End of Byzantium

by 3000 3,000 words
  • Read later or Kindle
    • KindleKindle

End of Byzantium

Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians. Photo by Bulent Kilic/afp/Getty

Besieged by a majority Turkish culture, Istanbul's Ecumenical Patriarch Barthomelew I attempts a cosmopolitan revival

Helena Drysdale is the author of several books, including Mother Tongues: Travels through Tribal Europe, and Strangerland: A Family at War.

3000 3,000 words
  • Read later
    • KindleKindle

My meeting took many weeks and some string-pulling to arrange. It is not an interview, as such, insists Father Nephon, a Patriarchal archimandrite, or senior abbot, but an ‘audience’. I feel slightly daunted. Both the Dalai Lama and the Pope are known as ‘His Holiness’, but Bartholomew I, 270th Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader of some 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, is ‘His All-Holiness’. There are other ancient Patriarchs in the Eastern Church, in Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria, but he is ‘first among equals’.

I’m following in the footsteps of George Bowen, my great-grandfather, who visited the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1848 while researching the first guidebook to modern Greece. Bowen, a Hellenophile but also an admirer of the Ottoman pashas, wondered if the time would come when Greece would reclaim its former capital at Constantinople — something that then seemed a possibility. However, history has dictated otherwise, and after decades of what Turkey’s dwindling ethnic Greek minority describes as sustained persecution, the Patriarchate in Istanbul — the holiest centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church — is today in danger of extinction.

The Patriarchate shelters within a walled enclave in the traditionally Greek district of Fener, north-west of the historic centre of old Constantinople. In Bowen’s day, Fener was home to Greeks who amassed fortunes working for the sultans and in banking and trade. Then, this cosmopolitan Ottoman city — straddling the two continents of Europe and Asia — was noisy with Turkish, Greek, Ladino, Armenian, Arabic and a variety of Levantine voices, while churches co-existed alongside synagogues and mosques. Now, however, Turkey’s orientation is shifting eastward, and nationalism, a potent but largely secular force that drove modernisation in Turkey for more than a century, is taking a decidedly Islamist turn. Tolerance is narrowing. Greeks, departing in huge numbers, have abandoned entire streets of Fener to Anatolian squatters, leaving the Partiarchate a beleaguered Christian island. Not that its high stone walls guarantee protection: in 1997 a grenade was hurled into the citadel and a deacon lost his arm.

My great-grandfather described the Patriarch’s office as painted with flowers and birds, ‘like a second-rate Italian Inn’

On the entrance steps of the Patriarchate, young men in identical black suits talk into mobile phones. I assume they are security guards but discover they are monks, disguised in mufti because the secular Turkish state prohibits all but the Patriarch from wearing religious garb outside church property. I enter the Patriarchate by a side door, the main gate having been locked since the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821; the Turks dragged Patriarch Gregorius V from the Easter service and hanged him from it. I wonder if such inherited memories make it difficult for the two communities to live together, or if the very survival of the Patriarchate, now some 1,700 years old, is, rather, an example of how Christianity can co-exist with Islam.

Nikos, an ernest-looking young cleric with close-cropped hair, is my appointed guide. Meeting me in the small courtyard lined with Ottoman-style clapboard offices, he offers to show me round the Italianate church of St George. Stone, incense, chandeliers: it takes a moment for my eyes to adjust and take in the gilded baroque iconostasis — a screen of icons. St George’s is modest compared with the former Patriarchate church of Hagia Sophia, the golden pride of Byzantium until the conquering Ottomans converted it into a mosque in 1453. We pause to admire two glass and marble caskets containing the fourth-century bones of two of the Church’s founding fathers, St John Chrysostom and St Gregory the Theologian. Nikos also points out a precious portion of Christ’s whipping post, and the coffined remains of St Theophano, which he claims secrete myrrh. ‘I’ve seen it for myself,’ he says, with an adamant flourish.

I check my watch. ‘Don’t worry,’ Nikos says, ‘we’ll be on time’. He hurries us across the courtyard and up the crimson-carpeted marble stairs of the Patriarch’s House to the third floor, where the Hall of the Throne, the Hall of the Patriarchs, and the Holy Synod Room are located. Then we slip along hushed carpeted corridors to wait in a lobby on a row of green velvet chairs. Lay functionaries in black suits go back and forth on important-seeming business. The walls are hung with prints of old Istanbul, not that I make the mistake of saying the word ‘Istanbul’, here of all places. For this is the tiny but still beating heart of Constantinople, New Rome, capital of Byzantium and — until the Turkish conquest — cradle for a millennium of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was in this city that much of the orthodox Christian liturgy was devised, and that church councils were held to define exactly what it all meant. And it was from Asia Minor (which includes modern Turkey) that much of the New Testament originated.

