Is it a church? Is it a mosque? Is it a museum? Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia, the Church of Divine Wisdom) may be one of İstanbul’s most famous buildings, but it’s also one that suffers from an acute identity crisis, having started life as the great sixth century church of the Emperor Justinian, before becoming a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and then a museum in 1935 after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk declared the Turkish Republic.
Something similar happened to Chora, near Edirnekapı, which also kicked off as a church before becoming the Kariye Camii (mosque) in the early 16th century. It too is now a museum and makes a wonderful showcase for the mosaics and frescoes of 14th century Byzantium.
Aya Sofya and the Chora Museum feature on most tourist itineraries. Visitors to Topkapı Sarayı will also walk past Hagia Eirene, the Church of Divine Peace, which was built in 537 at about the same time as Hagia Sophia. This church is used as an atmospheric concert hall during İstanbul music festivals but is not otherwise open to the public, which is a great shame. However, dotted about the historic peninsula of Old İstanbul, there are several other buildings that started life as Byzantine churches before acquiring a new Islamic identity after the conquest. Fascinating places, they are at the same time living features of the city as it is now and poignant reminders of what it was in the past, and once you know what you’re looking for, it’s not hard to pick them out since most look pretty similar: their central domes standing proud above red brick walls with at least one apse indicating where the altar would once have stood.
For most visitors, the easiest to find of the other church-mosques is the one known as Küçük Aya Sofya (Little Aya Sofya), which is just a short walk downhill from the Blue Mosque. Küçük Aya Sofya started life as the church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus and was commissioned by the Emperor Justinian in 527, five years before work began on the much larger Hagia Sophia. Its rather plain outside gives no hint at the beauty of the interior where a two-story colonnade runs round an octagonal hall beneath an exquisite dome. The columns still retain their beautifully carved Byzantine capitals, some of them still showing off the initials of Justinian and his wife Theodora. Sergius and Bacchus, Roman soldiers who had been martyred for espousing Christianity, were said to have appeared to the Emperor Anastasius in a dream, pleading for Justinian, who faced execution for plotting against him, hence his enthusiasm for building a church in their honor as soon as he succeeded to the throne.
Church of Sts. Sergius, Bacchus
In the 16th century, the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus was converted into a mosque and acquired not just a minaret but also a courtyard with cells opening off it which now serve as craft workshops. Recently the mosque was comprehensively restored. Opinions vary as to the end result.
Küçük Aya Sofya still functions as a mosque, but another of the city’s great Byzantine churches, the Theotokos Pammakaristos, better known as the Fethiye Cami, has been subdivided so that one side can be used for mosque services while the other is a museum. This gem of a building deserves to receive many more visitors than currently cross its threshold. It appears to have started life in the 12th century as the Church of the Joyous Mother of God but had a side chapel added in the 14th century. This was embellished with mosaics that are only less impressive than those in the Chora Museum because there are fewer of them; the Pantocrator in the dome, for example, is breathtakingly beautiful and completely intact. To find it, you need walk only a short distance from the Chora Museum. What’s more, you pay just a third of the Chora admission fee to view it.
Of the other church-mosques dotted about Old İstanbul, the most important must be what is now the Zeyrek Camii but which started life as the Church of the Pantocrator in the early 12th century. Zeyrek Camii has a magnificent location on a bluff overlooking the Golden Horn. However, until recently it stood in a very poor neighborhood and was in an advanced state of dereliction, its magnificent mosaic floor hidden away beneath shabby carpets. All that is about to change, though, as the entire complex of two churches and a chapel is currently undergoing restoration. Once the covers come off, hopefully by the start of next year, the Zeyrek Camii is likely to scoop up far more visitors.
The city’s other church-mosques tend to be more neglected. Take the Church of Constantine Lips (otherwise known as Fenari İsa Camii), for example. Dating back in part to the 10th century, this is one of the oldest religious structures to survive in the city, and stands right beside busy Vatan Caddesi, but how many people ever pause to look at it and wonder at its complicated history, let alone hang around until prayer time in the hope of sneaking a look inside? The cute little Church of the Myrelaion (a.k.a. Bodrum Camii) also dates back to the 10th century and can be found tucked away in the back streets of Laleli amid the cheap clothing emporia. Most people walk straight past it without giving it a second glance.
You’ll need to hunt a bit harder to track down the Gül Camii (Rose Mosque) in Cibali. This probably started life in the 10th century as the Church of St. Theodosia whose feast day was May 29, the very day on which it became obvious that Constantinople would not be able to hold out against the forces of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. In their fear, the city’s inhabitants flocked to the church and filled it with roses as they prayed to the saint for salvation. When the Ottomans rode up to the church, they found the flowers still in place, hence the name they gave to the building when they converted it into a mosque.
A short walk deeper into the Zeyrek backstreets should bring you to the slightly smaller 11th century Church of St. Savior Pantepotes (Christ the All Seeing). This was used as a soup kitchen during the years when Fatih Cami was being built, hence its name, the Eski İmaret Camii (the Old Soup Kitchen Mosque). If you press on into Vefa, you should be able to find a mosque that actually acknowledges its heritage in its name; the Kilise Camii (Church Mosque) seems to have started life between the 10th and 12th centuries as the Church of St. Theodore, but probably acquired the mosaics in its narthex during the 14th century since they bear some resemblance to those in the Chora Museum. The façade of the building incorporates many fragments of Byzantine marble, which makes it well worth a look even if you don’t manage to get inside. Finally, if you continue walking into the Süleymaniye area, you should eventually stumble upon, right up against the old aqueduct, the late 12th century Church of the Theotokas Kyriotissa (Holy Mother of God), which went on to become the Kalenderhane Camii, its name commemorating the fact that it was used as a tekke (lodge) by Kalender dervishes. The walls of the church were once covered with frescoes showing the life of St. Francis of Assisi. These have, however, been removed to the Archeological Museum, where sadly they are not currently on display.
by Pat Yale
The Kariye Museum (Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, Chora Church) has the best Byzantine mosaics in the region. If you can spare two hours, you must see them. (Note: the museum is closed Wednesday.)
