Ann George takes her place in a circle of light


It was quite dark when I turned into the alleyway leading to the courtyard. We had had a long meeting after school; I was tired and was looking forward to some stuffed vine leaves from the American fridge, and a glass or two of red Galil wine. Barring my way, however, was Auntie, dressed in her church-going outfit and looking distinctly put out. ‘You are late’, she hissed, then, having looked me up and down as if to check the propriety of my working suit, hustled me out of the courtyard without giving me even a moment to put my work bag in my room. ‘Where are we going?’ I murmured, wondering why everything had to be so secretive, but I was ignored as she briskly turned in at the doorway of the Armenian cathedral. Inside, it was almost pitch black with a faint glow of light off to the left, near the floor. Even more mysteriously there was nobody about, no priests hovering or moving silently around the various icons as was usually the case, no elderly, black-clad women crossing themselves and genuflecting at the various altars. Auntie led me towards the glimmer of light, and then gave me a gentle push to the side as she stepped to the left to stand next to me.

I was looking at a space on the floor, more or less circular, in which had been placed a number of small night lights, flickering gently in the small currents of air. I sensed rather than saw that there were a number of other people standing around the circle; they also were wearing dark colours and I guessed that they were women. Suddenly Auntie’s hand was illuminated as she bent down to light a night light from one already on the ground. She added her light to the others then thrust another night light into my hand, and I obediently copied her, placing my light inside the circle and close to my feet. As the two lights were added to the pool of light on the floor a collective sigh rose from the circle of women. We then waited a long time, staring at the mesmeric sight of the tiny lights dancing upon the floor. Quite a while later there was a little flutter of activity and another light appeared, accompanied by the collective sigh. We then lapsed into contemplation again, and I was acutely aware of my marking awaiting me in my work bag, now resting between my feet. Again there was movement, another light joined the glow and there was again another collective sigh; this time I added my voice to the gentle chorus.

This last light, however, was the signal for the completion of this unfathomable ritual. The women turned away from the pool of light and made for the door. As Auntie and I passed through the doorway, I murmured to Auntie, ‘What was that all about?’ She stopped, and stared at me with genuine surprise: ‘You don’t know today is Feast of 40 Martyrs of Sebaste?’ I had to say that I knew nothing about the martyrs of Sebaste. ‘They were young Christian soldiers martyred by clothes taken, then kept out on frozen pond all night. Their mothers looked, praying, encouraging them to be brave.’

All was explained. In the Armenian Quarter finding 40 women to take part in this particular, very specialized ritual would be difficult, as most of the inhabitants were priests. Auntie had obviously offered my services as a stand-in; I was thankful that I wasn’t the last to join the group. At least I had not kept anyone waiting, even though I was certainly the most ignorant of those that night who had marked the martyrdom of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste.

The 40 Martyrs of Sebaste are commemorated on 10th March in the Western Calendar. In the Armenian Calendar the feast day is calculated from the date of Ash Wednesday.