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Times readers’ underrated destinations of the world – Kariye Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul is long known as a city endowed with layer upon layer of cultural riches dating from ancient times. But beyond the obvious sites in the Old City, there is a jewel that’s rarely seen: the Kariye Museum. It’s not easy to do but it is well worth the effort. The interior walls are covered with exquisite Byzantine religious art that has no equal anywhere in the world. Despite earthquake damage in 1894, many spectacular mosaics remain, awesome in their fine detail, displaying subtle shadings and rich colors that are lacking in earlier Byzantine mosaics.     

By Elizabeth Mitchell Munisoglu, Los Angeles (Matt Perreault)

St. Savior in Chora (Kariye Müzesi; formerly the Kariye Camii)

Chora Church Istanbul

Much of what remained in the coffers of the Byzantine Empire was invested in the embellishment of this church, one of the finest preserved galleries of Byzantine mosaics as well as a detailed account of early Christian history. The original church was built in the 4th century as part of a monastery complex outside the city walls (chora zonton means “in the country” in Greek), but the present structure dates to the 11th century. The interior restoration and decoration were the result of the patronage of Theodore Metochites, Grand Logothete of the Treasury during the reign of Andronicus II Paleologos, and date to the first quarter of the 14th century. His benevolence is depicted in a dedicatory panel in the inner narthex over the door to the nave, which shows Metokhites presenting the Chora to Jesus.

Chora Church Byzantine Museum
When the church was converted into a mosque in the 16th century, the mosaics were plastered over. A 19th-century architect uncovered the mosaics but was ordered by the government to re-cover those in the section of the prayer hall. American archaeologists Whittemore and Underwood finally uncovered these masterpieces during World War II, and although the Chora became a museum in 1947, it is still often referred to as the Kariye Camii.

In total there are about 50 mosaic panels, but because some of them are only partially discernible, there seems to be disagreement on the exact count. Beginning in the exonarthex, the subjects of the mosaic panels fall into one of four themes, presented more or less in chronological order after the New Testament. Broadly, the themes relate to the cycle of the life of Christ and his miracles, stories of the life of Mary, scenes from the infancy of Christ, and stories of Christ’s ministry. The panels not included in these themes are the devotional panels in the exonarthex and the narthex, and the three panels in the nave: The Dormition of the Virgin, Christ, and the Virgin Hodegetria.

The Paracclesion (burial section) is decorated with a series of masterful frescos completed sometime after the completion of the mosaics and were presumably executed by the same artist. The frescoes reflect the purpose of the burial chamber with scenes of Heaven and Hell, the Resurrection and the Life, and a stirring Last Judgment with a scroll representing infinity above a River of Fire, and a detail of Jesus saving Adam and Eve’s souls from the devil.

Frommer’s Turkey 4th Edition

Visions of Byzantium

Chora Corner of Dome

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; www.lsa.umich.edu/kelsey Todd Gerring is community outreach coordinator at the Kelsey Museum of Archeology