Monday, April 21, 2014

St George's Day, April 23

I always thought someone should write something about the celebration of St. George's day on Büyük Ada every year. No one did, so I wrote something myself. Then no one wanted to publish it, so I'm posting it here. Enjoy. Or don't. The choice is in your hands now. - Nick

April 23 is National Sovereignty and Children’s Day in Turkey. The 23rd is also, as the English know better than most Turks, St. George’s day. As a result, the ferryboats steaming out to Istanbul's Prince's Islands are always packed with a mix of teenage students celebrating a day of personal sovereignty at the beach, and Muslim women of all ages on their way to St. George’s Monastery in search of health, new homes, and happiness. When I went last April both groups were enjoying the trip, joining hands for a circular folk dance in the narrow aisle of the ferry’s back deck and applauding sarcastically as a peddler demonstrated a plastic device for squeezing a remarkable amount of juice from a single lemon.

The monastery of Aya Yorgi, as the saint is called locally, sits perched on top of a hill on Buyukada, an island about an hour’s ride from Istanbul that was once home to a large Greek Orthodox community. When my boat arrived there, many passengers dispersed to buy ice cream or go to the beach, while others set off on the gently sloping road to the monastery. Walking past ostentatious wooden summer homes from the 19th century in various states of repair and disrepair, we began encountering stands selling color-coded objects of devotion. First were the candles, labeled according to the benefits they brought. Red for love, white for health, green for money-comfort, yellow for luck, pink for fate, white for a house, orange for school, dark blue for work-career, light blue for blessings and a mix of pink and blue for those seeking children. Other tables offered a similar range of choices in the form of small plastic keys with colored ribbons attached by safety pin. Some included plastic locks as well, or small plastic beads to ward off the evil eye. Like the candles, each sold for a lira, about 60 cents, and came, if you wanted, with an explanation of its use and testimony to its effectiveness. “After leaving the church carry the key hidden on your person, inside your cloths, then throw it into a river or lake.” “A woman came here two years ago wanting a wife for her son and he was married last fall.” “People have been doing this for at least two centuries. Probably more, but the church is at least that old.” At one stand a daughter impatiently reminded her mother she had already purchased a candle for work. At another stand a sign, seemingly put up to reassure those whose choice of color was out of stock, stated “The Color Doesn’t Matter, It’s the Intent.” A local high school “Entrepreneurs’ Club” was out selling plastic keys as well, but with considerably less entrepreneurial spirit than anyone else on the street.

Religious syncretisim of this kind, often involving Muslims and Christians performing similar gestures at shrines to the same local saints, has a long history in Turkey and the Balkans. Fundamentalists of both faiths frequently deny or lament that such things ever happened. Idealistic liberal academics, in turn, have at times exaggerated the prevalence of these traditions before lamenting that they were suppressed by the fundamentalists. Still, what everyone seems to agree is that syncretism of the sort embodied by St. George’s day is gradually disappearing as religious divisions become more pronounced. Having attended Aya Yorgi day once before in 2008, I went again curious to see if it showed any signs of  dying out.

After winding around the island for twenty minutes, the main road narrows and turns more steeply uphill. More prominent at this small intersection were those selling spools of thread and boxes of sugar cubes at slightly higher prices. At the base of the hill, women tied the thread they had purchased around the trunk of a tree, then began unspooling it as they walked up. Reaching the top with your thread unbroken, we were told, increased the likelihood of your wish being granted. The effect of thousands of multi-colored threads running in parallel alongside the road suggested a cocoon, or perhaps more precisely a camp project or contemporary art piece intended to suggest a cocoon. The foot traffic was thicker on the hill, and alongside the thread were small tables with tea, biscuits, grape leaves, decorative knick knacks, more candles and more keys for sale. “It’s a good business,” someone next to us declared looking at the candles, “you buy them for nothing, then sell them.” Many people had also bought daisy chains, which they wore in their hair, or, occasionally, on top of their headscarves.

