Church of the Monastery of Christ Pantocrator is located in Fatih district of Istanbul. The building, which attracts attention with its grandeur when looking at the Historical Peninsula from the Golden Horn, serves as the Zeyrek Mosque today.
The Pantocrator Monastery was built in the late Byzantine period, and its church was the third most important religious building in Constantinople during the Middle Ages. The Pantokrator Church was also the burial place of late Byzantine emperors.
Many members of the imperial family, especially members of the Komnenos dynasty, were buried here. The building, which was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman period, has recently undergone a large-scale restoration.
In order to place the Pantokrator Monastery in Byzantine history, it is necessary to mention a little about the Roman history of Istanbul. So you can see the differences between early Byzantine architecture and the late period.
Monumental Buildings of Roman Istanbul
Byzantium, the ancient Greek city, became the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330. The city, which was rebuilt between 324 and 330 on the orders of Emperor Constantine, was equipped with Roman buildings.
The Great Palace of the Emperors, the Hippodrome where the races were held, the Forum of Constantine, the city square, and the Church of the Holy Apostles, a monumental religious building, were the monumental buildings of Roman Istanbul.
In the next few decades, Constantinople became the largest city in the world. City walls had to be expanded due to the increase in population. During the reign of Emperor Theodosius II, strong walls, which we know today as Walls of Constantinople, were built.
Hellenization of the Roman Cult
Constantinople was founded as a city bearing the legacy of Ancient Rome. Many traditions in Rome, the ancient capital of the Roman Empire, were moved here by Constantine. However, the Roman Palace, which was under the influence of Eastern culture, became Hellenized for 300 years between Emperor Constantine and Emperor Heraclius.
By the end of the 600s, Latin culture almost disappeared in Constantinople. The powerful cultural heritage of Ancient Greece had transformed the Latin cult. The resulting hybrid culture was neither exactly Western nor Eastern.
For this reason, modern time historians named Eastern Roman Empire, the continuation of the Roman Empire, by the name of Byzantine, inspired by the city’s ancient name. Hellenization of the Roman Cult was allegedly completed during the reign of Emperor Heraclius.
Constantinople in the Middle Ages
Byzantine Empire, which had survived many troubles throughout history, managed to survive for a millennium. However, it had a feudal order and was shared among the dynasties. Families who wanted to seize political power were in great competition with each other. This order also manifested itself in the capital Constantinople. Strong families established palaces and monasteries in various neighborhoods with their supporters.
The Great Palace, which was the legendary structure of Constantinople, had begun to lose its importance on this occasion. Emperors started to live in Palace of Blachernae from the 11th century onwards. Located in today’s Ayvansaray district, this palace was adjacent to the Walls of Constantinople. It was at the place where the walls of Constantinople, starting from the Sea of Marmara, meet the Golden Horn.
Just as the old Great Palace was abandoned, the Church of the Holy Apostles, the mausoleum of the emperors, also lost its importance. This church, where the most important emperors of the past such as Constantine, Justinian and Heraclius were buried, was no longer as popular as before.
Monastery of Christ Pantocrator
Due to this trend, the Komnenos designed a church with an underground cemetery where the dynasty members would be buried. In this place called Monastery of Christ Pantokrator, dozens of religious officials would serve. There would be 80 monks, 45 ministers and a hospital within the foundation.
Church of the Monastery of Christ Pantocrator consists of three separate buildings adjacent to each other. The structures were built at different times and are not symmetrical. However, the Church of the Monastery, which was a combination of three churches, is still impressive.
The First Church on the Southern Side
The first church, the construction of which began in 1118, was dedicated to Jesus Christ. This church, which was started by Eirene, the wife of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, was completed by his son John II after the death of the empress. There was a dome of 7 meters in diameter on the square planned building.
In the inscriptions of travelers in the Ottoman period, four red columns surrounding the dome were mentioned. However, since the columns of the building damaged after the earthquake in 1766 were renewed, the old columns were replaced by new columns in the baroque order.
Another striking feature of the church on the south side was its magnificent stained glass. At a time when the art of stained glass in Europe was still in its infancy, scrumptious stained-glass windows adorned this church in Istanbul. The fact that blue was a rather difficult color to obtain in Europe at that time caused the Europeans to call the color in the Byzantine stained glass “Greek Blue”.
The Second Church on the Northern Side
The first church we mentioned in the upper lines was dedicated to the Christ Pantocrator (The Almighty). The second church, built by John II Komnenos, was dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
John II, who put a second church next to the first church built by his mother, faced some difficulties. The new church in the North direction could not be built in the same dimensions as the old church in the South. For this reason, the square planned building in the first church could not be preserved and became rectangular.
From the very beginning of the project, the church was designed to be the tomb chapel of the Komnenos Dynasty. For this purpose, a chapel was built between the Southern Church dedicated to Jesus and the Northern Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Thus, two churches with different dimensions were combined with a chapel built in the middle.
The emperor wanted to place a dome as large as possible on the chapel and increase the splendor of the building. However, the dome would rest on the side walls of the two previously built churches and its space was limited. Ultimately, the chapel was covered with an ellipse-shaped dome with a long diameter of 8 meters and a short diameter of 7 meters.
With the gathering of three churches, an imposing structure emerged. The Church of the Monastery of Christ Pantokrator was the third largest church of Constantinople after the Hagia Sophia and the Church of Holy Apostles.
Burial Chapel of Late Byzantine Emperors
The Church of Christ Pantocrator continued to be the burial chapel of the imperial family until the last years of the Byzantine Empire. Many were buried here, first from the Dynasty of Komnenos and later from the Dynasty of Paleologos. The last person buried in the Pantokrator Monastery Church was Helena Dragazes, the mother of the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Paleologos.
Zeyrek Mosque in the Ottoman Era
Church of Christ Pantocrator was turned into a mosque after the conquest of Istanbul. The mosque was dedicated to Molla Zeyrek, one of the leading religious scholars of the Sultan Mehmed II period. Zeyrek Mosque was closed in 2009 for renovation and opened to visitors again in 2019.
If you want to take pictures of the Church of Christ Pantocrator, I suggest you go to the steel-made subway bridge in Golden Horn. The most beautiful place where the church can be watched with all its majesty is this bridge.
Monastery of Christ Pantocrator Facts by Serhat Engul