The Christian Past of Istanbul

February 21, 2016 by  
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chora museum church istanbul
The Chora Museum, also known as Kariye Müzesi, is an oddball site in Istanbul. It pre-dates Islam, but is located in one of the city’s most conservative Muslim neighborhoods, in an area known for its historic wooden homes and nearby city walls built by the Romans and Byzantines.

This museum doesn’t make the cut for visitors trying to hit the greatest hits of Istanbul in one day, but for anyone who has more time to spend, it’s a must.

The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora was originally built in the 400s and was expanded in the 1000s of Constantinople. Most of what survives today—including the incredible mosaics covering the interior—were finished between 1315 and 1321. Alas, the city fell to the Ottomans in the mid-1400s and around 50 years later the building was converted to a mosque.

As with Hagia Sofia, the conversion process meant covering up all the icons with plaster, which in the long run was a much better outcome than just defacing them, as happened in so many other churches in lands that fell to Muslim invaders. The action ended up preserving the mosaics and paintings, which were restored in the mid-1900s, after Turkey became a republic. In 1958, Kariye opened to the public as a museum.

The church itself is an asymmetrical oddity built on a slope, rebuilt and added onto several times. The mosaics though, restored to their former glory, are a stunning site. They are grouped into three large rooms, some illuminated by domes overhead, while doorways between them have some of the most impressive works over the top.

While the beauty of the artwork is arresting on its own, the explanation of a guide or good book can shed some light on what you’re seeing. Jesus and Mary take center stage, of course, but in a different light than usual. The pre-Jesus lives of Mary and Joseph get more action here than in most churches, including one panel where he returns from a business trip and finds Mary pregnant. Plus we see Jesus in that seldom-covered stage between being a baby and being an adult. Then there are the saints important and minor, righteous kings, church benefactors, and angels.

Although the artists are uncredited and unknown, their work is of a high quality and the colors are still vivid. Creating mosaics is patient work done by masters over long periods, while the paintings were done while the plaster was still wet, causing them to fade less over time.

By Tim Leffel

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A place not to miss in Istanbul: Chora Museum

April 3, 2011 by  
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Many tourists begin to visit Turkey in April, and from then on you can bet that every month throughout the summer numbers will increase. Tourism season has begun.

When my guests ask me what they should see in İstanbul. I always suggest that if they have time they must visit the Chora Museum. You may know the museum by its Turkish name, Kariye Müzesi. Kariye is the Turkish version of Chora, which was the Greek word for “countryside.” When you see where the church is situated today it takes some imagination to picture that at one time the location was countryside. The magnificent Chora Museum is an old Byzantine church, situated just inside the city walls at Edirnekapı. It is unparalleled in Turkey, and some would claim the world, for its beautiful frescos and mosaics. Although it is a bit off the routine tourist path, it is well worth the visit if you have time and enjoy mosaics and frescoes.

One of the leading frescos is the Anastasis fresco in the side chapel of the church. I wonder what you think of when you hear the word anastasios, “resurrection” in Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament. Easter Sunday this year is on April 24, the day when Christians remember Christ’s resurrection from the dead and many children enjoy Easter egg hunts.

It is said that the word anastasios is related to the name of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna, the daughter of the last tsar of Russia, Tsar Nicholas II. When the Bolsheviks executed Tsar Nicholas and his family on July 17, 1918 it was rumored that the 17-year-old survived. It is unclear how much of this is fact, it could be just the wishful thinking of royalist supporters as her name means “I will arise.” I leave it for you to judge.

A brief summary of Byzantine history: In the days of Byzantine Emperor Constantine, when the monastery the church was attached to was built this was the country area outside of the city walls. Emperor Theodosius in A.D. 413 built his walls a little further out, but the name, meaning countryside, stuck.

During the reign of Justinian the monastery was devastated by an earthquake and was rebuilt as a basilica. It was restored again in 843. Considerable rebuilding and redecoration were carried out in the 11th century; Alexios Komnenos, who sponsored this work, is immortalized in a mosaic, standing behind the Virgin Mary. Another 150 years later the structure was enlarged and decorated with complex and beautiful mosaics by Theodore Metochites. Everyone who has visited Chora has reported back how much they enjoyed the visit, the wonderful mosaics that tell the life of Christ in pictures and beautiful frescoes that illustrate Old Testament stories.

