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The Fethiye Museum

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Located in the neighborhood of Çarşamba, just up the road from the Yavuz Selim Camii, the Fethiye Museum preserves some of the best Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul. It’s small and difficult to reach, so most tourists skip right over it in favor of the similar and better-known Chora Museum.

Fethiye Museum Istanbul

The Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos (All-Blessed Mother of God) was built sometime in the 11th century by Byzantine Emperor Michael VII Ducas. By the time of the Ottoman conquest, the Pammakaristos had become one of Constantinople’s most important Orthodox churches and, sensitive to the feelings of their new Greek citizens, the Ottomans initially left it alone. They even made it the temporary seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. But in 1592, to celebrate of the Ottoman annexation of Georgia and Azerbaijan, the church was finally converted into the Fethiye Mosque.

During renovations in the 1950s, beautiful 14th-century mosaics were uncovered in the parekklesion, or side chapel, and these became the focus of a museum which opened in 2006. Under the dome, visitors can admire a depiction of Christ Pantokrator ringed by twelve prophets from the Old Testament. There’s also a large mosaic panel of Jesus’s baptism, and representations of various Biblical saints, including a deesis with Mary and John the Baptist.

The Fethiye Museum is a like a delicious Byzantine Mosaic hors d’oeuvre, before the more filling main course served up at the nearby Chora Museum. The mosaics in the Fethiye aren’t as expansive as those of the Chora, but the experience of visiting is more pleasant. We were the only ones inside the church on the Thursday afternoon we chose for our trip, and able to explore in peace.

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Related Post: The Grand Palace Mosaic Museum in Istanbul

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May 22, 2013 at 8:39 am Comment (1)

Inside the Hagia Sophia

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The Hagia Sophia isn’t just the best-known tourist attraction in Istanbul, or one of Europe’s most cherished landmarks… it’s one of the greatest buildings in human history. This church, nearly 1500 years in age, was once the center of Byzantine faith, later reborn as the predominant mosque of the Ottoman Empire, and today has found a new purpose as one of the world’s most popular museums.

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We spent nearly three hours inside the Hagia Sophia. There’s a lot to see, and all of it is fascinating. This is the kind of place where even the floors, doors and walls have stories to tell. I’m serious: this circular pattern in the floor marks the Omphalos, where Byzantine emperors were crowned. That massive wooden door is the Imperial Gate, reserved for the entrances of the emperor and his family, and rumored to have been made from the wood of Noah’s Ark. And there in the wall, you’ll see one of the church’s magnificent Byzantine mosaics.

These mosaics have survived the centuries in superb condition, thanks mainly to Muslim sensitivities. Human representations are disallowed in mosques, so the mosaics were covered up and thus protected during Ottoman rule. The mosaic above the aforementioned Imperial Gate depicts Emperor Leo VI on his knees before Christ. There’s a wonderful Deesis mosaic in the upper gallery, with Mary and John the Baptist imploring Christ to forgive humanity. And the mosaic of Mother Mary with baby Jesus in her lap, in the dome of the apse, is marvelous. But our favorites were those of the four seraphim, God’s guardian angels, in the dome’s supporting pendentives. During restorations in 2009, one was discovered to have a face hiding underneath its protective golden shield.

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Impressive as the mosaics are, they can’t compete with the church’s dome: a true architectural wonder. Measuring in at 55 meters in height and 32 meters in diameter, with 40 windows that allow in abundant light, this dome was by far the largest ever attempted when it was constructed. Especially with the two half-domes which exaggerate its size, the dome creates an illusion of immense space. Standing down at ground level, looking up, it’s hard not to feel insignificant.

Yes, standing in the center of this church, looking up at the massive dome and its seraphim, admiring the giant Arab calligraphy, considering the number of emperors and sultans who have passed through here, and who have probably stood exactly where you’re standing right now… it’s very hard not to feel insignificant. Because, and it takes maybe an hour inside the Hagia Sophia before you start to genuinely grasp this, you really are insignificant. Look up again at that dome. Think about how long ago it was built, and then try to say aloud “My life has worth”. Ridiculous. You’re a tiny drop in the ocean of human history. You, your silly problems, your proudest accomplishments… they mean absolutely nothing.

Wow. Thanks for ruining my day, Hagia Sophia. But despite the small existential crisis, our visit here was one of the highlights of our time in Istanbul. Unforgettable.

