Depiction of the Chora Church, c. 1900
The Kariye Mosque, or formerly the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Greek: Ἐκκλησία τοῦ Ἁγίου Σωτῆρος ἐν τῇ Χώρᾳ; Turkish: Kariye Müzesi, Kariye Camii, Kariye Kilisesi), is a medieval Greek Orthodox church used as a mosque today in the Edirnekapı neighborhood of Istanbul, Turkey. The neighborhood is situated in the western part of the municipality (belediye) of the Fatih district. The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora was built in the style of Byzantine architecture. In the 16th century, during the Ottoman era, the Christian church was converted into a mosque; it became a museum in 1945, and in 2020 it was converted to a mosque. The interior of the building is covered with some of the oldest and finest surviving Byzantine Christian mosaics and frescoes; they were uncovered and restored after the building was secularized and turned into a museum.
The original, 4th-century monastery containing the church, was outside Constantinople's city walls. Literally translated, the church's full name was the Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country (Greek ἡ Ἐκκλησία τοῦ Ἁγίου Σωτῆρος ἐν τῇ Χώρᾳ, hē Ekklēsia tou Hagiou Sōtēros en tēi Chōrāi). It is therefore sometimes incorrectly referred to as "Saint Saviour". However, "The Church of the Holy Redeemer in the Fields" would be a more natural rendering of the name in English. The last part of the Greek name, Chora, referring to its location originally outside of the walls, became the shortened name of the church. The name must have carried symbolic meaning, as the mosaics in the narthex describe Christ as the Land of the Living (ἡ Χώρα τῶν ζώντων, hē Chōra tōn zōntōn) and Mary, the Mother of Jesus, as the Container of the Uncontainable (ἡ Χώρα τοῦ Ἀχωρήτου, hē Chōra tou Achōrētou).
Rear view of Chora Church
First phase (4th century)
The Chora Church was originally built in the early 4th century as part of a monastery complex outside the city walls of Constantinople erected by Constantine the Great, to the south of the Golden Horn. However, when Theodosius II built his formidable land walls in 413–414, the church became incorporated within the city's defences, but retained the name Chora (for the presumed symbolism of the name see above).
2nd phase (11th century)
The majority of the fabric of the current building dates from 1077–1081, when Maria Dukaina, the adoptive mother of Alexius I Comnenus, rebuilt the Chora Church as an inscribed cross or quincunx: a popular architectural style of the time. Early in the 12th century, the church suffered a partial collapse, perhaps due to an earthquake.
3rd phase: new decoration (14th century)
The church was rebuilt by Isaac Comnenus, Alexius's third son. However, it was only after the third phase of building, two centuries after, that the church as it stands today was completed. The powerful Byzantine statesman Theodore Metochites endowed the church with many of its fine mosaics and frescos. Theodore's impressive decoration of the interior was carried out between 1315 and 1321. The mosaic-work is the finest example of the Palaeologian Renaissance. The artists remain unknown. In 1328, Theodore was sent into exile by the usurper Andronicus III Palaeologus. However, he was allowed to return to the city two years later, and lived out the last two years of his life as a monk in his Chora Church.
Until the Fall of Constantinople
In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the monastery was home to the scholar Maximus Planudes, who was responsible for the restoration and reintroduction of Ptolemy's Geography to the Byzantines and, ultimately, to Renaissance Italy. During the last siege of Constantinople in 1453, the Icon of the Theotokos Hodegetria, considered the protector of the City, was brought to Chora in order to assist the defenders against the assault of the Ottomans.
Kariye Mosque (c. 1500–1945)
Around fifty years after the fall of the city to the Ottomans, Atık Ali Pasha, the Grand Vizier of Sultan Bayezid II, ordered the Chora Church to be converted into a mosque — Kariye Camii. The word Kariye derived from the Greek name Chora. Due to the prohibition against iconic images in Islam, the mosaics and frescoes were covered behind a layer of plaster. This and frequent earthquakes in the region have taken their toll on the artwork.
Museum, art restoration (1945–2020)
In 1945, the building was designated a museum by the Turkish government. In 1948, Americans Thomas Whittemore and Paul A. Underwood, from the Byzantine Institute of America and the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies, sponsored a restoration program. From that time on, the building ceased to be a functioning mosque. In 1958, it was opened to the public as a museum — Kariye Müzesi.
Reconversion to a mosque (2020–)
In 2005, the Association of Permanent Foundations and Service to Historical Artifacts and Environment filed a lawsuit to challenge the status of the Chora Church as a museum. In November 2019, the Turkish Council of State, Turkey's highest administrative court, ordered that it was to be reconverted to a mosque. In August 2020, its status changed to a mosque.
The move to convert Chora Church into a mosque was widely condemned by Greek Orthodox and Protestant Christians in Turkey. This caused a sharp rebuke by Turkey.
