There seems to be an assumption in Istanbul that visitors to its tourist attractions outside of its central Sultanahmet district will all be arriving in coaches. Hence, the biggest roads in the city have tourist signposts but the smaller roads and streets – the ones less likely to be coach-friendly but more likely to be pedestrian-friendly – don’t. And hence, when a friend and I set off for Chora Church in the Edirnekapi district in western Istanbul, first by public transport and then on foot, we had a job finding the place.
The public transport we used was the ferry-boat that sails up and down the Golden Horn. It was a pleasant cruise and offered plenty to see along the shorelines – cluttered quaysides, sheds, now-smokeless brick chimneys and mantis-like cranes, plus moored white cruise-boats, grey naval ships, orange-red tugboats and even a sleek dark submarine with the Turkish flag licking about in the breeze at its prow (tethered next to what I took to be a waterside museum). Unfortunately, the ports-of-call along the Golden Horn were not announced on the ferry’s public address system and each stop was very brief, with the result that we missed getting off at the spot we intended to. So we had to sail further up the Horn and then back again, which added the most of an hour onto our journey-time.
From there, we made our way up a city hillside – and signs for Chora Church were non-existent. We at least had a chance to see something of an ordinary Istanbul neighbourhood. Houses were squashed against one another up the steep incline, their windows enclosed by patterned grills or bars and their pastel colours slightly faded. The narrower back-streets were cobbled and populated by dozy-looking cats. Trucks struggled to climb the gradient and negotiate the twisty corners. At one point, kids came streaming out through an arched gateway that led into a school ground, their school uniforms in the maximum-possible state of dishevelment before they stopped looking like uniforms – school-ties so loosened that their knots dangled level with the wearers’ diaphragms and shirt-tails flapping around the wearers’ backsides. The school-wall was lined with coils of barbed wire. To keep intruders out, I wondered, or to keep inmates in?
Without intending to, we got to see the remnants of the mighty city walls built by Theodosius II in the fifth century. These brought Chora Church within the city’s defences for the first time, as it’d stood outside an earlier set of walls erected by Constantine the Great. Also, unexpectedly – as we were going up the side of a busy dual carriageway at the time – we passed a traditional-looking cemetery and snapped a few pictures of its gravestones through the railings.
Eventually, after asking half-a-dozen locals for directions, we got to our destination. Chora Church is one of the oldest surviving examples of a Byzantine church – much of what stands today dates back to the eleventh century, although the original church had been there since half a millennium earlier. Its history is not dissimilar to that of Aya Sofya in Sultanahmet. Originally adorned with beautiful Christian mosaics and frescoes, it was turned into a mosque following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans. At which point, due to Islam’s ban on representative imagery, the mosaics and frescoes vanished behind layers of plasterwork. In the twentieth century, however, restorers set to work uncovering the Christian artwork and the building went from being a mosque to becoming, in 1958, a museum.
Boasting six domes and three internal sections – an entrance hall, a main body and a side chapel – the church is a squat, compact building made of grey and brown stone. Its interior is a testimony both to the talents of the original artists who created the mosaics and frescoes on the walls, ceilings and inner dome-surfaces and to the diligence of those restorers who liberated them from underneath the Ottoman plaster. Once inside, you get to view a huge assortment of Biblical characters and scenes: Jesus, Adam and Eve, Moses, David, Solomon, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Joseph, Herod, Saints Peter and Paul, various angels, various miracles, the Nativity, the Journey of the Magi, the Passover, the Resurrection and the Second Coming. Here are a few examples of what’s on display there.
At the time we arrived at Chora Church, a few coaches had just unloaded their human cargoes, so the interior was uncomfortably crowded with tour groups. I had the misfortune to several times cross paths with a plump, charmless Italian boy of about 10 years old called Luigi – I knew his name was Luigi because I heard his mother berating him: “Luigi! Luigi! Luigi!” she scolded, though with no apparent effect. Rather than stand and admire the gorgeous mosaics and frescoes around him, Luigi spent his time shoving his luckless little sister into the legs of passing tourists. I know it’s unlikely, but if you ever happen to be reading this blog, Luigi – be aware that you’re a horrible little arsehole.
Near to Chora Church is an eatery called the Asitane Restaurant, which specialises in a type of cuisine I hadn’t sampled before – Ottoman cuisine. Feeling experimental, I ordered a dish of ‘de-boned lambs’ trotters served with vinegar on rye bread’. It was like eating extremely limp squid that had a weird, vaguely lamb-ish aftertaste. I was proud of myself for trying it, but I doubt if I’ll ever try it again.