The Altar: A Refuge in Stormy Seas
Originally published in ByziKids Magazine, Sept. 2022
By Judith Jolma
There is a place in the Bosphorus Sea where storms cannot upset the water and the air smells of sweet fragrant myrrh.
Many scientists have investigated this phenomenon but have no explanation. Turkish fishermen and sailors know the place well, for when great and terrifying storms arise on the sea they flee to the place near the island of Marmara for refuge. There the water is as smooth as oil. Sailors can rest while the waves outside thrash and the winds gale. They wait until the storm passes.
Legend has it that this calmness is due to the presence of the Holy Altar of Hagia Sophia, which was lost in this very place when the Ottomans invaded Constantinople in 1453.
The altar was famed for its beauty and was the crowning treasure of the Hagia Sophia. Covered by a great, thick silk cloth embroidered in gold and silver thread, some witnesses mistakenly believed it to have been filled with treasures. One source even claims that when the crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, they broke open the altar and carried away forty barrels of gold hidden inside. However, this was not true because the altar was not a box but was a 14-foot-long marble slab above which rose four golden pillars supporting a roof-like structure. A golden orb and magnificent jeweled cross hung from the roof above the altar.
The floor of the Hagia Sophia was like a great sea similar to the Bosphorus - light gray marble with blue wave-like veins. Within the floor were four bands called “rivers,” which depicted the four rivers of Paradise. The rivers marked significant stages for liturgical processions. The chancel screen rested upon one of these rivers.
Behind the screen stood the altar — a place of refuge. Like those who sail upon the storms of the Bosporus, fugitives knew to run to the altar for safety. History has preserved stories of fugitives clinging to the altar slab for dear life.
Iconographer and Russian Historian, Bob Atchison, tells about this in his blog:
“The altar was a place of sanctuary, if you were touching it you could not be removed by force ... Patriarchs took this promise of sanctuary very seriously. One who was in his palace heard a fugitive was about to be removed from the altar by policemen, crossed into the church, came down the stairway into the nave and then embraced the fugitive. Giving him his personal protection. When the fugitive had to eat or use the privy the patriarch would return to escort him.”
But all the glory and wealth of the Hagia Sophia and its altar seemed lost in May 1453 as Sultan Mehmed II broke through Constantinople’s walls with his mighty cannon.
"The day the City was taken,” writes Nicholas Politis, “the Holy Altar was placed on a ship, to take it to France in order to not fall into the hands of the Turks. But there in the Sea of Marmara, the ship opened and the Holy Altar sank to the bottom. In that spot the sea is like oil, no matter how much of a sea storm is taking place around it. And this spot is always known by the calmness which is always there and the fragrance coming from it. Many have even been made worthy to see it in the depths of the sea."
Polites is the father of Greek folklore who lived from 1852 to 1921. Could what he wrote be true?
Another author, Dorotheos of Monemvasia who wrote in 1781, echos the strange story:
"The Venetians took the most wondrous and famous Holy Altar of Hagia Sophia, the much valued and most beautiful, out of the Temple and onto a ship, and as they set sail and headed for Venice, O the miracle! Near the island of Marmara the ship opened and out fell the Holy Altar into the sea, sinking where it remains today, and this is obvious and testified by many, for that entire area, when there is a storm, and the waves of the sea become fearsome, there is calmness in the place where the Holy Altar is and the sea remains undisturbed. And they go there with boats, to take water from that part of the sea where the Holy Altar is, and it smells of a wonderful fragrance, from holy myrrh and other fragrances."
Though many have tried to verify the report by diving to explore the still waters, the muddy seabed holds the secrets close.
Whether it is true or simple folklore, we do know that the altar of the Lord, be it at the bottom of the sea or enthroned in our hearts, is a peaceful place of refuge. There, we may hide for protection.
As a contributing editor for ByziKids, it is my pleasure to share these articles with the Sophia Homeschool community as well. Although Sophia Homeschool serves all homeschooling families regardless of faith or affiliation, I think you will enjoy this delightful publication. I hope to share these articles with you monthly as a regular feature here. Enjoy!
ByziKids Magazine is a pan-Eastern Christian, grassroots, monthly publication dedicated to the celebration of Byzantine Orthodoxy through the eyes of our children. We are not affiliated with any particular Church or jurisdiction, but welcome and strive to encompass the teachings and traditions common to all of Byzantine Orthodox-Catholic Christianity.
By Judith Jolma, Founder of Sophia Homeschool.
Sophia Homeschool teaches parents how to homeschool. Learn more about our training at Sophiahomeschool.com
Learn how to create a homeschool method and environment based on your family's needs so you can thrive. My Foundations of Homeschooling Masterclass teaches parents to work with their budget, schedule, learning style, teaching style, and resources so each member of the family has his or her needs met— including yours! Learn to create a peaceful and joyful learning environment that lasts a lifetime. Identify learning differences and adapt your educational plan accordingly. Unlock the mysteries of teaching multiple grades at once. By knowing what your needs are, you will save thousands of dollars, time, and energy on methods that do not work. We will end homework battles and restore your relationship with your child.