Late Roman & Byzantine Sites of Istanbul

Part Eight: Late Byzantine Churches and Monasteries


59. Monastery of Theotokos Pammakaristos

Fethiye Mosque
Fethiye Kapısı Sokak, Çarşamba

This monastery, dedicated to the All-Blessed Mother of God, was established either during the reign of Michael VII Doukas (1071-1078) or Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118). The latter emperor and his historian daughter Anna are said to have been buried in its katholikon.

The monastery consists of structures from different periods.


Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos

Late 11th or early 12th century

The katholikon of the monastery is a fine example of the middle-period Byzantine brick-and-stone architecture. The use of the recessed-brick technique can be seen in the masonry, which is why a later dating of the church is often preferred. It is an ambulatory church, as the central bay of the naos is separated from the rest of the interior. An ambulatory, which was built to accommodate tombs, envelops it on the north, south, and west sides. There were three apses to the east and a narthex to the west. Under the church, remains of another structure have been found, possibly a cistern or the crypt of an older church.


Parecclesion of the Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos

Around 1310-1315

After the Palaiologan restoration in 1261, the church came into the possession of General Michael Doukas Glabas Tarchaneiotes, who restored it extensively. He died after 1304. In around 1310, his widow Maria, who changed her name to Martha and became a nun, began to build a parecclesion to the south side of the church to house her husband’s tomb. Even though the parecclesion is just a chapel attached to the main church, it was conceived as an independent church in miniature. It is now widely considered to be one of the most important examples of the Palaiologan architecture in Constantinople.

The parecclesion has a cross-in-square plan. The central bay of its naos is covered by a tall dome held on pendentives. These are supported by four marble columns with richly carved and painted capitals. The parecclesion has its own narthex surmounted by two domes. The elongation of forms visible here is typical of the Late Byzantine architecture. This trend was not much followed in Constantinople, but was very pronounced in the contemporary churches in Thessaloniki and Serbia.


The exterior decoration of the parecclesion is similarly representative of the Late Byzantine architecture. The façades are constructed of ashlar blocks and red bricks separated from each other by wide mortar beds. Courses of stone blocks alternate with layers of horizontally placed bricks. Complex brickwork patterns are complemented with intricate decorations. Multi-level recessed window frames, blind arches, niches with round and ogee arches, circular ornaments, and courses of dog-tooth friezes break the unity of the wall and create a higher sense of mural plasticity.

Another notable decorative element is the polychrome champlevé frieze with heraldic motifs such as rampant lions below the upper cornice. An elegant series of epigrams, written by the poet Manuel Philes, runs along the parecclesion, both outside and outside. It takes the form of a lament in which Martha addresses her late husband in her own voice. The tomb of Tarchaneiotes and his wife stood under an arcosolium at the center of the northern wall of the naos. There were four or five other arcosolia in the narthex.

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The parecclesion hosts one of the most important collection of mosaics in the city, together with those of Hagia Sophia and the Chora Church.

The apse of the parecclesion contains the Deesis mosaic, with Christ Hyperagathos (the Supremely Good) seated on a jewel-studded backless throne, his right hand extended in an all-encompassing blessing, flanked by Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, who both raise their hands to intercede on behalf of humanity. While the mosaic follows the established norms, the three figures are awkwardly isolated from one another, as the Virgin and John the Baptist are positioned on the side walls of the bema.

The image of Christ is framed by an epigram which states that the wife of the late Michael Tarchaneiotes Glabas offered the chapel on behalf of her husband to help ensure his salvation. This epigram, when seen in the context of the Deesis mosaic, can be interpreted as if the Virgin and John the Baptist are interceding, on behalf of Martha, with Christ for the salvation of Glabas.

The cross-vault of the bema is decorated with the busts of four archangels: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Uriel.

Deesis mosaic of the apse

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The main dome of the parecclesion has a medallion in the center, depicting the Christ Pantocrator surrounded by full-length figures of twelve prophets. The Christ makes a sign of blessing with his right hand while holding the New Testament in his left hand. They are diversely depicted, in different poses, with some being represented as young and others old. They hold a scroll with inscribed text, which, for the most part, allude to the Last Judgement. The prophets are Moses, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Micah, Joel, Zechariah, Obadiah, Habakkuk, Jonah, Malachi, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.

Christ Pantocrator mosaic of the dome

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A series of saints, along with geometric and floral ornaments, are depicted in the prothesis, the diaconicon, and the south-west bay of the naos. The saints on the arches are depicted in full figure while the vaults are covered by busts of saints in golden circles. Wearing appropriate vestments, they are holding a closed Bible or a scroll in one hand and some make a gesture of blessing with the other. Some of them are celebrated fathers of the church, while others are less well-known. There is a great variety in the depiction of their facial features.

