September 7, 2013, Türkiye
Traffic is insane here. A congested mess of buses, taxis, trucks, vans and cars. Though, it does allow for good photo ops, like this one of the painted rainbow stairs in peaceful protest against the mayor and governor. The city spreads along The Golden Horn, yet appears as if it could be any waterfront city in Europe. That is, all but for what I observe to be Istanbul’s most notable factors: the distinct domed mosques and churches dappled among the pink, white, yellow and blue businesses and homes.We spend part of today visiting one of the most distinguishing of them all: Chora. I realize this name may come as a surprise for it is not the most well-known of sites in Istanbul, but it ought to be. Like Hagia Sophia, Chora was a Byzantine church, turned mosque, turned museum. Perhaps part of the reason its lesser known is due to its location: a tranquil, shaded courtyard in a lovely, quiet suburb. It’s also not terribly elaborate on the outside, though still lovely with its red and white brick façade. Yet, only a couple steps inside and one observes it holds arguably the best preserved, most extensively intact mosaics the city has to offer.The barrel-vaulted ceiling of the narthex (entry hall) is a sea of glimmering gold tile with vignettes depicting Jesus’ life such as his baptism and also his miracles, like the story of the hemorrhaging woman who was healed with a mere touch of his cloak. There are also portraits of prominent Christian figures like Jesus, Mary, and various authors of the Bible. I can’t even imagine the tedious labor for these artists of placing all those miniscule tiles – thousands of them – and probably all while lying on their backs atop rickety scaffolding!
Walking into the small, square sanctuary is another incredible site to behold — from bottom to top. The floor is made of the most exquisite, uniquely designed marble I think I’ve ever seen. With colors of deep orange and dark sage green it has been cut and placed so the neighboring tiles mirror each other. It is extraordinary. The ceiling is composed of a grand dome bearing a stoic, reverent, painted illustration of Mary and the Christ child in the center set against a midnight blue sky surrounded by an umbrella of gold-haloed angels streaming down. This is in contrast to a similar dome in the narthex with Jesus in the middle with streams of apostles and authors beaming from his large form. I step back and consider the whole church. Wow, this is what the churches once looked like — floor to ceiling exquisiteness! It’s this lavish, extensively preserved interior that makes Chora perhaps one of the most marvelous, albeit hidden, gems of all Istanbul.
However, despite every inch being covered with the extraordinary paintings, mosaics, and marble I find myself left wanting. It’s empty. Sure, this space makes a fine museum, but that’s not what it was meant to be. The space begs to be filled — filled with more than just the passing visitor. This art was made in this space for worship. I wonder at how much worship it evokes these days. When there is passing worship I would guess there is more worship and admiration of God for gifting people with such terrific artistic abilities to create the magnificent art. In addition, I would imagine people give thanks for getting to personally witness such beauty. Though, I doubt there are many who actually study the impact of the figures portrayed or who are influenced by the stories of the depicted lives. And, that seems like doing half justice to the splendor of these evocative works. But, it may be so. I then wonder about those who once filled this space. Those who came intentionally to worship — the Christians, the Muslims. I wonder at the prayers heard by these walls.