Drama in the Round

March 31, 2009 by  
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kcrevby Robert Ousterhout,
author of The Art of the Kariye Camii
Article with historic photgraphs published in Cornucopia 27

The dramatic mosaics and frescoes of Istanbul’s Kariye Camii, or Church of the Chora, blew away the stiff conventions of Byzantine art. Their energy leaves Giotto looking staid. But theyare now in danger of turning to dust. The powerful pictures on these pages are from a new book by Robert Ousterhout, who fell in love with the church twenty-five years ago. Here he makes a passionate case for preserving this fourteenth-century masterpiece

When I first set foot in the Kariye Camii years ago, I fell in love. It was the academic equivalent of a blind date – I’d committed myself, sight unseen, to write a PhD dissertation about a building I’d never seen in a city I’d never visited. Happily, the Kariye caught and held my interest.

In fact, the Kariye proved to be the perfect blind date, possessing both beauty and brains. As I quickly discovered, the dazzling spectacle of its mosaics and frescoes was balanced by a coherent architectural framework and by firm intellectual underpinnings. It is one of Istanbul’s greatest treasures, once the main church of the Byzantine monastery of the Chora, and now a well-visited museum. Built and decorated between 1316 and 1321, the Kariye represents the patronage of Theodore Metochites, one of Byzantium’s greatest intellectuals, who was both an accomplished poet and prime minister. As sophisticated and erudite as a contemporary work of Byzantine literature, the Kariye is structured like a vast epic poem.

Theodore Metochites, famously depicted above the entrance in his big hat, was not only a powerful politician and the greatest scholar of his age, but he was also fabulously wealthy – the ideal patron for a project like the Kariye. More importantly, he was fortunate to find artists capable of translating his vision into built form. The hothouse conditions Metochites provided led to one of the most experimental periods of Byzantine art. If the word originality can be applied to the Byzantine, the Kariye is as original as it gets.

As the art historian Otto Demus once commented, at first glance the art of the Kariye seems to have no acknowledged canons, as if the artists preferred the abnormal to the normal, the distorted to the regular, the chaotic to the harmonious. It is the Byzantine equivalent of Postmodernism, breaking all the rules, but doing so in such a delightful way that we barely notice. As the key monument of late Byzantine art and architecture, there is absolutely nothing that can compare with it in Istanbul, or anywhere else for that matter.

Ten years after my first encounter, I was still in love with the Kariye. Our relationship had survived the dissertation, the revisions and, finally, the publication of the monograph. Then, after twenty-five years, I celebrated our silver anniversary with the publication of a second book. Although I began with a study of bricks and mortar, I found I couldn’t ignore the mosaics and frescoes. To be sure, I have been involved in a variety of other projects, but I keep coming back to the Kariye.

With its intricate architectural settings and its wealth of decoration, with each visit I seem to discover something new. On my last, for example, I started noticing the trees, how and where they are represented: in addition to a variety of expressive stumps and shrubbery in the mosaics, I realised that David of Thessaloniki, a dendrite (that is, a hermit who sat in a tree) shown at the entrance to the funeral chapel, is positioned equidistant from Christ Calling Zaccheus (who had climbed a tree in order to see Christ as he passed through Jericho) and Moses Before the Burning Bush. In each, we witness an encounter with the divine – Old Testament, New Testament, Byzantine.

Byzantine poets loved this kind of comparison. On an earlier visit, a friend pointed out how the drama and violence in the mosaic of the soldier pursuing Elizabeth with the infant John the Baptist (the last scene in the cycle of the Massacre of the Innocents) is emphasised by the soldier’s sword severing Elizabeth’s name in the inscription: eli-sabeth. Words and images work together.

Guidebooks are quick to point out the contemporaneity of the Kariye with the work of Giotto – as if we needed the Italian Renaissance to appreciate Byzantine art. There is certainly a similar power and sense of life in both, but the Byzantine artist worked differently from his Italian counterpart. Giotto developed an early system of perspective, so that his scenes appear as if viewed through a window, in a space beyond the picture plane. In contrast, for the Byzantine artist, pictorial space and the space occupied by the viewer were one and the same. As a consequence, the scenes at the Kariye have a greater sense of immediacy and are thus more emotionally compelling.

What is more, the setting for the art is not the flat walls of a big anonymous box (the typical Italian church), but rather a series of small, tightly interlocking spaces, in which architectural form and decoration are perfectly fitted together. We are led – personally, experientially – from one space to the next by the narrative, by the gestures of the figures and by the visual and thematic connections between the scenes.

The Byzantine artist did not attempt to create an artificial space through the science of perspective; instead, he created three-dimensional representations that come to life as we interact with them. Where else can we walk through the midst of the Last Judgment, with the scroll of heaven rolled up above our heads, flanked by the blessed and the damned?

