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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?

Gul-Mosque-Art

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.

Aya-Nikola-Church-Istanbul

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)

Sunday Morning in Kumkapı

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The neighborhood south of the Grand Bazaar, bordering the Sea of Marmara, goes by the entertaining name of Kumkapı. Although it doesn’t lay claim to any major sights or fabulous mosques, we enjoyed the quiet Sunday morning we spent here. And now, we can finally strike “Attend an Armenian Apostolic Mass” from our bucket lists. Another childhood dream accomplished!

Aile-Shopping-istanbul

Despite the rocky historical relationship between Turkey and its landlocked neighbor to the east, Istanbul has always been home to a sizable population of Armenians; today the number is around 60,000, and many of them live in Kumkapı. Armenians are a strongly Christian people, and part of the reason we chose a Sunday morning to explore the neighborhood was to sit in on mass at the church of Surp Asdvadzadzin.

Armenia is one of the world’s oldest Christian nations; the first country in the world, in fact, to have made Christianity its official state religion. Despite the moderate number of worshipers at the large church, originally built in 1641, we enjoyed the atmosphere: the heavy use of incense, the small choir in front of the altar, and the priest almost yelling at his congregation in a language that sounds a bit like Greek.

After sneaking out of the church, we wandered through a maze of streets packed with fish restaurants. This is one of the most popular evening hangout zones for Istanbullus, who spend their nights eating fish, drinking rakı, listening to music, and having impromptu dance parties around their tables. We swore to return on a Saturday night, because if the mess on Sunday morning is any indication, it must be a good time.

We found a couple other churches in Kumkapı, including the massive Greek Orthodox church of Panaya Elpeda. Built in the 15th century, this looked incredible, but was unfortunately closed to visitors. There was a woman at the gate, but she wasn’t about to consider letting us in. We had to lay on the sweet talk pretty thick, before she would even allow us to snap a quick photo.

Location of the Surp Asdvadzadzin

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April 4, 2013 at 3:16 pm Comments (5)
The Gl Camii and Aya Nikola 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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