A bearded monk in black robes opens a door, frowns at me, then closes it again. A phone call goes unanswered. Secretaries bearing clipboards hurry past. There is an air of reverence, which does little to allay my nerves. ‘How should I greet him?’ I ask Nikos. Members of his flock kiss his hand, but Nikos says he will probably shake mine. Someone signals from the end of the corridor. Nikos stands, straightens his suit. ‘He’s ready to see you now.’

In 1848, my great-grandfather described the Patriarch’s office as painted with flowers and birds, ‘like a second-rate Italian Inn’. Today, it’s like stepping into a box of Christmas decorations. There are panelled walls and a wooden ceiling hung with a crystal chandelier. The room is cluttered with ornate faux-Louis XV occasional tables covered in glass dishes containing shiny baubles and framed photographs of the Patriarch shaking hands with dignitaries — including President Barack Obama. The walls are lined with gilt-legged chairs, upholstered in scarlet brocade.

His All-Holiness is bent over a desk piled with papers. He picks up a sheet and signs it, lifts another then drops it where it came from, as if weary with the paperwork. While his office glitters, he is modestly robed in a black floor-length cassock, his only adornment a medallion on a neck chain bearing an icon of the Virgin and Child. His pale 72-year-old skin is spotted with age like foxed paper, and his grey hair is cropped, not knotted at the nape like most monks’. From his head rises a cylindrical black hat, with a brief black veil (indicating celibacy) hanging down the back. A square-trimmed white beard adds to the festive feel, but Bartholomew I is no cuddly Santa. ‘He’s tough and shrewd, and he’s had to be,’ Sir Timothy Daunt told me as I prepared for my audience. A former British Ambassador to Turkey who has seen inside the country’s political intriguing, Sir Timothy added, ‘I admire Bartholomew. He hasn’t had an easy time.’

His All-Holiness looks up over unframed glasses, as if suddenly aware of my presence, and gives my hand a bony — but firm — shake. He gestures courteously towards some brocade chairs to his left. ‘What do you wish to discuss?’ he asks, sitting back behind his desk. I explain that my great-grandfather visited his predecessor in 1848, and that I am interested to know how things have changed since then. He seems intrigued by the connection and fetches a red leather tome that lists his 269 predecessors. Regarding me under hooded lids, he says: ‘My mission remains the same as it was then: to serve the Eastern churches. But circumstances are very different. It’s been difficult under the Turkish Republic, very difficult.’

It is not hard to see what he means. The historic hostility between Greece and Turkey, played out in microcosm in Constantinople, is legendary, and the Patriarchate has long been caught between the two, most recently over the Cyprus conflict. According to Hürriyet, Turkey’s leading daily newspaper, some Turks, among them Nurşen Mazıcı, Marmara University’s influential history professor, still suspect the Patriarchate of being a nest of spies with a secret weapons cache, who continue to espouse the Megali Idea — the Great Idea to reclaim all former Hellenic lands for Greece, with Constantinople as its capital. ‘We have suffered lots of tormenting by the government and extremists,’ Bartholomew I says. He has been jeered, spat upon, had his windows smashed. Orthodox cemeteries have been desecrated. Thousands of buildings belonging to the Greek Orthodox community, including schools and hospitals, have been confiscated, and most destroyed or sold.

I am surprised by his candour, given how the government scrutinises his every word, but mostly he has to be circumspect. For example, he does not mention the 2012 report by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which lists Turkey as one of the world’s worst violators. This is wise. In a loose interpretation of anti-terrorist laws, directed nominally against the Kurds, government critics are increasingly being silenced. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent non-profit organisation, reports that there are currently 76 Turkish journalists in gaol, more than anywhere in the world — almost twice the number in Iran, and three times the number in China.

I’d read that a festering sore is the government’s closure in 1971 of Turkey’s only Orthodox seminary, on the island of Halki, under a law prohibiting private universities that was originally designed to protect the secular education system from religious influence. By law, priests have to be born in Turkey, but they have nowhere in Turkey to train; meanwhile, clergy coming from abroad are not eligible to apply for residence and work permits. This means the pool of priests — and potential patriarchs — is shrinking. Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, Metropolitan of Bursa, in northwestern Turkey, grew up abroad. Although he was persuaded to return and regain his Turkish citizenship, and now seems to be waiting in the wings to succeed Bartholomew I, it may prove hard in future to find anyone qualified to take on the role. ‘I studied at the Halki seminary myself,’ Bartholomew I says. ‘Its closure offends human dignity.’

