The Case of the Wooden Shutters

Ottoman rule of Istanbul brought about the repurposing of many Byzantine churches into mosques. Chora was no exception and it was converted into a mosque around fifty years after the Ottomans took Istanbul during the reign of Sultain Bayezid II (1). This sacred Christian church, which served as the burial site for saints and nobles, now became a sacred space for Islam; the residents of Istanbul were called for daily prayer to Allah in the location of the final spiritual stand of the Byzantines during the Ottoman invasion.

A call to daily prayer at an Ottoman mosque in Bursa.

During use as a mosque, the beautiful frescoes, murals, and mosaics were covered with wooden shutters because of the strict doctrine against iconography in Islam (2). It is interesting that rather than destroying these beautiful works of art commissioned by Metochites, an Orthodox Christian, the Muslim Ottomans chose instead to simply cover them up. Perhaps it was Chora’s aura as a lieu de mémoire which caused the Ottomans not to completely destroy the art.

This church remained one of the last holdouts of Byzantine iconography and culture and served as a memory of the former rulers of Istanbul. Rather than erasing the memory of Constantinople and replacing it wholly with Istanbul, the case of Chora Church (now a mosque) shows that the Ottomans respected certain sites of Byzantine civilization as holy and honored their memory and place in society as much as they could.

A map of the Ottoman empire from the Pusey Map collection. The Ottomans spread Islam through the Mediterranean.

The Ottoman civilization ultimately spread far across the Balkans and created quite a large empire on the Mediterranean. Though not as large as the Eastern Roman Empire, which the Byzantine civilization branched off of, the Ottoman empire controlled more land than the Byzantines and ruled it from Istanbul. This powerful imperial state, spreading Islam across the Mediterranean with its elaborate Turkish mosques, still felt the power and memory contained within Chora Church and essentially left it alone.

Though repurposed, the site withstood many more centuries and was a sacred place all throughout Ottoman rule.

(1) Chora Museum. History.
(2) Ousterhout. Restoring Byzantium: The Kariye Camii in Istanbul and the Byzantine Institute Restoration. History. Columbia University, 2004.