By: Catherine Tsounis, Contributing Editor
Visiting the historical Church of St. Mary of Blachernae or Panagia Blachernae Church in Constantinople (Istanbul) known to Greeks made history more alive. Traveling with a middle-class Tripolis travel group projected the positive Greek point of view of Byzantium in August 2019. The Akathist Hymn to the Defender General Panagia Mary is sung on 5 Fridays of Lent. The name means everyone stands in reverence during the service. Historically, it is taught in Greek education as a Victory hymn thanks for protecting Constantinople from the Avars (Asian invaders). The miracle of the city is a historical fact.
The historic Blachernae area is in the present-day Istanbul quarter known as Ayvansaray. The sacred spring, associated with the Virgin Mary, can still be visited today; in Turkish it is named Ayazma, a name derived from the Greek term hagiasma meaning “holy water”. The sacred robe and mantel of the Virgin Mary were venerated here in the past.1 An important historical event occurred in this Church in 626 A.D The flowers were blooming. No crowds. We enjoyed a feeling of peace.
The Church is a shadow of its Byzantine glory. Built in 1867 by the Greek Orthodox furriers, it encloses the holy spring. Bottles were at the spring for all to take, without asking for a donation. This piety and lack of commercialism was present in other Greek Orthodox churches in Istanbul.
Panagia Blachernae Church to this writer is not only important for its miraculous spring, but for a historical victory and the Ti Ypermarcho “ hymn. During 626AD Constantinople was besieged by the combined armies of the Avars and the Persians, while Emperor Heraclius was away, fighting the Persians in Mesopotamia. The son of the Emperor, Constantine, together with Patriarch Sergius and Patrician Bonus carried in procession along the ramparts, the icon of the Blachernitissa. Sometime later the fleet of the Avars was destroyed. By a hurricane, The Khan of the Avars afterward said that he had been frightened by the vision of a young woman adorned with jewels scouring the walls. 2
The ancient world did not have national anthems. They are a creation of the 19th century modern states. Ti Ypermacho Stratigo or Defender General is a masterpiece of Byzantine music. The hymn was sung at political victories and celebrations. I can be considered the national anthem of the Byzantine Roman empire. It was sung that night in 626 Ad standing up by the congregation for saving their City from pillage and slavery. The Greek Orthodox Church sings this hymn for over 1400 years.
The people of Constantinople prayers, faith, a military force that was willing to fight to the death and nature’s hurricane saved them. Looking at their example, we must have strength and faith in overcoming the Coronavirus of 2020.
My articles in following in Byzantine footsteps was made possible by Takis Kapogiannis, group leader of Kapogiannis Travel, Sofi Goc of Aziz Moderno Travel and assistant George, Administrators Maria and Kostoula Kapogiannis.
Photo: Sacred spring, St. Mary of Blachernae or Panagia Blachernae Church