It’s well worth taking a short cab journey to get here - the Fatih district is a little out of the way of public transport.
Like so much of Istanbul’s ancient artistic heritage, the Chora Church has a story full of twists and turns.
Most of what comprises the current building was constructed around 1100 AD, after the original had been damaged in an earthquake; this church was subsequently ransacked during the Crusades of the 13th century. It was reconstructed and elaborately decorated in the early 1300s under the direction of Byzantine Prime Minister Theodore Metochites.
In the early 16th century Chora was converted into a mosque by the Ottoman Empire, who whitewashed over its mosaics and frescoes - the same process that took place in the Hagia Sophia. They were hidden until the 1940s when they were rediscovered and restored. Finally, in 1958, Chora was opened to the public as a museum.
What we see today is a jewellery box of a building, crammed with truly spectacular artwork. Despite their turbulent history (including several earthquakes), the mosaics and frescoes are well preserved and still sparkle in golden glory, showcasing the highest quality of Byzantine religious imagery.
Craning your neck to admire the ceilings and high walls, you get a real sense of how these beautiful illustrations served to display Christian themes and narratives to a largely illiterate congregation. The mosaics in the first three bays of the inner narthex, for example, tell the story of the Life of the Virgin; the exonarthex includes frescoed depictions of the massacres ordered by King Herod; the inner narthex features a mosaic of Theodore Metochites himself, presenting a model of the restored Chora Church to an enthroned Christ.
To get the most out of your visit it’s a good idea to get a guided tour, which will help you to uncover the layers of meaning and history behind each image. If all this majesty works up an appetite, just next door is a brilliant restaurant called Asitane which serves authentic Ottoman dishes recreated from centuries-old recipes found in the Topkapi Palace archives.
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