All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page added in January 2009.
Byzantine heritage - Churches between 1204 and 1453
During the XIIth century the emperors of the Comnenus dynasty revived the strength of the Byzantine Empire.
After the death of Manuel I in 1180, a series of dynastic quarrels weakened it and led to its temporary end in 1204, when the Crusaders captured Constantinople and established what later on historians called the Latin Empire.
This empire was partitioned between the leaders of the crusade and Venice which was rewarded with three eighths of its territory. As a matter of fact some Byzantine families retained control of key towns and provinces such as Trebizond and Nicaea.
Venice was not interested in acquiring large land properties and chose to be given islands such as Candia and Negroponte which allowed control of maritime routes; Marco Sanudo, a Venetian adventurer, founded a duchy at Nasso.
The Genoese reacted to the growing influence of Venice over Constantinople, by strengthening their trading post at Galata on the northern shore of the Golden Horn. The only Gothic church of today's Constantinople can be found here. It was part of a Dominican monastery built in 1323-37 and it was also known as St. Paul's owing to a chapel dedicated to that saint. A tall belfry stood next to the church and gave the complex a very western appearance.
In 1261 the territory of the Latin Empire was reduced to just Constantinople, a small part of Thrace and a few fiefdoms in Greece. A small army sent by Michael VIII Palaeologos, the Byzantine ruler of Nicaea, profited from a temporary absence of Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor, and easily managed to enter Constantinople with the help of its Greek population.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend this saying was adopted as a key policy by the new rulers of Constantinople: in order to contain the growing pressure of the Ottomans on their eastern border, they sought an alliance with the Mongol Ilkhanate of Persia, which controlled also parts of Syria and Eastern Anatolia. In 1265 Emperor Michael VIII betrothed Maria, one of his daughters, to Abaqa Khan. She lived at the Mongol court for fifteen years until the death of her husband. Upon her return to Constantinople she was asked by her father to marry yet another Mongol khan; she preferred to become a nun and retired to a monastery which she renovated; its church was not turned into a mosque by the Ottomans, but the current building bears little resemblance to the original Byzantine church. Its interest lies in its historical background.
The Palaeologos dynasty ruled over a much diminished empire, especially after the loss of Bursa (1326) and Nicaea (1331) to the Ottomans.
Without an army and a fleet Palaeologos emperors relied only on the walls of Constantinople to keep at bay Bulgarians and Ottomans, Venetians and Genoese.
The best known monument of this period is St. Saviour in Chora, but probably at that time the complex of Theotokos Pammakaristos was regarded as a greater artistic achievement.
Theotokos Pammakaristos is a reference to the Joyous Mother of God; the church was built before the Latin conquest of Constantinople, but the Parecclesion, a funerary chapel decorated with mosaics and paintings, was added in 1310; this was dedicated to Christos ho Logos (Christ the Word) and a dedicatory inscription runs along its exterior walls.
The complex remained a Christian building for more than a century after the 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople: it was converted into a mosque only in 1591 by Sultan Murad III who called it Fethiye Camii (Mosque of the Victory) to celebrate his campaigns in the Caucasus. Until then it served as the church of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.
The subject of the decoration is consistent with the Parecclesion dedication to Christ. We know that there were mosaics depicting episodes of his life in addition to portraits in the dome and in the apse: of these only one survived: the Baptism of Christ which can be seen in the picture below.
While the main building is still used as a mosque, the Parecclesion is now a museum (apparently with very few visitors, despite being located only a short distance from St. Saviour in Chora).
Fanar, the district of Constantinople which used to be its Greek quarter after the Ottoman conquest, is currently the residence of the most religious Muslims of Istanbul; they came from rural regions of central and eastern Anatolia and settled in Fanar in the 1950s when a substantial number of Greeks left the city. They now pray with fervour in mosques which used to be churches and as in the case of Vefa Kilise Camii retain their origin in the name as kilise means church. It was a church dedicated to St. Theodore and it was built making use of material from an earlier building; the tall fluted minaret recalls that of Antalya.
In some instances churches were largely modified when turned into mosques; changes were made to orient them towards Mecca. This is the case of a church which was known as St. Andrew in Krisei; parts of the original building can be detected in the interior but overall it has now a typical Ottoman design.
Koca Mustafa Pacha was for many years Grand Vizier of Sultan Beyazit II. He lost his position and his life in 1512 during a short, but very cruel fight among Beyazit's sons, who competed for succession.
Ayasma means holy spring and it is not uncommon to find Greek Orthodox churches or other religious establishments near a spring thought to have healing powers. The imperial palace of Blachernae was plundered and almost entirely destroyed after the conquest of Constantinople, but its famous holy spring continues to attract many people and not just Christians. It is not the only holy spring in the city: in addition to that of St. Karalamboy, there is another holy spring outside Silivri Kapi.
