Jonathan Harris explores the historical continuities of a city that has been the capital of two major world empires for over 1,500 years, by looking at the vicissitudes of a building that has served two faiths.

In a quiet corner of Istanbul, close to the old city walls, stands a small and unpretentious brick building. These days it serves as a museum though in the past it was a mosque as its minaret bears witness. Yet it was as a church that it was first erected, in the days when Istanbul was Constantinople, the capital city of the Byzantine Empire.


had been founded by the Roman emperor Constantine (r.306-37) on the site of an older city called Byzantion to provide a seat of government for the eastern half of his empire. Within a hundred years, the population had swelled to at least 500,000 and suburbs had spread out far beyond Constantine’s original city walls. It was in these outlying areas that a church and monastery were established in honour of Christ, the Holy Saviour and were given the epithet of ‘Chora’, meaning ‘in the country’. Even though a new set of walls were constructed in 413 bringing the monastery within the city limits, the name stuck.


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