Patriarch Bartholomew Monastery Greek OrthodoxHalki Patriarch Bartholomew I visits the Holy Trinity Monastery library during a visit of the Greek Orthodox theological college on the island of Halki, off Istanbul. Photo by Mustafa Ozer/Afp

Another difficulty Bartholomew faces that while the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the supra-national centre of the entire Orthodox world, the Turkish state does not recognise this in any formal sense, only acknowledging Bartholomew I as leader of the tiny ethnic Greek minority, known as the Rum, in Turkey itself.

This community has dwindled since the 1923 population exchanges that accompanied the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and under various pressures generated by the Cyprus conflict – including government-inspired riots in 1955 – and the mass emigrations during the politically unstable 1980s and ’90s. Since 1912, Turkey’s Rum population has plummeted from 1.8 million to 2,500. Only 250 children remain in Rum minority schools today. If the trend continues, Bartholomew I is in danger of becoming a shepherd without a domestic flock. Meanwhile, the loyal Orthodox diaspora views the See of Constantinople as the ancient repository of its collective faith, but if there are not enough Turkish-born clergy from which to choose a future Patriarch, they are in danger of losing that repository. The Patriarchate itself could become a relic — as venerated but ultimately lifeless as a casket of Byzantine bones.

From 1923 on, Turkey has officially been a secular republic, and religion in public life was, accordingly, zealously suppressed. At the same time, forced population exchanges meant that the national population became overwhelmingly Muslim and ethnically Turkish. Today, there are mixed messages everywhere. The state maintains its official veneration of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the secular republic’s founding father, whose portrait, by law, is still displayed in every public building and institution. And the lure of the West endures: Western goods are eagerly snapped up by a youthful population riding an economic boom. Turkey’s desire to join the EU is not yet dead, and is supported by Bartholomew I as a way of diffusing racism and stabilising Turkey’s institutions, including the Patriarchate. At a governmental level, too, Greek and Turkish relations have thawed somewhat, despite ongoing tension over Cyprus. The Greek government has been a crucial supporter of Turkey’s EU bid.

On the other hand, there has been a popular revival of religious observance, prompted both by nationalism and a desire to fill a spiritual void. At street level, the litmus test is the headscarf, worn by increasing numbers of articulate professional women, including the wives of both Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, and its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The hijab remains illegal for civil servants, and although the government’s recent attempt to legalise its adoption in state universities was overturned by the courts, women are ignoring the ban in rising numbers. Despite a government that wishes to be seen as reformist by the EU, some Islamists are growing more extreme. The Turkish pianist Fazil Say, for example, is currently awaiting trial for reportedly insulting Islam on Twitter; he could be imprisoned for 18 months.

I took the 90-minute ferry ride across the Sea of Marmara, and found the hill-top seminary in a flurry of redecoration for its anticipated re-birth

This push-me pull-you between secular and Islamic, military and civilian, West and East, is being played out at the highest level, with the pro-Islamic civilians of the ruling Justice and Development Party — the AKP — currently on top. The secularist military old guard, 325 of whom were gaoled in September 2012 for alleged anti-government conspiracies, looks outdated next to the youthful thrusts of the so-called ‘Islamic Calvinists’, many of them businessmen turning away from the West to find fresh markets in the East. A university professor, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of the security service, described it to me as a ‘bloodless revolution’.

But interestingly, Bartholomew I insists that things have improved recently. In 2010, he won a landmark ruling from the European Court of Human Rights to regain the vast 19th-century church-run orphanage on the island of Prinkipos (Turkish Büyükada) near Istanbul, which was confiscated in 1997. Bartholomew I had also received promising news about the seminary on the neighbouring island of Halki. In March 2012, President Obama (presumably with an eye on Greek-American votes back home) made Halki an international human rights issue by raising it with Prime Minister Erdoğan, and Erdoğan — keen to keep on good terms with the US and Greece — said he saw no reason why the seminary shouldn’t re-open.

