Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Return to Istanbul part 3

Anastasis, or Harrowing of Hell
The thing I most wanted to see in Istanbul this time was the Chora church, or Kariye Müsezi.  Like Hagia Sophia, it was converted into a mosque after the conquest, and then in the twentieth century into a museum. It's a lot smaller than Hagia Sophia, but has many more surviving mosaics and frescos. Unfortunately it's not easy to get to, being right out by the land walls and not near any tram stops. I ended up getting a taxi, which was easy and surprisingly cheap.

The wedding at Cana (water into wine)
The main part of the church was closed so I couldn't see a few of the mosaics, but actually most of the surviving ones are in the narthex and exonarthex. For many years now I have preferred to travel with a Blue Guide if there's one available for the city where I'm going -- there tends to be for the sorts of cities I prefer -- and these have helpful glossaries for terms like exonarthex as well as really detailed floor plans. (The Istanbul one also has lists not only of Emperors and Sultans but of Ecumenical Patriarchs.) The Chora mosaics contrain three complex cycles of illustrations, including many scenes from the life of the Virgin, which you have to follow round in a particular order -- I don't know if it's intentionally meant to make you feel dizzy, but it's not the sort of art you can quietly contemplate, it's more something you have to battle. The parecclesion, a sort of side-chapel, is full of very well-preserved frescos, including a massive anastasis or resurrection, with Christ pulling Adam and Eve from their sepulchres.  There weren't many other people there, maybe because it was partially closed, or maybe because it's not easy to get to by yourself, though I think it's the sort of place that cruise-ship travellers get bussed out to. I'm very glad I saw it, and taking a taxi was a pragmatic solution. It cost about £7.50 including tip; the driver was pretty obviously taking me a long way round but I decided not to worry about it because it was interesting to see the land walls, which are still in good shape. If I were the sort of person who enjoyed long walks in hot weather I would have walked the land walls.

After that I went to somewhere where it was literally just me and some lizards, the church of Theotokos Pammakaristos, the Joyful God-bearer, also known as Fethiye Museum. Again this Byzantine Church was converted into a mosque after the conquest, but the main building is still a mosque. The surviving mosaics are in a side-chapel, so they turned that into a museum with its own separate entrance. Apparently the mosque is worth seeing, architecturally, but it's not usually open so you have to go at prayer time, wait til prayers are over, and then ask someone nicely if you can have a look around, and I was too shy. It was in a very traditional and non-touristy part of town where women were wearing full black hijabs with only their eyes showing. Apparently you might hear Kurdish spoken around there (not that I would recognise it).

A lot of the mosaics are lost but there are still many left, a few entire scenes and quite a lot of bishops and saints. The simpler plan made them easier to look at than the ones in the Chora, and it was nice to be entirely alone there.  The parts where the mosaics have gone are just bare brick now, so you can see the contrast between the bare bones of the building and the sumptuous decoration it once had.
Pantocrator at the top of a dome full of prophets

After this I decided to catch a boat back to the main part of the old city and ended up going to Asia by accident, which sounds a lot more dramatic than it was. It was only the second time I'd been to Asia, the first being when I went to Israel and Palestine (there's a Blue Guide for there too).

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