One of the most famous shrines of Constantinople, the Zoodochos Pege, is located outside the land walls to the west of the city, at the site now known as Balikli. Two versions of a very old tradition provide information on the origins of this ancient shrine.
According to the first, related by the historian Procopius, Justinian (527-565) while hunting in a beautiful verdant part of the land with many trees and much water, had the vision of a small chapel with a large crowd of people and a priest in front of a spring. It is the spring of miracles, he was told, whereupon the Emperor built a monastery at the site using surplus materials from the church of Hagia Sophia. Cedrenus records that the monastery was built in 560.
The second version, narrated by the chronicler Nicephoros Callistos, says that the Emperor Leo I (457-474), when still a simple soldier, met at the Golden Gate a blind man who asked him for a drink of water. As he looked around for water, a voice directed him to the spring and enjoined him to build a church on the site when he would become emperor. Callistos describes this great church in detail «Description of the holy church of the Pege erected by Leo», P. G. Migne, vol. 147, 73-77), but the description agrees more with the church built by Justinian. It is historically confirmed that Zenon, Hegumen «of the house of the most holy and glorious Virgin Mary and Mother of God at Pege», participated in the Council of Constantinople, convened by the Patriarch Menas (536-552) in 536.
A chronological list of the most important events associated with the Zoodochos Pege is not without interest:
626 Invasion of the Avars. The Byzantines save the shrine of the hagiasma (spring of holy water).
790 Pseudo-Codinus mentions that the Empress Irene repaired the church after serious damages caused by an earthquake. 869 Nicephoros Callistos records that after another earthquake the church was repaired a new by Basil I the Macedonian (867-886).
924 During a Bulgar campaign, Tsar Simeon burned the church. It was, however, restored immediately, for it is in this church that the marriage of Peter, son and successor of Simeon, to Maria Lecapena, granddaughter of Emperor Romanus I Lecapenus, was celebrated in 927. 966 The description of an official ceremony on Ascension Day, in the presence of the Emperor Nicephoros II Phocas (963-969) and of the whole court, has come down to us. The procession sailed to the Golden Gate and from there rode to the shrine, while the crowd cheered and offered flowers and crosses. The Patriarch met and embraced the Emperor, and they entered the church together. The Emperor attended the Liturgy from a platform set up in the sanctuary, and the feast ended with the Emperor inviting the Patriarch to an official banquet.
1078 The monastery of the Pege is considered a place of banishment and it is here that George Monomachus is isolated.
1084 Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118) confined to the monastery the philosopher John Italus (a supporter of Neo-Platonism) to put an end to the unrest caused by his teachings.
1204-1261 The shrine of the Pege is in the possession of the Latins.
1328 Young Andronicus III Palaeologus (1328-1341) uses the monastery as a base of operations to forge his way into Constantinople.
1330 At the town of Didymotichus, the moribund Emperor Andronicus III is given to drink water from the shrine of the Pege and recovers.
1341 A priest of the Pege, by the name of George, is witness to a notarial deed.
1347 The daughter of John Cantacuzenus, Helena, is presented wearing full imperial regalia to her future husband, John V Palaeologus (1341-1391), in the precinct of the shrine. According to an old custom, when a future empress reached the Capital by land, her meeting with the emperor took place at the monastery of the Zoodochos Pege.
1422 During the siege of Constantinople by Murad II, the Sultan used the church as his living-quarters.
1547 Petrus Gyllius notes in 1547 that the church no longer exists, but ailing people continued to visit the spring of holy water.
1727 Nicodemus Metropolitan of Derkon built a small church and revived worship. The Armenians claimed participation in the shrine but long tradition and firmans issued by the Sultans recognized it as property of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
1833 With the Sultan’s permission the Patriarch Constantius I (1830-1834) built the present-day church, consecrated in 1835. The feast-day of the Zoodochos Pege is celebrated on Friday of the Easter Week. Today, in addition to the large church, the compound includes the underground shrine of the Zoodochos Pege with the holy spring and the fish. Nicephoros Callistos writing in the 14th century about the hagiasma quotes from various sources a total of 63 miracles, of which 15 in his own time. According to Callistos’s description, the church was of rectangular plan, with entrances at each of the four sides. Part of the church was built underground and two marble stairways, with 25 steps each, led down to the holy spring. The richly decorated church had a gilded ceiling, fine wall paintings and icons. Of the wall paintings, Callistos mentions the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, and the Appearance of Christ to the Holy Women, the Ascension and Pentecost. He also refers to two icons depicting miracles, probably with scenes from the main subject of the Zoodochos Pege.
The chronicler gives even the names of the painters: Ignatius and the hieromonk Gabriel. Near the church three parecclesia were erected honouring St. Eustratius, St. Anne and the Theotokos.
A number of epigrams express awe, veneration and enthusiasm for the hagiasma and the miracles associated with it. Preserved to our day are six by Manuel Philes, another six by the Magister Ignatius, one by John Mauropous and others.
The icon of Zoodochos Pege: Zoodochos Pege (i.e. Life-giving Fount) is an epithet of the Holy Virgin and Her representation as Zoodochos Pege is related to the sacred spring. It soon became very popular and this type of icon spread throughout the Orthodox world, particularly in places where a spring was believed to be hagiasma. In the 9th century, Joseph the Hymnographer gave for the first time the title «Zoodochos Pege» to a hymn for the Mother of God.
A marble fountain, from which water flows, occupies the centre of the icon. Above, the Theotokos is holding Christ who makes the sign of blessing. Two angels hovering over Her head carry a scroll inscribed with the verse: «Hail! That you bear. Hail! That you are». Around the fountain the emperor and many ailing people are shown, in a variety of postures, being sprinkled with Holy Water. According to the tradition, a small pond with fish is painted to the side. Actually, it is the fish that have given its present name to the locality, for Balikli in Turkish means «a place with fish».
The Zoodochos Pege type of icon is found in many variations in all the Orthodox regions. Miniatures, mosaics, icons, woodcuts, copperplates have been in great demand these last centuries.
The north arch of the esonarthex of St. Saviour in Chora, one of the monasteries nearest to the shrine of the Pege, has preserved the upper part of a composition snowing the Virgin-Zoodochos Pege and Christ.
by Athanasios Paliouras