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The Patriarchate of Constantinople

Updated: Apr 23, 2023

The Patriarchate of Constantinople, or the Patriarchal Church of St. George

My third and final day in Istanbul started with a visit to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, or the Patriarchal Church of St. George, located in Istanbul's Greek Orthodox region, Fener and Balat. The church's humble exterior hides the importance of this church. It is one of the most important Orthodox religious sites and has been the headquarters of the worldwide Greek Orthodox Patriarchate since 1601.

History. Amazingly, the history of this church goes back to 38 A.D. when it was founded by Saint Andrew, the "First-called among the Apostles," in the ancient city of Byzantium. It was originally located next to the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, and Saint Andrew's disciple, Stachys, was the church's first bishop from 38 to 54 A.D.

In 381, after Constantine the Great transferred the capital of the Roman Empire to recently-established Constantinople (the "New Rome"), the church's bishop became the "Archbishop of Constantinople." Seventy years later, in 451, the Council of Chalcedon expanded the archbishop's rule to a large area in the Balkans and Asia Minor, as well.

Entrance to the church.

From Constantinople, Byzantine Orthodox Christianity spread to most of Eastern Europe. As such, the patriarch of Constantinople represented a clear challenge to the "universal" church of Rome. The two churches had two major clashesone in 867 when Patriarch Photius accused Pope Nicholas I of usurpation in Bulgaria, and another in 1054. It wasn't until 1964 that the ecumenical patriarch (Athenagoras I) and the pope (Paul VI) finally embraced.

A New Era. Interestingly, when the city fell to the Turks in 1453, the Ottoman government did not turn its churches into mosques. Instead, it recognized the current patriarch Gennadius II as the ethnarch, or ruler, of the conquered Orthodox peoples, and gave him increased authority over the Eastern patriarchates and Balkan countries.

In 1601, Patriarch Matthew II moved the headquarters of the Patriarchate to its current location in the Church of Saint George. Previously the church had been part of a small Orthodox convent, but from this point onward it became a monastery and the worldwide center of Orthodoxy worldwide. (Essentially, it became the Orthodox equivalent of the Vatican in Rome.)

The Interior. I was honestly stunned when I entered the church. Its humble exterior did not compare to its opulent interior. (One website I found said the simple façade is due to Ottoman Islamic law, which required non-Islamic buildings to be smaller and more modest than mosques or madrasas.) The church's wooden iconostasis (pictured above) is covered entirely in gold leaf. It was made in the 18th century and features a mixture of Byzantine, Renaissance, Baroque, and Ottoman styles.

Also interesting is the church's collection of historical artifacts. Among the most significant include a circa 5th century patriarchs' throne, three rare mosaic icons, and a fragment of the column on which Jesus is believed to have been tied and flogged. Hundreds of thousands of believers visit this church to see these relics each year.

To be honest, I never would have found this church if not for my guide. (Or, at least, I would not have found it in a timely manner.) I only started researching Istanbul's main sites and trying to locate a guide about a week before leaving Romania. I lucked out by finding Gamze, who grew up in this neighborhood and has been a guide for many years. As such, if ever you visit Istanbul, I highly recommend going through a travel site and finding a guide. Otherwise you'll miss amazing sites like this and end up in the wrong part of town like me! :D

Portrait of Jesus in the center of the ceiling

Below are a couple of videos of the church. The first is from the YouTuber Cem Ozmeral, and the second is from the really cool blogger Nomadic Niko. Niko filmed the second video on October 3, 2019 during a ceremony of priests being elected and elevated as bishops.

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Hi Jessica,

Thanks for sharing your visit to this church and explaining a little of the history behind it. I know little of Roman Catholic and Orthodox history. To be fair I don’t know much about reformed protestant history but that’s what I’m more familiar with.

Travel is something I do not crave, so gaining a little insight from you is enriching and satisfying.

Replying to

I’ve travelled around much of Australia, and for work, I’ve been able to many cities around the world. The work travel though doesn’t permit any sightseeing. In many meetings I don’t see anything other than the meeting rooms.

The comfort zone argument is a good one. Who knows, in my retirement years, I may be more inclined to travel for pleasure and leisure again.

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