Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


by in bloggingaboutturkey
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crosstoss1The man sitting across from me in the corner cafe is almost blue with cold. What’s more his hands are shaking uncontrollably.

“Here, have this tea,” I say, pushing it across to him. “Put your hands round it. You’re freezing.”

He smiled and indicated the glass already beside him. Then he made a little diving sign and suddenly I realized that I was looking at one of the crazies who had just jumped into the icy waters of the Golden Horn to retrieve a cross thrown by the Patriarch in celebration of Epiphany.

Every year on the 6 January members of the Greek Orthodox community all around the world take part in ceremonies to bless water in commemoration of St John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus in the river Jordan, just one of many events supposed to have taken place on this particularly busy day in the Christian calendar. Most involve the throwing of a cross into water so that men can jump in and compete to retrieve it.

In our part of the world the date falls in the depths of winter and transport difficulties meant that I’d never had a chance to witness the event before. But this year I was already in İstanbul. This year I’d been determined to see what happened despite the sub-zero temperatures.

As the taxi driver dropped me off in Fener near the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate I could already see other brave souls wandering towards a platform that had been set up by the water. A website had suggested that the cross-tossing business would happen at noon and we’d all made sure to arrive early so as to stake out a good viewing point. Needless to say, the security men had other ideas. Time and again they shooed us away. Then a cocker spaniel appeared. A bomb-sniffing dog, it provided the most excitement in a cold and tedious wait.

In honour of the Patriarch the platform had been red-carpeted. On it stood a shivering man whose job it was to ensure that the black plastic bag covering the seat of a wooden chair didn’t become detached, risking a wet patriarchal posterior. Facing it in small fishing boats bobbing off shore stood a group of men, most of them young, a few of them less so, clad in the sort of robes favoured by boxers in their corners. From time to time the most show-offy of them all would throw his robe open like a flasher to reveal the small bathing trunks that were his only other defence against the snow.

Because of course it was snowing. Not constantly. Not heavily. But just enough to make standing in a crowd beside a platform by the water a pretty miserable experience. Don’t give up, I told myself firmly as the feeling ebbed away first from my feet and then from my lower limbs and I began to fear for my health. You only have to do this once. If you stick it out you’ll never have to stand out here in the cold again. crosstoss3

It was 12.30 before the Patriarch appeared and at once it was clear that we might just as well have got here at the same time since his fellow clerics immediately formed a solid wall around him through which none of us could see a thing. Furious, the many cameramen present leapt onto the edge of the platform to thrust their lenses forward. I saw a cross fly through the air. It was a moderate sized sort of cross, neither large enough to do anyone any damage nor small enough to sink beneath the waves. I certainly didn’t see it hit the water. As I scurried away in search of warmth, I glanced back and just about saw it again, being waved triumphantly in the air above the monks’ heads by whom I had no idea.

So now here I was sitting in a café together with one of the men who had actually jumped in. It turned out that he didn’t speak any Turkish. Luckily he did know some English though.

“Eat some menemen,” I said, pushing my bowl of scrambled eggs towards him. “You are too cold.”

But: “I’m a doctor,” he retorted proudly. “This man,” – and he indicated the one standing behind him – “is a cardiologist. I will be fine.”

“Are you Greek?”

“Yes. From Athens. And you? You live in Constantinopolis?”

I told him about my house in Cappadocia, that I was visiting İstanbul and had wanted to see the ceremony. A slither of warmth finally seemed to be easing its way through him. He certainly looked less blue. Then he started fidgeting around beneath his trousers in a very un-Turkish nd rather alarming way so that I thought for one brief moment that he might be trying to remove his sopping wet trunks. Instead out came two small red boxes with gold lettering on their lids that looked rather like the ones in which gold coins for gifts are often sold here.

He opened one of the boxes and showed its contents first to his friend, then to me. Inside it nestled a small gold cross.

“Did the patriarch give you that?” I asked and he beamed.

“Two of them!” he said.

“Have you done this before? The diving?”

“No, the first time.”

“And the last,” I joked although presumably for this man it must have been the experience of a lifetime.

A car pulled up outside and off he went. Finally feeling thawed out myself, I wandered round the corner to the Patriarchate and found it full of Greek and Russian tour groups. In a discreet corner I sat down to scroll through my photographs and remove the duds.

Then to my utter amazement I recognized a face. I had only managed to take one picture of a diver re-emerging from the water through the legs of the monks on the platform. Against all the odds that one picture turned out to have been of the man I’d met in the café. Now if only I’d asked him his name…crosstoss2



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