Those Romans. They were everywhere! Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, ruled from 306-337 A.D. When he set up shop in Byzantium, he renamed the city Constantinople, creating a Christian empire out of a pagan one. The city would remain the capital of the Empire for the next thousand years or so.
Along the road from the airport to our hotel, we saw some beautiful ancient walls. These original city walls run parallel to the Marmara Sea, a small inland sea that lies between the Aegean and Black Seas. Our tour group stopped along a beautiful part of the walls to enjoy the architecture and take in the lovely flowers that have just started to bloom.
The Chora Church (now a museum) lies outside the original city walls and was rebuilt during the 500s, a small jewel of a building with exquisite frescos and mosaics. The main part of the church is under restoration, but the two narthexes and the side chapel are open for touring.
What I found to be the most fascinating in this museum are the mosaics in the inner narthex which tell the story of the Virgin Mary from before her birth until her pregnancy. This story can be found in the Gospel of James. You can read a synopsis here just in case you don’t know the story. I didn’t!
Here is the scene of Mary’s birth –
and here is the scene of Mary’s first steps at the age of 6 months, even though she looks like a tiny adult.
The side chapel – the Parecclesion – is covered in frescoes including the resurrected Christ pulling Adam and Eve from the grave to various saints. Included here is St. Nicholas, a Greek born in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and is the patron saint of sailors, merchants and others.
High on most visitors’ list in Istanbul is a visit to the Hagia Sophia (also called Aya Sophya). Like the Chora Church, it started out as a church, was then converted into a mosque during Ottoman rule and is now a museum. Unlike the Chora Church, it dominates the area by its size. The main dome was the largest one in the world until St. Peter’s in Rome and the Florence Duomo a thousand years later.
This reminded me very much of the Catholic churches which were built upon the Incan temples in Peru where you can still see parts of the original structure.
When the church was converted into a mosque in the mid-1400s, representational images were covered, but after the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, the removal of the white plaster revealed past art treasures.
Many antiquities still lay buried beneath the streets of Istanbul, but the Basilica Cistern is one that has been excavated and is open to the public. It is a stunning underground palace. This cistern provided a water filtration system. 336 marble columns support the ceiling, and two of the columns are supported by Medusa head sculptures, repurposed from somewhere else. No one is quite sure if the sideways and upside-down nature of the heads means anything.
Since it is very dark inside the cistern, my photos are not great, but you can see better ones here.
Yaren told us that her grandmother would admonish her brother if he was bothering Yaren saying, “If you don’t stop annoying your sister, she will turn you into stone!”, not knowing the origin of the Medusa story.