• The Icons of Chora Monastery

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    November 14th, 2010adminArt, Byzantines, Gypsies, History, Ottomans

    Last month, I visited the gorgeous Chora Monastery, nestled in the Edirnekapi district of Fatih. The walk to the monastery was very interesting: We got off MetroBus, followed the old Byzantine wall — and, sadly enough, passed a former gypsy neighborhood (it was recently evacuated by the city government to further sanitize the district).

    An expression somewhere between stern and empathetic.

    Shortly after, we reached the monastery — and, upon entrance, I was immediately struck by its beauty: Byzantine Jesus and Mary, gold-encrusted and imperial, the saints, maybe the apostles — things big and important, in some fashion or another. And everything with an air of untouchable time.

    I don’t quite how to articulate this feeling …but there was a sense of hallowed distance …things were farther away than they seemed.

    A struggle of the highest order.

    For two years now, I’ve wanted to visit the monastery. From a historical perspective, it’s undeniably appealing. In fact, the monastery was located outside the walls of Constantinople — yes, outside. For that reason, it was called “Church of the Holy Saviour in the Country.”

    The worst part of experiencing history, nowadays, is that you rarely do it alone. Tourists are unavoidable -- and, sometimes, I'm one of them too.

    Originally built in the 5th century, the old monastery stood outside the walls of Constantine the Great. However, when Theodosius built land walls, the monastery then became incorporated within city walls. But the name remained.

    For centuries, the monastery wasn’t really a big deal. But, in the 12th century, an earthquake destroyed much of the monastery — it partially collapsed. As a result, it needed to be rebuilt. There were two phases of this restoration — in the 12th and 14th century. And it was the second phase, in the early 14th century, that brought the beautiful frescoes and mosaics to full bloom.

    The monastery displays, arguably, some of the best preserved Byzantine mosaics in Istanbul. In particular, the style is known as “Palaeologian Renaissance,” named after the emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus. Interestingly, the emperor exiled Theodore — that is, until he returned to Constantinople two years later and lived his remaining years as a monk in Chora Monastery.

    In 1453, the Ottomans sacked Constantinople. During their last siege, the icon and protector of Constantinople (usually housed in the Haghia Sophia), was brought to Chora Monastery. Alas, however, the monastery was converted to a mosque fifty years later. Because Islam prohibited iconic imagery, the monastery’s icons were covered by a layer of plaster.

    Today, the monastery is a museum.

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