Chances are you may have never heard of a church in Istanbul named Chora. Before I traveled to Turkey and started researching Istanbul’s attractions I didn’t know about it either. But nothing you may read about Chora Church can prepare you for the revelation you’ll have when you see it. If I were to name one church in Istanbul that rivals the beauty of Hagia Sophia, it would be Chora Church. Like its famous sister Hagia Sophia, Chora Church also suffered a crisis of identity, going from an Orthodox church, to a mosque and to a museum (Kariye Museum).
The church’s full name was the Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country and it was built in the 4th century, as part of a monastery complex outside the city walls of Constantinople. Chora Church is considered one of the most beautiful examples of Byzantine architecture. But what sets it apart are the 50 fabulous mosaics dating back to the 14th century, most of which are still in excellent shape.
In the 16th century the church was converted into a mosque and the Byzantine mosaics were covered in plaster. They were first uncovered in the 19th century, just to be covered again by the order of the government several years later. Fortunately, during the World War II a group of American archaeologists rediscovered the stunning mosaics and brought them back to light. In 1947 the church-turned-mosque was declared a museum.
The exterior of the church is rather modest compared with Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque. But once you step inside you’ll be astound by the splendor that surrounds you. Part of the church displays mosaics with scenes from the New Testament and the early life of Christ, while another part features beautifully colored frescoes.
Like most historic sites in Istanbul, Chora Church is undergoing major renovations at this time and only parts of it can be visited. Usually the restoration process is very lengthy, so if you are planning to visit it in the next few years you can count on seeing it covered in scaffold. For now the naos (the main body of the church) is closed and only the narthex, the two lateral porches (esonarthex and exonarthex) and the parecclesion (small chapel) can be visited. In the parecclesion –once used as a mortuary chapel for family burials– you are going to see some dazzling frescoes, among which the famous resurrection of Christ, who had just broken down the gates of hell and is pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs.
Getting to Chora Church
Chora Church is tucked away in the little-visited Edirnekapi District –one of Istanbul’s oldest neighborhoods– which means that most visitors will overlook it. You’ll have to get out of the bitten path to visit this church, but it’s well worth the effort. There is a very instructive audio guide that can be rented outside the church, at the ticket booth. Also, behind the church there is a beautiful garden that provides a great view of the cupolas and the minaret, but unfortunately the body of the church is hidden behind the scaffolds now.
To reach the church from Eminönü, you can either take a taxi, or take the 32 bus to Edirnekapi. From Sultanahmet, we took the tram (T1) to Topkapi stop and then tram (T4) from Topkapi to Edirnekapi stop. While in the area you can visit Istanbul’s old City Walls.
Tricks for Photographing Chora Church
Like almost anywhere in Istanbul or in Europe for that matter, in Chora Church Museum you are not allowed to use a tripod (leave aside a flash!) Photographing old churches poses a real challenge because most of them are very dark and it is almost impossible to get a clear shot hand-holding your camera. But in my quest for good photography, I became very creative. One trick I’ve use is to bring a small tabletop tripod which can be pinned on the back of a pew, handrail, or even placed on the ground. By the time I get discovered and asked to put the tripod away, I have already managed to take a few good shots.
A good way of substituting the tripod is to look for flat surfaces where you can place your camera and use a wireless remote to operate the shutter release. This worked fine so far, with the exception that it is sometimes difficult to find the right level surface. At any rate, I managed to come up with some nice pictures from Chora Church which I hope you’ll appreciate.