Below, Saint Gregory the Illuminator is depicted on the vault, flanked on the arches by Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, Saint Gregory of Agrigentum, Saint Antipas of Pergamum, and Saint Blasius.

Mosaic of Saint Gregory the Illuminator

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Below, Saint Anthony the Great is depicted on the vault, flanked in the niche by Saint Euthymius the Great and on the arches by Saint Arsenius the Deacon, Saint Chariton the Confessor, Saint John Climacus, and Saint Sabbas the Sanctified.

Mosaic of Saint Anthony

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There is a fine rendering of the baptism of Christ high up on the walls on a south-east lunette. It is the only complete narrative scene to survive in the church. The Christ is completely naked – a sign of his humanity. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove is descending through rays of light form above. John the Baptist leans down to place his right hand on the head of Christ. Four angels are depicted to the right. On the north-east lunette, there is a fragment of a mosaic, probably depicting the Ascension.


In the second half of the 14th century, the complex of got an outer ambulatory. It runs along the north, west, and south façades of the church proper, partially enclosing the west façade of the parecclesion.

The Church of Theotokos Pammakaristos served as the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople from 1455/1456 to 1587. In 1592 it was converted into a mosque, baptised as the Fethiye Mosque, the Mosque of the Conquest, to commemorate the victories of Sultan Murad III in Georgia and Azerbaijan. It was in this period that the church proper was significantly altered. The arcades connecting the central core of the church with the inner ambulatory were replaced by broad arches, to create more space. The apses were removed too, and a big domed room was built obliquely in their place, for the placement of the mihrab.


60. Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora

Kariye Mosque
Kariye Cami Sokak 8, Edirnekapı
Original church – early 4th century; foundations of current church – 1077-1081; current church – 1315-1321

The first Chora Church was part of a monastery complex probably built at the beginning of the 4th century. It was outside the Constantinian city walls, in the countryside, from which it got its name (‘chora’ meaning ‘country’ in Greek). The name stuck to the church even after the construction of the Theodosian Walls, which made the church part of the city of Constantinople.

The foundations of the current church are predominantly from 1077-1081, when Maria Doukaina, the mother-in-law of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, rebuilt the church as a quincunx. Early in the 12th century, the church suffered a partial collapse, perhaps due to an earthquake. In 1120, Isaac Komnenos, the younger son of Alexios I, rebuilt a large part of the monastery. At that time, the church gained in importance, largely due to its location close to the new imperial residence, the Palace of Blachernae.

After the damage done by the crusaders during their occupation in 1204-1261 and the devastation of the huge earthquake of 1296, the church was expanded in 1315-1321. The work was carried out under the orders of Theodore Metochites, a Byzantine statesman and an advisor to Emperor Andronikos II Paleologos. Most of what we see today in the church is from this expansion.


The church has five main areas.

First, the visitor enters the outer entrance hall or narthex (exonarthex), which runs in parallel to, and is partially open into, the inner narthex (esonarthex). These both display impressive mosaics and date from the Metochites’ expansion. These narrate mainly the life and miracles of Jesus Christ and the life of Virgin Mary. They are organized in a chronological order and iconographically.

The central door of the esonarthex opens into the main body of the church (naos). It has an impressive marble covering and mosaics, also dating from Metochites’ expansion.

The southern end of the exonarthex opens out through the esonarthex, forming a western ante-chamber to the side chapel (parecclesion). The parecclesion was used as a mortuary chapel for family burials and memorials. Eight people are buried here, among whom Metochites himself. It is covered in frescoes, which were made immediately after the completion of the mosaics in the naos and the narthexes in 1320-1321. These picture religious stories from the Old Testament as well as scenes such as the Judgment Day or Resurrection.

The building has six domes: three in the naos, two in the esonarthex, and one in the parecclesion. The largest dome is above the centre of the naos. Two smaller domes flank the apse.

There are also frescoes and portraits decorating the walls of arched recesses for tombs (acrosolia). These were made when their owned had been buried in these tombs. On the northern side of the church, there is a broad two-storey west-east corridor also from that period.

Parecclesion of the Chora Church

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The mosaics and frescoes of the Chora Church are among the finest of Byzantine art and the finest example of the Palaeologian Renaissance. They are almost completely preserved, far exceeding in quantity those to be seen in the much larger Hagia Sophia. The artists are unknown.

Below are some mosaics of the exonarthex of the Chora Church.