Mosaic of the enrollment for taxation before Governor Quirinius
The Chora Church is not as large as some of the other surviving Byzantine churches of Istanbul (it covers 742.5 m²) but it is unique among them, because of its almost completely still extant internal decoration. The building divides into three main areas: the entrance hall or narthex, the main body of the church or naos (nave), and the side chapel or parecclesion. The building has six domes: two above the esonarthex, one above the parecclesion and three above the naos.
The main, west door of the Chora Church opens into the narthex. It divides north-south into the outer, or exonarthex and the inner, or esonarthex.
Outer narthex (exonarthex)
The exonarthex (or outer narthex) is the first part of the church that one enters. It is a transverse corridor, 4 m wide and 23 m long, which is partially open on its eastern length into the parallel esonarthex. The southern end of the exonarthex opens out through the esonarthex forming a western ante-chamber to the parecclesion. The mosaics that decorate the exonarthex include:
- Joseph's dream and journey to Bethlehem;
- Enrollment for taxation;
- Nativity, birth of Christ;
- Journey of the Magi;
- Inquiry of King Herod;
- Flight into Egypt;
- Two frescoes of the massacres ordered by King Herod;
- Mothers mourning for their children;
- Flight of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist;
- Joseph dreaming, return of the holy family from Egypt to Nazareth;
- Christ taken to Jerusalem for the Passover;
- John the Baptist bearing witness to Christ;
- Three more Miracles.
- Jesus Christ;
- Virgin and Angels praying.
Inner narthex (esonarthex)
Mosaic of the Virgin Mother with child, north dome of the inner narthex
The esonarthex (or inner narthex) is similar to the exonarthex, running parallel to it. Like the exonarthex, the esonarthex is 4 m wide, but it is slightly shorter, 18 m long. Its central, eastern door opens into the naos, whilst another door, at the southern end of the esonarthex opens into the rectangular ante-chamber of the parecclesion. At its northern end, a door from the esonarthex leads into a broad west-east corridor that runs along the northern side of the naos and into the prothesis. The esonarthex has two domes. The smaller is above the entrance to the northern corridor; the larger is midway between the entrances into the naos and the pareclession.
- Enthroned Christ with Theodore Metochites presenting a model of his church;
- Saint Peter;
- Saint Paul;
- Deesis, Christ and the Virgin Mary (without John the Baptist) with two donors below;
- Genealogy of Christ;
- Religious and noble ancestors of Christ.
The mosaics in the first three bays of the inner narthex give an account of the Life of the Virgin, and her parents. Some of them are as follows:
- Rejection of Joachim's offerings;
- Annunciation of Saint Anne, the angel of the Lord announcing to Anne that her prayer for a child has been heard;
- Meeting of Joachim and Anne;
- Birth of the Virgin Mary;
- First seven steps of the Virgin;
- The Virgin given affection by her parents;
- The Virgin blessed by the priests;
- Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple;
- The Virgin receiving bread from an Angel;
- The Virgin receiving the skein of purple wool, as the priests decided to have the attendant maidens weave a veil for the Temple;
- Zechariah praying, when it was time for the Virgin to marry, High Priest Zechariah called all the widowers together and placed their rods on the altar, praying for a sign showing to whom she should be given;
- The Virgin entrusted to Joseph;
- Joseph taking the Virgin to his house;
- Annunciation to the Virgin at the well;
- Joseph leaving the Virgin, Joseph had to leave for six months on business and when he returned the Virgin was pregnant and he is suspicious of that.
View into the parecclesion
The central doors of the esonarthex lead into the main body of the church, the naos. The largest dome in the church (7.7 m diameter) is above the centre of the naos. Two smaller domes flank the modest apse: the northern dome is over the prothesis, which is linked by short passage to the bema; the southern dome is over the diaconicon, which is reached via the parecclesion.
- Koimesis, the Dormition of the Virgin. Before ascending to Heaven, her last sleep. Jesus is holding an infant, symbol of Mary's soul;
- Jesus Christ;
- Theodokos, the Virgin Mary with child.
Side chapel (parecclesion)
To the right of the esonarthex, doors open into the side chapel, or parecclesion. The parecclesion was used as a mortuary chapel for family burials and memorials. The second largest dome (4.5 m diameter) in the church graces the centre of the roof of the parecclesion. A small passageway links the parecclesion directly into the naos, and off this passage can be found a small oratory and a storeroom. The parecclesion is covered in frescoes:
- Anastasis, the Resurrection. Christ, who had just broken down the gates of hell, is standing in the middle and pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs. Behind Adam stand John the Baptist, David, and Solomon. Others are righteous kings;
- Second coming of Christ, the last judgment. Jesus is enthroned and on both sides the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist (this trio is also called the Deesis);
- Virgin and Child;
- Heavenly Court of Angels;
- Two panels of Moses.
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