The Kariye owes its preservation to the vagaries of history. It is set in what was originally a rural area by the land walls – the name Chora may be translated as “in the fields” – in the northern corner of the city, which became a hub of activity in the late Byzantine period, with the nearby Blachernae Palace as the main imperial residence. After the Ottoman conquest in 1453, however, the centre shifted back to the end of the peninsula, to Topkapi Palace, and the Chora church became an all-but-forgotten neighbourhood mosque.

Through the early Ottoman centuries, its decoration remained uncovered and, in fact, was never completely covered. The frescoes were whitewashed, some of the lower mosaics were removed, but the dome mosaics remained visible, and some of the wall panels were covered with wooden doors – to be opened to visitors for a small tip. When the Byzantine Institute of America undertook its extensive programme of cleaning and consolidation between 1948 and 1960, the surviving mosaics and frescoes were discovered to be in pristine condition.

Not so today. Both the Kariye and I are older than when we first met. The rapid growth of Istanbul’s population has increased the levels of humidity and pollution throughout the city. Crowds of visitors have also raised the level of humidity inside the building, which may be compounded by the lush garden planted close to its foundations, as well as by leaks in the roof and windows. The results are all too visible: in the parekklesion (the funeral chapel) the painted plaster has crumbled away at floor level, and efflorescence, or “bloom” (dampness causing salts to leach through the plaster and collect as a cloudy white substance on the surface), now obscures many painted scenes. For example, Theophanes the Hymnographer is represented below the dome in the parekklesion. He pauses while writing a funeral ode on the theme of Jacob’s Ladder as a guarantee of our access to heaven, holding his pen to point towards the adjacent scene of Jacob’s Ladder and, beneath it, the tomb of Theodore Metochites.

His meaningful gesture, which served visually to connect these several elements of the composition, is now all but invisible. A similar cloud of bloom obscures the Daughter of Jairus, raised from the dead by the hand of Christ, as well as the figure of Satan bound and gagged in the great fresco of the Anastasis (the Resurrection) which forms the visual termination of the parekklesion. Within the mosaics, protective covers of Perspex have created micro-environments in which the humidity is concentrated, causing the setting plaster to crumble.

What is to be done? First, a careful evaluation of the building, its mosaics and frescoes, is required, followed by a comprehensive programme of conservation, regular monitoring, and possibly the installation of climate controls. In France, the Lascaux caves, with their famous prehistoric paintings, have been closed to tourism and the interior environment sealed, controlled and carefully monitored. Even the scientists are allowed only limited access. It may be that nothing quite so drastic is required at the Kariye, but as a new government is elected, it might be worth reminding it that the long-term preservation of Turkey’s unique cultural heritage deserves greater priority than the quick-fix economics of tourism.

As I escorted a friend’s aged grandmother through the Kariye recently, it occurred to me that old buildings are like grandparents.

We love them just as much in their old age. But they require periodic check-ups and regular care – and occasionally treatment by specialists and prescription medicines. I am still in love with the Kariye Camii, but right now it needs urgent medical attention.

© Robert Ousterhout
Robert Ousterhout’s earlier book, ‘The Architecture of the Kariye Camii in Istanbul’ (Dumbarton Oaks Studies 25, 1987), is available from www.doaks.org

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Discovering the Greek side of Istanbul

September 16, 2009 by  
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Leander's Tower
That Istanbul is a real treasure chest for history, art and architecture freaks is no secret. Its colorful mosaic of historical city structures — mosques, churches, synagogues, palaces, castles and towers — reflects the many, many social and cultural influences of a number of foreign communities that have left their indelible footprints across the city throughout its long history.

The oldest settlement on the land that is now İstanbul was, however, Greek.
Already, in 685 B.C., settlers from the ancient Greek town of Megara chose to colonize the town of Chalcedon, in today’s Kadıköy district, thus aiming to secure the Bosporus as a channel of trade between the Greek polities and the Black Sea region. Some years later, in 667 B.C., famous Greek King Byzas went on colonizing the European side of the Bosporus further, thus founding the city of Byzantion.

Two prominent examples of ancient Greek architecture are the Serpentine Column and Leander’s Tower.
Being approximately 2,500 years old, the Serpentine Column is said to be İstanbul’s oldest remaining Greek monument. Erected to honor the triumph of the Greeks over the Persians at Plataea, it originally stood at Delphi (both ancient cities on Greek ground) and was moved to İstanbul in 324 B.C. by Constantine the Great to mark the declaration of the new capital city of the then-founded Roman Empire under the name of Constantinople. The originally eight-meter-high piece was made up of three intertwined serpents which supported a golden bowl. The bowl is believed to have been lost or stolen when the city was sacked during the Fourth Crusade. Some say the heads were hit and cut off by a drunken nobleman in the 17th century but one of them can still be seen in the İstanbul Archaeology Museum. The rest of the column can be found today at the Hippodrome in the Sultanahmet quarter.