Two days before my audience, I took the 90-minute ferry ride across the Sea of Marmara, and found the hill-top seminary in a flurry of redecoration for its anticipated re-birth. Inside a red-carpeted chamber with portraits of Metropolitans on panelled walls, a group of ancient bearded monks were drinking tea, like wizards. I tiptoed away, but there was a shout, and a young Greek priest robed in black, hair knotted in a ponytail, introduced himself as Father Samuel. He offered to show me round. In the deserted classrooms there stood rows of black-painted desks and old-fashioned blackboards, unused for more than 40 years. ‘Halki will re-open any day now,’ he assured me confidently.

His optimism, like Bartholomew’s, may prove premature. Some secularists warn that permitting a private religious college could pave the way for hate-preaching radical Muslim madrasas, while other people ask why Greeks in Turkey should have a theological college when Athens doesn’t even have an official mosque — the only European capital without one. For now, Halki remains closed.

At the Patriarchate, the door opens and a secretary heads towards me bearing a tray with a glass and a long-handled spoon. It looks worryingly medicinal. Sitting in water is a sweet chewy ball of vanilla-flavoured ‘mastic’. I am touched by the courtesy, but also struck by the unintended symbolism: in Greece, this natural resin is called the ‘tears of Chios’, after the island where it is traditionally produced, and where, in 1822, the Turks slaughtered thousands of Greeks, a massacre that has been immortalised by Delacroix.

Memories are long here, but Bartholomew I cannot count on Greece’s continuing financial help. A former Greek Consul-General in Istanbul told me that, in his opinion, supporting the Rum and the Patriarch has forced Greece to make too many compromises, such as allowing 100,000 Turks to remain in Greece after the 1923 population exchanges, and not retaliating more vigorously over the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. With most Rum having left Turkey, he considered the Patriarchy an unnecessary and — given Greece’s deepening economic crisis — expensive obstruction.

‘Are you Orthodox?’ Bartholomew I asks me abruptly, and seems not to mind when I say no. He gives me a crucifix in a red box, then opens a glass jar and hands me a shiny foil-wrapped chocolate. It would feel like leaving Santa’s grotto until I remember how tenaciously Bartholomew I has fought for his Rum community and the Patriarchy, and how he wrested from the Vatican the relics of St John Chrysostom and St Gregory the Theologian which had been looted by the Crusaders. Seeking a modern role, he is a high-profile champion of the environment; he organises ‘Peace and Religious Tolerance’ conferences, campaigns for EU membership, and has visited North Africa and the Middle East, including Iran, to meet political and religious leaders, the first Christian leader to attempt such inter-faith rapprochement. As a speaker of Greek and Turkish (alongside five other languages), Bartholomew I had transcended the Patriarchate’s fusty anachronism to become a mediator between Muslims and Christians. ‘Like the Turkish Republic,’ he tells me, ‘we have a foot in both worlds,’ then adds: ‘Clashes of civilisations are not inevitable; different cultures and different faiths can coexist in peace.’

Rather than becoming a holy martyr to the split between Europe and Asia, Bartholomew I is trying to straddle the faultline. In this way the Patriarchate might flourish. Not such a relic after all, perhaps.

Read more essays on progress & modernity, religion and values & beliefs


  • Sam North

    Such a great article - hundreds of army officers imprisoned? Spiritual leader to 300 million - there is so much I didn't know, and it seems like a part of the world that's right on the border between the new 'us and them.' Disturbing and enchanting in turns.

    • Helena Drysdale

      Thank you. The imprisonment of the secular army officers is an extraordinary story. 331 of them were convicted in September 2012 for plotting a coup in 2010 known as the Balyoz or 'Sledgehammer' plot. The aim was supposedly to overthrow the ruling AK Party, bomb two major mosques in Istanbul, destroy institutions and put the blame on Muslim extremists, and attack a Turkish plane and blame the Greeks in order to provoke tensions between the two countries. Some of the officers were sentenced to life imprisonment, but this was commuted to 20 years. But people say there are inconsistencies in the evidence, and that many of the charges were trumped up.

  • http://twitter.com/jason_c_cardona Jason Carlos Cardona

    Great article. Although one can admire Patriarch Bartholomew for his international peace efforts, he is also digging his own grave. The more Christians are integrated into the modern secular order, the more they become just another voice among many. The Patriarch and the Pope are symbolic leaders in modern society, but they have no more real social relevance than the Dalai Lama or Brad Pitt. The Muslims in Turkey and elsewhere who want a traditional Muslim society are not so willing as Christians to accommodate themselves to the modern Western world, because they know it means the end of their civilization. In the early Christian church, martyrdom and prophetic witness were the ideals. Today, the ideal is Patriarch Bartholomew meeting with President Obama and advocating for Turkey to be admitted to the European Union. The Patriarch and the Pope are prisoners of their office, which is no longer the living office it once was. Robin Lane Fox, in his book "Pagans and Christians" about the conversion of the Roman empire, concludes that once pagan religious life ceased to be a living part of the empire, then that was the end of paganism. And I think we are seeing the same thing with Christianity. It is no longer part of the empire, it is an entirely private affair. Patriarch Bartholomew is trying to claim some place for Christianity in the empire, but then, was "Christian empire" a good development in the first place? Did it bring Christianity closer to Christ or to Caesar? And should the Patriarch, of all men, be locked in a fortress in Turkey, or should he be outside shedding his blood with the name of Christ on his lips? Thanks for the great article.

