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Chora Monastery Museum Nativity, Istanbul (Constantinople)

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Among the beautiful mosaics of the Chora Monastery Museum, The Nativity is featured in this video to the accompaniment of Ti Ypermaho Byzantine Hymn to the Virgin Mary.

 
The Deisis —Supplication — Mother of God. 
Walk through the door of the Chora Monastery Museum and you step back in time. One-thousand-four-hundred-seventy-three years, to be exact, when Chora was one the many beautiful churches that adorned Constantinople, the jewel in Byzantium's crown.

When it was built, Chora was outside the Walls of Constantine, and so, today, is a bit off the beaten path — away from the long tourist magnets that are Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace.

That explains the only other visitor here this morning, a photographer lying on his back on the floor, taking photos of mosaics that cover domes, walls, arches and apses, making Chora a veritable picture book of Orthodoxy.

"Chora," in Greek, means "rural," or "in the country," and the monastery kept that name after it was incorporated within the enlarged Theodosian Walls.

But the name "Chora," also alludes to another, everlasting, realm: "I Chóra Ton Zónton," The World of The Living," proclaims an icon of Christ above the nave door. It's one of the few mosaics that did not sustain damage during the 1204 Fourth Crusade sack of Constantinople.

Evidence of this destruction — and that caused by the passage of 14 centuries — is seen in the bare walls and domes that once were filled with priceless mosaics.

"Look, up above the door," says our guide Ozkan Bicer, "next to Christ Pantocrator." ("He Who Holds All," The Lord of the Universe.) That's Theódoros Metochites, the man who restored Chora after the Latin invasion.

"Metochitis, a Byzantine poet, scientist, and minister of the treasury, kneels before the enthroned Christ, holding in his hands the restored Chora church."

Ozkan's knows his history, and we were so lucky to meet him at our very first stop, Hagia Sophia, about an hour after we checked into our hotel.

 
Icon of Christ of Chalke, the Bronze Gate of the Great Palace. 
I had dreamt of this moment — being in the awe-inspiring church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia in Greek, Ayasofya in Turkish) — for years. The greatest church in Christendom, before St. Peter's was constructed in Rome 1,000 years later, Hagia Sophia is the very symbol of Byzantium and occupies a special place in the Greek Orthodox consciousness.

But you don't have to be Greek to appreciate its beauty and history — as Atatürk, the Father of modern Turkey, did in 1935 when he proclaimed Hagia Sophia a museum. Hagia Sophia's Deisis (Supplication) mosaic, alone, qualifies it as a World Heritage Site.

So who wants to spend a couple hours waiting to get in when you can enter immediately, with Ozkan as a guide? Under Hagia's Sophia's great dome — that has been described as being suspended from heaven — I felt that, at any moment, Constantine Paleologus, the last Byzantine Emperor, would miraculously appear as promised in the tales of my youth. One of the marble columns, it was said, opened up and swallowed him whole in 1453, when The City fell to Mehmet the Conqueror.

But there's no emperor, and all I see are throngs of tourists — and Ozkan, our young Turkish guide with dark eyes and hair, and a short mustache, he's politely waiting for the hordes of tourists to go by before going on with his articulate, authoritative, commentary.

"You know, of course, the story of the last Emperor," he says with a smile as if reading my mind. "Constantine Paleologus, believed to be entombed in one of these columns?" Ozkan walks up to a huge column to the right of the entrance where a line o tourists awaits to put their fingers in one of the cracks in the marble. They swear they can feel a cold breeze emanating from within this a portal — to another world? The realm of the Last Emperor?

We explore Hagia Sophia for hours with Ozkan, and I know we don't want to see the rest of Istanbul without him. So, over lunch of stuffed meatballs with yogurt at a real Turkish restaurant — one of the joys of having a native guide is avoiding tourist traps — we planned the next four days in his company.

It was actually Ozkan that suggested Chora be placed at the top of our itinerary. I wonder if I would have made it here without him? I wanted to come, certainly, but it is a distance out, and there is so much to see and do within walking distance of Hagia Sophia.

