The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, now called the Kayrie Museum, is a religious complex that dates back to Byzantine times. Many mosaics and frescos of Jesus, Mary, and the Disciples have survived the church’s tumultuous history and welcome the droves of tourists who stop by today.
The Chora Church is teeming with Byzantine religion relics and iconoclasm that are monumental treasures of a bygone era.
With a handful of rulers presiding over the Chora Church, you’ll need almost need a guide to figure what to call it these days.
In Byzantine time it was simply known as the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora. Under Ottoman rule however it was renamed the Kyrie Mosque, and when Byzantium tourism took flight, it was further renamed the Kyrie Museum.
For history lovers and tourists alike it’s simply easier to call it the Chora Church, or the Chora Museum, as it’s still a church-like, art museum in Chora, no matter who renamed it over the years.
Church or Mosque
While it’s called a church, it’s actually a complex that contain several different chapels that offer many different things to see during your visit.
After Constantinople was conquered, similar to Hagia Sofia, the church was turned into a mosque with the beloved mosaics and frescos being covered up. Thankfully, they were never destroyed and were simply hidden away under new walls.
Now that the tourism dollar has a firm grip on Turkey, restoration has turned the mosque into a museum where millions of visitors bask in the church’s Byzantine glory.
The Chora Church was the core of a wide religious complex, during the Eastern Roman Empire, in the time of Emperor Justinian I. The Khora Monastery, which in Greek means rural area, was located right outside Constantinople’s walls. The church is everything that remains nowadays from the whole complex.
Empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian I, was the one to initiate the construction of this monastic complex, in the 6th century. However, Theodoros, Theodora’s uncle, was in charge of the construction. The chronicles mention this around 536.
In 557, on the 6th of October, before the works were fully finished, a savage earthquake destroyed the building. Afterward, the Emperor decided to rebuild it, this time even bigger than before. The Chora Monastery is mentioned again in the chronicles, in the 8th century, as Patriarch Germanos of Constantinople was buried in its cemetery.
The Chora Monastery was again partially destroyed between 726 – 842. During this time the Roman Empire was fully embracing the Iconoclasm age. This was a mainstream belief that associated religious icons with paganism. Thus, a large campaign of cultural destruction and desecration of religious icons spread all across the Empire. The religious frescoes and mosaic that covered the church’s walls, were unfortunately erased.
Second Iznik Council
The hysteria ended in 843, after the Second Iznik Council, which decided to restore the icon culture. Around the same time, Mikhael Synkellos, original from the Syrian-Palestinian area, became the head of the Chora Monastery. Due to his efforts, and restoration campaign, the icons were once again present in the entire monastery. He also extended the church space, by added three new chapels.
The Chora Monastery became an important monastic center during the 11th century. This was during the Komnenos Dynasty, who after being rulers of the Byzantine Emperors, also became rulers of the Trabzon Empire. After a tradition of over 800 years, when Byzantine emperors had their headquarters in the Grand Palace, the Komnenoi changed everything. They preferred as their home the Blakernai Palace from Edirnekapi, also called Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, which today is known as Tekfur Palace.
As Chora became a point of religious power, several new structures were added. In 1120 major restoration works started. The former Greek Cross architectural plan (a cross with equal sides) was transformed into a kiborion, a style that included a dome supported by pillars.
During 1204 – 1261, the years of the Mongol Invasion of the Latin Empire, the monastery was destroyed. Consequently, new restoration works were required. and was repaired over time, especially so between 1282 and 1328. Teodor Metokhites was the chief treasurer of Andronikos II Palalogo, the current emperor, and he undertook the reconstruction project, even spending his own money and resources on it.
From 1282 till 1328, he reconstructed the entrance and the lateral chapels. The most important contribution he brought to the religious complex, was the amazing mosaics and frescoes that decorated the walls. From that moment on, peace surrounded Chora Monastery, until the Ottoman age.
Fall of Constantinople
58 years later, in 1511, Atik Ali Pasha transformed the Chora Church into a mosque and named it the Kariye Camii. As a result, the church’s decorated walls were fully covered with plaster. The Orthodox bell chapel in the South was replaced with a minaret. Whereas inside the church a marble altar was added.
19th Century Restoration
The restoration of the old mosaics started in 1860, under the coordination of the Greek architect Peloppida Kouppas. Then they were covered with curtains and wood. The earthquake in 1894 inflicted damages on the church. Thus the Chora Museum, at the request of Abdulhamid II, started new restoration works.
What to See
The Byzantine history of the Chora Church is best viewed via the mosaics and frescos that adorn the dome, walls, and ceilings of its chapels. When it comes to beautiful decorations, the church also has several colorful marble columns that attract the eye.
The Church has a simple architectural plan, like the majority of the Byzantine-style churches. This simplicity is compensated by beautiful and abundant decorations. The mosaic technique used here is specific for Byzantine religious art, and developed at the same time with, yet differently from, the Renaissance art (which conquered Western Europe). Its beauty consists in the feeling of depth, dynamism, and color, a supernatural elongated depiction of the faces.
Mosaics envisaging scenes of Jesus and the Virgin Mary’s lives adorn the entry hall, called the narthex. The scenes are presented in temporal order, from birth to miracles, and so on.
The mosaic depicting Jesus in his full Glory, blessing the world and holding the New Testament, a specific theme of Orthodoxy, occupies the space between the inner and outer narthex. The inner walls of the church are decorated with mosaics representing the life of Mary and Jesus’s miraculous acts.
The inner narthex hosts the loveliest mosaic in the whole Kariye Church. The theme is called Deisis and shows Jesus surrounded by Virgin Mary and Saint John. The specific element of Deisis is the reverse perspective used for the scene. The large size of this mosaic makes it impossible to be admired all at once. When you enter the church, first you’ll see the Virgin Mary that points towards Christ. When you get through the inner door the entire scene will unveil.
The technique used to craft the frescoes is one of a kind and whether you you’re in the paracelsian, or looking up at the walls of the chapels and the dome you’ll be delighted by the religious relics left behind.
The chapel near the main church body, which is called a paracelsian, is painted with special frescoes that envision topics such as the Resurrection, Jacob’s deeds, Christ’s miracles, and others.
The chapel has a dome and its central place is adorned with a large fresco of the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus. This central figure is framed by another twelve murals, depicting angels. The tomb area walls are also decorated with frescoes.
The main theme here is that of Jesus going down to Hell. This Biblical moment is very often used by the Orthodox imagery, and it is called the Anastasis scene, or the Harrowing of Hell. Unlike many of the other frescoes, this Anastasis depiction of Jesus remained almost intact throughout the ages.
All the other chapels have also been decorated with fresco art. The selected themes are the Virgin Mary, Jesus, miracles of Moses, and Jacob, along with scenes from the life of several saints like Joseph, Theophanes, Kosmas, and Dameskenos, etc.