Melancholic, beleaguered and marooned, such impressions surround the Chora Church of Istanbul. Maybe it should be referred to as the Kariye Camii (Kariye Mosque), or the Chora Müzesi (Chora museum). A better rendering of its original Greek name would be "The Church of the Holy Redeemer in the Fields". All this illustrates a feeling of distant lament that pervades this stunning example of late Byzantine architecture. History has crudely altered this ancient pile to make it agreeable to whatever cultural tide ebbs and flows around its foundations.
The church is a remnant of a past civilisation that was overwhelmed in 1453 by the remarkable young Mehmet the Conqueror. The twenty one year old Ottoman Sultan finally ended the long agonising decline of what had been the Byzantine Empire. He apparently entered the city through the Edirne Gate, just a stone’s throw from where the Chora Church stands. What did he find, what did he pass as he rode through the burning devastated streets on that day, the 29th May 1453?
This was a day of mixed memories, still now celebrated by the people of Istanbul as a day of national and religious victory. That same day rose the first modern myth of Greek national resistance as the Greek Emperor Constantine XI, apparently a heroic and gifted leader, succumbed to the overwhelming superiority in numbers of the Ottoman army, its technology and raw power. He died a martyr to Greek national identity in the streets of the fallen city, or so the story goes.
Built in the late eleventh century when the Byzantines had been enjoying better days, the church contains some of the most breathtaking examples of late Byzantine frescoes and mosaics still in existence. Since Mehmet the Conqueror’s entrance through those gates, Chora has transitioned from being a church to a mosque, and since 1958 it has been a museum.
So why melancholic, beleaguered and marooned? From being an example of Byzantine artistic genius, as time passed its frescoes and mosaics were damaged in earthquakes and lost under the plasterers trowel as they proved unfit to adorn the walls of an Islamic place of worship. The minaret now stands as a reminder to the building’s Islamic phase and remains as an implicit challenge to the many pilgrims from Greece coming to appreciate the glory of the past.
Thus it now stands, like so much in this fascinating and vast city, appreciated and preserved, but not really quite accepted. It represents a past that Christian Europe had been all to quick to bring to mind in the aftermath of World War One, as Ottoman civilisation fought for its very existence. Europeans raised on a diet of classical Greek culture were apparently prone to challenge Istanbul’s claim to be an Islamic city. As European power brokers dreamed of a revived Greek empire, we can imagine the Chora Church being an uncomfortable and unwilling pawn. Ironically its mosaics and frescoes were probably saved for our present enjoyment by the piety of medieval Muslims. Like the museum of Aya Sophia, the plaster and white wash preserved the ancient images on its walls.
Chora is full of religious images and icons. Perhaps it stands as an example of humanity’s struggle to appreciate and tolerate beauty and art, when the very subject of that creativity stands in challenge to the dominant story of a culture. May the story it tells continue to inform, challenge and draw us to a humanity that transcends our ties of religion and tradition.