One of the delights of the church is that it is on a much smaller scale than, say, the Aya Sofya. Most describe it as being intimate and cozy. The arched ceilings that are so vividly decorated are not 20 or 30 meters above your head, they are so near you can almost reach up and touch them. This enables the visitor to really appreciate the fine detail of the artistry.

When the church was converted into a mosque after Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, thankfully, instead of destroying the wonderful artwork (that was held as blasphemous by Muslims as it depicted so many people) they just covered it up. So these wonderful pristine examples of Byzantine art lay dormant over the centuries until 1948, when the Byzantine Institute of America began the painstaking work of revealing and restoring these hidden masterpieces. The result: The Chora Church, which had previously undergone a metamorphosis into the Kariye Camii, was reborn as the Chora (or Kariye) Museum.

I always enjoy seeing the stories depicted in pageantry throughout each of the walkways of the church. The frescoes tell the story of the raising of the dead. The lighting and shade, the power and movement in the figures, just add to the amazing explosive feeling of the grave bursting open and the Easter miracle occurring before our very eyes. However, these frescoes are just a warm-up for the main event in Chora. You should walk along one side of the church to a side chapel, the parekklession, or grave chapel. The parekklession ends with a wide-arched apse, and here is the famous fresco of the Anastasis.

Take an afternoon to stroll into the area of Kariye, and visit the museum and its wonderful Easter theme today.

Charlotte McPherson is the author of “Culture Smart: Turkey, 2005.” Please keep your questions and observations coming: I want to ensure this column is a help to you, Today’s Zaman’s readers. Email:

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Visions of Byzantium

December 28, 2010 by  
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The exhibition, Vaults of Heaven

Visions of Byzantium, presents a series of extraordinary ultra-large-scale photographs, many over six-feet tall, by the renowned Turkish photographer Ahmet Ertug. The exhibit is at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology at the University of Michigan through Jan. 23.

Focusing on paintings, mosaics, and architecture of the Byzantine world (6th–14th centuries AD), the photos provide a journey through such venerated sites as Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia and Church of Christ in Chora, as well as churches in the Cappadocia region of central Turkey, an area known for hidden Christian retreats hewn out of the region’s unusual volcanic rock formations.

Trained as an architect, Ahmet Ertug combines a deep understanding of Byzantine history and culture with an artist’s eye. His remarkable photographs capture the mystery and power of these ancient sites, offering viewers intimate views of the great domes, expansive structural details, and exquisite mosaics and paintings of these sacred spaces.

Accompanying the photographs are objects from the Kelsey Museum’s collections of Byzantine and Islamic material, including gold coins, manuscripts pages, small carvings, pottery, and wooden architectural fragments.

Vaults of Heaven
Visions of Byzantium will be displayed in two parts. Part I, on display from Oct. 1– Jan. 23, 2011, includes visions from two famous metropolitan churches in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia and the early 14th-century Church of Christ in Chora.

Part II, on display from Feb.4 – May 29, 2011, focuses on Karanlik, a monastic compound built in the 11th century; Tokali, the largest church in Cappadocia, with paintings from the 10-11th centuries and the church of Meryemana (“Mother Mary”), which is currently closed to the public.

Ahmet Ertug has been hailed as one of the world’s few living photographers who is “predestined to become a part of history.” His extraordinary images have been featured in major exhibitions from Japan and Turkey to Paris and London. A selection of his work is permanently displayed in the upper gallery of Istanbul’s famous Hagia Sophia.

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A 1974 graduate of the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, Ertug began his photographic career in 1972, taking pictures of Caribbean festivals and street life in London. Although he continued to work as an architect, his interest in photography grew throughout the 1970s.

While working in Iran, he began photographing indigenous settlements and ancient Persian monuments, and in 1979, with the help of a research grant, he traveled throughout Japan, capturing images of ancient Japanese temples, Zen gardens, and festivals. After his year in the Far East, Ertug returned to Istanbul, having been hired as an architect for the conservation planning of the city. His increasingly intimate knowledge of the city’s historic quarters inspired him to begin photographing Istanbul’s impressive Byzantine, Ottoman, and Roman remains, using a large-format camera that enabled him to capture their full splendor.

In the 1980s, Ertug established his own publishing house, producing specially designed books of his photographs that are now recognized for their innovation in the printing industry. Both his books and photographs have been internationally praised for their beauty and “deep meditative energy,” which draw the viewer into his subject.

The Kelsey Museum of Archeology is located at 434 S. State Street, Ann Arbor. (734)-764-9304;

Todd Gerring is community outreach coordinator at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology

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