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: email@example.com
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
The Chora Museum (Turkish Kariye Müzesi, Kariye Camii, or Kariye Kilisesi — the Chora Museum, Mosque or Church) is considered to be one of the most beautiful examples of a Byzantine church. The church is situated in the western, Edirnekapı district of Istanbul. In the 16th century, the church was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman rulers, and it became a secularised museum in 1948. The interior of the building is covered with fine mosaics and frescoes. History of Chora Church
The Chora Church was originally built outside the walls of Constantinople, to the south of the Golden Horn. Literally translated, the church’s full name was the Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country: although “The Church of the Holy Redeemer in the Fields” would be a more natural rendering of the name in English. (Greek ἡ Ἐκκλησία του Ἅγιου Σωτῆρος ἐν τῃ Χώρᾳ, hē Ekklēsia tou Hagiou Sōtēros en tē Chōra). The last part of that name, Chora, referring to its location originally outside of the walls, became the shortened name of the church. The original church on this site was built in the early 5th century, and stood outside of the 4th century walls of Constantine the Great. However, when Theodosius II built his formidable land walls in 413–414, the church became incorporated within the city’s defences, but retained the name Chora. The name must have carried symbolic meaning, as the mosaics in the narthex describe Christ as the Land of the Living (ἡ Χώρα των ζώντων, hē Chōra tōn zōntōn) and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as the Container of the Uncontainable (ἡ Χώρα του Ἀχώρητου, hē Chōra tou Achōrētou).
The majority of the fabric of the current building dates from 1077–1081, when Maria Dukaina, the mother-in-law of Alexius I Comnenus, rebuilt the Chora Church as an inscribed cross or quincunx: a popular architectural style of the time. Early in the 12th century, the church suffered a partial collapse, perhaps due to an earthquake. The church was rebuilt by Isaac Comnenus, Alexius’s third son. However, it was only after the third phase of building, two centuries after, that the church as it stands today was completed. The powerful Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites endowed the church with much of its fine mosaics and frescos. Theodore’s impressive decoration of the interior was carried out between 1315 and 1321. The mosaic-work is the finest example of the Palaeologian Renaissance. The artists remain unknown. In 1328, Theodore was sent into exile by the usurper Andronicus III Palaeologus. However, he was allowed to return to the city two years later, and lived out the last two years of his life as a monk in his Chora Church.
During the last siege of Constantinople in 1453, the Icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria, considered the protector of the City, was brought to Chora in order to assist the defenders against the assault of the Ottomans.
Around fifty years after the fall of the city to the Ottomans, Atık Ali Paşa, the Grand Vizier of Sultan Bayezid II, ordered the Chora Church to be converted into a mosque — Kariye Camii. Due to the prohibition against iconic images in Islam, the mosaics and frescoes were covered behind a layer of plaster. This and frequent earthquakes in the region have taken their toll on the artwork.
In 1948, Thomas Whittemore and Paul A. Underwood, from the Byzantine Institute of America and the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, sponsored a programme of restoration. From that time on, the building ceased to be a functioning mosque. In 1958, it was opened to the public as a museum — Kariye Müzesi.
Interior of Chora Church
The Chora Church is not as large as some of the other Byzantine churches of Istanbul (it covers 742.5 m²), but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in the beauty of its interior. The building divides into three main areas: the entrance hall or narthex, the main body of the church or naos, and the side chapel or parecclesion. The building has six domes: two in the esonarthex, one in the parecclesion and three in the naos.