Surrounded by no fewer stories is Leander’s Tower, often referred to as Maiden’s Tower and located offshore in the Bosporus in the Üsküdar district. It was actually built in 408 B.C. by an Athenian general to control Persian ships sailing along the Bosporus. Another more well-known story is that of a sultan who erected the tower to protect his daughter from a snake bite, predicted by an oracle. But, as the story goes, there was no way to escape destiny: On the day of her 18th birthday, the sultan brought his daughter a basket of fruit as a gift and hiding within it, of course, was the predicted snake. The tower, which also contains a small, romantic restaurant, can be visited today by taking one of the small boats that sail from the nearby shore.

However, with the fall of Rome in 476, all that remained of the Roman Empire was its eastern part, which then came to be known as the Byzantine Empire. Distinctly Greek in culture and the center of Greek Orthodox Christianity, its capital, Constantinople, was adorned with many magnificent churches, including probably the most well known, Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), once the world’s largest Christian cathedral.

Other important churches that were built later on under Byzantine rule include the Pammakaristos Church, which is now Fethiye Mosque in the Çarşamba neighborhood of today’s Fatih district, and the Church of St. Savior in Chora, situated in the western Edirnekapı district of İstanbul and especially famous for its beautiful mosaics and paintings.

After the capture of the capital of the Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Empire, under the command of Sultan Mehmed II (Mehmet the Conqueror) in 1453, naturally many city structures were destroyed. Mehmed’s main concern with İstanbul had to do with rebuilding the city’s defenses and re-population, and he soon devoted much energy to bringing prosperity to İstanbul. In 1459, he sent out orders that any Greeks — as well as Slavs, Jews and Armenians — who had left İstanbul as slaves or refugees and whose diverse skills were needed now to transform the city into a flourishing capital of the empire were allowed to return to the city.

Every third inhabitant in İstanbul was Greek

According to a census of 1477, there were 9,486 houses occupied by Muslims, 3,743 by Greeks, 1,647 by Jews, 267 by Christians from Crimea and 31 by Gypsies. Nearly every third inhabitant of the city was Greek at that time, so the Greek population played a significant role in the social, political and economic life of the city and the multiethnic, multi-religious Ottoman Empire in general. The leader of the Greek community within the empire officially became the ecumenical patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, which was moved to the Church of St. George in İstanbul’s Fener district in 1586. The patriarchate complex includes the authorization offices, the patriarchate library, the financial offices and the public enterprises of the patriarchate and the Cathedral Church of St. George. The church is definitely worth visiting. It is especially famous for its priceless artifacts and relics, which include the patriarchal throne, believed to date from the fifth century; three rare mosaic icons; a fragment of the Pillar of the Flagellation to which Jesus was tied and whipped; and the coffins of the three saints.

Further on, the Greek High School for boys on the top of Fener hill became an important educational institution to educate young Greeks for Ottoman bureaucracy and orthodox clergy as well. The Yoakimyon High School for girls and Marasli Greek Elementary School next to the patriarchate are other schools that can still be found in the district.

As you see, the list of Greek footprints in İstanbul seems endless. To start tracing them back, just take a small tour of Fener — you will come across an incredible number of smaller, more or less well-preserved churches, and you can still find a few of the typical, small Greek single-family houses, recognizable by their finely decorated facades.

Just take a look — it’s well worth it!

by Kristina Kamp

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The Deisis, Supplication, Mother of God.

October 23, 2009 by  
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DeisisWalk through the door of the Chora Monastery Museum and you step back in time. One-thousand-four-hundred-seventy-three years, to be exact, when Chora was one the many beautiful churches that adorned Constantinople, the jewel in Byzantium’s crown.

When it was built, Chora was outside the Walls of Constantine, and so, today, is a bit off the beaten path — away from the long tourist magnets that are Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace.

“Chora,” in Greek, means “rural,” or “in the country,” and the monastery kept that name after it was incorporated within the enlarged Theodosian Walls.

But the name “Chora,” also alludes to another, everlasting, realm: “I Chóra Ton Zónton,” The World of The Living,” proclaims an icon of Christ above the nave door. It’s one of the few mosaics that did not sustain damage during Fourth Crusade 1204 sack of Constantinople.

Evidence of this destruction — and that caused by the passage of 14 centuries — is seen in the bare walls and domes that once were filled with priceless mosaics.

Next to Christ Pantocrator.” (“He Who Holds All,” The Lord of the Universe.) That’s Theódoros Metochites, the man who restored Chora after the Latin invasion.

