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  • Writer's pictureHarry Prance, MA

A Brief History of Zeyrek Mosque in Istanbul

What is Zeyrek Mosque?

Zeyrek Mosque is a former church dedicated to Christ Pantokrator (Almighty), built by John II Komnenos as a mausoleum for his new dynasty.

Zeyrek Mosque

Zeyrek Mosque History

Succession was never simple in Byzantium. More often than not the crown failed to pass from father to son. The late 11th century was particularly chaotic as the throne switched back and forth between a number of aristocratic families in a game of dynastic hot potato that culminated in the accession of Alexios I Komnenos. Alexios was determined to keep things in the family and crowned his son, John, co-emperor in 1092. Despite these clear intentions, his eldest daughter Anna and her mother Empress Irene plotted to substitute Anna’s husband, Nikephoros Bryennios, as emperor instead. John’s path to power is the closest Byzantine history comes to a heist movie: as his father lay dying in the monastery of the Mangana Palace, John was smuggled into the building and took possession of the imperial signet ring. He armed his followers and broke into the Great Palace. There he was acclaimed emperor before his father was even dead.

So, what does this dynastic backstabbing have to do with the Zeyrek Mosque (also known as the Pantokrator)? The former church and adjoining monastery – that burned down in the 13th century – were a monument to the future security of John’s dynasty. The Fourth Hill above the Golden Horn, where the complex was located, was thick with Komnenian building projects. The Pantokrator was the last and grandest of these, dwarfing its predecessors in its expense, size and prominence over the city. John built the monastery not just to rival the buildings of his ancestors, but those of the greatest emperors of Byzantium’s past. The Pantokrator was intended as a mausoleum for John and the successive members of his dynasty to replace the Church of the Holy Apostles, which had been the resting place of Byzantium’s emperors since Constantine.

The monastery was in its day lavishly decorated and for a time housed some of the most important relics in Christendom, including the Stone of Unction on which Christ was said to have been prepared for burial, as well as the tombs of the Komnenos dynasty. Fragments of coloured glass indicate that the windows here may have been very rare examples of Byzantine stained glass. Most celebrated, however, is the great opus sectile floor, a mosaic technique where large pieces of coloured stone are used instead of glass or small blocks of stone. The floor survives today, although hidden beneath the mosque’s carpets, and was a glimmering mass of different precious marbles pilfered from older buildings around the empire.

The passing centuries have not been kind to the Pantokrator: during the Fourth Crusade, it served briefly as the Venetian conquerors’ headquarters and under the Ottomans it was converted into a madrasa (a religious school) and a mosque. In recent years, it had become so dilapidated that it was placed on the UNESCO endangered monuments list, though things are now looking up for it after significant, but still incomplete, restoration.

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