The Christ Pantocrator mosaic is located in the lunette above the entrance door to the esonarthex. Christ, whose face is realistically depicted, makes a sign of blessing with his right hand while his left hand holds the Holy Scripture adorned with jewels. The scene depicts the supremacy and divinity of Christ, the Lord of the Universe. The inscriptions next to his head refer to him as the ‘dwelling place (chora) of the living’.

Above the Christ Pantocrator there are mosaics that have not completely survived. These depict the first miracles of Jesus. The one on the left depicts the augmentation of wine at the wedding in Cana. The one on the right depicts the augmentation of breads.

Christ Pantocrator and his first miracles (mosaics, exonarthex)

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Below on the right is the Christ Pantocrator mosaic. The full-length figure on the left is probably Saint George of Cappadocia, who was tortured during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.

Between these mosaics, the transformation of water into wine at the wedding in Cana is depicted. A servant is pouring water into one of the jars while another servant is approaching with an amphora on his shoulder. The governor is holding the wine glass. The Virgin and two apostles are next to Jesus. It is part of a larger mosaic that has not completely survived.

Christ Pantocrator, the miracle at the wedding in Cana, and Saint George (mosaics, exonarthex)

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Below, the mosaic on the left depicts Quirinus, the governor of Syria and Palestine, sitting on a throne. Next to him, there is a military guard. In front of him, there are a scribe and a Roman soldier in charge during the query. They are enrolling the pregnant Virgin Mary. When they asked about the father of the child, Mary remained silent, but Joseph behind him answered instead accepting the child as his son. Behind him are his three sons.

On the arch above the scene are some medallions with the portraits of saints.

On the right there is a full-length figure of the young Saint Andronicus, who was tortured during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. He is wearing ceremonial clothes and is holding a cross.

Enrollment for taxation before the governor and Saint Andronicus (mosaics, exonarthex)

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This is one of the mosaics in the exonarthex depicting the massacre of the innocents. Children are taken away from their mothers and killed by soldiers.

Massacre of the innocents (mosaics, exonarthex)

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Below, the scene on the right depicts the Holy Family going to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover in order to fulfill their religious duties. Virgin Mary is at the back. In front of her there is the 12-year-old Jesus with the two sons of John. John is in the forefront. The city of Jerusalem is depicted on the right side of John. When the family recognized during their return from Jerusalem that Jesus was missing, John and Virgin Mary return to Jerusalem and look for him for three days. They find him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers.

On the arch there are medallions with the portraits of saints.

On the left there is a full-length figure of Saint Tarachus, who was tortured during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. He is wearing ceremonial clothes and holding a cross.

Christ taken to Jerusalem for Passover and Saint Tarachus (mosaics, exonarthex)

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In the below picture, in the middle of the vault there is a decorative medallion. The scenes surround the medallion. In one scene, the baptism of Jesus is depicted. At the shore of the Jordan River, John the Baptist is introducing Jesus standing before him with two apostles to the crowd behind himself. In the other scenes, Satan, depicted as a black creature with wings, tries to tempt Jesus. In one scene, he extends a stone toward the hungry Jesus and asks him to turn it into bread. In another scene, he has lead Jesus to a tower in Jerusalem and orders him to jump down to provide his divinity. In yet another scene, he takes Jesus to the highest hill to show him all the endless riches that would belong to him if he bowed down and worshiped him.

Baptism and temptation of Christ (mosaics, exonarthex)

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Below, in the middle of the vault, there is a decorative medallion. Most of the mosaics around it have not survived, except for the one depicting Jesus healing a paralytic lying on a mat at Capernaum. The four men who brought the paralytic to Jesus are seen next to his head, whereas Jesus, Saint Peter, and others stand on the other side of the mat.

Christ healing the paralytic at Capernaum (mosaics, exonarthex)

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On the arch above the main entrance, there is a mosaic depicting Virgin Mary. She is in the centre, praying with her hands raised. The first example of this gesture of the Virgin was on a famous icon stored at the Church of Saint Mary of Blachernae, known as Blachernitissa. Inside the medallion on the breast of the Virgin, Child Christ is depicted in a way that means that the bosom of the Virgin is larger than the universe. The inscription around the Virgin refers to her as the ‘container (chora) of the uncontainable’. There are two masterfully depicted angels on the two sides of the Virgin.

Above the Blachernitissa there are fragments of the mosaic depicting the miracles at the wedding in Cana.

