Religion in Istanbul: Mosques, Churches, Cemeteries, Cats

In the comments section of my post on the Georgian Catholic church in Istanbul, a reader requested “a series of posts on some of the odder churches of Istanbul“. As far as I know, the Georgian church I wrote about is the only one in Istanbul, and so a whole series of posts about Istanbul churches would be too far afield from the main focus of this blog. But one post about churches in Istanbul is still somewhat related to Georgia, and so that’s what this post is. Of course, a post about churches in Istanbul would not be even remotely similar to a post about religion in Istanbul, since the modern city is overwhelmingly Islamic. So in the interest of comprehensiveness, this post will also cover some mosques of interest.  Religious life also deals with cemeteries, so I’ve included those too.

Still, as a post dealing with the general topic of “Religion in Istanbul”, this discussion will be woefully incomplete. For one thing, I won’t talk about big, flashy tourist spots like the Hagia Sophia or the New Mosque. There’s plenty of information and pictures of that stuff out there already, and the world really doesn’t need any more. For another thing, in several cases I wasn’t able to enter the church or cemetery or whatever, and even if I could, I wasn’t allowed to take pictures. So this post will be more uneven than I would have liked. On the other hand, there will be a lot of nice pictures (all taken by me).

This post is really long, so for your convenience, here’s a clickable table of contents (seriously, click the links to go straight to what interests you the most!):

Again, this is a long post. But the photos really are cool, so I recommend taking some time to look at them. Maybe look at the different sections over the course of a few days.

And as a special treat for my loyal readers…cat pictures!

istanbul mosque cat

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A Georgian Catholic Church in Istanbul

Notre Dame de Lourdes (known in Turkish as the Bomonti Gürcü Katolik Kilisesi) is a Georgian Catholic church in the Feriköy neighborhood of Istanbul. Most Georgians being Orthodox Christians, there are not many Georgian Catholic churches in the world. Further, there were never many Georgians in Istanbul, and there are very few today. Thus the very existence of this church is twice surprising. Its continued use is also surprising. Most sources report that the congregation today is largely made up of Turks, though when I went to see the church I found an amicable group of Georgians inside.

The church was built in 1861 and extensively renovated in 1901. For further details on the church, as well as its place within the history of Georgian Catholicism, see this recent paper by Natia Natsvlishvili. It’s a very nice essay, and I don’t have much to add to it, so this post will contain mostly pictures of the church along with some comments.

georgian catholic church istanbul gate

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Sayat-Nova

Sayat-Nova (Սայաթ-Նովա, საიათნოვა, Саят-Нова) was an Armenian troubadour poet and musician. He is an important figure in the history of Armenian literature, but he composed songs in all the major languages of the South Caucasus and maintained friendly relations with Georgians and Azeris. For this reason, it has become something of a cliche in writings about the South Caucasus to invoke Sayat-Nova as a symbol of peace and ethnic neighborliness. Besides his intrinsic importance, Sayat-Nova was also the quasi-subject of Sergei Parajanov’s brilliant film The Color of Pomegranates.

sayat nova sofiko chiaureli

Sayat-Nova as portrayed by Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli in The Color of Pomegranates

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INRI, ΙΝΒΙ…ႨႬႫჀ

When Jesus was crucified, so the story goes, Pontius Pilate affixed a sign to the cross which read “JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS” . On most crucifixes, this mocking title is represented by initials on a sign over Jesus’s head. On Catholic crucifixes, the sign says INRI, short for the Latin Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum; on most Orthodox crucifixes, the sign says ΙΝΒΙ, short for the Greek Iesous ho Nazoraios ho Basileus ton Ioudaion (Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ Bασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων).

Georgians, on the other hand, use their own language: ႨႬႫჀ (INMH), for Iesu Nazareveli Meupey Huriatay (იესუ ნაზარეველი მეუფჱ ჰურიათაჲ).

georgian crucifix

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Tbilisi: The Palace of Ceremonies

There is a bizarre building situated on a hilltop in the center of Tbilisi:

In a recent book on weird Soviet architecture, it is called “the Palace of Ceremonies,” while Google Maps calls it “the Palace of Rituals.” I read somewhere that the Soviets intended for it to be a sort of secular church, in which strictly non-religious wedding (and perhaps other) ceremonies could be held.

tbilisi palace of rituals

I have not seen it mentioned in any recent travel information. This is likely because about ten years ago it was sold to some rich Georgian, who made it his private residence (which is totally badass). But it is listed in a circa 1980 English-language Soviet travel guide to Tbilisi, which someone here gave me. That book refers to the building as “the Central Registry Office,” and says that “the palace runs a disco, a marriage bureau, and various clubs (for leisure activities, newly weds [sic], etc.” I have not found out what the current owner has done with the disco, nor what newly weds do here without the CRO.

