Orthodox Christians retrieve holy cross from icy Istanbul waters

More than a dozen swimmers have braced the icy waters of Istanbul’s Golden Horn to take part in one of the world’s oldest polar bear plunges: the ancient Greek Orthodox rite celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany.

After prayers on Epiphany, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians, tossed a wooden cross into the brackish waters of the Golden Horn, an estuary that runs along Istanbul’s oldest quarter, to commemorate the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan River and the appearance of the Holy Spirit 2,000 years ago. The event is held here every Jan. 6, and this year it coincided with the coldest winter storm this season.

Formerly Constantinople, Istanbul is now a sprawling metropolis of about 15 million Muslims, and its tiny community of ethnic Greeks, who consider themselves heirs of the city’s native inhabitants, struggle to maintain their religion’s customs.

The ritual of immersing a cross in water occurs across the Orthodox world. In Greece, entire villages line up at the seaside or besides rivers and streams for the service. In landlocked city apartments, the faithful will dip a cross in a bucket of water, said Julie Theodoselli, 38, who witnessed the ritual in Istanbul for the first time.

“It is very emotional for us to be here at this moment, with the leader of the Greek Orthodox world,” she said. “Muslims have Mecca, we have Istanbul. So at least once you have to be here on this very important day.”

Theodoselli traveled from Thessaloniki with hundreds of other Greeks to witness the event. Smaller versions took part at a handful of spots along the nearby Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul’s larger waterway that divides Asia and Europe.

Bartholomew’s flock in Istanbul has shrunk to less than 3,000 mostly elderly Greek Orthodox from about 150,000 a half-century ago. Years of economic pressure and official discrimination forced most of them to migrate from one of the oldest centres of Christendom, and most of the city’s churches and Greek schools stand vacant. Turkey’s population is 99.9 percent Muslim, according to official statistics.

Yet Bartholomew’s seat remains in Istanbul, a vestige of the Christian Byzantine Empire that reigned for more than a millennia before the city was conquered by Ottoman Muslims in 1453.

Huddled with other members of the clergy on a small platform amid driving snow and high winds, Bartholomew watched on as bare-chested, shivering men, most of them potbellied and in Speedos, and a sole female swimmer dove into the water from small skiffs. They raced towards shore to snatch the cross floating atop the waves in the polluted waters.

In the end it was not a member of the Church but a Turkish journalist who was quickest to the mark, a church official said. His reward? A year-long blessing bound to bring good fortune.