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]

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Thoughts on Icons

1. The icon embraces the tension of the one and the many, of the universal and the particular. Each icon presents the mystery of the person as a particular mystery, the mystery of the named person who participates in the universal- yet particularly received- energies of God, is divinized. Divinization does not reduce the person into indistinguishableness; rather, it “expands” the person into her true self, her true realization in God. So the icon is not simply naturalism, but instead leans towards the mystery of realized personhood, the stylization of the icon indicating that this person has entered into this reality. When I view an icon I see a manifestation of what a true person can be, I am at once connected to that person and I am encouraged to live out my personhood in the energies of God.

The icon is also the possibility- both in itself and in what it says about matter- of the energies of God becoming manifest in a bewildering plurality of people and places and under a massive plurality of names and languages. Ambrosius Giakalis describes this potency in relation to the iconoclastic heresy:

“Fundamentally it was a debate about the locus of the holy. For holiness was not just a matter of personal piety; it was closely connected with the exercise of power in society. The legitimacy of material images as such was never a point at issue. The controversy revolved around which images could be regarded as vehicles of the holy. For the iconoclasts the holy was mediated to the people through material things consecrated by the clergy- the basilica with its liturgy, the Eucharist, the symbol of the cross. To have the holy mediated by a myriad icons seemed to them to dilute it to the point at which it ceased to be efficacious. The iconophiles, by contrast, sought through the icon to enable the holy to permeate the material world.”

The icon threatens the “secular” and the “bourgeois” in a way spiritualism and mere anti-materialism (in the strict sense of the word) cannot: it refuses to concede the created, the crafted, the material to the Devil, to the darkness of the age. The icon resists the commodification of everything, not by withdrawing from the material, from the manufactured even, but by embracing material reality and claiming it also for the Incarnate God. The material is not merely material for commodification and sale, for the use and exploitation of the fallen passions. The world is not conceded to the Devil; the world is not conceded to capitalism or the state or anyone else, but is contested by Christ and His saints. The icon then marks out materiality and material space as God’s; it is a redemption and a sign of redemption of matter, of the physical world, because it immediately participates in and transcends the “physical.”

2. Again, icons destabilize our language, by advocating the breaking in of God upon the world, of elevating the mystery of personhood in a manner we cannot speak. Early apologetics for icons emphasized their utility in educating the illiterate, yet at the same time they speak to the highly educated: the illiterate and the scholar meet on this un-worded ground of the Word, where the image cuts through language ultimately and moves the viewer/venerator to a different plane of knowledge, of participation. Kissing the icon is an action, is a movement beyond spoken language. It is an act of faith that expresses itself beyond what our words- as important as they are- are capable of. The image seen, the prayer uttered, the kiss done: multiple levels of the material and spiritual are involved, all becoming one transcendent act of prayer and veneration, reclaiming the whole for God, while pushing the limits of what can be said and what is expected of the world.