Chora Church in Istanbul has many names. Its full name is the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, or Chora Church for short. The Turkish call it Kariye, which is just their version of Chora. Chora means the country or the fields. There used to be fields and the landscape around the original monastery was more or less bucolic at around the 5th c. Later the church found itself not far from the new walls of the city. Nowadays it is lost in the chaos of crooked streets so that finding it on your own is an adventure in itself even if you’ve already been there.
Being a staple of the Istanbul tourist map and practically a must for even those who do not consider themselves die hard connoiseurs of antiques it is still easily avoidable by its mere location. But for anyone who would like to be able to say they’ve seen it all avoiding Chora is unacceptable. With all the sheer grandeur of Hagia Sophia and abundance of beautiful mosques within the square mile of the old city centre, no church comes close to Chora in the abundance of mosaics and frescoes contained within a single rather small volume that used to be a church, then a mosque and now a museum.
(Words of advice: open every image, including those from the gallery, in a separate window/tab to see it in full detail.)
I have been to Chora Church twice. Once on a March evening in 2010 after a long walk around the Christian dots of Fatih, and then on a July morning of 2013 (all the photos here date back to that visit) when I was the first in line to the ticket office. Therefore, my routes were different. In 2010 I discovered the Chora Church almost by accident, just wandering in the neighbourhood and seeing something interesting from the top of the Theodosius walls. In 2013 I went there on purpose and chose a shorter route from the nearest tram stop (do not take nearest too literally though).
Chora Church is an intricate decorative narrative of the biblical stories.
I don’t really know why I decided to revisit the Chora Church. I had already taken all possible pictures before and I found the church quite overwhelming and kind of too much. But having a mightier camera for the church’s dark interiors and belief in second chances led me there again. It was still overwhelming and still a bit too much, though not way too much as I was there fresh in the morning instead of exhausted late in the afternoon. I still found the place a little bit overhyped to my layman’s taste. But now I want to go there again to be able to just walk slowly past every single mosaic and fresco and read it like a book. Because that is how the Chora Church is decorated – it is an intricate decorative narrative of the biblical legends and stories.
Visitors enter the Chora Church wrongly from the parecclesion which is basically a mortuary chapel. It stands out from the rest of the church since here you will find frescoes (while the rest is decorated with mosaics with a small exception). These frescoes are dedicated to the themes of Resurrection and the Last Judgement. If you go there skip the parecclesion at first and head to the inner narthex (inner gallery), then outer narthex (outer gallery), then naos (the main church hall) and only then inspect the parecclesion. Then you will be able to read the narrative in the chronological order.
But since my both visits started with the parecclesion I show it first too. The chapel is rather darkish and the black background of the frescoes works fot that feeling as well. You see soldiers and some people, probably those whose bones once lay in the niches. But the major frescoes are at the end of the chamber.
There you see the apse with figures of six saints – ?, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil of Caesarea (St. Basil the Great), St. Gregory of Nazianzus (St. Gregory the Theologian) and St. Cyril of Alexandria. They are among the so called Church Fathers.
The fresco of the semi-dome shows the Anastasis where Christ descends into Hell and pulls Adam and Eve out of their tombs. The wide domed vault in front of the apse is dedicated to the theme of the Last Judgement – Christ sitting on the throne with Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist at his side, apostles and archangels surrounding them. An angel above is carrying a spiral sign symbolysing Heaven. There is a Heavenly court of angels and sinful souls are burning in Hell at the bottom right. The scene is both crowded and dramatic.
The dome of the parecclesion is given to frescoes of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus in the medallion and twelve angels in its rays. These are better preserved compared to frescoes on the walls that were whitewashed in the mosque times.
Inner and outer narthexes are probably even darker than the parecclesion. You are surrounded by the Hagia Sophia type of byzantine mosaics with dominant golden background.
Inner narthex is all about the Virgin Mary from her birth to her marriage with Joseph. Outer narthex continues the story with the couple’s journey to Bethlehem, birth of Christ, Flight into Egypt, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Miracles of Christ.
Naos, or the main body of the church is quite simple. While the Chora Church is considered to be unique due to the fact that most of the original decorations are still intact, the naos has only three – the Dormition of the Virgin Mary over the entrance, and two mosaics of Jesus Christ and Virgin Mary with child. The walls of the naos are covered in marble. The domes are bare – if there had been any frescoes or mosaics there they didn’t survive. All you can see now are rows of bricks. On the other hand, the naos is the lightest area in the church with quite a lot of light. It is also less crowded since people do not stay here long and head back to the narthexes or parecclesion with their rich decorations.
Chora Church definitely requires a more literate visitor
The Chora Church may be overwhelming for some or a revelation for others. Its location ensures that the line is not as long as at the Hagia Sophia, while the state and amount of frescoes and mosaics easily beats that of the latter. The unprepared simply admire the seemingly unconnected pictures that the ancestors laid in colourful stones and wet paints. But the Chora Church definitely requires a more literate visitor who would read it like a book and admire the narrative just as much as the mastery of the ancestors.