Ethnographic Research in Istanbul
Over the summer of 2013, Karen Barkey, Director of the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life, with assistance from Noah Arjomand, PhD candidate in Sociology at Columbia University, traveled to Turkey to conduct field research for the CDTR. The majority of their work was carried out in three churches in Istanbul: the Church of the Mother of God and the “Aghiasma” known as Vefa in the Vefa neighborhood (featured in the short documentary video here), the Church of Aya Demetrios in Kuruçesme, and Saint Anthony of Padua Church in the Beyoglu (Pera) distict of Istanbul. The first two are Greek Orthodox Churches featuring aghiasma, or holy waters, and the third is a Roman Catholic Church.
Istanbul is dotted with many Greek Orthodox churches and holy places that have sacred springs. In the past, these natural sources of underground water attracted worshipers in search of purification, health, and miracles. The miraculous powers of the sacred springs led to shrines and church complexes where devotion spread. These sacred waters, called “aghiasma” (from “αγίασμα”, Greek for holy water, plural: “αγιάσματα”, “aghiasmata”, ayasma in Turkish) are at the center of the holy places where people of different faiths unite to solicit miracles and pray together without any perceptible boundaries between them. The Churches and the aghiasmata serve as sites where Christians, Muslims and Jews encounter each other outside the daily hustle and bustle of a large city. When they meet in such circumstances, different religious groups pray together, exchange advice, provide testimonials and personal stories confirming the sacredness and miraculous nature of the place. Following the rites of the particular religious tradition, visitors mimic others who are seen as the owners of the space, repeat and solemnly follow prayers and rituals as they experience them. Such practices are not about conversion; they are not about giving up one’s identity. Rather, they are about coming together simply to make a wish, to share a moment of peace and holiness, or to commune with God in a personal way, mediated by priests or by local enlightened figures. It is also about defining oneself within the larger spectrum of identities. It is about the acceptance of difference and the assimilation of this difference as a positive value.Such practices date back a long time. The Ottomans allowed the sharing of sacred space in the plural polity and society they assembled. Before them, the Byzantines and the Seldjouks co-mingled in religious spaces, mixing Christian and Muslim practice at frontier shrines, at the hands of frontier peoples influenced by the heterodoxies of the periphery.
This research focuses on three of these modern-day shared spaces, and includes photography, interviews with priests and with site visitors, and a short documentary. Click the links below to read more about each of the individual churches and the people who frequent them.
We have also collected and recorded interviews with priests and visitors to many of these sites. They can be listened to streaming online here: