The Chora Church or The Church of the Holy Savior in Chora or the Kariye Museum, as it is fondly called by the locals, is arguably the most beautiful remnant of the land’s Byzantine era. Located in Turkey’s European capital city Istanbul, this church-cum-museum is in the Edirnekapi neighborhood. It also forms a part of the western portion of the municipality of Fatih. Now Fatih is a landmass that surrounds most of the peninsula coinciding with the historic Constantinople, the erstwhile capital of Turkey in the olden days.
Coming back; completing a tour of the Chora Church & Museum will take just over 2 hours of your time. As stated earlier, it is home to the best Byzantine mosaics in the region, showcasing beauty and art of the highest quality. Before we dwell further, let’s have a brief introduction into the history of this place.
Understanding about this symbolic piece of infrastructure in the midst of modern-day Istanbul requires an understanding of the trials and tribulations the nation and people of Turkey have gone through in becoming who they are today. This land has been much-maligned and much-storied for all the separations and unifications it has undergone that today its irony is in the fact that it is split between two continents. Turkey went through the rule of Romans, Byzantines, Latins and Ottomans. Of these, the Byzantine era was borne out of the Greek-speaking factions of the Roman Empire that fell by. At its peak in the Middle Ages, its capital city was fondly called Byzantium (Constantinople) and flourished for close to a thousand years before it fell to the hands of the Ottoman Turks. During its time, it was a feared group all over the world, powerful on all fronts: economy, culture and richness. The Chora Church is symbolic today of that resurgence and pride of the Byzantines.
The mosaics and frescoes put in place by the Byzantines in the Chora Church are extremely pleasing to the eye. Built outside the walls of Constantinople, the church was originally called the Church of The Holy Savior In The Country. ‘Chora’ typically refers to its location outside the walls, which later went on to become its adapted name due to usage. The mosaics of Christ and Mary, The Mother of Jesus tell quite a story on the church walls within.
Most of the current structure dates back to 1077-1081 AD when the Byzantine Emporer Alexius I Comnenus’ mother-in-law Maria Dukaina built it as a part of the grand architectural styles of the time. After the church endured damage due to apparent earthquakes in the 12th century, Alexius’ third son Isaac rebuilt it to make it look like how it is today. As for the mosaics and frescoes, the world today owes gratitude for its outshining beauty to the powerful Byzantine statesman of the time Theodore Metochites. He carried out the impressive interior work between 1315 and 1321.
After the Ottoman annexation in 1453, the church was ordered to be converted into a mosque and it remained that way up until 1948, when the Byzantine Institute of America sponsored for its restoration; following which the Church was re-opened to the public as a museum in 1958.
That recounting of the history and etymology of the Chora Church is quite representative of the struggle the Turkish region has been through. It is nothing less than a miracle that such a fine example of architecture has survived through the ages of large-scale war, bloodshed, battles and sackings. We must be thankful that the largely unaffected interior of the place has made it through to our generation, giving us a good enough peek into the region’s rather volatile past.
Getting to Chora Church & Museum shouldn’t be much of a problem. You can travel by taxi or take any of the buses and get down at the stop Edirnekapi or you could also take a Golden Horn ferry from Eminonu to Ayvansaray. Ask locals for directions to the church thereon, which is a five minute walk east of the main boulevard. Once you are there, you could both choose to take a tour of the church first or have refreshments from the restaurants surrounding and then go ahead. The place stays closed on Wednesdays.
Once into the church-turned-museum, you can marvel upon the many mosaics and frescoes that depict the live Mary and Jesus in its entire fine splendor. The place is divided into 3 main parts: the entrance hall or narthex, the main area of the church or naos and the side chapel or paracclesion. The entrance door divides the area into the north and south i.e exonarthex and esonarthex respectively. Six domes amplify and enhance the beauty of the place: two in the esonarthex, one in the paracclession and three in the naos.
A standout mosaic is the one that can be spotted above the door to the nave in the inner narthex, depicting the previously mentioned Theodore offering the church to Christ. Look around the entirety of the narthex area to find a multitude of reference from the lives of Mary and Jesus, from them being surrounded by their ancestors to Joseph’s dream and journey to Bethlehem.
The naos in particular houses 3 mosaics: Jesus holding an infant, symbolic of Mary’s soul, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary with the child.
The paraclession on the contrary houses frescoes depicting scenes from the Old Testament and acts as a mortuary of sorts with the tombs of the church’s founders and relatives.
All in all the Chora Church & Museum will be of utmost delight to historians and ardent lovers of the various changes this region has gone through in its shaky past. The destination is one that’ easily missed by tourists. But make sure you go on and get a taste of the endearing history this place has on offer!