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Turkey: Byzantine Reflections
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Istanbul—Christians in Istanbul—much like members of other religious communities, including their Muslim and Jewish brothers and sisters—are privileged to live in a colorful city that served as the capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire for over 1,000 years and of the Ottoman Empire for almost half a millennium. This historical and imperial city has been variously designated through the ages as Byzantium, Constantinople, New Rome, Royal City, and Istanbul. Its geographically strategic position—straddling two continents, Europe and Asia, bridging the Black and Mediterranean seas—was successively desired and plundered. This rich antiquity is as instantly apparent as similar legacies in such great capitals as Rome and London.

Here, literary works of classical civilization and Roman law were preserved for the Western Renaissance. Plato and Aristotle would have remained inaccessible today without Arabic translations from Istanbul. In the sixth century, Justinian I pioneered the reform and codification of Latin jurisprudence, while two centuries later, Leo III influenced Slavic legal institutions. It was the Byzantine East that Christianized the Slavic north and protected the European south from invasions by the Goths and Visigoths. And the silent presence of Byzantium is still more far-reaching. From the forks we use to the hospitals we depend on to the academic universities where we pursue knowledge, the legacy of Byzantium has proved a lasting and profound influence. Byzantium was the longest, most successful experiment in church-state relations, lasting from 325 to 1453, while Byzantine laws first forbade the use of torture in legal proceedings.

In parallel with Rome, the other seat of a major Western religion, Istanbul sprawls across seven hills and is famous for its striking cultural monuments and heritage, its religious character and diversity, art and imperial ceremonies, education and literature, music and folklore, culinary and natural charm. With roots in the Byzantine civilization, Istanbul sits directly astride one of the great fault lines of faith in today's world—the confluence of Islam and Orthodox Christianity. Today, this ancient city, with a population in excess of 13 million, is undergoing extraordinary growth and transformation into a modern, multi-ethnic metropolis.

Yet, this city is also the bloodstained cradle of the Phanar (Greek for "lighthouse," referring to the old lighthouse quarter of Istanbul)—a term also used to designate the headquarters of the Orthodox Church, since the residence and offices of the Ecumenical Patriarch are located there. This city is home to innumerable sites of Orthodoxy—the fourth-century walls of Constantine (surviving ramparts of a magnificent civilization), the Church of St. Irene (where the Christian Creed was formulated), the sixth-century Church of Hagia Sophia (an architectural wonder with structural elements emulated in the Blue Mosque), the Studion Monastery (where religious life was reformed), the vivid frescoes and unique iconography of the 14th-century Chora Monastery, among a host of other treasures of Orthodoxy.

Indeed, for the Rum Orthodox—a title used for centuries to describe Greek Christians living in Muslim states—Istanbul holds unique significance. Beyond the reality that they are natives and not immigrants, for 2,000 years this city has been the foremost seat of Orthodox Christianity and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Today, this global eminence is Bartholomew I—with the bright eyes of the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara as well as the rejuvenated skin tone of the island of Imvros, his Turkish birthplace. The present Ecumenical Patriarch is the 270th holder of that title, following an extraordinary line of churchmen, who strove to preserve their ancient office, under often dire circumstances.

It is fair to say that, when Patriarch Bartholomew was elevated in 1991, the future for the patriarchate in Turkey looked precarious, if not bleak. Upon his election, he inherited a position that promised more ignominy than influence, more "crucifixion" than "resurrection," as he has put it. The movements of his predecessor, Dimitrios, had been severely circumscribed by the Turkish authorities, and there was little reason to expect any quick improvement.

Over 17 centuries only nine patriarchs completed 20 years of continuous ministry on the throne. In the 17th century alone, there were 52 separate enthronements (of 28 patriarchs). The main portal to the patriarchal compound has remained sealed...

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