The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople

The Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople was traditionally established in 1461, when Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror ordered Armenians and Turks to settle inside the city of Constantinople, newly conquered by the Ottomans, and had Archbishop Hovageem (Joachim), the prelate of Bursa, move to his capital and preside as the spiritual head of the Armenians in his realm. The same tradition maintains that Sultan Mehmed issued an edict that specified all the rights he had granted to Archbishop Hovageem. The edict was unfortunately destroyed during one of the fires that occurred frequently in the Constantinople churches, thus depriving us of a very important document and a source of information. Whatever the extent and nature of their jurisdiction and their exact title may have been, later Armenian patriarchs of Constantinople traced back their line to Hovageem, considering him the first patriarch. Yet historical evidence indicates that there were Armenian bishops in and around Constantinople presumably tending to the spiritual needs of Armenians in the region prior to the Ottoman occupation.

Modern scholars are now of the opinion that the application of the title patriarch is from the early decades of the 16th century and seems to be somehow synchronic with the grant of certain property rights to the Armenian Church by the renowned Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent. The Armenian patriarchate of Constantinople, from the perspective of the Armenian Church tradition, was initially an Episcopal see. The fact that it was located at the Ottoman capital and recognized by the Ottoman government as the official head of the Armenians played an important role in its development as an important hierarchical see. What was initially a distant diocese gradually emerged, especially in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, as the sole authority that the Ottomans officially recognized as the head of the Armenian minority. The patriarchate ultimately extended its jurisdiction over the patriarchate of Jerusalem and the catholicates of Aghtamar and the Great House of Cilicia, while it recognized the jurisdiction of the see of the Catholicos of all Armenians only in spiritual, doctrinal and liturgical matters, received from it Holy Chrism [Muron] and sent candidates of its choice to Holy Etchmiadzin for Episcopal ordination.

The Armenian patriarchs of Constantinople, like all bishops, traditionally had a great deal of authority over their jurisdiction, but since the beginning, local lay leaders, many in the service of the Ottoman court, had a say in the affairs of the patriarchate.  In time, this developed into an institution and during the 18th and early 19th centuries a number of councils were formally established for administrative purposes. Ultimately these were all institutionalized by the Armenian Constitution that was approved by the Ottoman Court in 1863. This document allowed the Armenians to conduct the administration of their internal religious, educational, social and community affairs through an assembly of representatives elected by popular vote. The assembly elected the patriarch who presided over its sessions and was responsible for its enforcing its resolutions.

In the eyes of the Ottoman government, the Armenian patriarch was the head of the Armenian millet, which included the Armenians and a number of other peoples and religious minorities such as the Copts, the Assyrians, the Yezedis and the Nestorian Christians. Since the Ottoman state recognized no division between church and state, the patriarchate, which in its eyes was like a ministry, was in charge of the social welfare and the educational needs of the community. This situation ceased with the fall of the Ottoman Empire soon after World War I and the former status of the Armenian patriarchate changed as a result of the emergence of new countries on the territories of the empire and the depletion of the Armenian population of eastern Anatolia and western Armenia during and after the Genocide.

Today the Armenian patriarchate of Constantinople extends its jurisdiction mainly over Istanbul and its suburbs where Armenians still live and constitute the largest Christian minority in Turkey. Outside of Istanbul the patriarchate has only a small number of churches in Turkey and one parish in Crete.

The patriarchate is physically located in Istanbul, at Kumkapi. It consists of a three-storied structure in the immediate vicinity of the cathedral and two churches. In the 1950s, the Soorp Khatch Seminary was established for the preparation of clergy, but for various reasons it was converted to a regular school. At present candidates for the priesthood receive tutorial education on the premises of the patriarchate.

In our days the patriarchs of Istanbul are looked upon by the Turkish government as merely spiritual leaders. Like the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the Patriarch of Constantinople is under the jurisdiction of the Catholicos of all Armenians. All the candidates of the episcopal rank coming from the patriarchate are ordained in Holy Etchmiadzin by the hand of the Catholicos of all Armenians. In ecclesiastical and liturgical context the Patriarch of Constantinople is ranked after the patriarch of Jerusalem, out of respect for the Holy City. The two patriarchs are ex-officio co-chairman of the Supreme Spiritual Council of Holy Etchmiadzin.       

—Article by Fr. Krikor Maksoudian; excerpted from "Welcome to the Armenian Church" (2004).