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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Set in the basement of an old tobacco factory on the southern shore of the Golden Horn, the Rezan Has Museum presents an interesting walk through Turkey’s archaeological history, from the copper age to the arrival of the Selçuks.
The former Cibali Tobacco and Cigarette Factory is today home to the Kadir Has University. The factory dates from 1888, but was abandoned for decades before being purchased by a foundation which, following the examples of the Istanbul Modern and Santralİstanbul, discovered a contemporary use for the historical building. The conversion from factory to university was beautifully realized and won the 2003 Europa Nostra award, which honors the “safeguarding of Europe’s cultural and natural heritage”.
During the restoration, the site was realized to have an even older history than believed, when both an Ottoman hamam and a Byzantine-era cistern were discovered in the basement. The remains were preserved as well as possible, and became the setting of the subterranean Rezan Has Museum.
For an archaeology museum, an ancient underground cistern is about as atmospheric a setting as one could hope for. The permanent collection is small, but nicely presented, and takes the visitor on a chronological journey through the ages, from Copper Age tools and jars to the oil lamps and weapons carried by the Selçuk Turks on their march through Anatolia. There’s ancient medical equipment and a fascinating collection of decorative belts worn by the mysterious and short-lived Kingdom of Urartu.
It’s great to see Istanbul making such constructive use of its cultural heritage, instead of razing these historic buildings to the ground. The Rezan Has Museum is just as fascinating for its archaeology exhibits, as for the wonderful restoration of its ancient cistern.
Not much remains of the Great Palace of Constantinople, built in 330 AD and home to Byzantine emperors for over 800 years. After taking the city in 1453, the Ottomans reduced the palace to rubble and eventually erected the Blue Mosque on top of it. But not all was lost. Excavations in the 1920s uncovered some brilliant mosaic patterns which had once decorated the palace’s floors and walls. And these have been preserved in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum.
The entrance to the museum is hidden in the midst of the bustling Arasta Bazaar and we walked right past it a couple times, distracted by the colorful carpets and souvenirs. But once inside, the place is fascinating. As far as possible, the mosaics of the palace have been left where they were found. It’s estimated that there were up to 80 million individually-laid cubes of terracotta and glass. Only a small fraction has survived the tumult of the centuries, but it’s more than enough to impress.
The scenes represented in the mosaics are both natural and mythical, with bears and monkeys joining griffins and chimeras in the patterns. There are fruits, floral scenes, and humans engaged in hunting, fighting and playing. Placards around the museum do an excellent job of explaining each surviving mosaic, enhancing the experience dramatically.
We're Jürgen and Mike, from Germany and the USA. Born wanderers, we love learning about new cultures and have decided to see the world... slowly. Always being tourists might get lame, but eternal newcomers? We can live with that. So, our plan is to move to an interesting new city, once every three months. About 91 days.