Church of the Life-Giving Font of the Theotokos (Istanbul)
The Church of the Life-Giving Font of the Theotokos is the latest church, built in 1835, that bears the same dedication as the shrine erected in this place between the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth centuries, named for the wonderworking holy spring located there. Holy Emperor Leo the Great oversaw the building of the church that was named in the honor of the Most Holy Theotokos. For almost fifteen hundred years, this sanctuary has been one of the most important pilgrimage sites of Greek Orthodoxy.
The site was chosen by Leo due to a divine experience the emperor went through earlier in his life. Leo was walking in a forested area when he saw a blind man who asked him for water to quench his thirst. It was then that Leo heard a message from a voice saying that there was water deep within the woods that the man could drink. The clay from its waters would be able to heal the man's eyes. The Theotokos also prophesied at this time that Leo would one day become emperor of Constantinople. Leo listened to the voice, quenched the man's thirst, and allowed him to gain sight just as the Mother of God proclaimed.
Vicissitudes of the Church
In its history, the church at the fountain had been destroyed and then rebuilt on many occasions, at the request of the Virgin Mother.
In Byzantine times the sanctuary was one of the most important in Constantinople. On Ascension Day, the Emperor arrived by boat to the small harbor of the Golden Gate. He rode up to the sanctuary, where he was acclaimed by the factions, who offered him a cross and garlands. Later, he dressed in his ceremonial robe, and after receiving the Patriarch, the two entered the church hand-in-hand.
The Ascension, the Marriage at Cana (January 8), and the anniversary of the Miracle of Leo I on 16 August were celebrated here. Each future Empress coming to Constantinople for her wedding was received by her future spouse in the Monastery of the Spring.
Due to earthquakes, the building was rebuilt in 790, under Empress Irene, and after the great earthquake of 869, under Basil I (867–886). On 7 September 924 Tsar Simeon I of Bulgaria burned the complex, which was at once restored by Romanos I Lekapenos (920–944). Three years later the son of Simeon, Peter was married to Maria, the niece of Lekapenos.
Due to its position outside the city, the monastery was often used as place of exile. In 1078 Georgios Monomachos was banished there. In 1084, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos confined the philosopher John Italus to the monastery, because of his neoplatonic theories.
In 1328 Andronikos III Palaiologos used the monastery as base to attack Constantinople. Two years later, as he lay dying in the town of Didymoteicho, he drank water from the spring and recovered at once.
During the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1422, Sultan Murad II camped in the sanctuary. It is unknown whether the Byzantines restored the building before the conquest of the city in 1453. Russian pilgrims of the fifteenth century do not mention the church, only the spring.
After serving the Christian people at Constantinople for about 1,000 years, Muslim invaders tore down the church in 1453 after taking over the city of Constantinople. The Church of the Life-giving Spring was destroyed and its building materials were used to construct the Bayezid II Mosque for the Sultan. The church site was covered with earth and crushed stone, so that the very foundations of the church disappeared from sight. The beautiful surrounding areas were turned into a Muslim cemetery. A Turkish sentinel, placed at the ruins of the church, forbade Christians not only to gather at the site, but even to approach there.
Little by little, the strictness of this ban eased, and Christians were permitted to build a small church there. In 1727 Metropolitan Nikodemos of Dercos and Neochorion, built a small chapel above the Hagiasma. Twenty-five steps led down into the chapel, which had a window in the roof to let the light in. The holy Spring was still there, surrounded by a railing. An icon, discovered in the foundations of the old church, was worshiped in the chapel. The Armenians tried to take possession of the spring, but several firmans secured the possession to the Greeks. The complex was controlled by Turkish guardians, who collected from the pilgrims a tax that they used for the maintenance of the prisons. Later the complex came into the possession of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
A decade later, a group of Christians received permission to excavate the fallen church to rediscover the blessed waters. Even upon these shards of the former magnificent holy structure, the Theotokos, as before, granted hearings through her grace. Later, among the broken pieces in one of the windows was found, already half-rotted away through time and dampness, a panel on which were recorded ten miracles which occurred at the Life-giving Spring during the period 1824-1829.
During the latter reign of Sultan Mahmoud II (1808-39), the Orthodox received a measure of freedom to conduct religious services. In 1833, a firman allowed Patriarch Constantius I of Constantinople (1830-34) to rebuild the church. For the third time, a large and prestigious church was erected above the sacred Life-giving Spring, with work beginning in July of 1833. While workmen were clearing the ground, they uncovered the foundations of the earlier church. The Sultan allowed them to build not just a chapel, but a new and beautiful church on the foundations of the old one. Construction began on September 14, 1833, and was completed on December 30, 1834.
On February 2, 1835, with great pomp, the Ecumenical Patriarch Constantius II of Constantinople (1834-35), celebrating with 12 bishops and an enormous flood of the faithful, consecrated the church which stands to this day, dedicating it to the Most Holy Theotokos.
Nearby was built a hospital and alms-house. Even the Muslims spoke with great respect of the Life-giving Spring, and of the Theotokos, who through it pours out her grace-filled power. "Great among women Holy Mary" is how they refer to the Most Holy Virgin. The water from the Life-giving Spring they call the "water of Holy Mary."
On September 6, 1955, the church was destroyed again during the Istanbul Pogrom. Another small chapel has been rebuilt on the site, but the church has not yet been restored to its former size. The spring still flows to this day and is considered by the faithful to have wonderworking properties.
The sanctuary is directed by a titular bishop and is one of the most popular among the Orthodox of Istanbul, who visit it especially during the Friday after Easter, and on the feast day of the Elevation of the Holy Cross on September 14. On these two days, a great feast, both popular and religious takes place there. Funerals of people to be buried in the nearby cemetery are also celebrated in the church.
List of Churches and Monasteries
The Life-Giving Spring gave origin to many churches and monasteries bearing the same name in the Greek world. Most of them were erected after the end of the Byzantine Empire.
- Original monastery in Constantinople.
- Monastery of the Theotokos the Life-Giving Spring -- Dunlap, California.
- Monastery of the Life-Giving Spring -- Kastri, Pellana municipality, Laconia prefecture, Greece.[note 1]
- The Life-Giving Spring Acadimias, Athens
- Theotokos of the Life-Giving Spring Russian Orthodox Mission -- Bryan, Texas
- Raymond Janin (in French). La Géographie ecclésiastique de l'Empire byzantin. 1. Part: Le Siège de Constantinople et le Patriarcat Oecuménique. 3rd Vol.: Les Églises et les Monastères. Paris: Institut Français d'Etudes Byzantines. 1953. p.232-37.
- Ernest Mamboury. The Tourists' Istanbul. Istanbul: Çituri Biraderler Basımevi, 1953. p.208.
- In Greek: ΙΕΡΑ ΜΟΝΗ ΖΩΟΔΟΧΟΥ ΠΗΓΗΣ, Καστρί, Καστόρειο, 23059, ΛΑΚΩΝΙΑΣ, 2731057238.