Scaffolding covers the exterior of the Chora Church, and the interior nave is closed, but the mosaics and frescoes whisper stories to those who visit. We took a taxi to reach the out of the way location, but the trip was worth the effort.
Constantine I built the monastery church outside the city walls in the 4th century. It was damaged by a strong earthquake in 558 AD and afterward restored by Emperor Justinian. By the 10th century, the church was near ruin. Maria Dukania, a devout Christian, financed the present building, a dome on four pillars (which we couldn’t see). Later several other buildings were added. The church remained safely in the hands of Orthodox monks during the Crusades. Theodores Methochides devoted his entire fortune to a needed restoration in 1305-1320. The exquisite mosaics and frescoes, including those in the funeral chapel, date from that period.
The chapel artwork reveals Biblical stories about the life of St. Ann, mother of the Virgin Mary, Mary’s life and that of her son, Jesus Christ. With the help of an audio guide I was able to understand better the symbolism and meaning of the mosaic pictures.
As you enter, small archways and vaulted rooms surround you with color and warmth. I felt as though a smaller version of the Sistine Chapel descended from the ceiling and wrapped around me. Each image is an intricate work of art created by a skilled artist. I can only imagine the difficulty of standing on scaffolding and placing tiny tiles onto the ceiling in poor lighting.
Next stop was a quick and unexpected tour of the Sehzade Mosque as that is where the taxi driver dropped us. The mosque was built between 1545-1548 and incorporated innovative architecture for the time. Although Sehzade is an UNESCO World Heritage site, very few people were inside. Guess it is hard to compete with the grandeur of the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque.
We then meandered past the University to our desired destination, the massive Suleymaniye Mosque and Complex built between 1550-1557. Like other mosques of the time, the buildings surrounding the center for prayer included a soup kitchen, mental hospital, baths, a school and shops. The mausoleums rest in an octagonal domed building. The mihrab is made from white marble and includes stained glass from the 16th century.
The renowned mosque is considered one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture. It contains four minarets, two of them have two galleries or serefes, and the other two have three, making a total of ten serefes. This was to symbolize the fact that Suleyman I, or Suleyman the Magnificent, was the tenth sultan in the Ottoman dynasty. These towering spires give it a distinct identity to the skyline of Istanbul.
While standing on the grounds of the Suleymaniye Mosque, one of the highest points in the city, you are offered fabulous panoramic views. I saw the sprawling city below divided by the Golden Horn (the harbor) and the Galata Bridge. The rooftops with ancient domes juxtapose the modern buildings across the water.
To return to our lodgings, we walked through backstreets in the city getting lost, then reoriented. “Turn right at the corner with a mosque,” we were told. Right! In a city of over 3,000 mosques, there is just about one on each corner.
Eventually we found our home, gaining an appreciation of the contrasts between the Christian figures in Chora Church and the bold architecture of the Suleymaniye Mosque.
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