‘Kariye’ is the Arabic translation of the Greek word ‘Chora’ which means ‘country’ or land’. Today the locals call it Kariye Müzesi while tour books and English translations refer to it as the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora or the Chora Church. The name ‘chora’ deduces that it was built in the country and originally resided outside the walls of Constantinople.
Note: it’s known by multiple names, Turks know it as Kariye Müzesi, Kariye Camii or Kariye Kilisesi. Foreigners will refer to it as the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Chora Church and the Chora Museum.
The exact construction date and early history of the original building are unknown, however it is known that during the Eastern Roman Empire period it was the center of the Chora Monastery. Later the city walls were enlarged and Theodosius’ land walls and the church were no longer outside city limits. The building that stands today was built in the 11th century and had endured countless repairs and reconstructions (mostly due to earthquakes and age).
In 1315, Theodore Metochites was selected as the Chora’s patron, and is responsible for the extensive remodelling of the church and for adding the mosaics and frescoes you see today. Theodore was an elite Byzantine official, philosopher and patron of the arts. All of the interior decoration you’ll see dates back to 1315-1321. He once explained “the lord himself became a mortal on our behalf” having the art reflect this, the mosaics depict the genealogy of Christ, and the lives of Christ and Mary. He dedicated the monastery and church to both Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, hence why the mosaics and frescos throughout depict scenes from both the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary. It’s thought the frescoes were painted just after the mosaics were completed, around 1320.
After the Conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque. The belfry was replaced by a minaret, a mihrab was added to the interior, and the name changed from the Chora Church to the Chora Mosque. At this time, all of the mosaics and frescoes were either covered by plaster, whitewash or destroyed.
After the Turkish Republic was formed, the mosaics and frescoes were uncovered and restored and the building was secularized and turned into a museum. These Byzantine mosaics and frescoes are among the finest and oldest found in Istanbul today.
The tour can be divided into four parts: the nave (main chapel), the inner narthex and outer narthex (entrance halls) and the parecclesion (side chapel).
Inside the Parecclesion
Parecclesion, is the side chapel, an element found in Byzantine architecture. The ceilings in this area are covered in frescoes depicting religious stories from the Old Testament, including Judgement Day, the Resurrection and the Last Judgement, while the lower levels of the wall depict images of saints and prophets. It is believed that this area was used for burial and funerary services.
The scene of Anastasis is painted on the semi-dome of the apse of the eastern bay in the Parecclesion. It depicts the Resurrection of Christ in Hell, saving the souls of the Old Testament as he’s shown pulling Adam and Eve out of their tombs.
Off the Parecclesion to the left of the apse lies a small chamber which was probably used to house materials used in religious and memorial services.