The former Greek Orthodox church of St Saviour in Chora, now the Kariye Museum, in Istanbul, always makes me think of a chocolate gateau for some reason. Every time I visit I feel like taking a knife and cutting out a generous wedge to eat with double cream.
The stunning Byzantine frescoes and mosaics that cover its internal walls would by that token be the equivalent of currants, raisins and glace cherries. It’s the most comfortable and welcoming religious space I know, and the mosaics that portray the life and miracles of Christ are redolent of childhood stories and hymns, so that even in this often bewildering, alien and exotic city you feel somehow close to home here.
The church was built in the early part of the 12th century on a site once occupied by a far older church situated a long way from the old city – ‘in Chora’ means ‘in the country’. The central dome, mortuary chapel and narthexes were added by the famous Byzantine statesman and scholar Theodore Metochites between 1316 and 1321 to create the most evocative and magical of all the Byzantine treasures of Istanbul.
You can see why the Greeks wouldn’t mind having this city back when you consider the sheer amount of work, dedication and ingenuity lavished on such structures. But, as Donald Rumsfeld once laconically pointed out, stuff happens, and by now the Turks too have added their own magical layer of superb mosques and palaces to the ‘City of the World’s Desire’.
The church was knocked about a bit in 1453 during the Turkish siege, as it’s close to the Blachernae Palace in the northeast part of the city where the main attack was concentrated. Ironically, the emperors had moved to this palace following the expulsion of the Frankish dynasty created by the infamous Fourth Crusade, which was in place for a century and which left the old Great Palace on the Marmara in, as they say, a right old state.