A Tale of Two Holy Wells in Early Modern Constantinople

The Living Fountain, 17th century
Fig. 1: A seventeenth century icon of the Zoödochos Pege, probably produced in Constantinople (Wellcome Library no. 44943i)

Just outside the Theodosian Walls of Istanbul is a spring which is today accessible from beneath a church of nineteenth century vintage, reached by a flight of marble stairs down into the living stone, a spring known as Zoödochos Pege (the ‘Life Giving Spring’) in Greek, Balıklı Ayazması (the ‘Fish Spring’) in Turkish, both names alluding to important features of this site of pilgrimage. One of numerous ayazmas, or holy wells, that appeared in and around Byzantine Constantinople and many of which have survived as places of veneration in modern Istanbul, the Zoödochos Pege is one of the most storied and most visited, from late antiquity to the present (it’s one of the handful of ayazmas I’ve visited, in fact). Long associated with the presence and activity of the Theotokos- as can be immediately surmised from the icon above- the spring’s veneration probably began during the reign of Justinian (527-565), though it might have begun even earlier, a vast trove of miracle accounts associated with the healing powers of the spring, blessed by the Theotokos, accumulating over the centuries. By Ottoman times, which are my concern here, the church above the spring had fallen into ruin, perhaps even before Mehmed II’s conquest of the city. Until the 1720s pilgrims visited a holy well that was, at least in part, out in the open, much as the icons I’ve selected here indicate (though they suggest a location on the surface of the ground, not essentially underground as was almost certainly true then and is definitely the case now.

The early modern Ottoman period seems to have seen a surge in interest in and veneration of this holy well, if we are to go by the numerous iconographic depictions that began to appear in the seventeenth, quite a few of which made their way into the Wellcome Collection (by a route unknown to me), from which I have drawn the two examples featured here. The above icon (fig. 1) lays out several repeating elements in these depictions, depictions which probably brought together a range of traditions and stories circulating among devotees: gathered around the stone basin of the holy well are representatives of miracle accounts, some whose stories we can easily put together- a man rising from his bed, a mother holding a healed child- others less evident to us now. The potency of the holy water of the well underlines each vignette, however, with the enthroned Theotokos and Christ rising above the waters, radiating holiness down into the well. The famed fish are also visible, themselves a part of the sacredness of the well, as the Turkish name indicates. This icon also features a row of ‘supporting figures’: St. John the Forerunner, Sts. Helena and Constantine at the Invention of the Cross, and a third saint, perhaps St. Mamas, an extremely popular saint during the Ottoman period. The icon is in rather rough shape, having been scratched or scraped at various points- not as iconoclastic damage (which would have targeted faces), but in order to use the scraped material for blessing, a way to participate in the holy power of the spring at a remove, as it were. The second icon I’ve included (fig. 2), at the end of this article, probably dates from the eighteenth century, and reproduces much of the same visual material as that above, but with the addition within the image of a stream of text coming from the Christ Child to a soldier, along with a gilded frame without. What drove this evident resurgence of interest in and devotion to the Zoödochos Pege? I am not sure, though, as I will hopefully soon discuss in a later post, early modern Ottoman Christians and Muslims alike expressed renewed devotions, often expressed visually, to their various holy places, from the seventeenth century forward. And indeed, it is possible, as the story of the second holy well might indicate, that it was not only only Orthodox Christians visiting this ayazma, but Muslims as well, which might help us understand the resurgence in interest of this particular ayazma, as a competitive process.

Less than a mile north of the Zoödochos Pege is the zaviye complex of a prominent Muslim saint of 16th century Constantinople, Merkez Efendi (d. 959/1552). While it does not seem to be very prominent today, this site also features a holy well, along with several other sites of veneration, at least in the early modern period, as described by Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî in his late eighteenth century guide to the mosques and other religious structures in and around Istanbul: ‘There is an exalted ayazma in the vicinity of Şeyh Merkez Efendi’s tomb. One descends to it by steps. The abovementioned [Merkez Efendi’s] subterranean halvethane, which is like a cave, is still extant, and it is a place of pilgrimage for the Faithful [1]. The hamam located next to [Merkez Efendi’s zaviye] is one of its vakfs. The aforesaid [Merkez Efendi] had a private room in the hamam for bathing. At present the sick and invalid bathe [there] with purity of purpose and are restored to health.’ [2]

The ayazma Ayvansarayî references is almost certainly the well of water still visible flowing from beneath the halvethane, part of a complex of sites to which Ottoman Muslims (and perhaps others) could have recourse to encounter the saint’s berekat. What is the relationship between these two holy springs, which are practically neighbors (and may well be related hydrologically)? To get a better sense of the Merkez Efendi ayazma, we can consider the following account that the great Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi (1611-c. 1683) gives in the first volume of his Seyahatname, as part of a long register of holy people and places in Istanbul:

‘Once when the saintly pîr Merkez Efendi was alive he said to his dervishes, “In this place while I was in the midst of a prostration a voice came from under the earth: ‘Ya şeyh! I am a life-giving fountain of reddish water more delicious than pure flowing water (zülalden lezîz) that has been imprisoned for seven thousand years, but on account of you I have been ordered to come to the surface of the earth, and God has made me to be a cure for those afflicted with the illness of fever (hummâ). So certainly free me from this prison!’ Thus the voice came from beneath the earth. Come, friends, and together let us dig out a pit in the vicinity of this prayer-rug!” Having said this, with the bismillah they began, all rising to their feet, and all the dervishes crowded about and dug out a well of water, which to this day is a great spring of red-colored water. This bliss-bestowing water, if drunk thrice in the morning after breakfast (tahte’l-kahve), cures, by God’s command, both quartan fever and burning fever. The Merkez Efendi holy well (ayazma) is a water-feature known by name the world over! [3]

