nonetheless, it shows that Turkey is not such a small place after all. It encompasses many people, events, and historical ties, that it in a sense gravitates all things to her, including me.