5th century AD: Furious clamor as police descend on Constantinople’s Chalkoprateia, the Bronze District, where Jewish artisans live, creating and selling bronze items. Screaming in outrage, bearded Jews in caps are dragged from their shops, beaten, banished. An earlocked apprentice frantically holds up an unfinished bronze shield in futile defense as Imperial soldiers burst into the workshop. The synagogue is emptied, soldiers posted at the door, sacred items hurled into the street. The Augusta has finally bullied her brother the Emperor into turning the Chalkoprateia Synagogue into a church.
There’s a civic earthquake going on in Istanbul right now, over authority and religion and the way people want to live: rioting and explosions, horrific images in the news, chanting in the distance, yelling in the night. This is nothing new in this city. The same things have been going on here for centuries of political heave and surge: angry crowds jostling; people pummeled by Imperial police, falling in the streets; banners flying over faces ragged with rage; smoke and screams filling the air, all over authority, religion and the way people want to live. A lot of this happened right here in Sultanahmet. Now it’s kept peaceful for Tourism, but blink your eyes and it’s the fifth century: rage and fire; people seething in the streets; clash of swords on bronze; a dropped loaf of bread; a toy wagon trampled into the dust.
THE IMPERIAL VIRGIN Her name was Pulcheria. She lorded over her brother Theodosius II and the people with an iron fist clothed in the sanctification of consecrated virginity. She built churches and cared for the poor, but she hated Jews. She forced them out of one area after another, suspended all construction on synagogues within the city walls. The Chalkoprateia Synagogue, built in 318, was closed and its congregation banished. With fatal irony the confiscated synagogue was consecrated as Theotokos, the God-Bearer, in the name of Holy Mary, that Jewish Virgin that Pulcheria so identified with herself. It would be her only child. WIth successive reigns, Theotokos in Chalkoprateia rose in glory, at one time Constantinople’s greatest church. It survived centuries of triumph and disaster, eventually becoming a mosque. Today there is only a broken pillar, a buried chapel and two weedy walls to mark it.
GHOST CHURCH Little mysteries: the stub of a pillar, its break rounded with age, sticking up through the sidewalk next to a parking lot. Across the narrow street, another pillar-sized lump, mortared all over with stones. Nearby, two arches stacked in front of a staircase going into a hill, with a brick barrel-vault ceiling, leading up to a bright pink-stuccoed wall behind a mosque. From the harsh recent restoration, you’d never dream how old it is. A block away, another pillar stub sticking out of the sidewalk. This one is a different kind of marble.
Across the street, a haphazard pile of rubble, mortared here and there to lumps of Byzantine brick.
Through a chink in the mortar, a flashlight glimpse of a Byzantine brick arch down below the street.
A door-shaped area on a plaster wall showing the antiquity beneath.
A sealed iron door in an old wall under a row of hotels. A hoary wall rearing up between a parking lot and a restaurant terrace. A ragged ruin over the Basilica Cistern, its windows Ottoman, its foundation Byzantine. Just hints, clues in a puzzle.
Once consecrated as holy, a place cannot be de-consecrated. So says a dear friend. Since he is a Canon in his church, with a lifetime spent studying such things, I listen to him. If so, then there is a certain parking lot in my old Sultanahmet neighborhood that is holy as all get-out, and on three theological pillars to boot: Muslim, Christian and Judaic. Before that, there was most likely some Pagan altar with flute and drum, an ancient withered seer behind the statue of the god, angels with wings coming out of their hips…
Walking around here for years, mentally lining up all these clues; speculating on some great temple all across the hill, its perfect Greek geometry leveling the lumpy streets. We must create our picture from minute fragments. Like sex in the movies under the old moralistic American Production Code, we have to make our guesses from the architectural equivalent of a hairpin on a pillow: that lone pillar stub sticking up out of the cobblestones. Our hairpin, so to speak, led to St Jacob’s Chapel, hidden under a building near the foot of the hill. Going down!
Once lush with fresco, most of it is bare dirt-encrusted brick, an octagon chapel around a massive solid brick octagon pier, lime-mortared, indestructible. God knows what it held up. A baptistry? An obelisk? A statue?
