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  • Writer's pictureHarry Prance, MA

A Brief History of Pammakaristos Church in Istanbul

What is Pammakaristos Church?

Pammakaristos Church, now known as the Fethiye Camii, is one of the most impressive examples of Palaiologan mosaic left to us.

Pammakaristos Church

Pammakaristos Church History

The original church of the Theotokos Pammakaristos was built in the 11th century by a John Komnenos and reconstructed in the early 14th century by Michael Doukas Glabas Tarchaneiotes, a typically long-named Palaiologan aristocrat. Glabas was an official and general who had made a name for himself in campaigns of mixed success on the empire’s Balkan borders. Where Glabas failed militarily, he succeeded diplomatically, and, as governor of Thrace, he concluded a successful treaty with the Serbs which resulted in the marriage of the Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos’s daughter Simonida, to the Serbian king. This sort of agreement was typical of Byzantine foreign policy towards the end of the empire, when emperors who could no longer rely on military might employed this kind of dynastic horse-trading, reasoning that if soldiers couldn’t be relied on to guard the borders of the empire, perhaps family allegiances might. Upon returning to Constantinople, Glabas became a monk and spent his final years in contemplation and prayer, something which wasn’t unusual for aristocrats of Glabas’ wealth and standing, who seem to have thought of monasteries as we might of retirement homes.

By the time he came to Pammakaristos, Glabas was a dab hand at church restoration, having sponsored the construction and decoration of a chapel in Hagios Demetrios, in Thessaloniki, however the scale of this large church is something else entirely. It shouldn’t be underestimated how expensive such a large restoration project of this kind was. Unfortunately, the church has been stripped of many of its original treasures, including a pair of micromosaic icons of Mary and St John the Baptist, which are now in the church of the Patriarchate here in Istanbul. These were no small gifts – micromosaics, which use incredibly small tiles to fashion highly detailed images, were extremely technically demanding, and these icons were highly valued throughout the Middle Ages and Early Renaissance. They were famous well beyond the borders of the Byzantine Empire: the Medici in Florence were famous collectors, who paid extraordinary sums for micromosaic icons.

The burial chapel, known in Greek as a parakklesion (or side chapel), was built by Maria, Glabas’s wife, who became a nun and changed her name to Martha upon his death. The chapel is a jewel box, a church in miniature. The diminutive dome is only 2.4 metres across, but its mosaic of Christ Pantokrator (or Christ Omnipotent), surrounded by the prophets of the Old Testament, is a real highpoint of Palaiologan mosaic. It’s easy to be cynical about the Byzantine elite spending vast sums of money on ostentatious funerary chapels like this, but it’s important to remember that chapels were also sincere efforts to ensure someone’s eternal salvation. The inscription around the apse describes how Martha built the chapel as a pledge for the salvation of her husband. Most touchingly, the lengthy verse inscription around the outside of the chapel is addressed directly from Martha to Michael:

‘O my husband, my light, my spirit,

This is a gift to you from your wife.’

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