Flowery (Palm) Sunday began to be celebrated in Constantinople by the fifth century - a couple centuries after it began in Jerusalem and a couple centuries before it spread to the west. Here, spring flowers such as lilac, olive or elder were handed out to the faithful, along with palms, and so the feast first came to be called Flowery Sunday in this city, giving it a special connection with this feast day.
Istanbul is a magical place, a historical tapestry woven of both Muslim and Christian traditions. Even the flat we rented there was exotic, lit up with orange and pink and lined with shelves of hookahs and coffee pots. Overlooking the Golden Horn, its soaring ceilings and walls of windows created a light, airy, peaceful atmosphere. Marc and I had a balcony off of our room, and there was one off of the living room as well - a lovely place to sit and have thick Turkish coffee and listen to the call to prayer being sung over the city, sounding from many minarets with voices overlapping one another. To me it is a beautiful and exotic sound. It reminds me of Jerusalem, which is the only other city I have been to in which I heard the call to prayer sung five times a day - I remember sleeping on our roof top in the old city, waking in the cool early dawn to the haunting sound from the Muslim quarter. And now I associate it with Istanbul as well - another beautiful, fascinatingly old city, well-loved and lived-in. One feels, in these cities, the stories of all the people who have been born and lived and died there, and the ground itself seems to whisper, and the walls tell us that they wept and laughed and longed to be loved and were like us. On a less poetic note, the large window casings, thrown wide with gossamer curtains billowing, put my small children in constant danger of plummeting 8 stories to their death. I would like to have left the windows and balcony doors open all the time, but instead I went around closing things up and yanking little people back from looking over ledges.
From our flat, it was just a short walk to Sultanahmet Plaza, which connects the gorgeous Blue Mosque and the amazing Hagia Sophia. I remember seeing a photograph of the Hagia Sophia as a little girl and being struck by the ethereal beauty of the light filtering in and the "floating" dome. Seeing it in person became a dream of mine. I studied it as an Art History major and a Medieval historian, and after becoming Catholic, and then Byzantine Catholic, I wanted to see it all the more. Originally built by the Emperor Constantine, inaugurated on my birthday in the year 360, it was the principal church of the Byzantine Empire. It endured the fall of Byzantium and the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire. It has been an Orthodox Church, a Catholic Church, a mosque, and now a museum.
When I finally stood in this ancient, heavenly house of worship, I imagined what it must have looked like in its glory. It was, at one time, covered in mosaics, golden and glowing. It was the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture and the world's largest Basilica for almost 1,000 years. It hosted coronations and excommunications. How magnificent Flowery Sunday must have been in that place! A perfect, flower-filled hall of Hosannas, welcoming Christ as He rode into Jerusalem as the Son of God, the one who had raised Lazarus up.
While we are still in Istanbul, I must mention the incomparable beauty of the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace - two of the most stunning places I have ever visited. Not only was the Palace the seat of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years, it also claims to house relics such as the hand of John the Baptist, the staff of Moses, and the sword of King David. The exquisite tile work is mesmerizing, and the opulent blues and golds communicate a placid, luxurious, refreshing refuge. It is ironic, since the harem of the Palace (the most beautiful part), was more of a prison than a refuge for the cloistered wives of the Sultans. I cannot imagine being kept in one spot, even a spot as gorgeous as that, and no number of hand-painted tiles and golden canopy beds could make up for being one of many wives locked up there.
After visiting the Ottomans, trek across town to St. George’s Orthodox Church, the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (basically the Vatican of the Orthodox church). Behind the altar is a marble throne where St. John Chrysostom likely sat in the early 5th century, and some of the iconography pre-dates that of the Hagia Sophia. There are three miraculous icons - one of St. John the Baptist and two of the Theotokos. In the left aisle, you can venerate the relics of St. Basil, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Gregory the Theologian, and - the most prized relic - a remnant of the pillar where Christ was scourged.
The beauty of Istanbul is not confined to architectural masterpieces & spiritual wonders. Wandering the Egyptian Bazaar (the spice market) offers a feast for all the senses. We went to get some dried fruit and Turkish Delight, and I soaked up the whole experience - surrounded by Persian rugs, copper coffee kettles, elaborate glass hookahs, bejeweled satin slippers, flowing silk scarves, and, of course, pungent spices. I closed my eyes and tried to embrace the smell of cardamom-tinted coffee and roasted kebab meat amidst Arabic sales pitches and Turkish haggling.
Now I can close my eyes and call it back up, and I breathe deeply in gratitude and nostalgia. What a wonder and a privilege to have numbered among the many thousands of pilgrims who have visited this rich city over the ages.
Bonus travel tip for those like-minded adventuring families with multiple young children:
When planning the trip, we turned down the pre-arranged airport pick-up because we thought it would be cheaper to take the shuttle. As it turned out, the shuttle was pricey, they failed to alert us when we reached our stop, and we had to travel 15 minutes past our stop before we could get off. At that point, we had to get two taxis since we wouldn't all fit in one. The taxi ride back down the street cost as much as the shuttle, and then we still had to walk a good ways (dragging all our luggage and sleepy babies up and down steep, cobblestoned hills) to actually reach the flat.
The take-away: ALWAYS opt for an airport pick up when arriving in a new and unfamiliar city. It could save you hours of annoyance.