The Orthodox church certainly knows how to lighten what is otherwise the grimmest week of the year. I am standing on the freezing shore of the Golden Horn at Fener waiting to watch one of Great City’s most ancient rituals: the tossing of the crucifix into the Golden Horn on the day of Theophania, known in the West as Epiphany. Whereas the Western Church focuses on the visits of the magi to the Christ child on January 6, the Eastern Church celebrates his baptism.
Around me are countless bearded men – not just Greek orthodox clergymen but cameramen. So many of the latter, in fact, that the Syrian children looking on ask if a film is being shot. There are also 17 brave swimmers, or dalgıç (divers), as they are known. A lot of Greek is being spoken; all the swimmers without exception have come from Greece for the occasion.
As they undress, their ecclesiastical tattoos are revealed to all – rosaries and crucifixes cover their torsos, redefining the term ‘pectoral cross’. Among the swimmers is one woman, Fotini, a peroxide blonde literature teacher from Alexandropoli, whose sixth race this year’s will be. There are also two brothers in their teens. A surprising number of policemen hovers unmenacingly, although this might just because we are standing next to their station on the Golden Horn.
A police boat and two police divers in wetsuits stand at the ready. The suspense is almost unbearable. As the swimmers wait on the edge of two small fishing boats, they clap their thighs, light another cigarette, or in one case, jump in to test the water. The call to prayer is heard from a local mosque. Where is His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew? Has he lost the cross? For once in Istanbul, you can’t blame the traffic.
After about an hour, the bells of the Patriarchal Church of St George ring out from across the road, and the procession arrives, first in vermillion, then sky-blue cassocks. The Patriarch blesses the water and then tosses the crucifix into the freezing water. The swimmers dive in, and swim very calmly and curiously slowly, or at least it seems to those of us who are watching fully-clothed, towards the floating cross.
The winner, a sports teacher called Nikos Solis, from Greece, grabs the cross, kisses it, and then profers it to each swimmer to kiss. He has apparently guaranteed himself a year of health and prosperity. He is hauled out of the water and presented with a golden cross on a chain, before microphones are thrust into his face like an Olympic sportsman. “How is the water?” ask the Turkish journalists via an interpreter. “It was cold but I am so happy it does not matter”, replied Solis, looking anything but ecstatic. Others were more cheerful. “This is my fourth time”, explained one, “but I won it in 2011. If you are not Orthodox, you cannot imagine what Constantinopolis is for us”, he added when I asked if he had come especially from Imroz, where he is from.
If you missed it this year, make sure you catch it next January. The Epiphany service at the Patriarchate in Fener today was in full swing by 10.30am and goes on indefinitely, as Orthodox services tend to. The swimmers eventually jumped in around 12.45pm. A tea shop facing the Patriarchate was doing a roaring trade in tea and toasties for those who needed a breather. In the meantime, there is Russian Orthodox Christmas to explore today (7th January) in the various rooftop churches of Karaköy. (Owen Matthews wrote about the rooftop churches of Karaköy, a forgotten corner of the Motherland in the heart of Istanbul, in Cornucopia 28.)