Tell-tale signs of a Christian past are littered throughout the city. The diverse selection of Istanbul’s churches is a reference to its multi-cultural past, when it led as a cosmopolitan city of religious tolerance. These beautiful churches now stand true to the religious minorities that exist in the city today.
Hagia Sophia – Church of Holy Wisdom (Aya Sofya)
If only the walls could tell tales of this building’s transformation from church to mosque to museum. The architectural feat of Hagia Sophia in 537A.D. apparently led Emperor Justinian I to declare ‘Oh Solomon, I have outdone thee!’. It was the largest church for 1000 years, beautified by an interior of polychrome marble and over 30 million gold mosaic tiles. The biggest architectural wonder, however, was the dome that was almost 30m in diameter and 50m above the ground. Alas, it wasn’t perfect and cracked and crumbled from earthquakes. Improved techniques and architecture now support its weight. Still, its design is thought to have served as a model for several Ottoman mosques thereafter, including the neighboring Blue Mosque. The church was converted into a mosque when Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror barged through in 1453. The stone cannonballs in the outer courtyard are thought to have been used to sack the city. Islamic prohibition of figurative imagery meant the beautiful mosaics were covered with plaster. These have been partially uncovered today to reveal Byzantine mosaics side-by-side Ottoman designs. It served as the principal mosque for almost 500 years, before being converted to a museum by Ataturk in 1934. The best Byzantine mosaics have been uncovered on the mezzanine level.
Aya Sofya Sq., Sultanahmet
The Church of St. Savior in Chora – Kariye Museum
Second only to Hagia Sophia in terms of Byzantine importance, this church followed much the same fate – church turned mosque turned museum. It’s original location outside the city walls of Constantine the Great earned it’s name ‘Chora’, meaning ‘outside the walls’ or ‘in the country’. Its beauty lies with the breathtaking Palaeologian mosaics and frescos that date back to around the 14th Century. The details of the mosaics are delicate with subtle shadings and rich colors, usually lacking in earlier Byzantine mosaics. The church sits on the downward slope of the seventh hill of Istanbul and overlooks the Golden Horn. Its out-of-the-way location is best visited by taxi or a half-day Istanbul city tour.
A church by many other names, St. Antoine is also known as St. Anthony of Padua Cathedral, Sant’Antonio di Padova Cathedral in Italian or Sent Antuan in Turkish. Regardless, a day on Istiklal will introduce you to its chiming bells. Located past Galatasary Lisesi on the left side of Istiklal, you’ll come across its iron gates and red brick, neo-gothic façade. It was designed by Istanbul-born Italian architect Giulo Mongeri, designer of the Maçka Palas in Nisantasi (which now houses Armani Café and Gucci) and the Palas bank building in Karaköy. The local Italian community built the church in 1913, which totalled around 40,000 people at the time. It’s fame lies with Pope John XXIII’s 10-year presence at the church, when he served as the Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey before being elected pope (and leant fluent Turkish!). It’s the largest and busiest Roman Catholic Church in Istanbul and is worth a look on a sightseeing day in Taxsim.
İstiklal Caddesi No: 171, www.sentantuan.com.
St. Stephan Bulgarian Church
The grey exterior fools many a visitor into thinking the church is built of stone. However, this Bulgarian Orthodox church is made entirely of cast iron, one of few that have survived from that era in the world. An iron frame was chosen over concrete due to the soft ground of its location on the Golden Horn shores. The materials were floated from Vienna down the Danube and the Black Sea on 100 barges. Built in one and a half years, this Neo-Gothic church was designed by Armenian Hovsep Aznavur of Istanbul. Having expressed their desire to Sultan Abdülaziz to be liberated from the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, the new Bulgarian Exarch was invented in the late 1800s to keep peace in the Christian Orthodox community. The church was built by the Bulgarian minority and symbolizes the rising ethnic nationalism of their community in 1989. For a visit inside, locate the caretaker to open the doors. An easier suggestion is to join the small Bulgarian Orthodox congregation on a Sunday to enjoy its beauty from the inside.
Tahta Minare Mh., Mürselpaşa Caddesi 85
Santa Maria Draperis Catholic Church
Only a Virgin Mary icon survived a fire that destroyed the original church that was donated by a Draperis family member in 1584. The reverend icon now stands guard over the altar of the rebuilt church, constructed in 1769 off Istiklal Caddesi near Tunel. It is the oldest Roman Catholic Church in Istanbul and apparently the only church to have the name of Islamic caliphs above its door. As a sign of appreciation, the plaques mark the names of Sultan Abdülhamid II, who gave permission for the construction of the church, and Ridvan Pasha, the şehremin (mayor) who supported it. Look for the marble plaque that sits above the rightmost arch of the entrance. After entering, a staircase leads visitors down to admire the two-storey façade that holds a beautiful statue of the Virgin Mary. The church is maintained by the Franciscan Brothers (OFM) and open from Monday to Saturday at10am-12pm and 2-4pm.
