The dazzling mosaics and frescoes in the former Church of the Holy Savior in Chora are considered to be among the finest Byzantine artworks in the world. Most of the mosaics, in 50 panels, depict scenes from the New Testament and date from the 14th century. They are in splendid condition, having been plastered over when the church became a mosque in the 16th century and not uncovered until the 1940s. "Chora" comes from the Greek word for countryside; the original church
here was outside the city walls that were built by Constantine the Great, but at the beginning of the 5th century AD Theodosius built new fortifications to expand the growing city, which brought the church inside the walls. The current edifice is believed to have been built in the 12th century.
The modern entrance is off to the side of the church but it's best to head straight to the original front doorway, in the outer narthex. Here, over the entrance, a large mosaic of Christ Pantocrator bears the phrase "I am the land (Chora) of the Living." This door leads to the inner narthex, where you can see the mosaic of Theodore Metochites, a kind of Byzantine prime minister, presenting the church to Christ. Metochites was responsible for the restoration and redecoration of the church after the damage wrought by the Fourth Crusade. To the left is a series of mosaics depicting the early life of the Virgin, based on the apocryphal gospel of St. James: moving clockwise, the series starts at the far end with her parents, Joachim and Anne, her first steps, her service in the temple, her marriage to Joseph, and, finally, the Annunciation. Above in the dome are the ancestors of the Virgin. The story continues in the outer narthex with the infancy of Christ, starting again at the far left end with the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. It continues clockwise around the outer narthex, with the Nativity, the wise men before Herod, and the flight to Egypt. At the far right end is the massacre of the innocents, which continues gruesomely over several scenes, with the cycle ending with the return from Egypt and the presentation of the young Jesus in the temple. The ceiling vaults show various scenes from the ministry of Christ, including his temptation by the devil, the multiplication of loaves, and the transformation of water into wine. These continue in the south side of the inner narthex, with scenes of Christ healing the sick and a vast wall mosaic, known as the Deesis, which depicts Christ and the Virgin, along with two tiny imperial figures.
The nave itself is light and airy but has lost most of its decoration, though a mosaic of the Dormition (Assumption) of the Virgin survives over the door, as well as a small mosaic of Mary and Jesus. The large side chapel was used for burials and contains several large tombs including, on the left, that of Theodore Metochites, which is surrounded by frescoes of saints and stories from the Old Testament. In the apse is an arresting image called the Anastasis, or "Resurrection"; it's one of the masterpieces of Byzantine art, showing Christ raising up Adam and Eve from their tombs at the end of time. The fresco in the vault shows the Second Coming: Christ sits enthroned with the saved, while the damned are taken down to hell and an angel rolls up the heavens like a scroll.
The easiest way to reach Kariye Müzesi is by taxi (about 10–15 TL from Eminönü), or take an Edirnekapı-bound bus from Eminönu or Taksim Square. The tree-shaded café outside the church and Asitane Restaurant next door are both pleasant spots for lunch before you trek back into town.
Kariye Türbesi Sokak, (a short walk north of Fevzi Paşa Cad., near Edirnekapı in Old City walls), Istanbul, Turkey
Nov 7, 2009
We visited the Kariye Museum at the end of a three-week tour of Turkey. I'd already seen the mosaics and frescoes in Aya Sofya and in the Goreme cave churches and believe that the Kariye art is different but equal. I've read in the Fodor's forums that some people think the mosaics in Ravenna are superior but I think the Kariye stands on its own. The small stone church is interesting and the art is lovely; it's well worth a taxi ride to visit this
museum. I agree with Fodor's review and will add that our tour director told us that people had peeled off chips of paint from frescoes that were within reach believing that the chips would be a good luck talisman.