The Art of Byzantium

This photo essay portrays a double miracle. Not only are the Byzantine mosaics and frescoes in the Chora Church in Istanbul truly miraculous, but their survival through the city’s tempestuous history is a second miracle. The Church of St Saviour in Chora is today known as the Kariye Camii (Mosque) Museum. Originally part of a monastery dating from the early 5th century, the church takes its name from the Greek word ‘chora’, meaning land outside a city, although the church has long since been swallowed up by the sprawl of urban Istanbul. The church was rebuilt three times between the 6th and 12th centuries, with two of these reconstructions following earthquake damage. It was then ransacked, but not destroyed, during the Fourth Crusade in the 13th century, when forces from the western Christian churches pillaged Orthodox Constantinople.

The miraculous transformation of the Chora Church came in the years following the defeat of the Crusaders and the return of Constantinople to Byzantine rule. Between 1315 and 1321 the interior was decorated in the mosaic-work which can be seen in my photos, and which represents the finest example of the Byzantine renaissance. The work was endowed by the wealthy statesman Theodore Metochites, who was prime minister, treasurer and personal adviser to Andronikos II Palaiologos. Guide books refer to St Saviour of Chora as ‘Metochites’ Church’, but this is something of a misnomer. Metochites was sponsor of the work, but it was actually executed by unknown hands. It is probable that the sublime mosaics and frescoes are the work of a single artist who left a mysterious graphic signature on several of them.

The mosaics are ambitious narrative cycles depicting the life and ministry of Christ, and the life of the Virgin Mary, while the frescoes are confined to the side chapel which acted as a mortuary chapel, and depict the Last Judgement and the Harrowing of Hell. Metochites himself appears in the mosaics, and, as befits a prime minister, he is shown modestly presenting his church to Christ. But in a 14th century version of the cash for honours saga Metochites lost his fortune and was forced into exile when his boss Emperor Andronicus was thrown out of office. Metochites was allowed to return to Constantinople in 1330, and lived as a monk in the Church at Chora until his death two year’s later.

But the turbulent history of Chora did not finish with Metochites endowment. In 1453 Christian Constantinople was conquered by the Muslim Turks, and in 1511 Chora Church was converted into a mosque, and a minaret was added. At this point the Wikipedia entry is in error in saying that: “due to the prohibition against images in Islam, the mosaics and frescoes were covered behind a layer of plaster”. In his book Museum of Chora, Mosaics and Frescoes (ISBN 9757039438) the archaeologist İlhan Akşit explains: “After the conquest, the mosaics of the church which had been converted to a mosque were not touched. During the restoration in 1765, although there were small architectural additions, the mosaics were protected as they were. However, these mosaics were covered by wooden curtains during the daily prayers, as it is forbidden to pray in Islam in the presence of any form of picture.” It was this use of wooden curtains, rather than plaster, that allows us to appreciate the true miracle of Chora Church today.

In 1948 the church ceased to be used as a mosque, and the American Byzantine Institute started a ten year restoration programme. In 1958 Chora Church reopened as Kariye Camii Museum, and we were able to witness its miracles when we visited it in March 2007 when all the photographs here were taken. Flash photography is forbidden to protect the frescoes and mosaics, and the photos were taken by me, hand-held, using available light on a Casio EX-Z120 digital camera.

Now playing – Yasemin, 20th century music for the oud played by Necati Çelik. The Arabic word al’ud meaning ‘the wood’ is the root for both the words ‘oud’ and ‘lute’. The oud originated in ancient Egypt, and migrated to the West via the Crusades, to become the lute. Played with a plectrum, the oud has eleven strings and does not use frets. The absence of frets allows the microtones of the traditional Arabic Maqam modal system to be played. The concept of microtones, which originated in the 14th century, has re-emerged as a tool for contemporary composers – see my article on James Woods’ Hildegard.

Necati Çelik (below) was born in the Turkish province of Konya. This is home to the Sufi Mevlevi Order that I wrote about recently, and Çelik has performed in the Mevlevi rituals as an oud player. Five Turkish composers are featured on the CD. They range from one of the leading figures of Turkish music, Tanburi Cemil Bey, who died in 1916, to Reşat Aysu who was active until the end of the 20th century.

This Overgrown Path has travelled from the 5th to the 21st century. So here to finish on a suitably topical note is a link to a YouTube video of oud player Mehmet Polat. And here is a link to another website dedicated to the oud.

Now see the art of the mosque in Istanbul
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A beautiful little article, both the writing and the pictures--thank you. The oud performance by Mehmet Polat is an absolute joy, too. The obviously non-tempered tuning reminds me of a concert of Turkish music I heard some years ago in Boston. The program alluded to a tuning system with 7 divisions to the whole step, and this really bothered the Swiss gentleman sitting next to me. When I wasn't able to give him a satisfactory explanation, I remember him sputtering "But... it's not RATIONAL!" (pronounced "RAYtional," and for better or worse the accent was an important part of the overall effect).

So much for logic.
Pliable said…
Email received

Hello. I enjoyed your entry on "The Art of Byzantium." I was particularly taken by the YouTube video of the oud player, who you identify as Mehmet Polat. He's actually Rahim AlHaj, an Iraqi who's been living in the US, more or less in exile I think it's fair to say, since the invasion. I realized after watching the clip a few times that I heard him live a few years ago and even spoke to him briefly. I just posted an entry that describes the occasion a little more fully:

Overgrown Path is a fine, informative blog--many thanks.


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