Thousands Make Pilgrimage to Christian Site
Turkey is a secular Islamic country. But the Christian feast day of St. George is observed by thousands of Turkish women in a way that is completely unexpected.
Starting in the early morning on April 23, St. George’s Day, the dock area of the Kabatas section of Istanbul is packed for the 6:50 am ferry running to the island of Büyükada, lying about 30 kilometers from Istanbul. The island is home to the 12th century Greek monastery of St. George, which sits perched hundreds of meters above sea level on top of one of the islands hills.
No one can provide a clear explanation of how the tradition began. What is known is that thousands now make the pilgrimage every year to offer up prayers for health and material success.
Those who made the pilgrimage this St. George’s day were a mix of Turkish women, dressed in a wide array of secular and Islamic attire. On the island, a mixture of good luck charms, multi-coloured candles and cotton threads stretched from the bottom of the hill to the top; the colours signified the nature of the requests regarding, jobs, marriage or children; green for peace and money, red for love, and so on. It took pilgrims about 45 minutes to make the 1.5-kilometer uphill trek to the monastery.
At the top, the queue to enter the monastery was about 2 hours long by 10 am; police officers struggled to hold the pilgrims back using barricades and ineffective shouts of "yavas, yavas" - "slowly, slowly."
The Muslim pilgrims were admitted to the monastery in groups of 10. Once inside, they walked through slowly, rubbing their purses against icons or cabinets full of gold objects in order to bring them wealth; rubbing lucky charms against images of Jesus and sitting writing down their wishes so that they could be dropped in a "wish box" near the exit.
Pilgrims didn’t just come to make a wish. Many were returning to express gratitude for wishes that have come true. Some left offerings of sugar, while others provided sweets to visiting pilgrims.
When asked why a practicing Muslim would make such a pilgrimage to a Christian site, one Turkish woman said; "Because we all have the same God, it doesn’t matter how we pray or to whom, and today is special."
Jonathan Lewis is a freelance reporter and photographer based in Istanbul.
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