Blachernitissa with angels and miracle at the wedding in Cana (mosaics, exonarthex)

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On the arch of the second niche, or arcosolium, on the southern axis of the western wall of the exonarthex, there is, inside a mandorla, the depiction of the Blachernitissa. The medallion on its left contains the bust of Saint Cosmas of Maiuma, a hymnographer, whereas in the one on its right there is the image of Saint John of Damascus. The papers in the saints’ hands contain words about death.

Blachernitissa, Saint Cosmas of Maiuma, and Saint John of Damascus (fresco, exonarthex)

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Below on the left there is the full-length figure of Saint Andronicus. On the right stands Saint Tarachus. On the arches in front of them there are medallions with the portraits of other saints and the mosaic in the background depicts the temptation of Christ.

Saints (mosaics, exonarthex)

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These medallions with the portraits of saints are located on the arch above the mosaic depicting Christ taken to Jerusalem for Passover.

Saints (mosaics, exonarthex)

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On the left arch is Saint Tarachus. On the right arch there are medallions of other saints.

Saints (mosaics, exonarthex)

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The next photos are of mosaics of the esonarthex of the Chora Church.

On the dome over the southern section of the esonarthex is a depiction of the Christ Pantocrator inside a medallion. Between the ribs that divide the dome into 24 sections there are two rows of figures depicting the ancestors of Christ. The figures on the upper row are Jesus’s ancestors starting with Adam, while the lower row consists of the figures of Jacob’s twelve sons, Judah’s two sons and Pharez’s one son.

Genealogy of Christ (mosaics, esonarthex)

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The two mosaics located on the pendentive supporting the dome depict the miracles of Jesus. The one on the left depicts Christ healing two blind men sitting under trees. The one on the right depicts Christ healing Peter’s mother-in-law. The latter is lying on a bed, Peter is standing before Jesus and two other apostles are behind him.

Genealogy of Christ, Christ healing two blind men, and Christ healing Peter’s mother-in-law (mosaics, esonarthex)

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On the surface of the dome over the northern section of the esonarthex is a depiction of Virgin Mary and Child Christ inside a medallion. The medallion is surrounded by ribs dividing the dome into 16 sections. These sections are illustrated with two rows of depictions of the 16 kings of Judah, who are the descendants of King David, the ancestor of Virgin Mary.

Genealogy of Virgin Mary (mosaics, esonarthex)

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In this mosaic, Joachim and Anne are sitting and caressing their child Mary. Next to them are two servants in the background of architectural structures. Two peacocks symbolizing eternal life and incorruptibility are located at the corners.

Virgin Mary being given affection (mosaics, esonarthex)

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At the center of the low vault there is a decorative medallion. At the western part of the vault, Joachim is shown walking towards three priests sitting around a table for the blessing of Child Mary, whom he is carrying in his arms.

Virgin Mary being blessed by the priest (mosaics, esonarthex)

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Below, Mary is presented by her parents Anne and Joachim to the Priest Zechariach, since childless Joachim had promised to present his child to the temple if he was to be given one. From this moment on, a ciborium where only high-ranking religious functionaries were allowed to sit was assigned to Mary. She received training in the temple until she became 15. On the right side of child Mary, who is sitting on a backed sofa in a four-columned and dome-like ciborium behind the priest, is a figure of an angel. There are women carrying torches around.

Presentation of Virgin Mary in the temple (mosaics, esonarthex)

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Below there is an image of Theodore Metochites presenting the model of the Chora Church to the enthroned Christ. Again, Christ is referred to as the ‘dwelling place (chora) of the living’. Note the extravagant headwear of Metochites.

Presentation of Virgin Mary in the temple and the Enthroned Christ (mosaics, esonarthex)

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Below, priest Zechariah and the Virgin are depicted standing before a four-columned ciborium. The priest is giving the blossomed rod back to Joseph with one hand and is holding the head of Mary with the other one. Joseph is walking towards Mary and Zechariah. The other suitors are seen behind him.

Virgin Mary being entrusted to Joseph (mosaics, esonarthex)

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Below, on the lunette, there is a mosaic depicting Christ healing the afflicted. Jesus stands on the left side with three apostles. In front of him there is a group of men, women and children whom he heals. On the pendentive on the left, Christ is healing a blind and dumb man. On the pendentive on the right, Christ is healing two blind men sitting under trees. In both mosaics, Saint Peter is standing next to him.

Christ healing the afflicted, Christ healing a blind and dumb man, and Christ healing two blind men (mosaics, esonarthex)

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The mosaic in the east lunette wall at the southern wing of the esonarthex is the Deesis of the Chora Church. Virgin Mary stands on the right side of Jesus Christ and sadly prays for the redemption of people’s sins. At her feet is the figure of Isaac Komnenos, the prince responsible for the rebuilding of the church. On the right side is the figure of Princess Maria Palaiologina wearing nun’s robes. She was the daughter of Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos and the spouse of the Mongol ruler Abaqa Khan, thus known as Mary of the Mongols.

