Aya Yorgi (St. George) Church is located on the island of Büyükada, one of the group of five islands off the Asian side of Istanbul. The monastery was founded in the name of St. George, referred to as Aya Yorgi by the Turks and as Aya Yorgo by the Greeks, a venerated Christian martyr also admired as a military saint. His icon in the church portrays him killing a sea monster with his spear.
Aya Yorgi is very important as one of the main Christian pilgrimage sites. There is one more site of pilgrimage in Turkey of similar import: the House of the Virgin Mary in Ephesus, near the coastal city of Izmir, Turkey. Aya Yorgi is flooded with visitors on two days every year: April 23rd and September 24th. The 23rd of April in particular, which corresponds to a festival of Spring in the Muslim tradition, Hidrilliz, can bring up to 20,000 visitors of multiple backgrounds and religions onto the island for a day of pilgrimage, prayer, and wish making. (The documentary Bells, Threads, and Miracles, directed by Marianna Economou and produced by Lilette Botassi, shows the rituals and the mix of people, especially of Muslims and Christians, who go up to the top of the small hill where the church is located.) Muslims have fully adopted this tradition. When they make the pilgrimage, they climb the hill in silence and buy a key or a bell from the church, pray, appeal to God for their worldly wishes, and linger at the top of the hill again exchanging thoughts, wisdom, and good stories of fulfillment. When a visitor’s wishes are satisfied, they are supposed to return to the pilgrimage site to return the object they bought.The excessive numbers at Aya Yorgi both brings local municipal attention to this place of devotion and again a multiplicity of traders, small artisans, and salesmen who want to capitalize on the crowd. The island becomes a marketplace of candles, trinkets, and threads of all colors, each representing another desire (love, health, wealth) and each bought in quantities by eager visitors. Recently, the local municipality has countered the visit of Muslims to this Christian site by offering free Korans to everyone landing on the island on the 23rd of April. Where the local Sunni officials perceive such high attendance by Muslims of a Christian shrine as perilous, it is instead the true indication that these religions can be and are comfortable in their sharing and their coexistence and do not fear each other at the level of the communities of believers.