Monday, 6 April 2015

Byzantine churches, Ottoman mosques and Constantinople's conversion to Istanbul

Many in predominantly Christian parts of Europe associate Turks and Turkey only with Islam. I have even heard some refer to a mosque as a 'Turkish temple!' Not surprising given Turkey's population is over 99 percent Muslim.

Nonetheless, some of the nicest attractions in Istanbul happen to be non-Muslim monuments. Relics from the glory days of the Byzantine Empire located in its erstwhile headquarters, the city of Constantinople. While the Hagia Sophia may be the best known church from the Byzantine days there are other churches worth a visit.

A fresco of the Virgin Mary and Child inside the Chora Church
One such Byzantine church is the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, now known as the Chora Museum. The first church on its present site was built in the fifth century. The church was located outside the walls of the main city. Hence the name which when translated means, 'The Church of the Holy Redeemer in the Fields.'

Much of the present structure dates from the eleventh century. The church saw many modifications until the early 1500s when it was converted into a mosque. In 1948 a project to restore the building's many frescoes began. By 1958 the building was reopened as a museum. Anyone with a few hours to spare in Istanbul will find the museum a pleasant surprise. Such old buildings along with its beautiful frescoes are rare.

As a bonus to any visitor, there are two additional sights to see within a few minutes walking distance from the Chora Museum, i.e. the Mihrimah Sultan Mosque and a section of Constantinople's defensive wall.

A view of Sinan's Mihrimah Sultan Mosque
The Mihrimah Mosque was built by Ottoman master architect Sinan between 1562-65. Dedicated and named after Emperor Sultan the Magnificent's favorite daughter, Mihrimar, the mosque is as good a specimen of Sinan's work as his more well known structures, e.g. Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul or the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne. Sinan's style is well reflected in Istanbul's iconic Blue Mosque, designed by one of his assistant's – Sedefkar Mehmed Agha.

Near the mosque is a section of Constantinople's historical defensive wall. Bravehearted travelers can climb a section of the wall to obtain a panoramic view of the city from a higher vantage point. The hill is near the highest vantage point in the city. The less daring may stroll through the wall's gate, the same gate which Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II used to ceremoniously entered the city after its fall.

A 1903 painting depicting Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II at the 1453 Siege of Constantinople
Istanbul oozes history. A decidedly European city with an Islamic flavor. Or, if you prefer, a decidedly Islamic city, with an European flavor. Seeing two beautiful places of worship, a mosque and church, alongside each provides a glimpse into the deep soul of this unique city. 
Imran is a Singapore based Tour Guide with a special interest in arts and history. Imran has lived and worked in several countries during his past career as an international banker. He enjoys traveling, specially by train, as a way to feed his curiosity about the world and nurture his interest in photography. He has been a regular traveler to Istanbul since 2003. Imran can be contacted at

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