This hagiographic account suggests- and I see no reason to suppose otherwise- that the holy well associated with Merkez Efendi was unknown before his lifetime, and was discovered either by the saint himself, as the story argues, or sometime after his death, the story developing in the century or so between Merkez Efendi’s burial in the nearby türbe and Evliya Çelebi recording it (he most likely having received it orally on a visit to the shrine). While it is not mentioned in the story, the nearby ayazma of Zoödochos Pege is surely present in the unspoken background of the account, if only through geographical proximity. But it is possible that the connections go even further: the account that Evliya gives bears striking similarities to the discovery story the anonymous tenth century compiler of the ‘Miracles of the Pege’ gives concerning the Zoödochos Pege. This compilation, while compiled (probably) in the mid-tenth century, circulated long afterwards and went through a range of late medieval modifications and reworkings, and can safely be taken as reflecting the sorts of traditions and accounts that visitors to the Zoödochos Pege would have heard (or, in the case of the iconographic depictions, seen). The discovery of the spring is described in this collection as taking place when the future Byzantine Emperor Leo I (d. 474) was guiding a blind man he encountered outside the walls. As he did so, the story goes, ‘[the blind man] asked for a drink and pressed the future emperor to draw water and assauge his thirst. In his pity for the poor man, Leo was eager to find what the man had requested and was anxiously trying to discover a source of water when, although he could see no one, he heard a voice nearby saying, “Look, there’s water here; don’t worry!” When the future emperor heard the voice, he hastened to attain his goal. He was unable, however, to discover or find any water because the place was covered with slime, and because there was mud instead of water underneath it. As he was wondering whose voice it might be and where the water was, he twice heard the same voice, adding his name and predicting his future rank of emperor, saying, “Emperor Leo, if you take some of this mud and slimy water and smear it on the blind man’s eyes, you will discover who I am who dwell in this place, so that afterward you may prepare a dwelling for me to live in, and I will help everyone who comes to it.”‘ [4]

The story continues with Leo healing the blind man with the mud through the power of the Theotokos (whom he evidently recognizes as the source of the voice and the sanctity of the spring, though this is not made precisely explicit), then, once he becomes emperor, ‘clearing out the spring appropriately and taking care of it, its healing powers continuing forever thereafter. The parallels here with the story Evliya Çelebi relates are quite clear: in both accounts, a man marked with sanctity (Leo, while an emperor, is here and elsewhere seen as a saint in his own right) hears a disembodied voice directing him to an unseen water source beneath the earth, a source with healing powers and meant for wider consumption. In both the speaker is quite mysterious: in that of Merkez Efendi it is the spring itself, while in that of the Zoödochos Pege it is, evidently, the Theotokos- who ‘dwell[s] in this place,’ in the hidden spring. Thus while we must always be careful in attributing ‘influence’ or the like between two seemingly similar accounts, it is hard to avoid there being some sort of relationship between the miraculous discovery accounts of these two ayazmas.

I would argue, based on these parallels and evident relationships between the stories and uses of these two ayazmas, that the elaboration of the Merkez Efendi ayazma was intended, whether through deliberation or not, to compete with and even supplant that of the Zoödochos Pege, at least among Muslim devotees, drawing them away from the explicitly Christian ayazma to one uncovered by a Muslim saint. Resurgent Orthodox Christian devotion to ‘their’ ayazma would have almost certainly attracted Muslim pilgrims as well, given that ayazmas, like so many other iterations of the holy in the Ottoman and wider Mediterranean world tended to participate in the ‘shared economy of holiness’ I have written about previously here. It might well be that the ayazma of Merkez Efendi should be seen as much in imitation (again, probably unconscious) of its neighbor as in competition, though of course both could be true, the parallels in the two discovery accounts pointing in this direction (and of course the appearance of imitation need not have been deliberate, if the account of the Zoödochos Pege was widely well-known in the neighborhood). Holy wells are hardly unknown in Islamic traditions, with the well of Zamzam the best-known such instance, and the Merkez Efendi holy well and the above story should be seen in that context as well. Still, the process hinted at in the story Evliya Çelebi tells ought to be seen as part of the long-term ‘Islamization’ of Constantinople, here working not to reconfigure an existing non-Muslim site but to present a new one, uncovered and opened to the Muslim public through the agency of a powerful Friend of God. That is not to say it was as successful an intervention as it could have perhaps been: Ayvansarayî’s account, from about a century after Evliya’s, lists the ayazma alongside several other sacred features, without giving the sense of great prominence. Today the holy well is still flowing, and can still be visited, even if it is subordinate to the halvethane of the saint, so in that regard it was a successful long-term intervention, the enduring addition of yet another layer to Constantinople-turned-Istanbul’s vast and complex topography of sanctity.

The Living Fountain
Fig. 2: An eighteenth century (probably) icon of the Zoödochos Pege. Wellcome Library no. 44950i

[1] A halvethane is a structure devoted to the forty-day retreats typical of Halvetî sufis, and is also known as a çilehane. They tend to be austere structures designed for minimal sensory distractions.

[2] Hafız Hüseyin Ayvansarayî, The Garden of the Mosques: Hafiz Hüseyin Al-Ayvansarayî’s Guide to the Muslim Monuments of Ottoman Istanbul, translated by Howard Crane (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 255-256.

[3] Evliya Çelebi, Evliya Çelebi Seyahatnâmesi, 1. baskı. (Beyoğlu, İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları Ltd. Şti., 1996), vol. 1, 179-180, translated by Jonathan Parkes Allen, 2018.

[4] Anonymous, ‘Miracles of the Pege,’ in Miracle Tales from Byzantium, translated by Alice-Mary Maffry Talbot (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 209-211.

Ottoman Velvet

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