Chalkite Christ and Virgin Mary (mosaic, esonarthex)

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On the panels flanking the doorway to the naos we find the standing figures of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. Saint Paul holds the Holy Scripture in his left hand and makes the sign of blessing with the other.

Paul the Apostle (mosaic, esonarthex)

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Finally, some frescoes of the parecclesion of the Chora Church are shown.

In the centre of the dome of the parecclesion there is rainbow-bordered medallion containing the image of the Virgin and Child. The dome is divided into 12 segments by small windows and wide strips richly decorated with plant motifs. The segments are decorated with full-length depictions of angels in beautiful outfits in a deep navy blue background.

Virgin Mary with the Christ and the angels (frescoes, parecclesion)

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The famous Anastasis (‘resurrection’ in Greek) fresco can be found on the semi-dome of the apse of the parecclesion of the church. In the centre of the fresco, there is the Christ surrounded by a double mandorla decorated with stars. Beneath his feet the Gates of Hell lie broken in pieces. Satan appears as a prisoner in handcuffs. There is a sarcophagus on both sides of the Christ. He reaches out his hands to raise Adam from the sarcophagus on the right and Eve from the sarcophagus on the left. Behind Adam stand Saint John the Baptist, King David and King Solomon. Behind Eve there are Abel with a staff and seven people in clergy tunics. Adam and Eve represent the whole humanity here.

The scene of the Anastasis is united with the scene of the Last Judgment, covering the upper walls of the domical vault. At the centre of the wide bema arch forming the border of these two scenes is a portrait of Archangel Michael inside a medallion. One of his duties is to convey the judged souls to the heaven. There is a sphere in his left hand, incscribed with the initial letters of the words Christos Dikaios Krites (Christ the Equitable Judge). In his right hand there is a staff.

Anastasis and Archangel Michael (frescoes, parecclesion)

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On the apse wall of the parecclesion, under the Anasthasis fresco, the figures of six fathers of the church can be found. They are of human size and are ordered according to their importance. In this picture, there are Saint Basil, Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Like elsewhere in the parecclesion, the contrast between the pastel colours and the bold black and white design is stunning.

Fathers of the church (frescoes, parecclesion)

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Below, the full-length Virgin Mary is standing on a rectangular platform, holding the Child Christ in her arms and kindly pressing her cheek to his one. Here the emotional relationship between mothers and their sons is depicted.

Theotokos Eleousa (fresco, parecclesion)

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61. Annex of the Monastery of Manuel the Armenian

Kefeli Mosque
Kasap Sokak 23, Salmatomruk
Late Byzantine period

Manuel the Armenian, a prominent general during the reign of Emperor Theophilos (829-842), is known to have built a monastery in the area of this mosque. It came to be an important monastery, restored by several emperors later and also used as a place of retirement by Emperor Michael VII Doukas after his deposition in 1078. It has been argued the building that now hosts Kefeli Mosque was part of that monastery, not its katholikon but, rather, an auxiliary building (e.g., refectory). It is oriented in the north-south direction, which makes it highly unlikely that it was built as a church.

The building is a basilica. Its apse is polygonal outside, while inside it is semicircular and has niches. The structure originally had three naves, but only parts of the western aisle survive today. The clerestory windows are irregularly spaced, and there are also windows on the southern walls. There are heavy pilasters on the exteriors. The masonry is banded, which, together with the niched apse, suggest that it should be dated to the Late Byzantine period.


This quarter was populated with Latins, Greeks and Jews from Caffa after the conquest of that Crimean city by the Ottomans in 1475. The building was given to the Genoese Dominicans and Armenians for the joint use as a church. The Dominicans and Armenians had separate altars. The church was dedicated to Saint Nicholas. The building was turned into a mosque in 1630.


62. Monastery of Christos Philanthropos Soter

In the sea wall east of the Topkapı Palace, Kennedy Caddesi, Cankurtaran
14th century

The Monastery of Christos Philanthropos Soter was located in the Mangana quarter near the sea wall of Constantinople. Founded in the 14th century, it was one of the largest monasteries in the city before the Ottoman conquest. It was popular among Russian pilgrims, who had reported a miracle-working statue here. Its remains, which include patterns in brickwork, arches and windows, can be seen in the sea walls north of the Ottoman Pearl Pavilion (İncili Köşk), built over the hagiasma, or sacred spring, of the monastery in the second half of the 16th century.


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