In Istanbul?s Edinerkapi district, the church of Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora is home to some stunning mosaics and frescoes dating back to the Byzantine Empire.
The church/mosque of Chora is certainly the most emblematic monument of the Eastern Roman Empire or Byzantium. It is located within the historic walls of Istanbul, but this was not always the case. The exact date of its construction is not known. We do know, however, that at the time of Constantine I (emperor from 306 to 337 AD) - who unified the Empire and chose Constantinople as its capital - there was already a chapel. When Theodosius II built the city walls at the beginning of the 5th century, the emperor incorporated the chapel, which was probably flanked by a number of monastic cells, into the city?s defensive system, thus increasing its importance. It was given the name en te Chora The name was changed to "in the countryside". (In modern Greek, khôra (????) means "land", but in ancient Greek this word referred to a predominantly rural area dependent on a town).
In 534, the Emperor Justinian commissioned Saint Theodore of Chora to build a church and monastery on the site of the small chapel, but it was not until the 11th century that Maria Dukaina, the mother-in-law of Alexis I Comnenus, had the church rebuilt in the Greek cross style within a square building, a style that would later serve as a model for all Orthodox churches. In 1296, the church suffered a partial collapse following an earthquake. It was rebuilt by Isaac Comnenus, the third son of Alexis. However, it was not until two centuries later that the church acquired the form we know today, when an exonarthex and a side chapel, a parecclésion, were added. In 1261, Michael Palaeologus reconquered Constantinople, which had been taken in 1204 by the Latins during the Fourth Crusade, and sought to restore the importance of the Byzantine Empire. The architect of this renaissance was the great logothete (financial administrator) Theodore Metochite who, between 1315 and 1321, endowed the church with most of its magnificent mosaics and frescoes, which we can admire today and which constitute an exceptional treasure.
After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the church continued to be used for Catholic worship until 1511, when Atik Ali Pacha, the grand vizier of Bayezid II, converted it into a mosque. Because of the Islamic ban on depictions of man, the mosaics and frescoes were covered with lime and wooden panels, which saved them from destruction.
Listed as a museum since 1948, the church of Saint-Sauveur-in-Chora is also known as the Karyie Camiithe Chora mosque. All the frescoes and mosaics were excavated in 1948 by Thomas Whittemore and Paul Underwood of the Byzantine Institute of Americawho undertook the restoration of what is now the richest collection of mosaics from the last golden age of Byzantine art.
The most beautiful mosaics of the Byzantine Renaissance
When you enter the outer narthex, you cannot help but be dazzled by the magnificence of the mosaics with their gold backgrounds, which seem to catch the light while magnifying the imposing figure of Christ the Pantocrator that decorates the portal, the scenes from the life of Jesus and his miracles.
The interior narthex shows Theodore Metochite offering the church to Christ and a complete cycle of the Virgin's life, inspired mainly by the apocryphal Gospel of Saint James.
The miracles of Jesus
The inner and outer narthexes depict numerous miracles from the life of Christ.
The figure of Mary
Mary is depicted in several places on Chora. First of all her childhood and then with the infant Jesus.
For more information
Turkish Tourist Office
Text and Photos: Brigitte Postel