Just inside the Theodosian walls of Istanbul, between the districts of Fatih and Balat is the area known as Kariye, with its tiny houses painted green, blue and pink nestling around Kariye Museum, the former Byzantine church of St Saviour in Chora. The church stands on the site of an earlier church, about which nothing is known with certainty. The name Chora means ‘countryside’, indicating that the origin
al church was situated outside the city walls of the time. It must therefore have predated the 8th century Theodosian walls, and may have been built by Justinian (527-565). The tomb of a 7th century Islamic saint near the church means that the area has mystical associations for Christians and Muslims alike.
Construction of the present building was begun in the 11th century by Maria Doukaina, mother-in-law of the Emperor Alexius I (1081-1118). Originally it consisted of
a dome supported by four columns, but underwent considerable alterations in the course of repairs over the centuries, and was enlarged by additions, such as the parecclesion or narrow side chapel. But the celebrity of Kariye lies not so much in its architecture as its outstanding mosaics and frescos, whose animation and realism contrast with the formal and stylised painting of the earlier Byzantine period. The church was despoiled during the Latin occupation of 1204-1261, and Emperor Andronicus II (1282-1328) charged his treasurer, the poet Logethete Theodore Metochites with the task of restoring the building. In the course of this work Metochites also enlarged the church, adding a section to the north, an outer narthex to the west, and the parecclesion to the south. The entrance is in the wall of the outer narthex.
The round arches, semi-piers, niches, and stone and brick work of the façades all serve to lighten the massive effect of this large building. The nave with its high dome was repaired after the Turkish conquest of 1453. The building continued to be used as a church until 1511, when Vezir Hadım Ali Paşa converted it into a mosque, and the mosaics and frescos were covered by a thin layer of plaster. In 1945, when the building became a museum, this coating of plaster was removed during restoration work by the American Institute of Byzantine Studies. These remarkable mosaics and frescos rank among the foremost works of
Byzantine art in the world, and visits by such world famous figures as Queen Elizabeth of Britain and former American president Bill Clinton’s wife Hillary Clinton and their daughter Chelsea, add colour and excitement to life in the neighbourhood.
The inhabitants of the little houses, some as much as 250 years old, and others new reconstructions of old houses, have become accustomed to the changes in their neighbourhood since Çelik Gülersoy, president of the Touring Association, launched his conservation project in the 1970s. They are now old hands at posing for photographs taken by visitors from all over the world. Close relations between the museum and the local people are due in large part to the museusno curator Müjgan Harmankaya and the Kariye muhtar or neighbourhood representative, Ömer Koç.
The mosaics depict the Nativity, the return of the Virgin Mary from Egypt to Nazareth, Mary at prayer with angels, the Miracles at Cana, Mary travelling to Bethlehem and Joseph’s dream, Christ taken to Jerusalem for the Passover by Mary and John, various saints, Christ healing the paralysed man,
Christ meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, the Virgin Mary, the Infant Christ with David and the twelve kings, the angel appearing to Mary, Theodoros Metokhites presenting a model of his church to Christ, the Virgin and Child reading the scriptures, the death of the Virgin, the resurrection of Christ, and other biblical scenes.The tomb in the grounds of the church belongs to Ebusaid Elhudri, the son of Elhudri of Medina who fell in the Battle of Uhud. Ebusaid, said to have been a philanthropist who aided the poor, was killed on this spot during the Arab siege of Istanbul in the 7th century. His tomb is a revered shrine, and according to local people prayers addressed here are always fulfilled. As part of the conservation project carried out at Kariye by Çelik Gülersoy, an elegant old house next to the church was converted into a hotel whose Asitane Restaurant has won an impressive reputation for its Ottoman Turkish cuisine.
Cafés, cake shops and souvenirs shops have also opened here with Gülersoy’s encouragement. With its unequalled mystic atmosphere and authentic historic texture, Kariye is one of the places no visitor to Istanbul should miss.