Discover Istanbul's Kariye Mosque: Byzantine Treasures

Istanbul Kariye Mosque

Istanbul Kariye Mosque

Istanbul boasts an impressive collection of Byzantine monuments, but few can rival the sheer beauty of this mosque, adorned with mesmerizing mosaics and frescoes. Nestled beneath the monumental land walls of Theodosius II, it stands in the shadows of the renowned Aya Sofya, attracting fewer visitors despite its equally captivating insights into Byzantine art. Over the years, the mosque has undergone renovation in stages, so it's advisable to check the website for updates on accessible areas.

To reach this part of town, the most delightful approach is to take the Haliç (Golden Horn) ferry from Karaköy to Ayvansaray, followed by a pleasant stroll up the hill along Dervişzade Sokak. Turn right into Eğrikapı Mumhane Caddesi, and almost immediately, turn left into Şişhane Caddesi. Following the remnants of Theodosius II's land walls, you'll pass by the historic Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus. Continue on Hoca Çakır Caddesi, then veer left into Vaiz Sokak just before reaching the steep stairs leading to the ramparts of the wall. Finally, turn sharply left into Kariye Sokak, and there you'll find the mosque.

Originally named the Church of the Holy Saviour Outside the Walls (Chora, meaning 'country'), it acquired its name due to its location outside the original city walls built by Emperor Constantine the Great.

However, the structure you see today is not the original church. It has undergone reconstruction at least five times, with significant renovations in the 11th, 12th, and 14th centuries. Nearly all of its interior decoration, including the renowned mosaics and the equally striking frescoes, dates back to around 1320 and was sponsored by Theodore Metochites. This poet and man of letters held the position of logothetes, responsible for the Byzantine treasury, under Emperor Andronikos II (r 1282–1328). One of the mosque's most remarkable mosaics, located above the door to the nave in the inner narthex, depicts Theodore offering the church to Christ.

Today, the Chora is composed of five main architectural units: the nave, a two-storied annex added to the north, the inner and outer narthexes, and the chapel for tombs (parecclesion) to the south. In 2013, a second major restoration project commenced. The ongoing process involves phased closures of various parts of the mosque. At the time of research, the restoration of the nave, the two-storey annexes on the northern side, and most of the inner narthex have been completed, while work on the outer narthex and parecclesion was underway.

As you venture inside, you'll be greeted by a plethora of mosaics that vividly portray the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary. Keep an eye out for the Khalke Jesus mosaic, showcasing Christ and Mary alongside two donors: Prince Isaac Comnenos and Melane, daughter of Byzantine Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. This masterpiece lies under the right dome in the inner narthex. Above the dome itself, you'll find a stunning depiction of Jesus and his ancestors, known as The Genealogy of Christ. On the left dome of the narthex, there's a serenely beautiful mosaic of Mary and the Baby Jesus, surrounded by her ancestors.

Within the nave, three remarkable mosaics catch the eye: Christ, Mary, and the Baby Jesus, and the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin (Assumption). To marvel at the latter, simply turn around, as it is positioned above the main entrance door.

Adjacent to the nave is the parecclesion, a side chapel constructed to house the tombs of the church's founder, as well as his relatives, close friends, and associates. Adorned with frescoes, it beautifully portrays the themes of death and resurrection, drawing scenes from the Old Testament. Of particular note is the striking painting in the apse, known as the Anastasis. It captures the powerful image of Christ raising Adam and Eve from their sarcophagi, surrounded by saints and kings, with the gates of hell depicted beneath Christ's feet. Equally captivating are the frescoes adorning the dome, showcasing Mary and twelve attendant angels. On the ceiling, between this dome and the apse, the Last Judgement is strikingly depicted from the Book of Revelation. It dazzles in radiant white with gilt accents, representing the rolling up of heaven, surrounded by the choirs of heaven in a coiling motif.

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