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The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church

The Treasures and Controversy of Chora Church.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church, Istanbul.

October 2020.

Forgive me if I am repeating myself, but Istanbul truly is a powerhouse of architecture and art. Just days into our stay, we had already seen some of the city’s artistic highlights through our visits to Süleymaniye Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar. Later, we would take in equally spectacular visual delights at Hagia Sophia, Dolmabahçe Palace and Theodosius Cistern.

A domed ceiling at Dolmabahce Palace.

One of the magnificent domed ceilings at Dolmabahçe Palace.

As amazing as all of the aforementioned sights undoubtedly are, there is something particularly pleasing about uncovering an underrated gem.

I had Sladja to thank for finding out about Chora Church during her online research. Imagine our delight when she discovered that Istanbul is home to one the world’s oldest and most beautiful Greek Orthodox Byzantine churches. Except it wasn’t actually a church anymore, but rather a mosque. More on that later.

Chora Church Kariye Mosque.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

Photo courtesy of Gryffindor.

Moreover, Sladja excitedly told me how the structure houses some of the world’s most impressive and best-preserved 14th century mosaics and frescoes. So one morning we headed out to the leafy neighbourhood of Edirnekapı in the city’s Fatih district.

Following a Google Maps walking route, we soon found ourselves closing in on the church as we made our way down Kariye Bostani Street. It’s a peaceful residential road with wooden houses, fluttering Turkish flags and local pensioners hanging out their windows watching the world go by.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

Kariye Bostani Street in Istanbul.

Kariye Bostani Street, Istanbul.

The church/mosque we were about to see sprang up in the 4th century. Commissioned by Constantine the Great (who had recently decriminalised Christianity), its official name roughly translates as Church of the Holy Redeemer in the Fields. However, most people called it Chora, an old Greek word meaning countryside or suburb. A reference to the fact that it stood outside Constantinople’s city walls. 

Constantine the Great Chora Church.

Constantine the Great: “Oooook…. fiiiiine…. you can have your Christianity”.

Later, in the 5th century, the church found itself incorporated into the city’s walled defences. A major rebuild took place in the late 1070s, overseen by Maria of Bulgaria, mother-in-law of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos. There was another expansion in the early 14th century, which is when today’s much-celebrated mosaics and frescoes arrived.

Turkey flag.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

By 1500 the church was still standing, despite the huge damage sustained by the city during the Siege of Constantinople. Eventually, Sultan Bayezid II ordered his Grand Vizier Hadim Ali Pasha to convert The Chora into a mosque. They renamed it Kariye Mosque, Kariye being the Turkish word for Chora. And so it remained as a mosque until 1945 when the Turkish government transformed the old structure into a museum. 

Kariye Mosque.

Kariye Mosque 1900.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church: A photochrom image of Kariye Mosque, 1900.

We had been full of anticipation in the approach to The Chora’s majestic facade that morning. Until…. oh rats, it was our old nemesis Captain Scaffolding. Annoying to say the least. However, this was evidence of yet another twist in the building’s eventful history. 

Istanbul's Chora Church under reconstruction October 2020

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

In August 2020, just a few months before we arrived in Istanbul, the Turkish Council of State (acting on behalf of President Erdogan) announced that The Chora would be reconverted into a mosque. The decision was roundly condemned across the world. Not least from the Greek Foreign Ministry and prominent Orthodox and Protestant Christians. 

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The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

Pondering this ancient history and contemporary politics, we found ourselves distracted by the sight of a large dog napping right outside the entrance. I mean, mosque. With a green chip on one of his ears, he was clearly a street dog. Gentle and immediately loveable, but a little rough around the edges. “His name is Benek” came a nearby voice, as I bent down to give him a stroke.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

The loved street dog of Chora Church in Istanbul

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

The man who had spoken sauntered over with a warm, friendly smile. “Benek is the dog of The Chora” he chuckled. “Kind of like a symbol, a charm”. According to the man, a local tour guide, the dog always hung out  around the church where locals and foreign visitors alike were happy to pet and feed him. In fact, Benek had become so popular the endearing canine now had his own Instagram and Facebook accounts.


“Are you here to see our amazing Chora?” the man asked. When I confirmed that we were, he insisted on taking us inside for a guided tour. “This is free Leighton, just between friends” he reassured us, noticing our wary glances. Thus the three of us entered and within seconds came face to face with some of The Chora’s stunning art.