    • AnnaR

      @twitter-281209311:disqus: Excellent points, and so well-expressed. Thank you. Many thanks to Ms. Drysdale and Aeon, too, for this insightful article and the accompanying photos.

      • Anon

        I see what you're saying, tho at the same time it's rather difficult for the patriarch to act so carelessly about himself~ as the article stated, he's in a difficult bind with what the potential successor population is & such.
        but it is rather sensible. He's in a bit of a bind I guess you could say

    • Helena Drysdale

      Thanks for your very interesting comments. But I'm slightly confused. You say that Bartholomew is digging his own grave because he is becoming part of the modern world, but at the same time you say that Paganism disappeared because it failed to become part of the modern world. Or have I misunderstood you?

      • http://twitter.com/jason_c_cardona Jason Carlos Cardona

        Hi Helena,

        my point about paganism was that it became irrelevant in a society that was no longer functionally pagan. The social dimension of paganism was lost, and eventually, so too was the private dimension.

        The same thing has happened with Christianity. The church is no longer a living actor in society. The church has tried to come to grips with this by "developing" its worldview and finding ways to integrate itself into a society of free speech, secularism, science, etc. The language of the church today appeals to "economic development," "religious freedom," "separated brethren," "dialogue," etc. And that's all well and good, but it is very different from the original character of Christianity which was ascetic, eschatological, prophetic, etc. The idea of the Pope or Patriarch being martyred today is a matter of international outrage, whereas in the early church it was a basic expectation.

        The church got along for 1700 years or so by building "western civilization," of which it was an integral part. But the church has lost its place in that civilization. The early church had no place in ancient civilization, but that didn't matter, because the early church understood itself as a supernatural community waiting patiently for the eschaton. The early christians gave up possessions, renounced marriage, and were not concerned whether they lived or died, because all was Christ. The church today is not willing to return to that kind of powerless witness, so it clings to its last vestiges of earthly power (cultural institutions, a clerical base, charitable institutions, etc).

        Christianity has lost ground not just socially but in its personal appeal as well. This is the infamous "dechristianization" that the church frets so much about, people no longer attending Mass, people using contraception, etc. The church wants to rebuild christendom, and an example of that is someone like Patriarch Bartholomew injecting a christian voice into social issues like religious freedom and the European Union. But lost in this attempt to rebuild christendom is the prophetic character of Christianity. The church becomes just another social institution, like the peace corps.

        The church is pacified as it becomes a marketing division for the modern world. Patriarch Bartholomew is on a mission of peace, but what did Christ say? "Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34). Whether or not one believes in the old christian saints and legends and miracles, there was nothing modern about them. The lives of the saints are full of headless martyrs and wondrous deeds. It was a worldview completely foreign to modern sensibilities.

        The modern world would laugh if the church were to act like it acted in the early church. And that's why I say Patriarch Bartholomew (and other Christian leaders like the Pope) are digging their own graves. The more the world moves closer to the modern West, the less relevant Christianity qua Christianity becomes. The people either lapse and become irreligious, or they abandon the church for emotional denominations like the Pentecostals in Latin America who appeal to a different sensibility, a sensibility of miracles and wonders, not of ordinariness and respectability.

        The third option is that people try to find some way to be Christian in the modern world, to work in and with the church And I won't say it's impossible, but it has created strange creatures who project the modern world onto their theology.