“Metochitis, a Byzantine poet, scientist, and minister of the treasury, kneels before the enthroned Christ, holding in his hands the restored Chora church.”

DeisisIcon of Christ of Chalke, the Bronze Gate of the Great Palace.
The greatest church in Christendom before St. Peter’s was constructed in Rome 1,000 years later, Hagia Sophia is the very symbol of Byzantium and occupies a special place in the Greek Orthodox heart.

But you don’t have to be Greek to appreciate its beauty and history — as Atatürk, the Father of modern Turkey, did in 1935 when he proclaimed Hagia Sophia a museum. Hagia Sophia’s Deisis (Supplication) mosaic, qualifies it as a World Heritage Site.

The Mother of God, a Chora dome mosaic.
The virgin, clad in a blue chiton, reclines on a purple cushion by a cave housing the manger. The ox and the ass look on as divine light bathes the Child.

To the left of the cave appear angels, and to the right another angelic messenger gives the Good News to the shepherds residing in the fields.

The Nativity is just one of the beautiful scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin found in Chora. You could teach a whole Bible class just by walking around and pointing at the mosaics in this beautiful church: besides The Nativity, there are, The Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple, The Annunciation, The Flight into Egypt, The Miracle at Cana, Christ Healing the Leper, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, Christ Healing the Blind Man, Christ Healing the Paralytic, The Temptation of Christ, The Resurrection, treasures all.

The mosaic just below the dome of The Genealogy of Christ, a depiction of the Virgin Mary with Christ of the Chalke, especially moving. Named for an icon of Christ that hung above the Chalke, the “Bronze” Gate, the main ceremonial gate to the Great Palace. Reminiscent of the more famous Hagia Sophia Deisis Christ, this is the face of a benevolent God.

chora church -  mother of god

With Avar armies at the gates, those prayers were answered, and Patriarch and people gathered in Hagia Sophia to offer thanksgiving to the Mother of God for The City’s deliverance. (The City, I Polis, as Constantinople was known, is found in the name of Turkey’s largest city and artistic and cultural capital: Is Tin Polin, To The City — Istanbul.)

In thanksgiving was written a beautiful long hymn, Ti Ypermáho, “To the Invincible General.” After a millenium-and-a-half it is still being sung in Orthodox churches for five consecutive Friday evenings before Easter Sunday. An Orthodx hymn that accompanies our Chora video, who’s beloved melody is dear to my soul. Hearing it now brings back Constantinople’s fateful history and The City’s special place in the Greek psyche. A hymn that I find myself humming in front of the Chora mosaic icon of the Mother of God:

Ti Ypermáho Stragigó ta nikitíria,
Os lytrothisa ton dinón efharistíria,
Anagráfo Soi i Pólis sou Theotóke.
All’ os éhousa to krátos aprosmáhiton,
Ek pantíon me kindínon elefthéroson.
Ína krázo soi; Hére Nífi Anímfefte.

“To Thee, Invincible General, I ascribe the victory/Having been delivered from suffering, Your City offers thanksgiving/to You O Mother of God./And having your might unassailable/Free us from all dangers/So we may cry unto you/Hail O Bride Unwedded.”

In the end, there could be no deliverance — 5,000 defenders besieged by 350,000 Ottomans — The City — and Byzantium — fell.

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Chora Church Museum

September 15, 2009 by  
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joseph taking mary into his houseThe building, known today known as the Kariye (Chora) Museum, was built on the site of the Chora Monastery. “Chora” means “outside the city” or “countryside” in Ancient Greek. The Roman city walls were erected before the 5th century and show us that the monastery was built earlier than that. This name was preserved for churches that were built on this site, and the last church, which dates from the l1th to 14th century, constituted the base of the present-day museum.

The building was decorated with magnificent mosaics and frescoes, which are considered to be masterpieces of Byzantine art. it was built by Theodore Metochites, who was a leading statesman and scholar of his day. In the mosaics of the two narthexes located at the entrance, the Iives of the Virgin Maryand Jesus Christ, as told in the Bible, are illustrated in chronological order. In the lateral chapel, religious subjects are depicted in frescaes. In these frescoes, you can also see the figures of notable personalities from the Church and the Palace. The mosaics and frescaes, which, were discovered and restored, in the 1950s, are the works of a group of prominent artists.

The mosaics that were located on the upper side of the centralnarthex do not exist today. it was one of the features of Byzantine art to add monograms and inscription next to the figures. The Kariye museum is located in a beautiful district fall of wooden hotel (Kariye Otel) and cafes (Asitane Restaurant).

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From church to mosque: İstanbul’s forgotten Byzantine heritage

August 25, 2009 by  
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Kucuk Ayasofya
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.

Neglected structures
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

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