More photos and details about the Palace of Ceremonies / Rituals

MAJOR UPDATE 2/5/15: The Palace of Rituals is back in business! The re-branded “Celebration Palace of Rituals” / “სადღესასწაულო რიტუალების სასახლე” can once again be rented for weddings and other functions. I don’t know if the building has a new owner or what, but there you have it. From the new website:

All demands of the guests met by the  branding management of the Palace. An unique and complex branding is at your disposal: design, floristic decoration, pyrotechnics (fireworks, paper streamer, skylighter), cortege, professional portfolio, video shooting, choreography master class, invitation cards, delivery service, special cakes, wedding clothing, make-up, hair styling, and musical performance (grand piano, violin, live band, pop group, pop singers) and entertaining shows (theatrical and sketch shows, comedian and variety performers, animators, etc.)

I know where I’m holding my wedding.

tbilisi palace of ceremonies

Georgia Q&A

Q: Where are you going?

A: Georgia.

Q: Cool, I have a cousin in Athens.

A: No, I don’t mean Georgia the American state. I mean Georgia the country.

Q: There’s a country called Georgia?

A: Yeah.

Q: Oh right, I think I’ve heard of that. Isn’t it, like, in Eastern Europe?

A: Not quite. It borders southern Russia, but it also borders Turkey, and it’s much closer to Iran than it is to any European country. But it’s not really Central Asian either. You could say it’s part of the Middle East if you didn’t care about being sloppy, or you could call it Near Eastern if you didn’t care about sounding like you’re from the 1800s. Take a look at this map if you don’t believe me.

caucasus political map

Georgia is in Europe, just like Iran.

Travel advertisers typically bill Georgia as being “at the crossroads of East and West,” which, while cheesy, might be accurate. All this generally holds also for Armenia, which borders Georgia to the south, and to a lesser extent for Azerbaijan, which borders Georgia to the southeast.

Q: But they must be European, since they play in the big European soccer league.

A: And the Rams play in the NFC West. So what?

Q: Fine, but it was part of Russia, right?

A: Yes. Having been conquered and destroyed several times over the centuries (by the Romans, the Persians, the Arabs, the Mongols, and the Turks), Georgia looked to Russia for protection and was annexed at the beginning of the nineteenth century. After the Russian Revolution, Georgia enjoyed a few years of independence, but was soon re-conquered by the (Soviet) Russians. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia became independent again. That’s pretty much where things stand today.

Q: And they speak Russian there?

A: No.

Q: Some other Slavic language?

A: No.

Q: A language even distantly related to Russian?

A: Wrong again, idiot. The Georgian language is not related to any major language. It is not part of the Indo-European language family (which includes most European, Persian, and Indian languages, as well as Armenian), the Uralic language family (which includes Finnish, Hungarian, and some Siberian languages), the Afro-Asiatic language family (which includes Arabic and Hebrew), or the Turkic language family (which includes Turkish and Azerbaijani). Georgian belongs the Kartvelian language family (also called South Caucasian), which also includes Laz, Mingrelian, and Svan. However, none of these other languages have standardized written forms, all are spoken alongside Georgian, and the three combined have fewer than a million speakers, so practically speaking we can ignore them and say that Georgian is not related to any language anywhere at all.

south caucasian kartvelian georgian languages

Don’t worry, I had never heard of these either.

It has been proposed that Georgian might be related to Basque or some other language isolate, but this is just linguists’ fanfic.

Q: So the Caucasus is home, if I’ve counted right, to three distinct language families?

A: You did count right, but no. In fact there are two more. Georgian is spoken on the south side of the Caucasus mountains. To the northwest of the mountains are spoken the Northwest Caucasian languages, including Abkhaz, and to the northeast of the mountains are spoken the Northeast Caucasian languages, including Chechen. Neither of these families is related to the other, or to Georgian, or to anything else.

Q: The Caucasus sounds like a very linguistically diverse region.

A: I’m glad you asked. Take a look at this map, which gives a good idea of what a mess the whole place is.

caucasian languages

A mess

Q: Do they use the Latin alphabet or the Russian?