Its owners have taken excellent care of St Jacob’s since they acquired the property in the 1930s, and many scholars have studied it. Traces of frescoes remain, still lovely.
Here’s a first take on St Jacob’s done back in 2007, a crumbling frescoed halo catching the light, a kindly cowled face imagined for no reason, in the shadows where once there was a doorway leading… where?
Friends opened a hotel next door. They found Byzantium in their basement, too.
Just down the street is Zeynep Sultan Camii (Mosque), its wavy roof echoing that of Kalendarhane Camii up the hill. While drawing it back in 2004, I learned that the neighborhood was called in Byzantine times Chalkoprateia, and that it was the Bronze District, where Jewish craftsmen created and sold bronze items. Kalendarhane was restored in the 18th century… Zeynep Sultan was built in 1769. Was it built on the site of a vanished church? Or was the church over St Jacob’s Chapel?
As usual, sources differ as to whether the octagon chapel is St Jacob’s or St James. Was there, perhaps, another chapel? Same size, nearby? A little digging produced this schematic from the 1960s, based, say St Jacob’s owners, on one from the 1920s.
It’s astonishing how accurate this is, considering that the authors did not have access to Google Maps. Some merged screen dumps produced this overview of the area:
See the parking lot at center? The tramline runs down the right, and Hagia Sophia, not shown, is just beyond it. The Basilica Cistern is under that large rough pale area bottom center. That tiny circle top right is Zeynep Sultan’s dome.
Here it is with those little clues. Hm.
Hours of manipulating images produced this superimposition. And cold chills.
Holy Mother of God.
THE IMPERIAL VIRGIN
Fifteen years of walking about this neighborhood, tea in carpet shops, coffee and gossip, friends, errands, parties, informal tours, drawing, and all the while this great slumbering ghost sprawled across the hill. These shabby old bits I call clues were part of an edifice so important by the 8th century that it held an alleged Girdle of the Virgin. This is hotly contested by at least one Byzantine scholar, but I like to think about St Mary’s robe floating in the ether of a Byzantine collective memory, down under the tourist eateries, travel agencies, and Ottoman plaster.
The mid-5th century was early days for the great Christian empire. Constantine the Great, who declared Christianity the official religion, had only been gone a hundred years. The city had been Constantinople for only a century, full of Pagan echoes, in the sacred fantastical animals, in the worship of the saints. The great Theodosian Walls, those hulking savaged monuments still standing, were new, built by Anthemius, Regent of the Eastern Roman Empire, named after the crowned child, Theodosius II.
The weak young Emperor Arcadius was dead, and his hated sensuous Empress Eudoxia was dead as well. Their son Theodosius II was crowned at age seven, but it was his sister who ruled: Aelia Pulcheria, granddaughter to Theodosius the Great, the Emperor who set up the Egyptian Obelisk in the Hippodrome in 390, who built the second Hagia Sophia that was burned in the Nika Rebellion of 532. All three generations had the same cold pale eyes.
Pulcheria was nine when she began to train her little brother to be Emperor. In stark contrast to her scandalous mother, who wore bangs like a courtesan and flaunted her infidelities, she took a Vow of Chastity, consecrating her virginity to God. Her piety was undeniable, but she was also menaced by Anthemius the Wall-Builder who was determined to marry into the royal family. The Vow protected her. She blocked all his avenues and made her sisters swear virginity, too. It must have been grim: three dour princesses stitching altar cloths in a palace forbidden to men and levity of any kind. Anthemius might have been a better ruler, but at 15 Pulcheria sacked him and proclaimed herself Regent, declaring herself Augusta, Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire.
THE CULT OF THE VIRGIN
Easter Sunday, 428, a church by the Theodosian Walls, filled with the elite. Heading in a grand processional toward the Sanctuary, Pulcheria ran smack into Nestorius, the new Patriarch of Constantinople. He barred her from entering the holiest place. Her womanhood made her unfit, he said, only men were pure enough. “I have kept myself pure as fleece,” said the Consecrated Virgin, “haven’t I given birth to God?”
“You are a sinner,” he said, “you have given birth to Satan.”
