A Pilgrimage to Asia Minor in October 2010

by Fr. Alexander G. Leondis

My love for Christ grew from my calling to the priesthood and my undergraduate studies at Holy Cross Theological School in Brookline, and the Patriarchal Theological School of Halki in Constantinople, and my graduate studies at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Tuckahoe, New York. While at Halki, I experienced first hand the dynamism, significance and universal outreach of our Ecumenical Patriarchate for world Orthodoxy and the ecumenical movement. There, I witnessed both the majesty and the anguish that our Patriarchate undergoes for the glory of Christ and our Church.

Recently, I had the opportunity to revisit those hallowed places. During the first two weeks of October, I traveled to Asia Minor, modern day Turkey and the second Holy Land of Christianity, and visited my schoolmate and friend Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. This trip was and still is a reminder of the glorious past of our Orthodox Church and its promise of the magnificent future. Presbytera Mary and I were accompanied by Fr. Jim and Presbytera Bia Moulketis, of Saint Nicholas, Wyckoff, and were later joined in our last week by Fr. Mark, my son and Archdiocesan National Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries and Presbytera Anastasia

Cappadocia caves, Ihlara Valley

Our first experience was visiting the remarkable city of Cappadocia, appropriately considered a Wonder of the World. We had an earlier glimpse of it in Bob Simon’s “Sixty Minutes” which toured the area with Patriarch Bartholomew. (The video is available on the Archdiocese or Archons’ webpage.) Cappadocia in Caesarea is a fairy tale setting fashioned by the volcanic erosions, which formed chimney rocks for over ten thousand years. Within these formations are carved caves that are still decorated with fine Byzantine icons.

Cappadocia was located on the Silk Road, as it was called, with caravans bringing silk from China to Europe in centuries gone by. To avoid the traffic and destruction caused by the silk caravans, the ancient Hittites carved underground living quarters which later Christians expanded into six levels to protect themselves from raiders, enemies and plunderers. All of their living and spiritual needs were completely met in their underground quarters where they could remain hidden for up to five months of the year.

As time revealed, Cappadocia produced the first great theologians of the Church, the Cappodocian Fathers: Saints Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. We were deeply moved by the experience of walking on the same ground St. Basil may have walked on and of praying in a Church bearing his name.

Cappadocia, cave frescoes http://www.

After visiting the site of St. Basil, we traveled east to Myra, the city of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, the protector of children and travelers, the person who eventually was to be called Santa Claus. After the death of St. Nicholas, a church was built over his relics. Decorated with beautiful Byzantine icons, it stands regally to this day.

While all of our ancient churches are considered museums today and are held as Turkish property, I had a plan. Before I left on my pilgrimage, I had copied from my computer an icon of St. Nicholas and printed on it the names of those I know personally along with the entire Holy Trinity family. Walking among those icons, I found a secluded area of the Church where I squeezed the paper with the icon and names between two stones that St. Nicholas may always intercede for us.

Our trip continued with our next visit to Ephesus, a city which abounds in ancient Greek and early Christian ruins resourcefully and creatively constructed in exquisite facilities. Though only 7% of the ancient ruins have been uncovered until this day, much can still be seen and appreciated. The streets of Ephesus are paved in spectacular marble. There, a university and library were erected whose façade bears four statues with the inspired words of “Wisdom,” “Virtue,” Thought,” and “Knowledge.” Along with these structures, the Ancient Greeks built a stunning temple to Artemis, the goddess of fertility.

In Ephesus, we visited the Church of the Theotokos whose outer walls, the apse and the marble altar still survive. Here a momentous event took place in 449, the Third Ecumenical Council, which clearly defined Mary as the Theotokos, the Mother of God, thereby confirming Christ’s two natures, the divine and the human.

St. Nicholas, Myra http://www.sacred-destinations.com/

Ephesus, Church of the Virgin Mary http://www.sailturkey.com/

Ephesus ruins [http://www.carhire4airports.com/

From Ephesus, we sojourned to Smyrna, where Homer wrote the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” and where St. John the Evangelist served as its first bishop. Smyrna is a picturesque seaport city on the Aegean. In the Book of Revelation, it received an exemplary rating among the seven churches.

In Smyrna, the Greek Counsel General, the honorable Hara Skolarikou, received us at the consulate. We sorrowfully discussed the far-reaching slaughter of the Greek Orthodox Christians during the 1922 Catastrophe of Asia Minor. Her honor directed us to the area in the Bay of Smyrna where the water was turned red with Greek blood during the massacre of our people by the Turkish militia.

A thriving Greek Orthodox community had been calling Smyrna their home for centuries. The 1922 census estimates there were 300,000 living there in contrast to the only 20,000 living in Athens. Those few who escaped the massacre regrettably left behind a multitude of Greek families, clergy, professionals, craftsmen and others to die treacherously in Asia Minor, unheralded by those who gave little or no aid. It is estimated that 1 million to 3 million Greeks were killed in Asia Minor by the Turkish army between 1922-23.

