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.

Roald Dahl’s daughter finds peace as a nun
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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Thomas Whittemore has been chipping away plaster walls off for 14 years.

September 26, 2009 by  
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From Time –  Jan. 27, 1947,

Glory be to God, who hath thought me worthy to accomplish so great a work; 1 have vanquished thee, O Solomon!

This was the proud thanksgiving uttered by Justinian the Great at the dedication of the church of St. Sophia (“Divine Wisdom”) in Constantinople 14 centuries ago. Justinian had something to crow about; “compared with the formation of the vilest insect,” as Historian Edward Gibbon pointed out, the church might be dull and insignificant, but the peak of its interior is one of the Highest in the world (180 feet) and as art, St. Sophia doubtless surpassed Solomon’s temple. Among the church’s beauties, noted Gibbon, were “a variety of ornaments and figures . . . curiously expressed in mosaic; and the images of Christ, of the Virgin, of saints, and of angels, which have been defaced by Turkish fanaticism. . . .”

Last week Boston Archeologist Thomas Whittemore returned home from Istanbul, with proof that the conquering Moslems had not been guilty of defacing, only of concealing, St. Sophia’s Christian mosaics. Whittemore, a spry, enthusiastic bachelor of 76, and director of Boston’s well-heeled Byzantine Institute, has been chipping away at the church’s plaster walls off & on for the past 14 years.

He had won the approval of Turkey’s late President Kamal Atatürk for the project. At first, because the church was in use as a mosque, Whittemore and his assistants had to take Fridays and Moslem prayer hours off. But in 1935 the Turkish Government made St. Sophia a public monument, and since then work has proceeded on a businesslike 9-to-5 schedule (except for winter months, when the place gets too chilly to work in). Whittemore went right on chipping through the war.

Under the plaster he has discovered close to a thousand years of history—in silver, gold, marble, and sparkling glass cubes put together into a parade of saints and influential sinners which stretches from 537 to 1453 A.D., when the Turks came marching in.

Among the mosaics already laid bare are portraits of Emperor Leo VI (made about 900 A.D.), Constantine the Great and Justinian II (995), Empress Zoë and Constantine IX (1042), John II Comnenus, Empress Irene, and their son, Alexius (early 12th Century).

Whittemore still has years of chipping ahead, and not much of an idea what he will find next. His men work mostly on scaffoldings high up on the walls. They use no chemicals to dissolve the plaster and paint which the Moslems spread over the murals (the Moslem religion forbids pictures of people or animals, as the Jewish forbids graven images). Whittemore has found it safer to flake off inch by inch with “a small steel chisel, [the kind] used in delicately cleaning fossils.”

Where they have been freed of plaster, St. Sophia’s walls and vaulting seem to dissolve in color. The mosaics, says Whittemore enthusiastically, meet “the vision as if charioted on a billow of light, each with an appeal as thrilling and compelling and personal as it seems possible to experience. The effect as you move past them has the cumulative power of a rising flood, and they engulf you in the religious enthusiasm of Byzantine conviction. . . . We may say of all [the mosaics] that we are in the presence of [works of] metropolitan masters, compared with which the contemporary mosaics in Italy, for instance, are provincial and derived. We have only to look at extant gth Century mosaics in Roman churches and their feeble treatment to assure ourselves that the fountainhead of the art was at Constantinople.”

Throughout the 1,000 years in which they were made, St. Sophia’s mosaics hardly varied in style or excellence. They were made by the best artist of each generation, working in “orchestral” anonymity of the sort that, Scholar Whittemore believes, “life is trying to induce us to return to.”

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Cerrahpasa a forgotten corner of old Istanbul

June 9, 2010 by  
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In a city the size of İstanbul it’s hardly surprising that people can live here for decades and still not have visited every part of it.

What is a little more surprising, however, is to stumble on a part of the old city inside the ancient walls that goes virtually unvisited by foreigners. The area around Edirnekapı used to be a bit like that, but these days a growing number of coach parties pass through on their way to visit the Chora Church (Kariye Museum). The part of town around Cerrahpaşa and Haseki, though, is still completely off-the-beaten-track despite being within easy walking distance of Aksaray.

Historically, this was a very important part of the city, the place where the old slave market used to stand and thus the place where some of the women who rose to power in the Topkapı Palace harem changed hands on their path to the sultan’s bed. But it was also a part of town picked by several dignitaries of the Ottoman court who chose to adorn it with magnificent mosque complexes, some of them by the great architect Mimar Sinan.