This was the beginning of a hammer-and-tongs feud that lasted years and shaped Christianity forever. Nestorius accused Pulcheria of adultery, of cheating on Christ with men, dogs, infidel. Pulcheria retaliated by declaring that she was as Mary, Mother of Jesus, and that Mary was divine, the Mother of God, giving rise to the Cult of the Virgin.
The dignity and power of women in Christianity took shape under the blue cowl of Mary’s robe. By the time she was done, an insult to Pulcheria was an insult to the Theotokos, to the Great Holy Virgin Mother herself.
Pulcheria was a powerful force in shaping the future of rule of kings, investing awe and holiness surrounding kingship. In taking on Nestorius she gave women a powerful new status in the new religion, ensuring that Mary was right up there with her son. The Cult of the Virgin has been at loggerheads with Christianity ever since, but here in Byzantium, through their identification with Mary, women gained power.
Theotokos means God-Bearer.
Nestorius, in addition to quashing women, tried to quash theater, circus, games and mimes, not a good idea if one wants to stay popular. His attempt to micromanage the monasteries pissed off the monks. At one memorable sermon, the monk Basil loudly derided Nestorius and was roundly cheered by the congregation. At last Nestorious was declared a heretic and exiled, leaving Pulcheria ensconced on her chaste throne. He railed at Constantinople from the Holy Land, becoming one prong of a fork in the faith: Jesus Human and Christ Divine, two natures in one person: Nestorianism, was on one side. Jesus Christ Entirely Divine, which became Monophyism, was on the other. This argument was still going strong a hundred years later in Justinian’s time and after. Many, many riots in the streets.
A COLLISION OF EMPRESSES
Theodosius II, more interested in manuscript illumination than politics, let his sister lead the Empire. At 19, he told her that he didn’t care what they made him marry so long as it was beautiful. Athenais, a gorgeous Greek girl beggared by the death of her father, flung herself on the mercy of philanthropic Pulcheria, probably to avoid becoming a whore. Pulcheria took a look, heard the exquisite Greek, and married her to Theodosius II. He fell passionately in love. They re-named her Eudocia.
The beautiful Eudocia soon gained popularity over thin-lipped ascetic Pulcheria, who began to loathe her. Eudocia and the chief minister, Eunuch Chrysaphius, convinced the affable Theodosius II to give his relentless sister less credence, causing Pulcheria to move out of the palace, but her tentacles continued to creep toward her enemies. Eudocia wasn’t just a pretty face: she sponsored education, founded a university. But eventually Theodosius was persuaded away from her. She proclaimed herself a supporter of Nestorianism and left for the Holy Land, to die in sad obscurity. But oh, she had been loved, by her husband and by the people. Portraits abound. There are several in Istanbul’s Archeological Museum. She’s still beautiful.
After her brother’s death, Pulcheria returned to the palace and fought the Eunuch. The Senate refused to grant her sole rule, so she found a weakling who wouldn’t try to sleep with her, Marcias, and married him. Then she executed Chrysaphius. Pulcheria continued to build churches, feed the poor, import relics, persecute Jews, and proclaim the divine nature of Christ and her own implied divinity. For her pains she was canonized. This aescetic, grandiose, furious, selective philanthropist is now a Greek Orthodox saint. There’s a school named after her right here in my neighborhood, St Pulcherie.
THEOTOKOS IN CHALKOPRATEIA was heavily mosaiced and lavishly frescoed. It was tall and imposing, but has vanished utterly.
Here’s the north aisle, heading toward Hagia Sophia. While this Hagia Sophia was being built, from 532 to 537, our church was the Seat of the Patriarchate of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The famous mosaics, covering the Life of the Virgin, were destroyed in the 8th century by Iconoclasts, but the Relics of the Virgin remained in its walls.
Here’s a wall along the south aisle.
The gilded coffered ceiling, doors of silver, electrum and gold were sold off by Emperor Alexios Komnenos in the 11th century to finance a defense against a Norman threat. Before Alexios, Theotokos’ interior likely resembled this:
This parking lot is the nave, and we’re walking toward the altar, which faced east and Hagia Sophia.
Under Latin rule from 1204 to 1261, our church became a cathedral occupied by priests: Sancta Maria de Cinctur, or St Mary of the Shingles. Workshops probably made shingles in the area by then, or perhaps the priests had them. Considering what the Latin Crusaders did to Constantinople, we can only hope. Here’s the surviving 4th or 5th century Byzantine wall.