Smyrna, post conflagration (HCS collection)

Smyrna, pre-1922 (HCS collection)

Unmistakably, Smyrna was an emotional experience for Mary and me, because our parents were descended from its suburbs, Mimas and Karaburun in Turkish. We were overcome with deep joy and sorrow—joy because we were in touch with our ancestral roots, sorrow because of the assault on our people who fled their homes without warning to save their lives. We found the ruins of our parents’ churches and offered memorial prayers for our ancestors. My grandfather Alexander was buried in the courtyard of the Church of St. Demetrios. Significantly, I visited this area 50 years ago when I was studying at Halki and can attest to the fact that little has changed since then.

Our next and final visit was to the Queen of Cities for us Orthodox Christians, Constantinople, the Mother Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and headquarters of world Orthodoxy. Once again, we experienced joy and sadness as we envisioned the past glory of Orthodoxy and mourned the present state of our Church.

Constructed by Justinian, St. Sophia Church, dedicated to the Holy Wisdom of God, was the largest building in the world in the 6th century, predating St. Peter’s Church in Rome by some 1,000 years. The major hierarchs, St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nazianzus and other Fathers occupied the throne and preached in this magnificent house of worship. Here ecumenical councils took place, Byzantine music and art were perfected and our theology formulated. Many of the beautiful mosaics still survive. However, under Turkish rule, St. Sophia has been a museum since 1935.

Haghia Sophia, Constantinople (HCS collection)
When King Vladimir sent Russian envoys to determine the Faith of his nation, they entered St. Sophia and reported to him that they didn’t know whether they we were in heaven or on earth as they beheld the splendor and worship in this magnificent church. However, in 1453, St. Sophia was converted into a mosque when Sultan Mehmet the Second conquered Constantinople. The Muslims were so enamored with St. Sophia that from the 15th century on, all mosques are capped with a dome in imitation of this great edifice.

Chora Monastery, Constantinople (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/

Chora Monastery, Constantinople (http://vatopaidi.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/chora_lg.jpg)

We visited Chora Monastery, which many historians and art specialists cite as having the finest and most beautiful mosaics in the world, dating from the classic 14th century Byzantine art style that reached its heights during this period. As they did with all stone churches, the Turks converted this beautiful house of worship into a mosque too.

Life-Giving Spring of the Virgin Mary, Constantinople (http://

Church of the Vlahernae, Constantinople [http://en.wikipedia.

Later, we visited the Church of Vlahernae, where the hymn “Ti Ipermaho” was first sung in honor of the Theotokos. While the Byzantine army was fighting a battle away from Constantinople, the Avars attacked the queen city. The Christians turned to the Theotokos for protection, and here for the first time the Akathist Hymn was chanted in gratitude to the Mother of God for saving the city.

Further west, we visited Balukli, where an ancient miraculous stream surged from the depths of the earth. As it is also the burial place of our Patriarchs, we offered memorial prayers for Patriarch Athenagoras who many of us remember as Archbishop of America. Also at Balukli there is a hospital and home for the aged under the auspices of our Patriarchate.

One of the highlights of our visit occurred when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew invited our group to his private residence on the Bosporus for dinner. It was heartwarming renewing our relationship from our early school days at Halki Theological School in the 1960s to our good friendship now in the present. He was happy to receive some photographs of our life at Halki and one of him as a 22-year-old student.

Finally, I must speak directly about the bold, yet humble person who leads World Orthodoxy, His All Holiness Bartholomew the First, Archbishop of New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch. Speaking seven languages, he is a man of profound intelligence holding a doctorate in Canon Law. He has a magnetic personality, warm, humble, loving, considerate and has a Christ-like countenance. In spite of the fact that some Muslim fanatics want to assassinate him, he is optimistic about the future of Orthodoxy in Constantinople and even the use of some of our ancient churches once again in Turkey. The trials and tribulations our Patriarchate endures for our beloved Orthodox Faith are many.

In leaving Constantinople, I conveyed the respects to His All Holiness from the Holy Trinity Family and he bestowed his blessing upon us all.

May God continue to protect him and grant him many years.

We returned to America, inspired by the unfailing devotion and dedication for the survival and growth of Orthodoxy by our Patriarch who courageously displays hopeful determination and brighter days for our Orthodox brethren in Turkey and worldwide. Our pilgrimage to Asia Minor has had a powerful and lasting effect on each and all of us. Upon our return to America, I had a need to tell our parishioners of our experience. This paper is the result of that adventure into our history, culture, and faith.

(Posting date 23 October 2011. Images supplied by HCS.)

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