Inside Chora Church.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

How I wish I could remember our guide’s name, as he truly deserves a proper thank you. Passionate and conscientious, he led us around the two chambers that remained open to the public. Luckily, they were absolutely packed with The Chora’s artistic treasures.

An Underrated Istanbul Gem.

Chora Church Istanbul's hidden gem.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

Unfortunately, the names of the incredible artists who made The Chora’s exceptional mosaics and frescoes remain unknown. What we do know though, is that a powerful Byzantine statesman by the name of Theodore Metochites led the project.

Christ and the Virgin Mary Chora Church.

One of the church’s ancient frescoes.

Some historians claim Metochites completely devoted his life to the church’s decoration between 1315 and 1321. And was so proud of what they achieved that he lived the final years of his life inside The Chora as a monk.

Fittingly, one mosaic depicts Metochites himself. He kneels down in front of Jesus Christ presenting a model of the newly renovated church as a show of love. I can’t say Jesus looks all that impressed.

Theodore Metochites mosaic Chora Church.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

Moving from mosaic to mosaic, from fresco to fresco, we were wowed by the beauty and impressive preservation of the 720 year old artworks. With a low chuckle our guide explained how, after its first conversion to a mosque, Muslim worshippers would come to pray with the Christian images surrounding them in full view. Later, of course, local authorities covered them up with layers of plaster.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

The Treasures and Controversy of Chora Church.

Taking a moment to breathe it all in.

One of the most breathtaking mosaics depicts the Koimesis, also known as The Dormition of the Virgin. This is basically the scene in which Mary falls asleep for the final time before going up to heaven. In the image Jesus sits solemnly watching his mother. An infant cradled in his arms, which is apparently supposed to represent Mary’s soul.

Dormition of the Virgin mosaic in Chora Church.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

You can’t escape Mary in Chora Church, she is absolutely everywhere.

Fresco of Virgin Mary Chora Church.

Mary, Mary, everywhere.

Indeed this is commented upon by the American travel writer Paul Theroux. Writing about his experience visiting the church in his book The Great Railway Bazaar, he describes the mosaics and frescoes as “wonderfully supple and human”. Furthermore, he insists that “The virgin in one fresco looks exactly like Virginia Woolf!”

Byzantine fresco of the Virgin Mary Chora Church Istanbul

Mother of Jesus? Or the author of Mrs. Dalloway?

Unsure as to which fresco Theroux had been referring to, Sladja and I could only smile and speculate.

Black and white photo of Virginia Woolf.


Another fine mosaic caused ripples of awe and then a wave of disappointment in the space of seconds. On the one hand it is a spectacularly preserved piece where the seemingly millions of tiny tiles appear almost as delicate paintbrush strokes. And then I learn that the piece presents Mary and Joseph enrolling for taxation before the Roman aristocrat Governor Quirinius. Mm, what would Virginia Woolf have made of it all?

Kariye Mosque.

Mosaic of the enrollment for taxation before Governor Quirinius

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

Gazing up at one of six magnificent domes, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future held for The Chora. Now that it was going to be a mosque again, what would happen to the mosaics and frescos?

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

Back outside in the October sunshine we returned our attention to Benek, who hadn’t moved an inch. Here was another Chora treasure I figured, as he rolled onto his back in order to receive a tummy rub from our guide.

Nearly three years on from our visit, I am saddened to see that Benek’s Instagram account is now defunct. Similarly, his Facebook account is no longer available. As far as I could tell he was an older dog, so I guess the signs aren’t good.

Friendly local guide and street dog at Istanbul's Chora Church

The Treasures & Controversies of Chora Church.

On Friday 30 October 2020, just three weeks after our visit, The Chora held Muslim prayers for the first time in 72 years. At the time of writing the building remains closed to the public as it continues its renovation project in preparation for its new chapter as a modern mosque. As controversial as the reconversion is for many, I am at least encouraged to read that the frescoes and mosaics are set to remain. From what I understand, fitted screens will be lowered over the Christian images during Muslim prayers.

The history of Chora Church and Kariye Mosque.

A ceiling mosaic depicting the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

Like this? Take a look at my series of articles on Istanbul.

I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.

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  • Monkey's Tale

    Oh no! Captain scaffolding!! From the other pictures it does look like a fascinating building, but at least you got inside. The interior is perfect! Virginia Wolfe?? Maggie

    July 19, 2023 - 4:00 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      The state of the facade was a disappointment but yeah, that all melted away once we got inside. I can actually see the Virginia Woolfe resemblance!

