Holy springs, healing springs: Istanbul’s ayazma

Istanbul has quite a few holy springs, referred to as ayazma from the Greek, meaning holy water. The most important of the ayazmas in Istanbul is the one in Balıklı.

Istanbul has quite a few holy springs, referred to as ayazma from the Greek, meaning holy water. The most important of the ayazmas in Istanbul is the one in Balıklı.

Niki GammISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News
2/3/13

The most important of the ayazmas in Istanbul is the one in Balıklı, outside the Theodosian walls near Silivrikapı. This spring, which belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary

Springs are to be found all over the world and nowhere more so than the Middle East. To the ancients, they were a miracle appearing out of rocks or the ground with no apparent source. It’s no wonder that they were seen as holy. Greek mythology abounds with stories of nymphs and more importantly the Muses, living in or around springs and being inspired by them. Pure, clean water and even water with minerals were believed to have the power to cure and the water came to be regarded as holy water.

When Christianity and then Islam gained in popularity, many of the old beliefs remained. For instance, the nymphs became saints and wells were covered over with religious structures as organized religion adopted and adapted springs for their own use.

Istanbul has quite a few holy springs, referred to as ayazma from the Greek, meaning holy water. The metropolitan municipality’s cultural inventory lists 15, six of which are in Sarıyer, five in Fatih, three in Beşiktaş and one in Çatalca. An Ataturk University thesis written by Demet Kılınç Çimen in 2010 gives 12. Of course, those numbers don’t include the ruined ayazma Gül Demir and I found between the inner and outer Theodosian walls at Silivrikapı in 1989. It was pretty much a ruin although it was possible to go down into it through a hole in one side but the interior was too filled with rubble to be safe from falling.

The most important of the ayazmas in Istanbul is the one at Balıklı, outside the Theodosian walls near Silivrikapı. This spring, which belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, has a long history that extends all the way back to the second half of the fifth century and beyond. The spring’s actual name in Greek is “Zoodohos Piyi,” the source that grants life.

Two stories have come to be attached to it. The earlier one is that of how a poor young man became Byzantine Emperor Leo I. According to the story, when the future emperor was a poor young man, he happened to travel in this vicinity on a hot summer’s day. He saw a blind, old man who asked him for water. While Leo was thinking about where he could find water for the old man, a divine voice from the sky described a depot into which a water source flowed. The voice went on to say that, if both men washed their faces in it, the old man would begin to see and he, Leo, would become emperor in the future. Thinking that it was a sign that this prophecy would become true in the future after the old man began to see as soon as he had washed his face in this water, Leo immediately enrolled in the military and rose to become a general. Afterwards, he would become emperor (r. 457-474) and was crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople in 457. Out of thankfulness, Leo established a church and a building constructed to protect the spring, to which he was grateful.

According to the Byzantine historian Procopius, Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) discovered the ayazma one day when he had been out hunting. He noticed some women gathered around a small chapel. He asked them why and they replied that it was because the spring performed miracles. Immediately, he had this ayazma rebuilt in 560. Another anecdote relates how he had it built because he had been healed of a serious illness by drinking its water. He also had a chapel built next to it with the surplus material left over from the construction of the Hagia Sophia.

According to another story, the spring got its name of Balıklı (with fish) when a man who lived here was frying fish and was told that the Turks had taken Istanbul under Murat II in June 1422. Upon hearing the news, he answered, “I believe this news about as much as I believe that the fish being fried in this pan will come alive and jump out of this pan.” At this, the fish came to life and jumped out of the pan.

The descendants of these miraculous fish have been jumping in the spring ever since. Another, similar story entails a woman frying fish as Sultan Mehmed II besieged Constantinople in 1453, only her fish came to life browned on one side and gold on the other from having only been fried on one side before jumping out of the pan.

The church at Balıklı was damaged on several occasions by earthquakes but rebuilt, and since it was outside the city walls, it was damaged when the city was attacked. In 1727, permission was obtained from Sultan Ahmed III to renovate the Balıklı Church and spring, and the chapel attached to it. The Greek orthodox metropolitan responsible for it collected the money needed by means of donations.

Original name has been forgotten

Sometime around the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Muslims began applying the name “Balıklı Ayazma” (Spring with Fish) to it and it is generally called that now, since the original name of the spring has been forgotten. One reaches the spring via a long corridor and stairs, and there are calligraphic inscriptions on the ceiling and walls of the spring’s cistern. On the right, there is a marble water basin into which water flows by means of four faucets. Inside, behind the basin’s marble sides, there is a large pool with fish.

The former secretary general of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, Leonidas Chrysanthopoulos, said that the only ayazma he could recall, aside from the one at Balıklı, was the one at Tarabya. “There, where the hotel is, there used to be a small church of St. George that had an ayazma. This was demolished during the Menderes period [1950-60] to build the Tarabya Hotel. So it is believed that the hotel was cursed because it was built on the ruins of a church and ayazma. That is why it has faced so many problems and is still closed after functioning for a few years in the 1980’s.” [The hotel is expected to officially reopen in June of this year, and we hope the curse is no longer operative.]

None of the other surviving ayazmas in Istanbul have such attractive legends attached to them. The ones that are still functioning seem to be those that promise healing, just as the one at Balıklı does. And they are not always open, perhaps one day a week or just on feast days.

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