        Ultimately, what am I saying? I'm not trying to be hard on Patriarch Bartholomew or suggest he is a bad man. He seems to me a good man, but that may be the problem. Like the Rich Young Man in the Gospel who followed all the commandments, there is something missing:

        "And Jesus looking upon him loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." At that saying [the Rich Young Man's] countenance fell, and he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions." (Mark 10:21-22)

        • Helena Drysdale

          Hi Jason, this is al very interesting stuff. I see that you are saying the
          church is in an impossible position - no longer relvant in the modern world, but
          in trying to become so, destroying what little authority and credibility it has
          left. I'm reminded of what happened in the Anglican church when the traditional
          Book of Common Prayer was generally abandoned in favour of 'Rite B' and the
          others, written in what was meant to be modern language that was 'relevant' to
          the modern worshipper, and might lure more of them in through the church doors.
          Instead the old mystery and poetry were lost, and an ugly language that few
          people liked was put in its place. Words that the older generation had grown up
          with and maybe didn't entirely understand but nevertheless knew were substituted
          for crude updating. No one was happy, and the churches continued to empty. Am I right in sensing a kind of nostalgia for the intensity and mystery and
          renunciation of the early church?

          • http://twitter.com/jason_c_cardona Jason Carlos Cardona

            Exactly, and I don't mean to sound like I'm idealizing the past, not at all. It's more a question of what is the church's mission in the world? I'm not necessarily against what the Patriarch is doing, but it's more a question of whether the Patriarch, of all men, should be witnessing to something different. If Christian leaders expect me to believe in this man called Christ, then I have to see something in them that is different. Christ was not a "man of the world." He preached (and lived) poverty, sacrifice, and radical witness. I don't see leaders like the Patriarch following that kind of life, a life set apart from the world, a life not locked away in a fortress but exposed to all the danger that comes with professing Christ. And if the Patriarchs and Popes of the world don't follow that kind of life, how can anyone be expected to do so? The sheep follow their shepherds. Maybe some Christians have to be involved "in the world," in politics, etc....but should it be the Patriarch, is basically what troubles me. Thanks again for the article and discussion.

  • John

    Patriarch Bartholomew is not the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians. He is the archpastor of his limited jurisdiction, which includes flocks in America and Europe, but does not encompass the whole Orthodox Church. The very phrase "first among equals" connotes as much. Nor is Istanbul any kind of "center" of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church has no Vatican, and Bartholomew is not its pope.

    • Helena Drysdale

      Yes, thank you for making that clear. Of course the 300 million Orthodox Christians who Bartholomew leads does not comprise all the Orthodox Christians in the world. There are plenty of other autocephalous churches, with their own Patriarchs. As you say, the Patriarchate in Fener is not the Vatican, and there is no suggestion that Bartholomew is like the pope. Nevertheless, Bartholomew remains first among equals. Istanbul is no longer a centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as I made clear, but it remains the centre for the 300 million members of Bartholomew's flock, and it is the historic centre of the Eastern church - this is where much of the liturgy was thrashed out.

  • Simon

    Very stimulating piece. Leaders like the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Dalai Lama have to take so
    much in their stride, and forgive so much, if they are to operate and
    negotiate for their people.

    • Helena Drysdale

      Thank you. Yes, I agree, they have to be consummate diplomats, and need to rely on a good team of advisers. It must be hard to maintain a spiritual life at the same time as what is really a political one.

  • sue yates

    This is very interesting Helena - I know Istanbul quite well
    sue yates

    • Helena Drysdale

      Thank you. I first visited Istanbul in 1980 and found it squalid and noisy. I stayed in the notorious Pudding Shop (£1 a night) where the bathroom floor was ankle deep in sewage. Now it's totally transformed - smooth-running public transport, parks, and the Pudding Shop unrecognisable - the only trace of its past a few nostalgic black and white photos of hippies with big hair and flared trousers. I think it's an amazing but exhausting city.

  • dave

    What football team does he support? No, seriously, what football team DOES he support? It's the new religion, and it needs factoring in. The Turks are wild about football.

    Sorry about that Helena; I enjoyed the article very much. Oh! some late breaking news, Swansea City 1: Manchester United 1.

    Best regards -- dave clarke.

    • Helena Drysdale

      Ah! Good point. Yes, it really matters, I suppose - like Norman Tebbit and his 1990 cricket test. I never thought to ask him, not having any interest in football myself. But I did ask it of some of the Turkish community in North East Greece, and they agreed that they would always support a Turkish team over a Greek one. I suppose if Bartholomew was wise - which he clearly is - he would avoid taking sides.

  • Bamber Gascoigne

    Brilliant article - excellent structure, written with great style and elegance, and full of wonderfully evocative detall. Many congratulations Helena and Aeon.

    • Helena Drysdale

      Thank you!

  • Ken

    I just returned to this excellent article after the Patriarch's visit with Pope Francis. I am wondering your thoughts on what the impact of that visit might be on the issues that the Patriarch is confronting