“Small hidden gem, is a must if you love art and history!” or “How beautiful mosaics, even better than Hagia Sophia!” are the words of every tourist that run into Chora Church (Kariye Kilisesi) visiting Istanbul.
Next to the north extreme of the Constantinople walls there is an extraordinary Byzantine jewel. The name “kariye” is the Turkish adaptation of the Greek term “chora”, which means “countryside”, indicating that the church was originally built outside the city, that is to say, outside the walls of Emperor Constantine, apparently before 4th century. However, there is no evidence of its existence until the 8th century and no trace of the original construction, since the church went through many restorations.
According to the 10th c. Byzantine hagiographer Symeon the Metaphrast, the relics of Saint Babylas and his disciples, early Christian martyrs, were buried in the placement of Chora Church in the early 4th century. Later on emperor Justinian (527-565) apparently rebuilt a monastery on the former and by that time ruined cemetery and chapel. In the middle of 8th century the monastery appears for the first time in written sources with the burial of the Patriarch Germanus there in 740.
The complex was destroyed during the Iconoclastic period (711-843). After the conflict the high priest of the monastery, Michael of Synkellos, carried out the first reconstruction of many to come. The remains of his work can only be seen at the eastern end of the church.
The building that we can visit nowadays was erected by Maria Doukania, the mother-in-law of Alexius Comnenus I, at the end of the 11th century. It’s a period of splendor for the Comneni dynasty (1081-1185), who often celebrated important religious ceremonies in the church, dedicated to Jesus Christ the Savior. In fact, during his reign Alexis I strongly supported the successful First Crusade that eventually took Jerusalem in 1099. The remains of this construction can be seen at the lower parts of the nave walls, although no part of the superstructure has survived.
As it’s well known, the Christian contingents of the Fourth Crusade took and sacked Constantinople in 1204. During the Latin occupation the monastery seems to have been devastated. Almost a century later, under the reign of Andronikos II Palaeologus (1282-1328), a Byzantine nobleman called Theodore Metochites led a huge campaign to reconstruct Chora monastery (1316-1321). But who was this new maecenas?
Theodore Metochites was an aristocratic courtier with outstanding formation who eventually became the responsible for the treasury, actually the highest position in the Byzantine Empire after the emperor himself. Restoring Chora complex was a gesture of social prestige and moral investment towards God. Although there’s no archaeological trace, Metochites established a wealthy library referred as one of the most important libraries of the city in the Palaiologan period. After the palace revolt of 1328 Metochites was forced into exile in Thrace. When he was allowed to return to Constantinople he became a priest of Chora monastery using his rights as main donor. He died in 1332 and was buried in a niche in the parecclesion, a funerary chapel built for himself.
As for the architectural plan, the church consists of the nave, the inner narthex, outer narthex and the paracclesion. The domes of the inner narthex and the paracclesion are lower than the main dome and are only seen from the rear of the church. The main dome is supported on four huge pilasters in the corners and four great arches spring from these. It has 16 flutes, each pierced by a window. Entrance to the nave is through both inner and outer narthexes. As said before, the paracclesion is a funerary chapel and host the niches for the sarcophagi. Almost all of the current structures were restored or added by Metochites.
But the most characteristic part of Chora Church is the breathtaking frescoes and mosaics, an extraordinary example of Christian Orthodox simbology and pioneer of a new art movement in the Late Byzantine Empire, which was parallel to the Renaissance movement of Giotto in Italy. The mosaics describe the lives of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, using background elements and architectural motifs to give depth, culminated with stunning teselae. The scenes are realistic with figures correctly proportioned, and Jesus has a quite humanitarian look upon his face. Among the represented scenes different biblical passages are displayed: infancy of Jesus, miracles, portraits of saints, angels and the Devil, among others. According to Professor Rossitza Schroeder, the mosaics in the south bay of the outer narthex were not only conceived for commemorations, as has been previously argued, but also for confessions and penance.
After the conquest by the Turks it suffered no damaged and served as a church for some years. When it was finally converted into a mosque in 1511, the Ottomans made some reparations, added a madrassah and a mihrab and removed the sarcophagi.
In the 20th century the mosque was converted into a museum upon the decision of the Council of Ministers in 1945 and every Islamic element removed except the 19th century outside minaret. The mosaics and frescoes, apparently covered with removable wooden shutters during the Ottoman period, were recently uncovered and restored by the American Byzantine Society.
At the moment the church can be visited until 17pm (summer time) for 15TL or free with Müzekart – only the narthexes and the paracclesion are opened to visitors because the nave is closed and will be under restoration until 2017 – and its location at Edirnekapı neighborhood can be reached from Taksim with bus 87 and from Eminönü with buses 336E or 32.
This approach cannot be brought into an end without mentioning the further meaning of Chora Church. On the one hand the restoration of Metochites used and mixed the existing architectural and artistic elements, an eclecticism which combined with the funerary use of the church could point at some decadent tendencies, but on the other hand the architectural plan and manuscripts that were held in the monastery still show its glory. Therefore Chora Church could symbolize the swansong of a declining empire, or not, but it’s sure that it played a major role in its time as one of the most important Late Byzantine religious and artistic centers, luckily preserved for our delight.