The Dogs of Constantinople


At night, the Hagia Sophia is invested by wild dogs. You walk about the expanse between it and the Blue Mosque, and you pull your coat tight against the early winter chill. The dogs are everywhere. They are in the streets, lolling contentedly as the odd taksi veers about. They are on the concrete, rummaging through strewn trash. They are on the grass, rooting about in the flowers, and gnawing upon disgusting chunks of rancid flesh. They ignore you. One of them barks, and at once they are all on their feet and yelping. They lope toward a solitary taksi driver who performs a small charity of sharing some meat.
Overlooking it all is the Hagia Sophia, red stone capped with black metal, topped with the golden crescent of its conquerer. It is massive. Chronicles of the Dark Ages and the Medieval era tell of Western travelers seeing the Queen City for the first time, and being stupefied at its grand church. And so I am, as Sunday slides into Monday in the dead of a Constantinopolitan night. The hulking form overpowers the grace and grandeur of the Blue Mosque, a park's length away. The great mosque apes the great church, except it is white instead of red, its minarets are native instead of alien, and its believers are thriving instead of dying.
The Christians of the Queen City are dying. The Ecumenical Patriarch housed in the Fener district used to be ecumenical – an Orthodox Christian, to be sure, but of no particular nation. No longer. Because the Patriarchs of old lived with the Emperors in their very city, they grew accustomed to the strictures of state power – unlike the Popes, who exercised temporal monarchy of their own. The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire saw fit to continue the relationship, reaping handsome profits from bribe-profferring claimants to the Patriarchate, and forcing the occupant of the seat of St Andrew to answer for their co-religionists. Usually this entailed a conferral of a limited intra-communal civil power upon the Patriarch; but in the Greek War of Independence, the Patriarch was lynched for his rebellious millet's temerity. As with the Sultans, so with their successors: the Turkish state continues to dictate the terms of existence for a Patriarchate that predates the mere existence of Turks in Turkey by at least seven hundred years.
The trauma of the decline of the Ottoman state, and the need during the Turkish War of Independence to fight off non-Turkish claimants (though not always foreign claimants) to Anatolia and Thrace, left the Turkish polity with an undying fear of territorial dispossession. There is a strong concept of Turkishness as inherently involving Islam; and hence non-Muslim institutions like the Patriarchate are inherently suspect. They are not “Turkish” (except in a legal sense with no claim on the sentiment of the masses or the state) but they are on Turkish soil. There is no way to Islamicize the Patriarchate, of course, but one may restrict the office to men of Turkish citizenship. And so the Kemalist state has done precisely this.
There was a time not so long ago when this would not have been an insuperable challenge. If we consider Byzantium to be historically contiguous with the imperial city, Constantinople was Greek for almost two thousand years before the Turkish conquest – and Christian for nearly eleven hundred of those years. After the fall in 1453, it remained majority-Christian for a few centuries thereafter, and then it harbored a sizable Christian minority (mostly Greek and Armenian) through the early 20th century. That came to an end when Constantinople became Istanbul in the Kemalist era. The 1923 “population transfer” on the heels of the Greek loss in its tragic war of the megali idea wiped out the Greek communities – and hence the Christian communities – of Ionia, the Pontus, and inland Anatolia. Constantinople’s Greeks were spared from annihilation, but their ranks thinned out of fear and harassment in the new order. Subsequent pogroms, notably the Turkish government-sponsored 1955 pogroms, had the effect of progressively reducing the numbers of native-born Constantinopolitan Christians. Concurrent with this, the Turkish state pursued an active program of expropriation which itself abetted a vicious circle: if a church property fell into disuse, the state seized it; and with the state defining “disuse,” the seizures often enough had the effect of denying the remaining Christians the very pillars of their communal life, which in turn provoked more Christians into leaving, which deprived more properties of their parishioners, etc. (A prime example of this policy of seizure and closure is the theological school at Halki, which I visited yesterday and will write about shortly.)
Today, there are approximately two thousand native-born Christians, almost entirely Greek, in the Queen City of Christendom. They are mostly old, mostly die-hards, and mostly clerics. As the Turkish state intended all along, the faith is nearly extinct in one of its most ancient lands – and the time will come when no native-born Christian “Turk” will be competent to sit upon the Patriarchal throne. And what then? Will the Ecumenical Patriarchate simply die a quiet death after long centuries? Will its demise be met like so many other tragedies of Christendom, with small regret and apathy? Will the Turkish state be a better, more Turkish state without its Christians?
At some point in the cold night, the dogs retreat to warm recesses in the alleys and corners of Sultanahmet. For a short while, the old center of Constantinople is as empty and lifeless as its Christian caste. In the early morning, the muzzein’s cries fill our hotel room. But we open the curtains, and there is the Great Church, silent, solid, enduring – and waiting.