What I love about Istanbul is its long history made real by the incredible architecture that has been awesomely preserved and restored. The mixing of the styles makes each building unique and they are a very visual reminder that if we try, differences can co-exist in harmony. But it is also a case of sometimes we have to pick our battles, choosing what style trumps over the other. For example, the Little Hagia Sophia was originally was a church, but today it remains a mosque. The opposite is the case for Kariye Kilisesi (Chora Church) – it started off as a church, was made a mosque, and today it is a church again (officially a museum).
Kariye, or Chora, has had three names throughout its history. It was first known as the Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country. The church was considered “in the country” because it was originally built outside the walls of Constantinople in the early 5th century. The outside structure of Chora that we see today dates from the 11th to 14th centuries. The inside of Chora, its mosaics and frescos, date to about 1312 A.D.
Chora’s second life started in the late 15th century, after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans. The church was converted into a mosque and gained the name Kariye Camii (Chora Mosque). Since Islam forbids iconic images, the mosaics and frescos were covered over in plaster. I, for one, find it very interesting and curious that churches that were converted to mosques consistently had their icons covered over, not removed. I am not sure the reasoning was behind it but I am grateful that the beautiful artworks were not destroyed.
At the end of World War II, Kariye Camii stopped being a functioning mosque and a new restoration period started. By 1958, Kariye Muzesi/Chora Museum opened to the public. It is a fairly small structure but wow, do the mosaics and frescos make that that immaterial. It is incredible to think of the master craftsmen who would have spent hours affixing the tiny little mosaic pieces to the surfaces of this building. Some example of images include: Jesus holding Mary’s soul (in the form of a baby), various Old Testament scenes, a giant scene of Mary and Jesus, the genealogy of Jesus and Mary, various saints, angels, kings, Jesus breaking the gates of Hell, etc. If you are religious, love art, or just like shiny things, the frescos and mosaics will have you enthralled.
Chora Museum is not on the main drag of tourist sites so normally it isn’t super crowded (unless you’re unlucky and arrive at the same time as a tour group, which is how most people see Chora, if they see it at all). It is located in the Edirnekapi neighbourhood of Fatih. However, though not right in the hub of things, Chora isn’t all that far from Sultanahmet – only about 5km away. You could walk it if you choose. So really, no excuse not to go see this fantastic little museum church!
Don’t go on a Wednesday – it’s closed!
Visit the nearby Asitane restaurant for a meal. Beautiful settings of a restored Ottoman mansion and gardens. The food will be unlike anything you’ve ever eaten – all the dishes are recreations of meals from the Ottoman Empire. Some recipes date back to the 1400s!
Be adventurous and take the bus rather than a taxi to Chora Church. You catch a bus from Eminonu (station is in the same area as the ferries) and your stop is Edirnekapi. It is an easy five minute walk to the museum from that point.