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May 21, 2013 at 1:45 pm Comments (4)

The History of the Hagia Sophia

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Were we excited to visit the Hagia Sophia? It’s just one of the most legendary buildings on the planet. The largest church in the world for a thousand years. The scene of some of history’s most decisive moments. A breathtaking architectural achievement on a scale unthinkable for its day. Yes, I suppose it’s fair to say that we were excited.

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Ever since arriving in Istanbul, I’d been eagerly anticipating our visit to the Hagia Sophia. Scratch that: I’d been eagerly anticipating a visit since 1984 when, at the age of seven, I read about it in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Now the long-awaited day had finally arrived, and it was every bit as amazing as I had hoped. The instant I stepped inside the Hagia Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, I felt transported into another world.

The building we see today is actually the third church built on the site. The first, completed in 360, was destroyed during a riot in 404, and no trace remains. And the second church was burnt to the ground in 513 during the infamous Nika Riots. One of worst riots in history, this popular outburst of rage resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the destruction of half of Constantinople’s buildings. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian, though, emerged unscathed and more powerful than ever. With a free rein to rebuild the city as he liked, he started with the Hagia Sophia.

Completed in 537, Justinian’s new church was immediately hailed as an unprecedented architectural achievement. The empire’s greatest mathematicians and physicists had been brought in to supervise and consult on the construction, nothing on the scale of which had ever been attempted. The Hagia Sophia was by far the biggest church in the world, and would remain so for nearly a thousand years. It’s almost unthinkable. Try to imagine how otherworldly and groundbreaking a modern-day skyscraper would have to be, to remain unsurpassed for the next millennium. I don’t actually think it’s possible, anymore.

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Despite its preeminence, the Hagia Sophia hasn’t been immune to the passage of history. It exists, after all, in one of the most tumultuous capitals on earth, and has had as many masters as Istanbul has had names. First and foremost, it was a Byzantine church and the center of the Orthodox world. For a brief interlude, from 1204 to 1261, it was converted into a Roman Catholic church, following the Fourth Crusade which crippled Byzantine. The marauding crusaders even installed a prostitute on the patriarch’s throne, in mockery of the Eastern faith.

Luckily, the next masters of Constantinople would treat the church with more respect. After sacking the city in 1453, the Ottoman forces under Mehmet II the Conqueror enjoyed three days of pillaging, but the Hagia Sophia was mostly spared. The church had been as famous in the Arab world as in the Christian, and it had been Mehmet’s lifelong ambition to see it converted into a mosque. During the long eclipse of the Byzantine Empire, the church had fallen into a deplorable state, but the Turks restored it to its former glory. For the next 500 years, it served as the most important mosque in the Ottoman Empire.

In 1935, the nascent Turkish Republic recognized that the Hagia Sophia was more important as a monument of our shared cultural heritage, than as yet another mosque. On the orders of Atatürk, it was converted into a museum. A good move, in my opinion. Today, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, and certainly among the most impressive we’ve ever visited.

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May 19, 2013 at 2:14 pm Comments (3)

The Çarşamba Market and the Fatih Camii

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Çarşamba is a neighborhood in Istanbul, and also the Turkish word for “Wednesday”. Now, what do you suspect might be the best day to visit Çarşamba? You get one guess!

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Held since Byzantine times, the Wednesday Market (Çarşamba Pazarı) was already woven so immutably into the neighborhood’s fabric, that the conquering Turks just named the entire area after it. Today, Çarşamba is a highly devout section of Istanbul. The market occupies the narrow streets surrounding the Fatih Mosque, and brings the locals out in droves, the great majority of them covered women going about their weekly shopping.

The market concentrates on cheap clothing, household wares and food; nothing of touristic interest, besides the sheer spectacle of so many people. Jostling through the jam-packed streets, and getting mercilessly shoulder-checked by the no-nonsense, and surprisingly solid, local ladies, Jürgen and I were equally exhilarated and exhausted by the market. It was with a sigh of relief that we finally emerged into the courtyard of the Fatih Mosque.

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This massive complex is one of the great mosques of Istanbul, built on the destroyed remains of the Church of the Holy Apostles. It was raised 30 years after the conquest of Istanbul on the orders of Mehmet the Conqueror, who was less than satisfied with the result. Angry that the mosque’s dome was smaller than that of the Hagia Sophia, he had the architect put to death. You don’t want to disappoint the Conqueror!