To find Cerrahpaşa you need to alight from the tram at Aksaray, cross the busy interchange and look for the 18th-century Ebu Bekir Paşa schoolroom, which now houses a humble teahouse. From there you should head along Namık Kemal Caddesi to find the Cerrahpaşa Cami, which was built in 1593 by Davud Ağa, a pupil of Sinan who succeeded him as chief architect. In the grounds stands the tomb of Cerrah (Surgeon) Paşa, the barber who had the honor of circumcising the future Mehmed III and who was awarded the title of surgeon for his pains.

If you continue along Cerrahpaşa Caddesi and then turn left along Haseki Kadın Sokağı you will come to the enormous Bulgur Palas, built in 1912 in the style known as First National Architecture for Mehmed Habib Bey, who made a fortune in cracked wheat (hence the name) and then went on to become a deputy for Bolu. One of the architects who worked on it was Giulio Mongeri, who was also responsible for St. Anthony’s Church on İstiklal Caddesi as well as for the Maçka Palas building that now houses the Park Hyatt Hotel.

If, instead, you turn right along Haseki Kadın Sokağı you will come to one of the city’s more curious and easily overlooked monuments, namely the Column of Arcadius, erected in his own honor by the Emperor Arcadius in 402. The column was torn down for safety reasons in 1715, which means that only the base survives, squeezed in between a house and a car park. In winter it’s clearly visible, although at this time of year it’s largely obscured by foliage.

Believe it or not, the area around this column where there is now a children’s playground was once the Roman Forum of Arcadius, and then the site of the Avrat Pazarı, or Women’s Slave Market, which survived until 1847. There’s nothing left to show for it today, not even a commemorative plaque, but it’s thought that among the many women to have passed through it were Roxelana, who became the wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent and whose beautiful bath complex in Sultanahmet Square is currently under restoration; Kösem Sultan, the wife of Sultan Ahmed I and, as co-regent for her sons and grandson, one of the most powerful of all Ottoman women; and Mihrişah Sultan, the mother of Sultan Selim III.

At the end of Haseki Sultan Sokağı you will come to the Bayrampaşa mosque complex, which is split in two by the road with the mosque on the left-hand side of the road and the medrese (theological seminary) on the right. Bayram Paşa was a grand vizier to Sultan Murad IV, who died during the campaign to recapture Baghdad in 1638 and who gave his name to the area of İstanbul around the Esenler bus station. His tomb is in a very poor state of repair, but a mescid and dervish tekke (lodge) that formed part of the complex now house a women’s clinic.

If you turn left onto Haseki Caddesi you will come to the Haseki Hürrem mosque complex, which was built by Sinan for Roxelana in 1539. It’s the third largest such complex in the city after the Fatih and Süleymaniye models, which makes it all the more remarkable that it is so little known or visited. The mosque itself stands on the left-hand side of the road in a cramped courtyard, but the medrese over the road must once have been magnificent, to judge from the delicate tiled panels removed from above its windows and placed in the İstanbul Archeological Museum for safekeeping. Behind it the imaret (soup kitchen) bristles with chimneys alongside a splendid hospital building. Sadly, none of the complex is actually open to the public, and even the mosque seems reluctant to admit visitors.

A little bit of zigzagging around the back streets will bring you to the older Davutpaşa Cami, which was built for Davud Paşa, a grand vizier to Sultan Beyazıd II, in 1485 and whose tomb stands right beside it. Across the road, the medrese is one of the oldest in the city but stands in ruins, unlike the Fatih İbrahim Paşa Medresesi, a little way west of Cerrahpaşa Hospital, which was erected in 1560 but badly damaged by an earthquake in 1894. It has just been completely restored (rebuilt might be a better word).

Even if you’re starting to feel all mosqued out, it’s still worth heading up Ese Kapısı Sokağı to find the Hekimoğlu Ali Paşa Cami, which was built in 1734-5 in a style that segues neatly from classical Sinanesque into early baroque as exemplified by its main entrance, which blends traditional stalactite decoration with more rococo elements. The mosque itself is particularly beautiful, but you should make sure not to miss either the lovely sebil (water dispensary) built into the walls on the corner, or the wonderful library housed above the main gate. Books here are encased in a cage above the ground and still have to be accessed via a ladder.

Another curious reminder of the Byzantine period can be found nearby, and that is the Cistern of St. Mocius, a vast open-air reservoir that may have been used to store water for irrigation in Byzantine times. At 25,000 square meters, it’s big enough to enclose a park and children’s play area. Just look for a monumental hole in the ground, and you’ve found it.

Finally, if you continue west along Kocamustafapaşa Caddesi you will come to a busy square where many buses terminate. Here, too, is the inconspicuous Ramazan Efendi Cami, the last work of Sinan, designed in 1586 when he was 96. It contains a fine collection of İznik tiles, although you may only be able to get inside to inspect them around prayer time on Friday.

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