A: No. They use their own alphabet. It doesn’t look anything like either of those alphabets or the Greek alphabet.

georgianalphabet-table

This alphabet has two T’s, two P’s, two K’s, two TS’s, and two CH’s, which makes transliteration a crapshoot.

Armenian also uses its own alphabet, and it doesn’t look anything like the Georgian one.

armenian alphabet

Believe it or not, this is a real alphabet in use today.

To make things more confusing, there is an old form of the Georgian alphabet which does look like Armenian. Fortunately, it’s not in use anymore today except for decorative purposes.

georgian_asomtavruli

There’s another alphabet that came after this one and before the modern one, but I won’t bore you with it.

Incidentally, the phrase “Russian alphabet” is a pet peeve of mine. Although the Russians do have an alphabet different from ours, many other languages also use that alphabet. Us saying “Russian alphabet” would be like Russians talking about the “French alphabet.” The proper name for their alphabet is “Cyrillic,” so-called because it was devised by ninth-century missionary and burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr.

lili st cyr

St. Cyr and her brother Methodius are credited with inventing two alphabets for the Slavs.

In case you were wondering, Azerbaijani and the rest of the Caucasian languages generally use Latin or Cyrillic according as whether or not they hate the Russians.

Q: Good story. So are they Muslims over there or what?

A: No, for the most part. About 10% of Georgians are Sunni Muslims, and most of them are located in the southern “autonomous republic” of Adjara. The rest of the Georgians are Orthodox Christians.

Q: Oh, are they Catholic or Protestant?

A: Wow you’re stupid. Orthodoxy is distinct from both, and in fact Orthodoxy is older than Protestantism. It is exactly the same age as Catholicism, since the two resulted from a schism in what was one church. Basically, cultural differences and political problems led the Western and Eastern parts of the old Roman Empire to excommunicate each other around 1100. Orthodoxy is the church that resulted in the East and Catholicism is the church that resulted in the West (which would, of course, later splinter again with the Protestant Reformation). Georgia is in the East, so it’s Orthodox.

east west catholic orthodox schism map

Georgia is on this map, but it almost isn’t.

Q: So that’s why Greek and Russian churches look so weird.

A: Right.

Q: And Armenians too?

A: No. The Armenian church is part of Oriental Orthodoxy, as opposed to Eastern Orthodoxy. The Oriental churches (which today also includes the Christianity practiced in Egypt and Ethiopia) broke off from the rest of Christendom in the fifth century. Their separation was due not to any power struggles, but to a good old-fashioned Christological debate. The question was simple: is Christ human? divine? both? neither? or what? The Nestorians held that he had two natures, one divine and one human (the two-nature view is called dyophysitism). The Eutychians held that although Christ was both human and divine, his humanity was vanishingly small in comparison with his divinity, so that his nature was pretty much just divine (monophysitism). To settle this problem, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 came up with a compromise: Christ has two natures, but just one person, and the two natures are united perfectly in that person (this is the doctrine of hypostatic union). The churches that would eventually become Oriental Orthodox rejected this solution, arguing that it amounted little more than Nestorianism. Instead, they claimed that Christ had only one nature, but that this nature was itself both divine and human (they call this position miaphysitism), and they went on to establish their own church on this basis.

christology

I bet you didn’t think you would learn anything about Christology on this blog.

Q: That is so boring that I can’t even finish the paragraph.

A: Well, that’s pretty much how theology goes. The take-away here is that the Armenians don’t belong to the same church as the Georgians.

Q: But there are Muslims near Georgia, right?

A: Yes. The Chechens and some other people to the north of the Caucasus are Sunni Muslims, and in Azerbaijan nearly everybody is a Shia Muslim (this is due to Persian conquest).

shia sunni demographics map

I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find Azerbaijan on this map, and also to figure out what the colors mean.

However, such self-identification is mostly nominal, Azerbaijan is one of the most irreligious countries in the Muslim world. Indeed, my understanding is that this is also true in Georgia, where being Orthodox is more of an national affiliation than a religious one (just as being nomincally Catholic is often considered an important part of being Italian or Mexican).

Q: How are the gender roles in Georgia?

A: I’ve heard it’s very patriachal, but I can’t say for sure yet. Expect a report on the matter.

Q: What about the food, scenery, weather, etc?

A: I’m there will be plenty of time to discuss that stuff when I get there.

Q: It sounds like you intended this Q&A to cover general cultural, historical, and geographical background, and not so much the concrete details of everyday life with which you have no experience.

A: Uh…yeah, that about sums it up.