Big Friday in the Big City

by Stefan Fletcher April. 17, 2009 6080 views

An unearthly calm spread across my neighbourhood, Exarcheia. Bars, cafés and restaurants closed and the radical anarchists and nihilists went home to mummy’s cooking, because today is Holy Friday in the Greek Orthodox Calendar, a.k.a. Big Friday.

It’s worth noting that despite the 1975 Constitution, which asserts that all there are no ethnic minorities in Greece, there are significant numbers of Muslims, Catholics, Pomakoi, Sarakatsanoi, etc., not forgetting the Old Calendrists – members of a Greek Orthodox schism that consider the 16th century Julian Calendar reform a little too precipitous, and persist in celebrating Easter eleven days later. Anyway, today is Easter here.

I should also point out that Easter is the main religious event in the Orthodox calendar and is far more important than Christmas. After all, Jesus had 33 birthdays and only one death. I imagine Orthodox children support this wholeheartedly for the double ration of presents it affords.

I have been living in Greece more or less permanently since 1996, but Greek Easter is an event I have avoided – religiously, one might say. Call it bloody-mindedness, atheism or that old Groucho Marx adage about not wanting to be member of a club that would have me as one. My ex-wife, a diehard Communist, makes a point of never indulging in such bourgeois mumbo-jumbo, unless her family specifically orders her to. Actually, I was usually on assignment somewhere else in the world – or I contrived to be so. Anyway, this is the last Easter I’ll be spending here, so I went to the oldest extant church in Athens to witness (not attend, God forbid) the επιτάφιος, usually a funeral procession but in the context of Easter, a procession and office on Holy Friday marking the death of Jesus.

All day Friday, people bring spring flowers and make obeisance to an ornament or icon (it varies) representing the slain Christ. The flowers are deposited as votive offerings on a shroud. At a given time, usually as night falls, the shroud is borne by bearers in a procession around the church, preceded by cantors, a cross and the priest sprinkling holy water everywhere (I managed to dodge it). By the way, there are no photographs of the rites inside the church – I have qualms about disrupting such an event with a camera.

But this is the Big City, the place where half the country’s population lives. Most Athenians have strong family ties with other, poorer parts of Greece and the roads out of the city were jammed from the morning onwards according to the radio. I even spotted a couple of parking spaces in my neighbourhood… I thought there would be some desultory ceremonies for the few left behind. The pictures above show how wrong I was.

Karnakareas is an 11th century church built during the 1,300-year period when Athens was a nameless village which didn’t even make it onto maps. The church sits, rather incongruously, slap-bang in the middle of Athens’ main shopping area, five minutes’ walk from Parliament and below the Acropolis. If you look carefully, you’ll see slabs of marble “borrowed” from the ancient Greek and Roman ruins nearby.

I dislike the smell of incense and have found Greek religious chanting irritating at best and usually reminiscent of cat-howl. Not tonight. The mass of people of all ages patiently walking behind the cantors (who sang beautifully) was peaceful and very social. I saw teenage lovers, body-pierced and leather-studded, walking together, sharing a candle, next to families and widows and widowers. In my previous posts I have poured scorn on the manipulation and obscenity of the institution which is the Greek Orthodox Church, but I was charmed and impressed by the communing of its adherents today.

Greek Easter must be torchie heaven. The Gypsies do a roaring trade in candles and a fire engine was nearby. It’s a wonder that a city so densely built up doesn’t go down in flames in between the earthquakes.

After all that Holy Spirit I was in dire need of some of the liquid variety. I wasn’t alone. The entire city of 4,000,000 souls also felt like a drink and converged on an area usually left to tourists: Plaka. My friends and I ended up walking around for an hour looking for an available table in the few bars still open.

The Saturday midnight mass is when a holy flame is passed around to signify the Resurrection and provide more income for candle sellers. Those with lighters (i.e., everyone in this chain-smoking nation) are strongly discouraged from giving a helping hand. I suppose it’s a bit like the Olympics, but with fewer demonstrations. I don’t have Cathy’s reportage skills, but I’ll try to catch it.

Karnakareas church, central Athens

Entering the church for the rite

Where the church is located. Tourists and last-minute shoppers

I couldn't resist the look of bewilderment on this boy's face

Lighting up in a nation of smokers

The procession emerges from the church

I didn't know they had altar boys

The main procession event (see below)

The crucifixion © a well-known clothing chain

Bearing the epitafios (see below)

Cantors returning to the church

An old guy about to brain someone. Just my little joke. Actually, he's drenching people in dirty water (what does he do for refills on the way? I dread to think…)

Returning for the remainder of the rite and passing under the flowers.

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There are 20 comments , add yours!
Susan Jane 12 years ago

Everything I said on the next post applies here

12 years ago Edited
Dorothe 12 years ago

Pics of high quality and interesting informations about the event. I like it!

12 years ago Edited
Boszorka65 12 years ago

Nice shot:)

12 years ago Edited
Tim 12 years ago

wait wait wait,,before i say anything , I want to knwo if any of the people in your photos have ever been to a museum before,,,cos if they have been I can´t comment...

12 years ago Edited
Mikkal Noptek 12 years ago

Belles lumières. L'église paraît très pittoresque.

12 years ago Edited
Laura 12 years ago

Nice set! Gorgeous church! Thank you for your commentary....I love learning about customs/religions/history from other parts of the world. I wish I could travel more....but your photos help me just a bit of what I'll probably never see.

12 years ago Edited
Crisu 12 years ago

great reportage

12 years ago Edited
Lynda 12 years ago

Stefan- these are your best posts- you really suit the journo mode and give us so much interesting information. I'm with your ex-wife and your view to some extent of all the mumbo jumbo of organised religion but respect those round the world who like to follow these quaint rituals.

12 years ago Edited
Jessica 12 years ago

Great reportage. This is my kind of post. I like learning about traditions, even if they aren't mine, as clearly you do as well. The look of bewilderment on that little boy's face was very well captured. I remember feeling as a child that religion was a very overwhelming experience.

12 years ago Edited
Mike 12 years ago

Great post!!

12 years ago Edited
Sandra Vermeulen 12 years ago

I liked 10 and 11 most.
The angle, colours and the atmosphere are great there.

12 years ago Edited
Aslan G. Aghdam 12 years ago

Great and original set!!!

12 years ago Edited
Hong S 12 years ago

Really nice shot at night,, great

12 years ago Edited
Marsha 12 years ago

It is intriguing to see religious traditions played out around the world - through the eyes and cameras of PB bloggers. In addition to the interesting shots (I especially like #s 2 and 10) your commentary is informative and humorous.

12 years ago Edited
Jarvo J 12 years ago

Great night shots. Thanks for the info.

12 years ago Edited
Joakim Bergquist 12 years ago

I didnt read the text, Im lazy as usual. Anyway I do like nr 10 very much, nice balanced contrast and colors and a superb documentary shot!

12 years ago Edited
Rob Tulk 12 years ago

Thank you this blog was really interesting and informative. The pictures illustrate the words and the words illustrate the pictures perfectly. I look forward to part two :)

12 years ago Edited
Brian 12 years ago

dirty water? :) Great post. I enjoyed your reportage. I sense a bit of humanity in you after all!

12 years ago Edited
Ittakesallsorts 12 years ago

Thanks great blog - your shots are fantastic - so natural ;-)

12 years ago Edited
Betty Meade 12 years ago

So very interesting. I always enjoy your posts..the architecture is always lovely and the lifestyle so different from mine. Great shots and great reporting. Where will you be going next?

12 years ago Edited