The Chora Church, Istanbul is an often overlooked, unique and offbeat attraction in Istanbul. The reason? It’s really far away from Sultanahmet and the Blue Mosque where you’ll likely be staying. Getting there was a bit tedious, having to change trams and buses (trying to catch the correct bus at a large terminal where nobody spoke English was testing) followed by a long walk along the old city walls of outer Istanbul.
After walking through nearly deserted streets, we arrived at a clearing and found the seemingly bare-bricked Chora Church. A tiny window for tickets, (no queue) and we entered. It was dark and dim, sudden bright spots of light filtering through the windows high overhead. As stunning as the other Byzantine monuments, this one was originally constructed in the 1300s but has naturally seen a lot of renovation over the centuries. Inside lay stunning mosaics and frescoes, detailing several Christian scenes, which had later been plastered over by the Muslim Ottomans. Some parts had been destroyed, some were still being restored, and it was great to not see it in a complete state, because the layers revealed the incredible history of this place.
All of the artwork on the walls and ceilings depict the story of Jesus. From his conception, through his childhood onto his baptism and then adult life. Some of the mosaics were at eye level, giving me a chance actually get up close and study them. The detailing, the finesse with which they had been cut to show every curve and detail was unbelievable. And let’s not forget I was looking at them after centuries of erosion. This must have been breathtakingly stunning in its time, I thought to myself.
The inner narthex shows scenes from Jesus’ life; all his miracles and curing the sick, balanced with scenes from Mary’s life. I walked around, stretching my neck to take in the beautiful domes overhead, with symmetrical circular designs.
Here, in the holiest part of the church I also found symbols of the time it served as a mosque, the mihrab, pointing towards Mecca was here too. This part had domes of Mary with the child, scenes from her death and more.
We then passed the gift store, walking into a more bare part of the church. This side chapel was used by Metochites and his family. No mosaics here, but plenty of frescoes depicting afterlife. There were niches along the walls, where family members would have been interred at some point. We saw several pieces of the famous marble of this region – Maramara. By now my neck definitely hurt from keeping my gaze fixed on the ceiling, but the beautiful dome, with the virgin child was just stunning.
Stepping out of the damp, cold church, it was nice to see that the sun was out. We settled into the lovely terrace cafe for cups of steaming çay (turkish tea) and then bought some exquisite hand-painted tiles from the souvenir stands. The quality of work and the prices would in themselves be worth the trip out here.
You’ll find all the visitor info you need at their website here. Have you been? It was so different from the Blue Mosque wasn’t it? The Chora Church, Istanbul was definitely a brilliant find and well worth the extra hike. What’s the farthest you’ve ever ventured to see a site? Was it worth it?