      July 19, 2023 - 4:19 pm Reply
  • Stan

    captivating article leighton. this is some tricky history (and present!) which i think you handled very well. the mosaics are something else i can imagine it mustve been special to see in person. you lucked out with the guide what a friendly fellow. sad about benek i concur with your thoughts that he may well have gone on to the great doghouse in the sky. not that that should be a reason to suspend his social media accounts though.

    July 19, 2023 - 4:13 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Stan, our experience at Chora Church did indeed have a bit of everything. Meeting that kind guide and learning about Benek were lovely and unexpected additions to the amazing art itself. Yet another place where the visit was so much more special without other people around. It’s such a small space, any kind of crowd in there would’ve had a huge effect on the experience.

      July 19, 2023 - 4:22 pm Reply
  • Travels Through My Lens

    We run into Captain Scaffolding frequently as well; what a nuisance he is; sigh. I enjoyed reading about the rich history of Chora, and seeing its stunning architecture. It’s good to hear that a mutually agreed upon solution has been reached so the Christian mosaics can remain. What a different world this would be if we were all so willing to compromise.

    July 19, 2023 - 4:39 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Absolutely Tricia, couldn’t agree more. While the idea of it being a mosque again doesn’t sit comfortably with me, it is encouraging that efforts have at least been been made to placate those who value the building’s original history. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      July 19, 2023 - 7:38 pm Reply
  • Lyssy In The City

    If only they could figure out how to make less obtrusive scaffolding, it’s everywhere! The mosaics are so beautiful, especially the blue tiles in the first pictures. I’m always amazed at how artists can do that. What a bonus to have a guide too!

    July 19, 2023 - 4:50 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      I have occasionally seen scaffolding that has sheets over the top with artwork that shows how the facade is due to look when it’s finished. Brilliant idea, but sadly not one that seems to have caught on.

      July 19, 2023 - 5:18 pm Reply
  • kagould17

    F—ing scaffolding. Didn’t they get the memo that you were coming? Good thing Benek was there and allowed the free tour guide to help you explore the place. Just like Erdogan and his ilk to keep the controversy between religions spinning by reconverting Chora to a mosque. Why could it not simply stay as a museum. Glad the art will be retained. Thanks for showing us this beautiful place Leighton. Allan

    July 19, 2023 - 5:00 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Agree on all fronts, Allan. I’m so happy we caught it before the reconversion was completed. Like so many places in Istanbul we were fortunate to see it in that strange pocket of time during COVID and prior to its upcoming transformation.

      July 19, 2023 - 5:24 pm Reply
  • Toonsarah

    I’m glad that at least they’ve decided to retain those stunning mosaics and frescoes despite being of a different faith. I hope they stick to that promise, it would be a travesty to lose them! You lucked out with your guide. I confess I’m sometimes wary of locals offering a ‘free’ tour as in my experience a generous tip is not only expected but demanded, even if undeserved. Sounds like your guy would have earned one 🙂

    July 19, 2023 - 6:10 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      We have exactly the same kind of reservations about about “free” tours or indeed services of a similar nature. On this occasion I’m glad we went with our instincts, there was just something honest and endearing about his demeanour I guess. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Sarah.

      July 19, 2023 - 7:27 pm Reply
  • Memo

    Fitted screens is an interesting solution for retaining the Christian images but then I began wondering about the sheer number of images. All covered with movable screens? This was my first encounter with The Dormition of Mary. She is so central to Catholic worship as she is the accessible one, the avenue to Christ. Interesting how so few lines of scripture can lead to such a large position in the practices. Since all dogs go to heaven, I guess that means that Benek is getting belly rubs from Mary now. Love your personalized touches.

    July 19, 2023 - 6:20 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      That’s something I hadn’t considered. And yes, you’re quite right, that would be quite the network of screens bearing in mind the number of frescoes and mosaics. Many of which are in such close proximity. Your comment reminded me of a treasured animated film from my youth that is probably worth a rewatch.

      July 19, 2023 - 7:35 pm Reply
  • Little Miss Traveller

    What an amazing find Leighton. The Chora’s mosaics and frescoes are absolutely beautiful and it’s good to learn that they won’t be removed during the new mosque renovations.

    July 19, 2023 - 8:32 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Marion thanks for checking in. Strangely The Chora is indeed a bit under the radar for some reason. Overshadowed I think by some of the many grand mosques in the city.

