By Dr. Christopher Sheklian
(ANALYSIS) ISTANBUL— Every year for the Feast of the Ascension, all of the Armenian Apostolic Church clergy in Istanbul gather on the plaza outside the small brick chapel of Surp Pırgiç, Holy Savior, within the compound of the associated hospital. There, they conduct the ancient Armenian Antasdanrite, the Blessing of the Fields.
The officiating clergyman, flanked by most of the 30-plus priests of the city, lines up facing east. On the opposite side, the deacons and other altar servers carrying the censor, banners and candles assemble. As an anthropologist and deacon of the Armenian Apostolic Church, one of the ancient autocephalous churches in the Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity, I have attended this celebration a few times. In 2013, I even had the opportunity to serve on the altar during the Divine Liturgy and participate in the Antasdanservice.
Conducted several times a year, the Armenian Antasdanservice is one of the most dynamic services surviving in the Armenian Apostolic Church’s rich liturgical life. After reciting an invocation for the eastern parts of the world, during the rousing singing of “Amen, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia,” the two lines of clergy and deacons move in procession clockwise, ending up in the opposite positions. Then, the priest prays for the west, and the procession begins again, until all four directions of the earth are blessed.
Offered around the world wherever there is an Armenian Church, the dynamic procession asks for God’s blessings on the entire world. I’ve taken part in it in my home parish in the small rural town of Yettem in central California, on the plaza of the St. Vartan Armenian Cathedral in New York City and in the walled complex of Holy Saviorin Istanbul.
In addition to the Antasdanservice, the Armenian Apostolic Church offers several other mobile and dynamic liturgical services, notably a processional taporat the beginning of every Divine Liturgy — or “Badarak”in Armenian — and a procession with a replica of the tomb of Christ on Good Friday. These processional services recall and are remnants of the emphasis on procession that was well known in the earliest Christian services, especially in major cities such as Constantinople.
Like the grand processions of old, however, the Antasdanservice conducted at Surp Pırgiç in Istanbul takes its significance not only from the procession itself but from its place within a larger liturgical itinerary of movement around the city. Liturgical historians call this movement “stational liturgy.” The movement is traced back to the bishop of Constantinople and other early major Christian sites, most notably Jerusalem and Rome, that conducted processional liturgies.
In these processions, throngs of worshippers accompanied the bishop and his flank of clergy. Walking through the city, the entourage entered the destination church in a grand procession. And while stational liturgy refers to the broader procession around the city, it is clear that the procession within the church can be connected to this phenomenon.
Similarly, at Surp Pırgiçon the Feast of the Ascension, both bishops currently residing in the city are accompanied by a full mustering of the city’s priests along with many deacons and faithful. Surp Pırgiç, one of the most prestigious hospitals in the city, was founded on May 31, 1834, funded by wealthy Amira Bezciyan as an Ottoman-Armenian “vakıf,” or charitable endowment. Given its central importance as one of the largest and wealthiest vakıfsto the Armenian community of Istanbul today, its founding is memorialized every year through the celebration of Divine Liturgy and Antasdan on the Feast of the Ascensionat the small chapel on its grounds.
It is thus caught up in the movement of the bishops and faithful to different Armenian churches throughout the city, depending on feast days or the name days of the saints to which the churches are dedicated. That is, something very similar to the ancient stational liturgy continues to take place among the Armenians of Istanbul.
Demanding a right to the city through liturgy
Such dynamic processional liturgical services also, as I have come to understand, place Armenian Christians in the geography of the particular locations where they live, dispersed around the world. Armenians, constituting one of the classic diasporas, were already far-flung before the 1915 Armenian Genocide killed more than 1.5 million Armenians and scattered most of the rest of the people of the Armenian Highlands, in present-day eastern Turkey, around the world.
Today, mobile liturgical services like Antasdan root Armenians in their hometowns in the small Republic of Armenia. Outside the Republic, in all four corners of the world blessed by the Antasdanservice, Armenians are generally small religious minorities. In central California or Paris, the processional assertion of presence is relatively unproblematic.
In Istanbul — within the Republic of Turkey, which is the successor state to the perpetrators of the Genocide and continues to deny that the violence amounts to genocide — the geographic emplacement through processional liturgy takes on an added weight. It becomes a claim to what I will call the “minority right to the city.”
In social theorist Henri LeFevbre’s provocative formulation of “the right to the city,” he says that claiming such a right “is like a cry and a demand.” The liturgical movement of minority Armenian Christians around Istanbul, tracing a geography that emphasizes Armenian neighborhoods and historical buildings, is precisely such a cry and demand on the city.
By celebrating the Divine Liturgy in far-flung corners of the city, including areas where Armenians used to live when the population was larger, Armenian Apostolic Christians assert a basic presence and insist on their right to move around the city and to highlight their permanent physical presence in it, including fine examples of church architecture.
By conducting liturgy, they perform the ultimate assertion of Christian presence, theologically incarnating the church as the body of Christ in a city and country that has often limited exactly that Christian presence. Through liturgy, that is, Armenian Christians demand the right to the city.
Daily liturgies still resemble ancient practice
Antasdanduring the Feast of the Ascension at Surp Pırgiçhas the highest attendance of the processional services of the Armenian Apostolic Church in Istanbul. Yet it is the regular liturgical services offered most days of the week around the city that make up the bulk of the broader stational liturgical practice.