As the Kariye/Chora Church is out-of-the-way, one of the best ways to visit is on a half-day Istanbul city tour that also visits the nearby city walls, Tekfur Sarayi, Yedikule, etc. More…
Originally built in the 4th century as the ‘Church of the Holy Savior Outside the Walls’ or ‘in the Country’ (chora), it was indeed outside the walls built by Constantine the Great.
The building you see was built in the late 11th century, with lots of repairs and restructuring in the following centuries. Virtually all of the interior decoration—the famous mosaics and the less renowned but equally striking mural paintings—dates from about 1320.
The mosaics are breathtaking. The first ones are those of the dedication, to Jesus and Mary. Then come the offertory ones: Theodore Metochites, builder of the church, offering it to Jesus.
The two small domes of the inner narthex have portraits of all Jesus’s ancestors back to Adam. A series outlines Mary’s life, and another, Jesus’s early years. Yet another series concentrates on Jesus’s ministry.
In the nave are three mosaics: of Jesus, of Mary as Teacher, and of the Dormition of Mary (turn around to see this one-it’s over the main door you just entered).
South of the nave is the Parecclesion, a side chapel built to hold the tombs of the church’s founder and relatives. The frescos, appropriately, deal with the theme of death and resurrection.
The church was enclosed within the walls built by the Emperor Theodosius II in 413, less than 100 years after Constantine, so the church ‘outside the walls’ has in fact been ‘in the city’ for 1550 years.
For four centuries after the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul it served as a mosque (Kariye Camii), and is now a museum (Kariye Müzesi) because of its priceless mosaics.
To get to the Kariye Museum (closed Wednesday), if you don’t take an Istanbul city tour, a taxi is easiest but most expensive.
You can save money (but not time) by taking any bus that stops at Edirnekapi.
When you reach Edirnekapi, ask for directions by saying Kariye (KAH-ree-yeh) to anyone you see. The museum is only a five-minute walk east of the boulevard. Neighborhood people will happily point the way through the maze of tiny streets.
On the south side of the Kariye Müzesi is the Kariye Oteli, housed in a renovated Ottoman mansion. Asitane (AH-see-TAH-neh, an Ottoman sobriquet for Istanbul), the hotel’s garden restaurant, features fine Ottoman cuisine and excellent service in a refined atmosphere, at suitably lofty prices.
The building facing the Kariye Museum was once the Kariye Muhallebicisi or Pudding Shop, an old Istanbul institution.
From Kariye, head west to the city walls, then north again, and you’ll soon come to the Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenetus, the Tekfur Sarayi (tehk-FOOR sar-rah-yuh), closed in 2006 for restoration and still closed in early 2009.
Monday, Sep 12, 1955 – Time
The Moslem followers of Mohammed the Conqueror who triumphantly stormed Constantinople in 1453 were so successful in covering up all traces of Christianity that for almost five centuries Byzantine art—once the glory of Eastern Christendom—could be judged only through the examples that survived outside the Moslem world. Then, in 1935, Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk declared Istanbul’s Church of St. Sophia a historical monument, and cleared the way for Western experts to remove the plaster and paint that pious, iconoclastic Moslems had daubed over the great Christian mosaics. Since then each fragmentary restoration has added new proof of the power and achievement of Byzantine religious art between the 4th and 15th centuries A.D.
Five years ago a task force financed by Boston’s Byzantine Institute carefully eyed the walls in another Istanbul church, Kariye Camii, rebuilt on an older structure in the early 14th century and later converted into a mosque. With official blessing, the restorers went to work, soon realized that they had found a new jewel case of Byzantine art. With the job only three-fourths completed, their most significant find has been a set of 18 mosaic panels depicting the life of the Virgin Mary. Says Professor Paul A. Underwood, field director of the Istanbul project, who this week reports on the restoration work to the World Byzantine Congress in Istanbul: “Kariye Camii is the best sample we have of late Byzantine art.”
Kariye Camii was rebuilt in the early 1300s as a monastery church within Constantinople’s mighty walls, at the order of a wealthy courtier, Theodore Metochites. All evidence indicates that the church was decorated by mosaic masters who were buoyed up by the same fresh new breeze of discovery that in the West heralded the first stirrings of the Renaissance. Into the rigid Byzantine forms that had governed Eastern religious art for almost a thousand years, Byzantine artists poured a new warmth drawn from revived classic models.
For subject matter they turned to the Apocryphal New Testament for scenes from the life of Mary. One of the best preserved panels (see color page) shows the child Mary installed as a handmaiden in the temple as a thanksgiving offering by her parents. According to the Apocryphal Book of James: “And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as a dove that is nurtured; and she received food from the hand of an angel.” To portray Mary the artist used gentle modulations of beige, blue and gold, which achieve the soft tones of tempera painting. Little effort was made to indicate perspective, but the turning movement of the figures, the flowing robes of Mary and her handmaiden and the swirling movement of the angel break away from the stiff formalism of earlier Byzantine art.
In Italy this refreshed, humanized vision was carried one step further by Giotto, who incorporated into Western art the nobility of classic models. But in the East, with the growing threat of invasion looming over Constantinople, Byzantine art recoiled into familiar formalism. The murals of Kariye Camii stand revealed as the high point of Byzantine humanism, possibly the last great testimony of Byzantine art in its final flowering.