St. Mary of the Mongols is the last remaining Byzantine church of Constantinople that was never converted into a mosque. Tradition holds that Sultan Mehmed II endowed the church to the mother of Christodoulos, the Greek architect of the mosque of Fatih, in acknowledgment of his work. A little difficult to find unless you know where to look, one morning I realised that the unassuming red domed structure at the end of my street could be it.
‘Just go and ring the doorbell, that’s what it says on the instructions’, I told her.
Laughing together on my bed, my mother replied, ‘ Nooooo, you go and ring the doorbell!’ ‘Ok. But we need to leave in five minuets, otherwise I’ll be late for work.’
As we walked up the street, I thought to myself that I had walked past this place many times without realising that what I was walking past was a 13th century orthodox church hidden behind high walls. At the same time I was told that there was secret church in the area called St. Mary of the Mongols.
‘A lovely church. A little one. Very old,’ said my friend Altynai who once used to live in my neighbourhood. But she has forgotten where it was.
Now, walking up the hill that I had walked many times before, I could see the brown gate. The area around the gate was walled (which is typical for churches in Istanbul) and the instructions that I had found online said that I should ring the buzzer and an attendant will come to open the door.
As we got closer I noticed a man holding the gate open. He was carrying bottles of water and I asked him politely if he spoke English. He said that he did and I then asked him if it was possible to come and see the church. He smiled and gestured for us to come inside. We stepped into the courtyard and he told us to wait. He then returned with a large set of keys.
It was all dark inside when he first opened the door but I noticed some glitter sparkling. He then switched on the lights and welcomed us into the small church as if it was his home. Pointing out the documents hanging on the wall, he told us they were a copy of the royal decree that forbad the church from ever being turned into a mosque.
His recital of the historic importance of the church turned into a discussion when he realized that I knew something about it.
He sat back down on the wooden bench by the door and continued talking with us as we looked around. We had obviously disturbed him in the midst of his morning routine but he seemed happy to see us.
I turned my eyes to the painted frescos and glittering icons, trying to orient my sense of awe. The level of craftsmanship and detail in the silver metal work was astounding. I had never seen anything like it and reproductions don’t come close. Each icon seemed to tell many stories on its own but I knew none of them. Their beauty was inspiring enough.
The man’s name was Micheal and before we left the church he introduced me to his wife and told me that I was welcome back anytime. I left a donation in the box for his kindness.
The Church of St. Mary of the Mongols is a Greek Orthodox Christian church. It was named in honour of Maria Palaeoloina who lived in the 13th century. She was the daughter of Emperor Michael VII and was given as a bride to the Khan of the Mongols. Their marriage was a political one meant to sooth relations between the Mongols of the north and of the east.
After the death of her husband, Mary returned to Constantinople and founded the church in 1285. She exhausted all her fortunes endowing the monastery with relics, manuscripts, vessels, and many other valuable documents.
After the fall of Constantinople, the church was saved from being turned into a mosque by royal decree from Sultan Mehmed II as a reward for the construction of Fatih Mosque by Greek architect Christodoulos. Of all the Byzantine churches, this was the only one to be spared conversion. A copy of the decree of Mehmed II, which was pointed out to me by Micheal, gave ownership of the church to the Greek community.