We think Mehmet over-reacted. His mosque is a marvel, with gorgeous interior calligraphy and design, and a pleasant courtyard. We sat down inside to listen to a little preaching, and take in the atmosphere. The mosque was surprisingly crowded. A few kids were laughing and chasing each other around the carpeted room, while their fathers looked on in annoyance. There was a lighter, more frivolous atmosphere in this mosque than others we’ve visited, probably thanks to the shopping-festival just outside.

Walking around the grounds of the mosque, we found the mausoleum of Mehmet the Conqueror himself, his turban atop an absurdly large coffin. Many people were seated inside, reading from the Koran, and praying for the former Sultan. We were tempted to sit down, ourselves, if just for the excuse to spend some extra time in this beautifully-tiled mausoleum.

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May 14, 2013 at 7:59 am Comments (9)

St. Mary of the Mongols and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate

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We spent a long day walking along the southern coast of the Golden Horn, from the Atatürk Bridge to the ancient Jewish quarter of Balat. This is an older, quieter side of Istanbul that not enough tourists see, although it has a number of interesting sights, including some beautiful churches.

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It took a lot of effort to locate St. Mary of the Mongols, which was originally built in the 13th century. After hiking past the red brick facade of the Fener Greek Orthodox School for Boys at least four times, repeatedly up and down the same steep hill, and fruitlessly asking innumerable locals, we only found the right location after finally having given up. We were in standing front of something called the “Meryem Ana”, loudly insulting the “stupid f#&*@ng Mongol church”, when the door suddenly opened, and an attendant welcomed us inside. It turned out to be the right place, despite the different name.

The guy obviously hadn’t understood our blasphemy, because he was happy to provide a short tour. This is the only church in the city which has enjoyed continuous Orthodox services since Byzantine days. Hanging on a wall is the agreement signed by Mehmet the Conqueror guaranteeing religious freedom to Greeks in the newly-Muslim city. Also within the church is the mouth of a five-kilometer tunnel which, according to our guide, once led to the Hagia Sophia.

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St. Mary of the Mongols was impressive, so our hopes were sky high for the nearby Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which is the main Eastern Orthodox church in the world: the central place of worship for a congregation of over 300 million. It’s a little strange that it’s in a Muslim city; you’d think that once Constantinople fell, the patriarchate would be moved to another city. But Orthodoxy, apparently, isn’t big on change.

We were astounded by the silence and dreariness of this church. There were only a couple other people inside snapping photos, and I had to double-check our guide book to make sure we had the right place. In Orthodoxy, every church is considered equal, and too much importance isn’t given to any one place. But still, I expected the center of Eastern Europe’s dominant religion to have a lot more going on.

Earlier in the morning, we had paid visits the Rose Mosque and the Aya Nikola, making this an insanely long day of church-hunting. So, when we arrived at St. Stephen of the Bulgars, a white, cast-iron church set in the middle of a traffic island, I was secretly thrilled to find it closed for renovation. Jürgen, though, was genuinely upset, so I feigned disappointment. “The darned luck of it! Well, let’s go home”. And before he could react, or suggest going to another church, I had hailed a taxi.

Locations on our Map: St. Mary of the Mongols | Green Orthodox Patriarchate | St. Stephen of the Bulgars

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May 13, 2013 at 3:40 pm Comments (2)

The Gül Camii and Aya Nikola

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Istanbul has no shortage of old churches and mosques, and it can often feel like too much of a good thing. As our time in the city progressed, we would increasingly find ourselves saying something like, “Honestly, I think we’ve visited enough mosques”. But what are we going to do? Simply ignore something as amazing as the Gül Camii?

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When entering an ancient mosque, we’ve learned to look for the placement of the mihrab: the semicircular niche which indicates the direction of Mecca. Orthodox churches face east, but a mosque should be oriented toward Mecca. If you’re in a mosque that was originally built as a mosque, the mihrab is integrated soundly into the architecture. But if you’re in a former church which has undergone conversion, the mihrab will be off to the side, inelegantly askew.