A difficult coexistence
By wandering through the streets of Constantinople, especially in the neighbourhoods near the city walls, it is easy to come across small churches, hidden behind high walls. For many centuries after the Ottoman conquest, a large Greek community continued to live in the city.
In the last years of their Empire, the Byzantine emperors sought the help of the western nations. In order to reach their objective they were prepared to accept the supremacy of the Pope. This policy was met with hostility by the Greek Orthodox clergy and by many influential families: according to tradition Loukas Notaras, a close advisor to Constantine XI, the last emperor, said: "I would rather see a Muslim turban in the midst of the City than the Latin mitre".
Sultan Mehmet II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453, understood he could gain, if not the loyalty, at least the obedience of his new subjects by recognizing the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople. During the Ottoman rule the Patriarch was regarded as an officer of the State who directly reported to the Sultan; he was the head of an autonomous judiciary system which dealt with infringement of laws involving members of the Greek community.
Key members of Byzantine families became Muslim and held important positions at the Sultan's court. Many wives of the sultans were of Greek descent and in a way the sultans themselves were more Greek than Turkish, because of their mothers' ancestry.
Due to the frequent wars with Venice and to the decadence of Genoa, Greek merchants found great opportunities for taking control of trade in the Ottoman Empire. The Phanariots, the inhabitants of Fanar, acquired great wealth and economic power.
As long as the (very Catholic) Austrian Empire was the main enemy of the Ottomans, the Greeks accepted the pros and cons of living as second class citizens and at the same time enjoying a relatively high economic status.
In 1720 Sultan Ahmet III allowed the Greeks to rebuild in a larger size the church which was the seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate since ca. 1600. It is possible that the decision was influenced by the indirect help given to the Ottoman army during the 1714 re-conquest of Morea: the local Greek Orthodox population resented the Venetian attempts to promote Catholicism there and did not hinder the Ottoman return.
The situation changed during the XVIIIth century when the Russian Empire became a great power. Empress Catherine II annexed the Crimea and made no mystery of her objective to conquer Constantinople; she sent a small fleet to the Aegean Sea to promote an insurrection of the Greeks.
In 1821 the Greeks of Kalamata and Patras started a general rebellion which eventually led to the creation of a small Kingdom of Greece. In retaliation Sultan Mahmud II hanged Gregory V, the Patriarch of Constantinople, on the main gate of the Patriarchate.
During the second half of the XIXth century the Sultans made an attempt to regain the loyalty of their non-Muslim subjects by giving them new rights and by removing the limits to the size of their churches and institutions. The Phanariots took advantage of this opportunity and built a large school near the mosque dedicated to Sultan Selim.
The Armenian community profited from this new opportunity to build a large church in neo-Renaissance style at Uskudar, on the Asian side of the Bosporus. Similar to the Phanariots, the Armenians of Constantinople hoped to restore the ancient kingdoms their ancestors had established in their homeland.
Whereas the Greeks were looking at freeing themselves from the Ottoman rule, the Bulgarians wanted to free themselves from the Greek (religious) control. The Patriarch of Constantinople was the head of the "Millet of Rum" the community which included all the Orthodox of the Ottoman Empire. The awakening of the Bulgarian nation started by asking the Sultan to establish a "millet" for them. This actually occurred in 1870, although Sultan Abdulaziz left in place supervision over some canonical matters to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Bulgarians built a cast iron church on the Golden Horn: it was designed in a combination of different styles by an Armenian architect and it was manufactured in Vienna and then shipped to Constantinople, where it was inaugurated in 1898.
The last years of the Ottoman Empire saw its economy fall into the hands of foreign companies; a new modern district was developed at Pera, behind Galata. French became the language spoken by the upper class and many French inscriptions can still be seen.
WWI led to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; the Greek Kingdom tried to annex Smyrna and western Anatolia. The failure of this attempt had dramatic effects on the Greeks of Constantinople and caused a split in the religious community with the creation of a small Orthodox Church loyal to the Turkish Republic.
Another period of crisis for the Greeks of Constantinople occurred in the 1950s when Greece and Turkey were at loggerheads because of Cyprus.
The last twenty years have seen an improvement in relations between the two countries and many Greeks visit Constantinople every year.
Maybe one day the walls which protect the remaining churches will not be needed any longer.
Introduction to this section
Byzantine Heritage (before 1204)
St. Saviour in Chora
First Ottoman Buildings
The Golden Century: I - from Sultan Selim to Sinan's Early Works
The Golden Century: II - The Age of Suleyman
The Golden Century: III - Suleymaniye Kulliye
The Golden Century: IV - Sinan's Last Works
The Heirs of Sinan
Towards the Tulip Era
The End of the Ottoman Empire
The Princes' Islands
Map of Istanbul
Other sections dealing with Constantinople/Istanbul:
The Walls of Nova Roma