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.
The fortunes of the monastery rose and fell over the years. Constantine V (r.741-75), who was no friend to monks, had it deconsecrated. The monastery somehow survived and was fortunate enough in the late eleventh century to attract the favour of an imperial patron, Maria Doukaina, the mother-in-law of Alexios I (r.1081-1118), who had the church completely rebuilt. The most generous patron of the Chora, however, was not a member of the imperial family but Theodore Metochites (1270-1332), chief minister of Andronicus II (r.1282-1328).