In the ideal type of stational liturgy described by scholars like Baldovin, the bishop must be present and the service should be the main or only service in the city at the time. As Baldovin defines it, stational liturgy is “a service of worship at a designated church, shrine, or public place in or near a city or town, on a designated feast, fast, or commemoration, which is presided over by the bishop or his representative and intended as the local church’s main liturgical celebration of the day.”
Today, in Istanbul, the processional and stational mobile elements of the city-wide liturgical practice diverge from this ideal type. Yet there are remarkable similarities between the Armenian liturgical calendar of contemporary Istanbul and the ancient practice of stational liturgy.
Nearly every day of the week in Istanbul, there is some liturgical service offered. Many of the 36 Armenian Apostolic churches in the city have at least a small community still residing in the neighborhood. At those churches, weekly Badarakis offered on Sunday. From St. Gregory the Illuminator Church in Galata in the bustling heart of the chic retail district on the European side of the city to the Church of the Holy Cross tucked in the back streets of Üsküdar on the Asian side of the city, neighborhood churches with their assigned priests celebrate the Lord’s Day.
Smaller churches in neighborhoods with a less populous Armenian community might not have a dedicated priest and weekly Sunday liturgy. Instead, they often figure into a weekly and monthly schedule, where nearly every day some liturgical service takes place. Often this is the full Badarak,but sometimes it is one of the morning services of the Armenian Church, like the matins of the Roman Catholic Church.
Usually, these are regularly occurring events: one day at Surp Pırgiç, another at St. Gregory the Illuminator in Kuzguncuk — an adorable former fishing village north of Üskudar known as the “three-religioned neighborhood” because of the close proximity of a Greek Orthodox church, Armenian Apostolic church and Jewish synagogue — and another at the church in Balat, famous for an icon, a copy of which is hung at a church in northern Manhattan.
During the two years I spent in the city for ethnographic fieldwork, I tried desperately to pick a couple days a week to attend services, keeping the rest of the days free for other ethnographic endeavors. Yet there was always another church to visit, a beautiful icon to see or the tomb of a famous patriarch to view. One could easily spend most days making this liturgical circuit in Istanbul, and indeed, many do.
While some of the church services cater to local neighborhood Armenians who otherwise have to travel for liturgy on Sunday, there is also a dedicated cadre of altar servers, choir members and faithful who go to different neighborhoods every day. Since there are sometimes multiple services at different churches, every person has their favorites: a favorite church — perhaps because the neighborhood holds a special place in family history — a favorite choir director with a coterie of students learning the complex Armenian liturgical music system, a favorite preacher — perhaps a high-ranking celibate clergy who frequents one of the churches.
Several liturgical itineraries emerge as Armenians crisscross the megalopolis of Istanbul connecting far-flung neighborhoods up and down the Strait of Istanbul, in Asian and European neighborhoods, in old quarters and new. While so doing, they make use of Istanbul’s transit infrastructure. When the Marmaray, Istanbul’s massive new transit project, opened in 2014, the magazine of the Surp Pırgiç hospital announced, “Now we are really close to you!”
In conversation after conversation with choir members and parishioners who came to the weekly service at the brick chapel, they agreed: It was much easier to get to the service this way. Surely the small Armenian population was not the main intended beneficiary of the billion-dollar project. But the group incorporated the new transit possibility into their liturgical itinerary, making an implicit claim on their presence and belonging in a city and country often indifferent to them at best.
Liturgy helps Armenians claim holy sites
A form of stational liturgy, of mobile liturgical movement around the great city of Istanbul thus locates the Armenian minority in the city and the political body. Armenians incorporate the infrastructure of the city into this practice of stational liturgy, making a “cry and a demand” through their liturgical practice. This becomes most explicit in the celebrations that are like the stational liturgy of old. On Saturdays commemorating major feasts, the Armenian Patriarch of Istanbul arrives at the church named for that saint.
Sometimes, these churches are not even in the weekday circuit, let alone a place where there is regular Sunday Badarak.The changing demographics of the city have resulted in several neighborhoods with Armenian churches that have no local parishioners. These major feast days, when the patriarch, clergy, deacons, choir members and faithful from other parts of the city descend on a church in a neighborhood that used to have a more robust Armenian population are the clearest claim on continued presence. Most like the stational liturgy of old, these feasts on the commemoration of saints are also the explicit articulation of a minority right to the city.
Liturgical historian Michele Renee Salzman has argued that Leo the Great’s stational liturgical practice in the fourth century should be viewed as “part of his contestation for space — physically and symbolically — in Rome.” Stational liturgy, she insists, is part of a “strategy of visuality,” a claim to being present in the city and an assertion of control over the space. Stational liturgy’s potential as a strategy of visibility is clearly linked to larger questions of politics and power.
While the Armenians of Istanbul today do not have the political force of Leo the Great in an emergent Christian empire, their stational liturgy practices are still a strategy of visibility and a claim to presence. In Istanbul, for a small religious minority, this strategy of visibility manifests as a cry and demand. Stational liturgy emerges as an important claim to the minority right to the city.
Dr. Christopher Sheklian is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Comparative Religious Studies in the faculty of Philosophy, Theology, and Religion at Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, part of the ERC-funded “Rewriting Global Orthodoxy” research project. Formerly director of the Zohrab Information Center of the Armenian Apostolic Church in America, he is an anthropologist who specializes in the anthropology of religion and secularism, studying the role of liturgy and law on the lives of religious minorities. He has taught at the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan and Wesleyan University.
This essay was supported by Sheklian’s participation as a senior fellow in the “Orthodoxy and Human Rights” project, sponsored by Fordham University’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation and Leadership 100.