Summer 2013 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.


In the last fifteen years or so, with the growth of the internet and media outlets and the globalization of news, a particular religious world and religious practice that had previously been tucked away in local communities in various districts of Istanbul began to receive global attention and consideration.  This religious world is experienced in shared sacred sites: religious spaces and locales that are used by more then one religion.  In these holy places, whether Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches, Sufi Shrines, or Sunni tombs of saints, people of different religions gather and pray together – not as one community, but as eclectic groups of people sharing their belief in a God of a monotheistic religion. Yet, as individuals they come together, as Muslims, Jews and Christians, defying the contemporary discourse of the “clash of civilizations” and the struggle between religions to show that coexistence and cohabitation are possible today as they also were in the past. The faithful who come together in churches, shrines and mausoleums today, in many ways represent continuity with a past that is seen as multiethnic and multi-religious, much more comfortable in the experience of difference. It is this world that we tried to capture in the work we carried out this summer in Istanbul.


Istanbul especially 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 are called “aghiasma” and 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 aghiasma serve as a site 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.


The Church of the Mother of God at Vefa


The Church of Aya Demetrios


Saint Anthony of Padua Church


Saint George Church and Monastery














We have also collected and recorded interviews with priests and visitors to many of these sites. They can be listened to streaming online here.