The mihrab in the Gül Camii (Rose Mosque) was askew, because this was originally the Byzantine Church of St. Theodosia. Dating from the 12th century, it’s a small square-shaped structure, built of red brick, which used to guard the corpse of St. Theodosia. Theodosia was a nun martyred during the 8th century struggle against iconoclasm. While protesting the removal of a particularly revered icon at Constantinople’s Great Palace, she shook a ladder and killed the soldier who was atop it. For this crime, she was executed by having a ram’s horn hammered through her neck. Our ancestors were so creative!

May 29th, the day on which the Ottomans overran Istanbul in 1453, just happened to be Theodosia’s Saint Day, and the church was full of worshipers. According to at least one account, the marauding Turks stormed inside, chased out the Byzantines, and threw the saint’s bones to the dogs. And then they converted her church into a mosque. Poor Theodosia had it as tough in death as in life.

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After finding the Gül Camii, we tracked down the nearby Aya Nikola: a Greek Orthodox church. This rundown old building on the shore of the Golden Horn looks nothing like a church, but after ringing the doorbell, we were welcomed in by a friendly Greek woman. The Aya Nikola is small, dark, and lavishly decorated, with a fantastic wall of icons around the altar. But I got the distinct impression it’s no longer in service.

Part of the reason we enjoy hunting down these old churches, is the excuse it gives us to explore new neighborhoods. From the Aya Nikola, we walked along the coast of the Golden Horn up into the hills of Fener and Balat, the old Jewish quarter. It’s rarely visited, but we found this area west of the Atatürk Bridge to be one of the most picturesque in Istanbul.

Locations on our Map: Gül Camii | Aya Nikola

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May 11, 2013 at 8:27 am Comments (0)

A Walk Along the Land Walls – Day One

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Stretching for six kilometers from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn, the Land Walls of Theodosius II protected Constantinople from invaders for over a thousand years… until the arrival of the Ottomans and their giant cannons in 1453. The walls have survived largely intact to the present day, and walking along them is an exciting way to see a different side of Istanbul.

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We started at the Marble Tower, marking the southern end of the walls at the Sea of Marmara. The tower provides a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the fortifications: impressive despite the ruinous state, and able to be climbed… although the piles of trash and human poop should discourage comprehensive exploration. The walls, with their towers and protected nooks and crannies, make attractive shelters for vagrants; they’re fine during the day, but we kept away from dark corners and would suggest avoiding the walls entirely after dusk.

From the Marble Tower, we crossed the busy Kennedy Highway to begin our journey north. Throughout the day, we’d have to cross a number of roads, and would switch from walking either inside or outside of the walls, depending upon where the most accessible sidewalk happened to be. Occasionally, the easiest path was on top of the walls themselves.

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The Walls of Theodosius II were originally constructed in 417, but destroyed 40 years later by a massive earthquake. Bad timing, since Attila the Hun was marching towards Constantinople at that very moment. In a panic, the city recruited everyone to assist in the rebuilding effort, and new fortifications were ready within two months. These new walls consisted of three separate layers and 96 towers and were unbreachable by 5th century military technology. Attila didn’t even try.

We had an incredible time walking along the walls, especially in the sections where we could clamber up to the top and gain a view over the city. There was plenty to see along the way. The old neighborhood of Yedikule, parks, mosques, ancient gates like the Belgrade Kapı, and museums.

West of the wall’s Silivri Gate, we found a path leading through a cemetery to the Zoodochos Pege, an old Orthodox Church that harbors a sacred spring. After exploring the courtyard, we followed marble stairs into the basement where the spring is found, complete with fish swimming around in the holy water. According to legend, a monk was frying fish in a pan, when he was told that the Turks had breached the nearby walls. Disbelieving, the monk scoffed that this was “as likely as the fish in my pan returning to life”. Which they promptly did, jumping from his pan into the spring where they remain to this day. To the Turks, the Zoodochos Pege is known as the Church of the Fish (Balıklı Kilise).

At six kilometers in length, it’s easy to walk along the entire length of the walls in a single day, but by the time we’d reached the halfway point at the Topkapı tram stop, we were exhausted, and decided to save the second half for another time.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Marble Tower | Belgrade Gate | Zoodochos Pege

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May 1, 2013 at 4:34 pm Comments (4)
The Fethiye Museum Located in the neighborhood of Çarşamba, just up the road from the Yavuz Selim Camii, the Fethiye Museum preserves some of the best Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul. It's small and difficult to reach, so most tourists skip right over it in favor of the similar and better-known Chora Museum.
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