ISTANBUL, Turkey — The traffic was snarled along Istanbul’s Halic waterfront last Sunday. The taxi driver grumbled that “this is strange, this is definitely not normal,” as we inched closer to the blockage.
Closer still, dozens of tourist buses were parked along the pavement. Hundreds of tourists hung around, waiting, camcorders round their necks, cigarettes dangling from their mouths. Expectant.
As Turkish motorists and bystanders waited, a solemn procession of priests emerged from round a corner, holding aloft ceremonial crosses and burning candles.
Led by the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church Bartholomew I, the crowd of priests, pilgrims, security men and VIP guests came to a halt at the pier. Opposite them, bobbing in the water, were 15 men stripped to the waist and balancing on a fisherman’s boat.
A few more minutes of chanted liturgy and the patriarch threw the cross, arcing it into the sea.
As if responding to a starter gun, the men on the boat launched themselves into the water, straining to be the first to reach the cross bobbing on the waves.
The tradition of retrieving the cross in the freezing January waters is all part of the three-day festival of Epiphany, or Fota in Greek. Culminating on the one night of the year when the heavens supposedly remain open in a direct line to God, this holy day celebrates the appearance of Jesus to humankind and commemorates the chain of events from birth until his baptism in the River Jordan.
Ever since Christianity appeared in Constantinople, the seat of Byzantium, the ceremonial blessing of the waters was one of the highlights of the year in waterfront communities up and down the Bosphorus.
Old-timer Costa Constantinidis recalls how back in the 1950s the locals — both Christian and Muslim — would jostle against each other for the best view all along the promenade or up on the balcony of the seaside mosque.
Then, after the priest throws the cross into the river, the lads would launch themselves from the boats into the water. The winner who reached the floating cross first would get from the priest a small cross made of gold and, reputedly, divine good fortune for the entire year.
Today, Istanbul's Patriarchate is an institution under pressure. Crowds of nationalist Turks regularly demonstrate outside it and the odd grenade has been known to be thrown over its high walls. Around it extends one of the most conservative Muslim neighbourhoods in Turkey.
Though the ceremony of the cross was once banned in Turkey due to the poor relations between the post-Ottoman Republic and its religious minorities, it is now permitted.
And it remains the kind of sight that stops ordinary Turks — whether motorists or pedestrians — in their tracks.