      July 19, 2023 - 8:38 pm Reply
  • Mike and Kellye Hefner

    I loved learning about the Chora Church…er, mosque, Leighton. The artwork is truly amazing, and I’m also glad to know that it is going to remain intact. Benek was a nice addition to the tour. RIP Benek. Your humorous parts had my laughing out loud. Needless to say, this was a very enjoyable post, my friend.

    July 19, 2023 - 8:34 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thank you Kellye, I think this article, with its heavy dose of history and Christianity, needed perhaps some counteractive lightheartedness. Thankfully Benek and Virginia Woolf stepped in to help me out 😉

      July 19, 2023 - 8:42 pm Reply
  • Rochelle | Adventuresfromelle

    What a fascinating church! Imagine the stories it would tell if walls could talk. I also find its “repurposing” as a mosque very interesting. Thanks for sharing this story and adventure

    July 20, 2023 - 4:14 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Rochelle. In many ways this is one of Istanbul’s must-see artistic wonders, so it’s strange that it continues to fly under the radar. I guess that will only deepen now once it reopens as a functioning mosque with the frescoes and mosaics covered up for large parts of any given day.

      July 20, 2023 - 10:40 am Reply
  • Rebecca

    What a fascinating religious site! It’s incredible that the Chora Church has survived for centuries through many change of hands, now becoming a mosque. Given that those frescos and mosaics are so mesmerizing and painstakingly beautiful, it would be almost a crime to destroy them; it’s surprisingly wonderful that the now-mosque will preserve them, as they reflect the complex history of the site (and RIP Benek? He looks like such a sweet dog!).

    July 20, 2023 - 6:55 am Reply
    • Leighton

      You’re right, The Chora is an architectural and artistic miracle in many ways. As for Benek, yes so sweet and gentle. I can only hope that my theory is a false one and that perhaps a local family adopted him.

      July 20, 2023 - 10:46 am Reply
  • wetanddustyroads

    Wow, look at those domed ceilings at Dolmabahçe Palace – amazing! I’m also amazed at how well the old artwork is preserved and immediately wondered what would become of it if the Chora was converted into a mosque. The screens – how would they manage to cover everything … definitely controversial. Oh, poor Benek… but he’s done well for himself – not even I have an Instagram account 😄.

    July 20, 2023 - 10:41 am Reply
    • Leighton

      My Dolmabahçe Palace article is coming in a few weeks Corna, it is indeed spectacular. The screens at The Chora are indeed a chin-scratcher, I guess we won’t know how exactly that will look and work until the mosque fully reopens in its new form. As for not being on Instagram, I feel you are not missing anything special 😉

      July 20, 2023 - 10:50 am Reply
  • Anna

    Wow so fascinating!!! I absolutely love the frescoes and mosaics! I do wonder if I was to go to Turkey in the future would they open up the screens for tourists to see the artworks, or if they kept them covered to reinforce Erdogan’s more Muslim stance? Would love to see something like this!!!

    July 20, 2023 - 12:23 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Good point, Anna. There is definitely a question over how this artwork would be made “available”. With four prayer times a day and presumably limited entrance times for visitors, I’m guessing the screens would only be opened (if at all) during limited time slots.

      July 20, 2023 - 1:36 pm Reply
      • Anna

        So it sounds like no chance really to see them! Such a shame! Thanks to your post at least we get to see a glimpse of them!

        July 20, 2023 - 2:23 pm
  • Supraja Lakshmi N

    Your article about the Chora Church was very fascinating and informative. You have shown me the treasures and the controversies of this historic and religious site in Istanbul, Turkey. I liked how you described the architecture and the art of the church, such as the mosaics, the frescoes, and the domes. You made me appreciate the beauty and the significance of this place. I also liked how you discussed the recent conversion of the church into a mosque, and the implications for its preservation and accessibility. Thank you for sharing your experience and your perspective. You have educated me and entertained me at the same time.

    July 20, 2023 - 4:38 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Supraja, what a lovely comment to receive, I’m glad you took so much from this article. The history of the building is so impressive, while the art stands right up there with anything I saw in the various mosques around Istanbul.

      July 20, 2023 - 5:05 pm Reply
  • grandmisadventures

    I would say that this old countryside church/mosque building is the most beautiful place in Istanbul that you have showed us. I was ready to be heartbroken that it would be returning to it’s role as a mosque until you said that those incredible frescos and artwork would remain. What a sigh of relief. It’s nice that with places like this there is a respect for the history while still allowing those of differing faiths to enjoy the space.