Ozkan even drove us to Chora in his car. Taxis are plentiful in Istanbul, but it was so convenient not to have to wait for, or find, one, especially in the more remote areas like Chora.

 
The Mother of God, a Chora dome mosaic. 
"Look, Alexis, there's The Birth Of Christ!" Ozkan remembered my request to be be on the look-out for The Nativity during our tour, and he was now pointing high above the narthex floor. of "I Christou Gennisis," "Christ's Birth," is set in dark mosaic stones, at the top of The Nativity that, given its history, is in remarkably good shape. Framed above by an arch and below by a polychrome mosaic border of circles and crosses, it is only showing its age towards the bottom, with the figures of Joseph and the scene of the Child's fading out to bare wall.

The virgin, clad in a blue chiton, reclines on a purple cushion by a cave housing the manger. The ox and the ass look on as divine light bathes the Child.

To the left of the cave appear angels, and to the right another angelic messenger gives the Good News to the shepherds residing in the fields.

The Nativity is just one of the beautiful scenes from the lives of Christ and the Virgin found in Chora. You could teach a whole Bible class just by walking around and pointing at the mosaics in this beautiful church: besides The Nativity, there are, The Presentation of the Virgin to the Temple, The Annunciation, The Flight into Egypt, The Miracle at Cana, Christ Healing the Leper, The Samaritan Woman at the Well, Christ Healing the Blind Man, Christ Healing the Paralytic, The Temptation of Christ, The Resurrection, treasures all.

I find the mosaic just below the dome of The Genealogy of Christ, a depiction of the Virgin Mary with Christ of the Chalke, especially moving. Named for an icon of Christ that hung above the Chalke, the "Bronze" Gate, the main ceremonial gate to the Great Palace. Reminiscent of the more famous Hagia Sophia Deisis Christ, this is the face of a benevolent God. (See image details, left, above.)

 
"Constantinople Guide" Ozkan Bicer pauses for a photo during his tour of Topkapi Palace. 
To the left of Christ, the Mother of God raises her hands in supplication, as in the famous Deisis mosaic.

With Avar armies at the gates, those prayers were answered, and Patriarch and people gathered in Hagia Sophia to offer thanksgiving to the Mother of God for The City's deliverance. (The City, I Polis, as Constantinople was known, is found in the name of Turkey's largest city and artistic and cultural capital: Is Tin Polin, To The City — Istanbul.)

In thanksgiving was written a beautiful long hymn, Ti Ypermáho, "To the Invincible General." After a millenium-and-a-half it is still being sung in Orthodox churches for five consecutive Friday evenings before Easter Sunday. An Orthodx hymn that accompanies our Chora video, who's beloved melody is dear to my soul. Hearing it now brings back Constantinople's fateful history and The City's special place in the Greek psyche. A hymn that I find myself humming in front of the Chora mosaic icon of the Mother of God:

Ti Ypermáho Stragigó ta nikitíria,
Os lytrothisa ton dinón efharistíria,
Anagráfo Soi i Pólis sou Theotóke.
All' os éhousa to krátos aprosmáhiton,
Ek pantíon me kindínon elefthéroson.
Ína krázo soi; Hére Nífi Anímfefte.


"To Thee, Invincible General, I ascribe the victory/Having been delivered from suffering, Your City offers thanksgiving/to You O Mother of God./And having your might unassailable/Free us from all dangers/So we may cry unto you/Hail O Bride Unwedded."

In the end, there could be no deliverance: 5,000 defenders were besieged by 350,000 Ottomans, and The City — and Byzantium — fell.

But Ozkan Bicer brings Constantinople back to life in six memorable days by the Bosphorus, Golden Horn, and Sea of Marmara.

I went to Turkey looking for Constantinople, but with Ozkan as our wonderful guide I also discovered — and fell in love with — Istanbul and its friendly people.

Thanks, Ozkan! If you're ever in the Midwest, I'd love to show you my neck of the woods…

Heading to Turkey or Istanbul? You'll love having Constantinople Guide Ozkan Bicer — courteous, knowledgeable, government-accredited professional guide — show you his city and country.


 
The 6th Century Chora Monastery Museum Nativity.



 

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