İstiklal Caddesi 431, Beyoğlu
St. George Fener Greek Orthodox Patriarchy Church (Ayios Yeorgios Church/Aya Yorgi Fener Rum Orthodox)
The relatively humble exterior hides the importance of this church, which is one of the most important Orthodox religious sites as the worldwide headquarters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate. It has held the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople since the 1600s, recognized as the spiritual leader of the world’s Eastern Orthodox Christians. The simple facade fails to prepare one for the opulent, decadent interior of marble and intricately carved adornments. Arguably, the humble exterior is thought to be a result of Ottoman Islamic law, where non-Islamic buildings were required to be smaller and more modest than mosques or madrasas. The collection of historical artefacts inside attracts thousands of pilgrims each year. Among the most significant include a circa 5th century patriarchs throne, three rare mosaic icons and a fragment of the column on which Jesus is believed to have been tied and flogged. For daily visits, the church is open from 8.30am-4pm and located in the Fener region (near Eyup district), between Sadrazam Ali Pasa Street and Incebel Street.
Dedicated to the memory of British soldiers who fought in the Crimean War, this church now serves the Church of England’s Anglican community. It stands on land that was donated by Sultan Abdulmecit (1839) as a welcoming gesture for the non-Muslim foreigner community. A supporter of Ottomanism’, it was an attempt to integrate the communities into the empire to suppress nationalistic movements. The neo-gothic architecture is the design of G.E. Street (1824-1881), renowned for his design of the Royal Courts in London. Each stone of this pretty church was brought from Malta until its completion in 1868. They still hold Sunday communion, daily prayer sessions and run a hospitality program for homeless refugees.
Serdar-i Ekrem Sokak No: 83 – Galatasaray Karakoy
St. Trinity Armenian Catholic Church (Aya Triada Ermeni Katolik Kilisese)
Hidden in a little alleyway off Istiklal known as Perukar Çikmazi (meaning wig maker’s alley), the church stands in contrast to its neighbouring 22 storey, chrome and glass office building (Odakule Centre). The first church built on this site by the Armenian Catholic community in 1600 was wooden and became victim to a devastating fire. It sturdy, stone replacement was built in the 1770s. Having briefly lost the church to the Austrian community, Napoleon III himself persuaded Sultan Abdul Aziz to return the church to the Armenian Catholic community in 1855, which remains in their possession to this day. Also known as the Holy Trinity Church (Üç Horon), its marble and gold leaf interior compliment the Armenian architecture.
İstiklal Caddesi, Perukar Çıkmazı Beyoğlu
St. Triada Church (Hagia Triada Rum Kilisesi)
As you arrive at Taxsim Square, it’s hard to miss the high domed Greek Orthodox Church that looms behind the line of kebab fast food stores. The beauty of the grey, dominating exterior reveals nothing of the colourful frescoed ceilings, delicate icons and marbled interior. A Greek cemetery that once occupied this site was partly removed for construction of the church in 1867. It finally opened its doors in 1880, a total of 13 years later, and has been functioning to this day. It’s Istanbul’s largest Eastern Orthodox Church and provides an interesting view of Neo-classical influence, uncharacteristic of Byzantine Orthodox churches.
Taksim Meydanı Meşelik Sok. No:11/1
Cathedral of the Holy Spirit (Cathedral of St. Esprit)
A short trip from Taxsim allows visitors to view the second largest Roman Catholic Church in Istanbul, after St. Antoine. The construction of this cathedral is thought to have sparked a gradual move away from the segregated Christian community beyond its traditional neighbourhoods of Beyoglu and Galata. Its Baroque style was influenced by Swiss-Italian architect Giuseppe Fossati and colleague Julien Hillereau and built in 1846. Its great organ is a special feature of the church. In the courtyard also sits a bronze statue of Pope Benedict XV (1854-1922), built by the Turkish state in 1922 to acknowledge his support for Turkish soldiers. St. Esprit has hosted a number of papal visits to Turkey, including Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. The Istanbul European Choir also performs here every season.
Cumhuriyet Avenue, 205/B, Harbiye,