    July 20, 2023 - 4:39 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Ah Meg, I’m so glad this one has charmed you the most. I think for us this was particularly special because of the circumstances. No other people… incredibly friendly local guy with no murky agenda… endearing doggy. And then the art… wow.

      July 21, 2023 - 8:50 am Reply

    This is Erdogan all over, isn’t it. Great find though, kudos to Sladjia for finding this, well worth uncovering, and just in time, it seems.

    July 20, 2023 - 11:21 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Just in time indeed, we really lucked out with this visit on all fronts.

      July 21, 2023 - 8:51 am Reply
  • NortheastAllie

    Very impressive, and interesting history behind the building/area as well.

    July 20, 2023 - 11:30 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Cheers, Allie!

      July 21, 2023 - 8:51 am Reply
  • GoranP

    greets leighton this is my first time on your blog and i must say what a wonderful writer you are. i am currently in Istanbul exploring and didn’t knowed about this church it has now gone to top of my list! Not many bloggers go beyond surface or give a personal or emotional sides to blogging so props to you for your work. i have read a few more of your Istanbul works and will surely read your others too. cheers! a Croat in Turkiye.

    July 21, 2023 - 8:57 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Hey Goranp, thanks so much for taking the time to say hi. I’m so glad this article has inspired you to check out The Chora. Not sure how long you’re in Istanbul for but I hope it reopens while you’re still there. If you want to keep track of my upcoming Istanbul articles, there are new ones out every Wednesday and Sunday. Cheers!

      July 21, 2023 - 2:40 pm Reply
  • anoush

    What a wonderful find, Leighton! Such a beautiful building, it is a shame that it was blocked by scaffolding. Though, I feel that the real treasures are inside. I love the characteristic interplay of gold and blue in these gorgeous mosaics. It is interesting to see how different cultures and communities across time depicted Mary. Excellent article, love the Virginia connection and your descriptions of the neighbourhood.

    July 21, 2023 - 11:30 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Anoush! I would never have made the Virgina Woolf connection myself, but once I’d read what Paul Theroux said I thought it was spot on.

      July 21, 2023 - 2:42 pm Reply
  • WanderingCanadians

    There’s nothing worse than scaffolding to block your views of a beautiful building. The interior looks stunning with all the mosaics and frescoes. It’s a bit sad to hear that it’s being converted into a mosque though.

    July 21, 2023 - 2:00 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for dropping by!

      July 21, 2023 - 2:43 pm Reply
  • travelling_han

    Captain Scaffolding had me laughing – why is it always the way!! Inside though, wow, it took my breath away. How absolutely beautiful. I find the conversion of churches to mosques and vice versa such an interesting part of our history. I’m sure across Spain, Gibraltar, Portugal and probably some parts of Eastern Europe the reverse of this has happened with many mosques being changed to churches. Turkey is definitely seems to do the reverse often, and it was amazing that Sladja could find this gem.

    July 22, 2023 - 5:04 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Yeah, I’m sure there are other examples around the world of the reverse. And probably with all of the original art and history lost due to carelessness or downright spite. In this case at least we can point toward effort and compromise and that the art still remains preserved and semi-available. Thanks for your comment, Han.

      July 22, 2023 - 6:25 pm Reply
  • Anuran & Sayoni

    Wonderful article, you really bring the history of this church/mosque to life.

    July 23, 2023 - 11:53 am Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks for your comment, I’m glad you liked the article 🙂

      July 23, 2023 - 12:48 pm Reply
  • Len Kagami

    How lucky you are! A private tour to the Chora Church 🙂 And the timing was perfect, just before they closed down the entire place. 3 years later and they haven’t finished it yet… Those mosaics are simply beautiful!

    August 22, 2023 - 8:01 pm Reply
    • Leighton

      Thanks Len, it really was perfect timing in every sense. I am so curious to see what it looks like when they finally reopen it.

      August 22, 2023 - 8:39 pm Reply
      • Len Kagami

        Same here 🙂 I think they will cover the mosaics with moveable cloths like they did at Hagia Sophia. However, the ceiling might be obscured permanently. Personally, I think converting these churches has little economic benefit. If they keep them as museums, they can earn a lot. Besides, there are enough mosques around for praying. Some are not crowded at all.

        August 25, 2023 - 7:25 am

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