The Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (ἡ Ἐκκλησία του Ἅγιου Σωτῆρος ἐν τῃ Χώρᾳ), also known as the Kariye Müzesi, is one of the best preserved Byzantine sites in Istanbul. The church was originally built as part of a 4th century monastery outside of the city walls of Constantinople, but was included within the Theodosian city walls after they were built in 413 AD. The current church dates back to 1077.
Why visit? The church, which is located in the Edirnekapı neighborhood, contains some of the oldest and finest surviving Byzantine frescoes and mosaics. They were completed between 1315 and 1321. When the church was converted to a mosque under Ottoman Grand Vizier Atik Ali Paşa around 1503 (during the reign of Sultan Beyazıt II), the artwork was covered with a layer of plaster. Restoration began in 1948, when the mosque was decommissioned, and the museum opened in 1958.
A visit to the Chora Church costs 15TL as of September 2016. Admission is included in the Museum Pass İstanbul. The museum is closed on Wednesdays. I recommend getting the audio guide that can be rented at the ticket booth.
The first part of the church you’ll likely visit is the parecclision (side chapel). It was used as a funeral chapel and has the church’s most brilliant frescoes.
The dome of the parecclision contains a fresco of the Virgin and Child surrounded by angels.
At the rear are frescoes of the Second Coming of Christ and the Resurrection.
The inner narthex is a corridor that connects to the parecclision and the naos (main part of the church). Here, there are mosaics of Christ, Saints Peter and Paul, and scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
One of my favorite mosaics depicts Byzantine politician Theodore Metochites (1270-1332) presenting a model of his church to an enthroned Christ.
There are also two domes in the inner narthex. The larger one is of the genealogy of Christ with Christ Pantocrator in the center, while the smaller one shows the religious and noble ancestors of Christ and the Virgin and Child in the center.
The large stone doors in the inner narthex open into the naos. This was the main part of the church and it sits under the largest dome. Click here for a virtual tour of the naos.
Covered in marble, the naos isn’t as ornately decorated as the other parts of the church but features three mosaics along with the prayer niche from the time it functioned as a mosque. The mosaic above the entrance represents the Dormition of the Virgin.
Back through the inner narthex is the outer narthex. This was the original entrance to the church. There are mosaics of Christ and saints.
The outer narthex is also known for mosaics of several scenes from the Bible.
Among the scenes depicted are the enrollment for taxation before Quirinius, Joseph’s dream and the journey to Bethlehem, the wedding at Cana, and the multiplication of the loaves.