Istanbul is today a metropolis of 15 million people (ranked the fourth largest city in the world) and spread over two whole continents. It is a very big place.
There was a time when it was much much smaller, when it occupied the tip of Europe and that was during the Byzantine era. You can find a fascinating series of paintings imagining how Constantinople would have looked in its heyday.
Despite being significantly smaller, old Constantinople was already considered a metropolis of its age. It’s location was phenomenal, being at a choke-point for southern Europe and western Asia. This boundaries of old Istanbul were called the Golden Horn. Being such a prize meant that the city was constantly under threat and needed to have rings and rings of walls to protect it.
But as the city grew, more and more settlements started to be built outside the city walls, and with every settlement was the need for a church. A church was therefore erected on this site in the 4th century. It was built outside the walls of the city, hence the name Chora (outside the walls). Although the church was eventually incorporated into the city when a new ring was built to defend the city, it continued to retain its original name.
What about this church makes it special to the modern visitor though? Two things, one the amazingly well preserved frescoes and mosaics, and two the focus on Mary and her life.
Walking into the church reveals just how well preserved this church was in comparison to the Hagia Sophia. The gold mosaics are still on the walls with much less damage than in the Hagia Sophia. This is simply due to the fact that the Hagia drew the attention of the greedy Crusaders, while this church outside the walls remained in relative obscurity. It’s preservation was helped by the fact that the Ottomans, who took over later on, respected Christianity, Jesus (who exists in the Quran as a prophet) and Mary.
The second major point is a wall of mosaics and frescoes focusing on the Life of the Virgin – narratives describing the life of Mary that marked her out as the chosen one to bear Jesus, and her life up till her ascension into heaven.
This very matriarchal tradition that was more common in Eastern Christianity versus Western Christianity, which explains what makes this church particularly unique.
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