Having been impressed by Epiphany at the Greek church near the iskele ferry in Kuzguncuk, recently we got to attend Sunday service at the main Greek church further up the main street (for a fine study of the mahalle‘s multi-ethnic past, see Nostalgia for cosmopolitanism).
The Greek population of Istanbul (like other ethnic groups there) having progressively dwindled since the early 20th century, only special feast days attract more than a very few worshippers from around the city.
One might just find the service a sad illustration of the decline of Greek culture in Istanbul, but it made me think. While I’ve long been alienated from prissy, drab Anglican worship, turning as an outsider to Orthodox liturgy (or to any ritual and musical tradition) I’m not in search of the exotic, but I’m drawn to it as if it’s a mystery, not in the sublime sense but like a thriller—trying to work out what’s going on, to decipher its rules.
The distinction between emic and etic perceptions comes into play. Rather than the more spectacular rituals that often attract scholars and visitors, stimulating their mystical romanticism, it’s good to attend normal services to get an impression of ritual as routine. As with the rituals I’ve frequented with Li Manshan’s Daoist band in rural China, one begins to perceive that for those attending it’s partly an obligation, and that for the ritual specialists, to some extent “it’s just a job” (more radically, Frits Staal described ritual as “meaningless”; cf. Catherine Bell). Of course, in both cases there are elements of duty to tradition, even faith; but any “meaning” we impute must be broader than mere doctrine, involving changing social perceptions.
In church the liturgists and assistants do their job unfussily; as in Britain, the little congregation goes through the motions with greater or lesser commitment—it’s a weekly duty. Devout spiritual feelings can’t be taken for granted.
In China, conversely, where the Gaoluo village Daoist/Buddhist ritual association often seemed to be going through the motions, attending vespers in the house church of the Catholic minority there I was struck by their intensity and solidarity, apparently a result of their outlaw status since the 1949 revolution. But whereas the Chinese village Catholics maintain their faith tenaciously, the Greek urban Catholics are a tiny minority overwhelmed in a sea of Islam.
Vespers in Gaoluo, 2001.
As to soundscape (the major vehicle for expressing whatever “purpose” there may be to ritual!), the Greek liturgists chant in monophony, with occasional organum, conscientiously alternating solo and choral sections. The tinkling of the thurifer, with the smell of incense, adds a further dimension—which to me remains transporting, though again that’s perhaps not the point.
And without being at all hung up on “living fossils” or Ancient Wisdom, I am somehow inspired by being reminded of a world beyond the dominance of the three-minute pop song, just as the sound of the Muslim call to prayer does more insistently, more publicly (and also routinely). Whereas the silences between phrases of the call to prayer are part of its magic (again, a magic that is not necessarily experienced), in church the liturgy is more continuous; even in melodic material, it reveals a different world from that of the call to prayer or ilahi hymns, though the latter are largely diatonic too.