It’s still standing because in 1484, 31 years after the Ottoman Conquest, the ruined church, nee synagogue, was converted to a mosque by order of Lala Hayruddin. In 1755, by order of Vizier Mehmet Said Pasha, the mosque was restored and re-consecrated as Acem Aga Mescidi. Down the street, in 1769, Zeynep Sultan Mosque was built and consecrated. In 1814 this fountain in the street was built. See that Byzantine wall next to it? And the tribal carpet for sale next to that? These juxtapositions are why I live here. And, of course, tripping over the occasional Ghost Church.
By 1936, Turkey’s zeitgeist was not religious, and the mosque was abandoned, slowly falling into weedy disrepair. It’s been derelict since 1936, subsumed by the city. If you go up to the terrace at Alemdar Restaurant to watch the Dervishes whirl in front of Hagia Sophia, you can see this from the stairs: the last relic of the altar of Theotokos in Chalkoprateia.
The street running from one pillar stub to the double arches has always been spooky at night, in a high, cool, grey, waiting kind of way.
It’s probably just imagination.
SO HOW OLD IS IT, ANYWAY?
This was a real bitch to research. Each successive layer of information contradicts the last. As near as I can figure, here’s a rough timeline for our busted pillar.
318- Synagogue begun.
379-Rebuilt Synagogue unfinished but open.
Emperor Theodosius criticized by the Bishop of Milan, St Ambrosius, for allowing “A synagogue in the heart of the Queen of Cites”
395 Synagogue burned. Repaired, but when?
450 457 Synagogue converted into Church by Theodosius II at insistence of Pulcheria. Consecrated: Theotokos in Chalkoprateia
476 Theotokos damaged in great fire
484 Theotokos repaired by Empress Verina. Emperor Zeno took some credit.
532 Nika Rebellion burned Hagia Sophia. Theotokos seat of Patriarch until Hagia Sophia opened in 537.
c570 Damaged in an earthquake and repaired by Justin II.
867-886 after the Iconoclasts were gone, the dome was redone, lavish redecoration including gold doors.
11th century: Gold doors, etc sold to finance resistance to Norman invasion.
1204-1261 Theotokos converted to a cathedral known as Sancta Maria de Cinctur or Holy Mary of the Shingles.
1484 by Lala Hayrudin converted into a mosque.
1755 Vizier Mehmet Said Pasha placed the pulpit in Zeynep Sultan.
1814 Sayyid Umar Agha Mosque OR Acem Aga Mescidi Mosque, built next to a fountain.
abandoned in 1936.
The only piece that doesn’t fit is that ragged old ruin above the CIstern. I found out what it is, but that’s another post.
So why, why is this important? It isn’t even my history. I haven’t a drop of Jewish, Greek, or Turkish blood. So what. The history of this place is beyond any one people: it’s the history of the whole world. As a friend says, it’s a matter of respect. Hell, it’s a matter of awe. Seventeen hundred years of toil and care, smoke and love and holy water, men and women in anguish and triumph– it matters. It matters so much that there was a temple here, that there was art here, that there was worship here. Blood of sacrilege, blood of sacrifice, Blood of the Lamb…That high, stone-cool waiting feeling of the streets in the dead quiet of night is from layers and layers of living that all happened here, a concentration of experience. If you say Constantinople over and over, faster and faster, slurring the sounds, it becomes Istanbul. To paraphrase Casablanca, it’s like any other place, only more so. Our parking lots are really cathedrals.
All drawings Plein Air by Trici Venola, ©2000-2014. Early Christian artifacts drawn at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Archeological Museum in Istanbul, the Archeological Museum in Antalya. For purchase of sketchbooks and other original art, write care of this blog.
Special thanks to Suleyman, custodian of the Last Wall of Theotokos in Chalkoprateia, next to his terrace at Alemdar Restaurant. Their Dervish show is aces. Special thanks to the custodians of St Jacob’s Chapel, who wish to remain anonymous. And thanks to all the Byzantine scholars who have generously made their work readily available, on the Internet, to someone not affiliated with any university. We are none of us much without the others.