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Sitting in the heart of the Edirnekapı district, just west of the city centre, lies one of Istanbul’s greatest treasures. Widely considered one of the most beautiful churches surviving from the Byzantine era, the serene Chora Church and Kariye Museum is a fitting custodian of the magnificent 14th-century mosaics and frescoes that adorn its interior.
Having survived centuries of invasion, natural disaster, reparation and reconstruction, this ancient site has been home to some form of religious building since the 4th century, when Emperor Constantine decreed a church be built just west of the city walls. This original church was known as “The Church of the Holy Saviour Outside the Walls”, sometimes shortened to "Chora" which literally means "outside of the city". The Turkish word “Kariye”, used in the church's later incarnation as a mosque, has the very same meaning.
Sometime later in the 5th century, the city walls were expanded by Emperor Theodosius II and the church officially came within the municipal boundary of Constantinople. Maria Dukaina, the mother-in-law of Alexius I Comnenus, further renovated the church in the 11th century and, although it has undergone many improvements, repairs and changes in the intervening years, including its conversion into a mosque in the 16th century, it is this 11th-century church that is home to the present-day Kariye Museum.
While the exterior of the church is arresting enough in its glory, the exquisite interior will truly take your breath away. As you wander through the sacred space, take in the extraordinary mosaics and pristine frescoes that depict the life of Christ and stories from the Old Testament. All around, decorated arched ceilings feed into intricately detailed walls. Each delicate mosaic and fresco is a stunning masterpiece in its own right, but do keep a special eye out for the Deesis (Christ in Majesty), the Mosaic of the Koimesis in the main body of the church and the Virgin Mother with child in the north dome of the inner narthex.
Before you leave this impressive structure, make your way up onto the enormous Theodosian city walls for a breathtaking view of Istanbul. The city’s turbulent history is quite literally written into this centuries-old bulwark, with intricate Greek and Ottoman writings carved into the crumbling cannon-marked stonework.
The Chora Church and Kariye Museum is easily one of Turkey’s most impressive museums and, while it may not be on the traditional tourist trail, it is most certainly worth the little effort it takes to seek it out.
Want to make your visit to Chora Church even more special? Don't forget to try out a few of these things to do:
Examine our Istanbul things to do page to discover even more activities while you're here.
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