Turkey 2011: Byzantine Heritage in Istanbul II

I’m going to start off with a surprise: the church of St. Theodosia, today the Gul Camii. I was unable to get in and thus have no pictures of the interior, but Van Millingen makes it sound like I am not missing much (I apologize to the art historians; Alexander Van Millingen’s Byzantine Churches of Constantinople is the only book in my library dedicated to the churches of Constantinople. I know that it is a century out of date.) In fact, I do not even have decent pictures of the exterior as evidenced here.

The upper parts of the church seem to have been rebuilt by the Turks later on, as you can see from the change in the masonry.Trying to get a decent picture of this proved really difficult, and the high angle here led to some serious washout.

The date of the church is totally unknown. I cannot find anything concrete, but it seems to be a rather late Byzantine foundation. The name of the church should not be taken to indicate a foundation that was immediately after the end of iconoclasm. The story of St. Theodosia is told to us by Theophanes. She was apparently a pious woman who witnessed the removal of an icon of Christ from the Chalke Gate, near the imperial palace and the Hagia Sophia. In an attempt to prevent this, she pushed the ladder over which the soldier removing the icon was on, sending him plummeting to his death. She was then murdered by the other soldiers. The problem with this story is that it is a total fabrication. The Council of 787 accused Leo III, the emperor who began the iconoclastic movement of just about every heinous crime under the sun, but this never appears in the indictment. Considering that they seem to have invented many of the charges, it is surprising that they would not include a real a martyrdom that steadfastly supported the cause of the iconodoules. Eirene may have put an icon of Christ on the Chalke Gate at the end of the eighth century. It is possible that she fostered this legend to increase her own rather feeble support. Either way, there is really no contemporary evidence that Leo took anything down from the Chalke Gate, and thus no evidence that anyone was martyred. However, the Restoration of Orthodoxy became an extremely important feast in the Byzantine church to celebrate the end of imperial iconoclasm, so it is not surprising that a cult grew up around the legend of a Constantinopolitan saint.

St. Theodore Tiro is another Byzantine church that does not seem to get many visitors. It’s now the Molla Gurani Camii and seems to only be open for Muslim prayers so you’ll have to time it right (and be quiet and respectful) to get in and get a chance to look around. This does not seem to have been an important church, and even the association with St. Theodore Tiro is uncertain. This picture was taken from inside a nearby Ottoman-era cemetery. The minaret is obviously a later addition to the church.

I never actually managed to get into the church itself, but I got into the narthex. In the narthex I made an interesting discovery: the interior of the small domes had not been whitewashed over. Although most of the figures had been scrapped away, you can still clearly see a figure of Christ on the top of the dome amidst the general damage.

The windows around the dome are still in decent shape, and the mosaics, while small, are still quite pretty.

Given the sloppy job that was done in whitewashing this church as this pillar suggests, one can only hope that more of the Byzantine heritage of Istanbul awaits to be discovered under the plaster.

For such a large building, I have very little material on the Pantokrator Monastery. It was built by the Empress Eirene of Hungary, wife of John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143). It became an important imperial religious foundation, and served as the tomb for John II and his wife, as well as their son, Manuel I (r. 1143-1180). Under John II, it had a hospital attached to it. Unlike many medieval hospitals, its doctors attempted to use the best knowledge of their day to actually treat illness, instead of providing a place for the ill to stay. It was funded by the state. Since its typikon (foundation document) survives, we also know that it was stipulated that it employ a certain number of female doctors to treat female patients. Today it is the Zayrek Camii. If you decide to visit, keep in mind that you are likely to be a bit of a novelty to the locals. Not many tourists go far from Sultanahmet (the eastern tip of the old city where some of the most magnificent structures are) but the Zayrek district is definitely a different Istanbul. It’s exceptionally poor. The buildings are run down, and you do not have to walk far before seeing the abandoned and dilapidated remains of old Ottoman houses, which Turkish law requires the preservation of. Sadly, the money is not available to keep all of these old buildings in a decent state of repair, and many are abandoned. It is also not uncommon to see empty lots full of rubble from burned and collapsed buildings. The Pantokrator Monastery is also not far from the Sultan Selim Mosque and the Fatih Mosque, the former situated beside the Cistern of Aspar, which is now a park, and the latter occupying the location of Justinian’s Church of the Holy Apostles. This is the district in which Istanbul’s fundamentalist Muslim community lives, and it is very uncommon to see a woman not wearing a burkha. It was definitely an uncomfortable place to be in, as the locals seem extremely surprised to see a tourist out so far from the main sites. I never had any trouble in the district. The people seemed very typically Turkish and were very eager to give (usually bad) directions. It was just uncomfortable, which may say more about me than the area of Istanbul. Still, if you’re going go up the Fatih Mosque, you now have some idea what to expect. Anyway, the Pantokrator Monastery/Zayrek Camii was closed for major renovations. I had a chance to wander around the work site a bit on the exterior. While I was disappointed that I did not get to go in, the fact that such an important church from the Komnenian area was receiving major work is very encouraging. Here’s a picture of it all fenced off.

Exterior of the main apse, which is pointing east. Work seems to be ongoing on the exterior here, explaining its sad appearance.

Kalenderhane and the sea walls tomorrow, I promise.

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One Response to Turkey 2011: Byzantine Heritage in Istanbul II

  1. John says:

    I just stumbled upon your blog and I have enjoyed the posts that I have been able to read so far. (I just got my BA in Classics and History and have been passionate about Byzantium since I was in junior high.)
    I have been fortunate enough to visit Istanbul 4 times and I have visited all of the sites that you have mentioned – except Gul Camii, but I have seen it from the Golden Horn!
    It’s a shame that you could not see the nave of Molla Gurani Camii; when I visited it in August 2010, a boy got the attention of the caretaker in order to let me inside, but I had no problem seeing the whole church/mosque.
    As for the Pantokrator, in August 2010 I almost got access to the interior, which was still open for prayers since I knew that the best chance was at prayer times. I asked in my poor Turkish if I could come inside but they denied my request – but I was able to see the narthex’s marble floor! In July 2011 I tried my luck again and this time the (supposed) imam let me inside but now only the narthex was accessible and its marble floors were covered in prayer rugs. I luckily was able to see (and photograph) some traces of fresco on the window arches.
    As for the Zeyrek/Fatih neighborhood, you are correct that it is conservative and poor, but the area receives more visitors than you would assume. The Fatih Mosque, like all of the Ottoman imperial mosques, receives many visitors. The Pantokrator does too, although the restoration work has kept them away too, but the Zeyrekhane Restaurant on its eastern side is very touristy. Istanbul’s older, poorer, more conservative neighborhoods can be intimidating at first (speaking from experience), but they are charming and often have forgotten historical treasures!

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