In small clearings behind the food and the thread were the missionaries. There were more, certainly, then when I had come five years earlier. Some wore white robes and sang, some distributed the bible, and others played the guitar. It was difficult to tell how many different missionary groups were represented. One group had pamphlets explaining that faith in Christ was the true “key” for making your wishes come true. There were also men with signs reading “Prayer Leader” around their neck who spoke to the curious about their problems, and when permitted laid on hands and prayed. Alongside some Turkish missionaries were Koreans, Italians and Americans, many of whom spoke Turkish with a fluency that made me, at least, jealous. As a missionary explained, it was perhaps the best group of potential converts available in Turkey. The missionaries, for their part, were certainly eager to transform the ambiguous religiosity of those in the crowd into something more orthodox. Still, few  people seemed interested. A handful of passers-by had taken bibles, at least one of which was being used as a hat to ward off the sun.

At the top of the hill, a small group of police funneled us through a gate into the church while their colleagues drank tea and intervened when small fight broke out over who would get in first. In the entryway were long sand-filled troughs for votive candles. The monks’ assistants collected the multi-colored ones brought in from outside, patiently explaining that only the yellow and white candles available from the monastery itself could be placed here. Many people had already lit a set of candles in the nooks of a rock wall outside the monastery, and took new ones for use inside. A paper taped to the wall beside the main door explained “Warning: Writing on walls or icons is a sin. Write your prayers on paper and place them in the church’s prayer box. Thank you.” Some people did this, while others took their keys to trace out the text of their prayers on the glass covering the church’s icons. A few people had placed coins up next to the icon glass, something much more common on my previous visits. As a monastery care taker told people to move along and stay behind the ropes, some closed their eyes and opened their palms in an Islamic gesture of prayer.

Another place where religious syncretism of this sort has flourished in Istanbul is the Mother Mary church, located in what is now religiously conservative neighborhood within the city’s Byzantine walls. On the first of each month, Istanbullites of both faiths come to Mother Mary, also known as the First of the Month Church, to pray and be blessed. When I went last, on August 1st, 2010, I was shocked to see the usually crowded church empty. I asked why, and was reminded that that year August 1st happened to be the first day of Ramadan. Obviously there were at least a few thousand people who all believed that it was perfectly reasonable for a Muslim to go to church eleven months out of the year, just not during a holy month.

What struck me most on my previous visit to St.George’s were the Orthodox priests waiting to bless visitors at the exit. One by one they lifted the hems of their robes, making the sign of the cross over the women standing in front of them while reciting a blessing in Greek. This time they were nowhere to be seen. It seemed, perhaps, that there were also priests who felt it was perfectly reasonable to open their church for thousands of Muslims to come pray there, but that they themselves shouldn’t get too personally involved in affair.

In the absence of any formal blessings, people leaving the church turned straight to the business of building model cars and houses out of sugar cubes on the monastery grounds. In various places they also tied ribbons, lit candles, stuck money to the walls with wax and placed more notes. The girl next to me laughed as my girlfriend took a picture of one requesting a rich husband, then pointed out her own artfully-executed model house.

Walking down from the monastery, back to the boat, it was hard to deny that a change clearly appeared underway. Fewer priests and more missionaries. Fewer older women with headscarves, more younger women with cameras. More people motivated by curiosity rather than an abiding belief in the efficacy of their prayers. Yet the presence of this last group - among whom I certainly belonged - suggested the change at hand was hardly an abandonment of pluralism and tolerance.

My previous visit to the monastery had been with a friend who was hoping, half seriously, for luck with a scholarship application to study French translation in Belgium (she got it). That the crowd this time was increasingly full of people like us suggested a different side of the story. It is hard to be pessimistic when those attending St. George’s day are now the ones who study abroad, or go to the bars, fish restaurants or cafes that carry Greek names and play Greek music in a nostalgic evocation of the Istanbul’s more cosmopolitan past. As St George's day comes around again, there is reason to hope that so long as older forms of inter-communal co-existence are replaced by newer ones, the tradition, transmuted, will be maintained.