Istanbul, ancient museum and mosque of Kariye

Cora Museum in Istanbul to be a mosque again

Also called Kariye Museum, it is an old Byzantine church that was a mosque between 1511 and 1945, with impressive frescoes and mosaics.

The Cora Museum in Istanbul – also known as the Kariye Museum, the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, or the Kariye Mosque – will once again be a mosque – a function that it maintained from the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to 1945 – less than a month after a similar measure was taken with Hagia Sophia.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan signed a decree this Friday authorising the transfer of the management of the Cora Museum to the Office of Religious Affairs of Turkey (Diyanet), after a court ruling issued last November gave the reason to a association that had asked for the building to be reopened as a Muslim place of worship.

Originally built in the 4th century as a monastery outside the original walls erected by Constantine (hence its name Chōra, which in Greek means “on the outskirts”), with the construction of the walls of Theodosius in the early 5th century it was included within the defences of Constantinople not far from one of the gates in the wall, but it still kept its name.

The emperor Justinian I began the construction of the church in 536, although the works were interrupted 20 years later by an earthquake. After suffering extensive damage during the iconoclastic period in the 8th century, its current appearance dates mainly from a reconstruction after another earthquake carried out between 1077 and 1081 by Maria Dukaina, mother-in-law of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos.

Its 14th century frescoes and mosaics represent the Judgment Day

Istanbul, Kariye or Cora museum

Looted by the crusaders who took Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, after the Byzantines regained the city, the interior of the church was decorated with the impressive mosaics and frescoes that can be observed today, made between 1315 and 1321 and containing images of the Judgment Day according to the story of the Bible.

After the Ottomans finally conquered Constantinople from the Byzantines in 1453, it was Atik Ali Paşa, grand vizier of Sultan Bayezid II (son of Mehmet II the Conqueror), who in 1511 transformed it into a mosque; it maintained this function until 1945, when by decree of the government of the new Republic of Turkey the building was transformed into a museum (11 years before it had done the same with Hagia Sophia).

After exhaustive restoration works on the frescoes and mosaics inside, the historic building reopened as a museum in 1958. In 2005 a Turkish NGO filed a lawsuit in court that considered its transformation into a museum illegal, and in November 2019 the Council of State gave the reason to the plaintiff, authorising it to be reopened as a mosque.

As has happened with Hagia Sophia, the reopening of the Cora Museum in Istanbul as a mosque will mean that tourists will be able to continue visiting it – except five times a day during Muslim prayers – and, moreover, for free. Everything indicates that, as in Hagia Sophia, during Muslim prayers the images of the interior will be temporarily covered with curtains due to the Islamic tradition that prohibits human figures.