Return to Turkey: Chora Church – The Director’s Cut

My original travel journals were split across August Phoenix Hats and a few other websites. February 2021 marked the 12th anniversary of the beginning of my travels. To keep myself sane during the pandemic lockdown, I started reissuing my journals as Director’s Cuts, with the complete text as well as larger and additional photos.  

I returned to Istanbul in September 2011. Baha meets me at the airport, all smiles. We sit side by side in the back of the town car from the airport, comparing notes that I no longer remember. We walk through Gulhane Park and stop for coffee. He then takes me to a building just outside the Topkapi complex that might make a good hat workshop once it is fixed up. Back at his hotel, he’s printed out a stack of Islamic designs for my hats. I show him the hats he asked me to make for him to sell in his hotel, and we start discussing price points and promotional plans. But a number of issues regarding wholesale prices and shipping costs point towards a plan that may not be viable. I feel the arrangement starting to unravel. I take a break.

It’s EID and the Sultanahmet Square is lit up like Disneyland. There are street vendors and kids tossing neon spinners up into the inky black sky. I try to get some night shots of the Ayasofya and the German Fountain while eluding a young local who is a little too friendly. By the time I get back, Baha has put my hats into the glass display case he has already built in the dining room.

His hotel is full, so he escorts me to the Kybele Hotel, where he has reserved a room for me. I bid him good night on the front step and go inside. This is the hotel he showed me the last time I was here, it’s filled with artifacts that make it more museum than hotel. My room is turn-of-the-century elegant, and I spend the night admiring the Turkish lanterns that stud the ceiling. It’s a proverbial festival of colored glass that I would replicate to a much smaller degree above my bed when I get home.

I wake up early the next morning, and after breakfast at the Kybele, I take some sewing to a bench at a pocket park that overlook the Blue Mosque; its serene beauty glowing in the early rays of the sun. It is the best of mornings.

After about an hour, I head back to the Han Hotel. The landscape has changed. Sidewalk cafe tables have been banned by city ordinance. The old hotelier is gone, as is Cihan, the young waiter I bantered with every night during my last visit. Baha is sitting on a chair outside the front door. He not his usual sunny self. We walk through the Galata District and hop a city bus to the Rumeli Fortress. It’s a long trip, and the door to the Rumeli is being locked just as we arrive. I will remember this as ‘the trip of closing doors’…

After an uneventful evening, I decide to spend the next day at the Bazaar. I find the suzuri salesman I traded with the last time, and he sells me three bed covers that I intend to cut up for hats. I buy a Turkish design book at a nearby shop, and note the similarities between Chinese and Turkish phoenixes and dragons.

I look for the Chora Church, which Baha had suggested the last time I was here. But his directions fail, so I hail a cab, who drops me a few blocks away.

Built in the 6th century during the reign of Emperor Justinian, it was converted into a mosque in 1511, and became a museum in 1945. Unlike other church to mosque conversions, the original mosaics and frescoes were not plastered over.

The mosaics are incredible, with tesserae (tiles) the size of my smallest fingernail and not always square, which allowed for fine shading and shaping of the human faces. I always think of mosaic as a smooth surfaced art form, but I’m proven wrong here. The textures are amazing…

At upper left is the Virgin Mary, at center below is “The healing of a young man with an injured arm” set against a background of gold tesserae.

The domed and vaulted ceilings of Chora Church brought back memories of the Basilica in Venice, but with the 16 windows in the domes making it more reminiscent of the Salute Cathedral. I was surprised by the intensity of the colors.

Jesus and his (24) Ancestors are depicted in the dome at the top of this photo. At the base of the dome are depicted “The healing of two blind men” (at left) and “The healing of the mother-in-law of St. Peter” (at right).

I do not have details on this archway. It is one of the more unusual architectural elements I have seen in a church or mosque.
“The Last Judgement” with Jesus at the center, Mary at left and John the Baptist at right ‘imploring Jesus for the intercession for the humanity. Hi 12 apostles are seated on benches, with archangels in the background.
The gold halos are much more vibrant than what is shown here.

For more information about the Chora, I highly recommend “Hagia Sophia and Chora” by Ali Kilickaya, Silk Road Publications Istanbul, ISBN 9786-55629137.

Afterwards, I wander through a residential area of old Ottoman homes, and scale an ancient wall for a panorama view of the city. I stop for a bottle of ayran and turn the corner to find a huge open air market filled predominately with spices and fruit. I walk through the market and down to the water’s edge, and hop a ferry with the intention of going north to Eyup. But the ferry turns south instead. Rumeli has failed, and now my return to Eyup Camii fails as well.

I return to the Han Hotel and ask Baha about the TurkuaZoo, which is said to have an aquarium where you can swim with the sea turtles. He doesn’t know where that is, so I Google the bus route myself. That adventure ends up as a three hour tour through a wedding gown district. Reaching the end of the line, I’m told to depart the bus and catch another one which takes me back the direction I came. I never find the zoo and I wonder what plan will fail next…

Upon my return to the Hotel Han, Baha tells me that our trip to Bodrun has fallen through, and suggests alternative destinations for me to visit on my own. “See what is outside of Istanbul for a couple of days. Cappadocia perhaps. Or Ephesus.”

I chose instead, the city of Bursa, the first major capitol of the Ottoman Empire…

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